Book Reviews, Features

Scott Condon: Notes on Rae Armantrout’s Poem “Thrown”

By Scott Condon | Contributing Writer

68e8dd78b27c0b1eae156bffa41b2d20

The title of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Thrown” immediately brings to mind philosopher Martin Heidegger’s notion that human life is thrown into the world. This concept plays a key role in his book Being and Time, and I’ll return to Heidegger a little later. But I’d like to begin by looking at the poem through the lens of James Longenbach’s essay “Poetry Thinking,” focusing in particular on a couple of passages that address the way Shakespeare’s characters speak their thoughts.

Here is the first part of the two-part poem:

1.

She now carried out
both X,
which produced Y,
and Z,
which consumed it.

This seemed like completion.

So she broke herself
to bits,

but the sense
of having come full circle
could not be eliminated.

Compare this with the passage below in which Longenbach examines the thought processes and language of Shakespeare’s characters:

But none of Shakespeare’s greatest characters speak the language of completed thought, not even his most conniving villains. Their language embodies the process through which thoughts are not organized but discovered, a process that feels at once at odds with itself and generated by itself, a process for which Coleridge offered this brilliant metaphor, in order to distinguish Shakespeare from his more declamatory contemporaries: “Shakespeare goes on creating, and evolving B. out of A., and C. out of B., and so on, just as a serpent moves, which makes a fulcrum of its own body, and seems for ever twisting and untwisting its own strength.”

Coleridge’s “B. out of A., and C. out of B.” is strikingly similar to the poem’s “She now carried out / both X, / which produced Y, / and Z, / which consumed it.” This is not a calculated, logical progression, but one in which Y is discovered in the process of carrying out X, which then leads to Z. Longenbach’s observation that Shakespeare’s characters only seemingly speak completed thoughts is also echoed in the poem’s line, “This seemed like completion.” Armantrout’s narrator is dissatisfied with this illusory wholeness which she has generated but is also at odds with, so she attempts to fragment herself, but in having completed her X, Y, Z sequence – and perhaps through it now being already nailed to the page – playfully discovers she cannot prevent the feeling of “having come full circle.”

Longenbach returns to the disjunctive process in Shakespeare’s monologues as an active ingredient in the way that thinking happens in poetry in general, which, he argues, is counter to the image of the ouroboros, or coming full circle, and is more like being inexplicably thrown forward:

But the sound of thinking in our poetry has always been disjunctive…the best image for a poem’s ultimate coherence is not the ouroboros, the serpent with its tail in its mouth, but the serpent making a fulcrum of its own body, moving relentlessly yet inexplicably forward. “You seem to be told nothing,” said Coleridge of the experience of reading Shakespeare, “but to see and hear every thing,” and what we hear is “the rapid flow, the quick change, and the playful nature of the thoughts.”

We see this throughout Armantrout’s poem. Though she does tell us things, mostly what we see is her livewire thought unfolding before our eyes in unpredictable ways as it builds toward its own conflicted and ultimate coherence. This disjunctive approach has long been part of Armantrout’s poetics. In her much earlier poem, “Falling: 1,” which bears a thematic relationship (right down to its title) with “Thrown,” Armantrout again dismisses the idea of the ouroboros as a working methodology: “To swallow your own tail— // or tale— / is no longer // an approved / form of transportation.”

Part 2 of Armantrout’s poem begins with its speaker noticing the things around her which then trigger “the rapid flow, the quick change, and the playful nature” of her thoughts. Her eye takes in cutesy business names and products, provoking an irritated reaction which then leads her to note the wandering nature of her mind. Eventually her mind becomes still and the earth-sky horizon seems to loom before her, concentrated into a plain of bunchgrass and loose flocks of birds:

2.

Medicine Shoppe,
Tear-Drop R.V.

Don’t get cute with me!

The mind wanders.

The material
concentrates.

The whole plain
yellow
with bunchgrasses

across which
some loose flocks
are thrown

Dwelling (the R.V.), language, and thought are all implicit concerns in this section, and these are also subjects Heidegger elaborates on in his writing. The connection between Dasein (human being) and the earth is especially important to Heidegger, and his essay “…Poetically Man Dwells…” looks at the importance of poetry and the “concentrated perception” with which the poet takes the measure between earth and sky. At one point in the essay he says “Poetry does not fly above and surmount the earth in order to escape it and hover over it. Poetry is what first brings man onto the earth, making him belong to it, and thus brings him into dwelling.” To be thrown into the world, in Heidegger’s philosophy, means, in part, to be aware of one’s own mortality; and the closing image in Armantrout’s poem, despite its bright yellow expansiveness,  also has something terminally reflective about it. In this part of the poem a linguistically attentive, fleet-of-thought phenomenological awareness comes to rest on an ultimate horizon.

So, ouroboros or slithering serpent? In part 1 of “Thrown,” the speaker throws herself forward like a serpent building upon the fulcrum of itself, though the culmination of this thought sequence is an unavoidable sense of completion, of having come full circle. In part 2, her thought again moves restlessly forward but this time evades any imposed sense of closure; instead, her concentrated perception finds itself in an open field where she dwells as a poet, taking the measure of earth and sky.

Maybe a poem has to have it both ways. Certainly, the reader of the poem wants to see it ultimately cohere. But a poet can’t help but admire the muscular and serpentine progress of the sidewinder, whose track itself forms a stanza-like series of lines in the sand.

url

Find Rae Armantrout’s poem “Thrown” in her 2009 collection Versed, and “Falling:1” in Veil: New and Selected Poems, 2001

James Longenbach’s essay “Poetry Thinking” is in his 2013 book The Virtues of Poetry.

Martin Heidegger’s “…Poetically Man Dwells…” can be found in his collection Poetry, Language, Thought.