Through Armantrout’s Looking Glass: The Poem as Wonderland

by Julie Marie Wade | Contributing Writer

At the start, something must be arbitrarily excluded.
The saline solution. Call it an apple. Call this 
a test or a joke. From now on, apple will mean 
arbitrary choice or “at random.” Any fence maintains
the other side is “without form.” When we’re thrown
out, it’s onto the lap of our parent. Later, though, 
Mother puts the apple into Snow White’s hand, and 
then it’s poison!

“As We’re Told,” Rae Armantrout

I have been writing poems for many years. The first I can recall was a sympathy card, written in abab rhyme structure, for a friend of the family who had died. The card was for his widow, but the poem was really for him: an act of elegy, a kind of prayer.

At the start, something must be arbitrarily excluded.

I have come to understand poems as what they are not more clearly than what they are or may be. I learned that poems are not prose because they do not tell stories. Then I read poems that tell stories. I read Robert Hass’s “A Story About the Body.” It told the story of an artist on retreat who desired a woman who had undergone a double-mastectomy. There were details (the dead bees, the blue bowl, the roses), and there was dialogue: the woman revealing the fact of her missing breasts, the man fearing her body thereafter. I learned that poems are not prose because they do not develop characters. Then I read poems that develop characters. I read Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” and wept for the man with his shovel and wept for the woman with her little seat on the stairs. I knew the boy who was a swinger of birches, and I knew the man who was acquainted with the night. I felt I had gone walking with Mary Oliver a long while in the woods, that I too had rolled her puppy’s teeth in dough and swallowed them, one by one. I sat with Charles Wright in his garden reading Li Po and watching the apple blossoms sway to and fro. Sometimes I rhymed, and sometimes I didn’t, but I learned about the mistress’s eyes that were “nothing like the sun” and about the fabled Henry Darger with his “girls on the run.” I learned that poems may not have recognizable stanzas or discernible meters or even clear, resonant images, like the picture I hold in my mind of Li-Young Lee’s father easing a sliver out of his hand.  

At the start, something must be arbitrarily excluded.

I learned that poems may be deliberate and arbitrary at the same time.

The saline solution.

A poem has the power to heal. I used to watch my aunt, who is dead now, who has—as the euphemism says—passed away. I watched her in the Pepto-Bismol-pink bathroom of my grandmother’s house as she doused her lenses in saline, stretched her pale lid wide, and slipped a clear, concave disk over each hazel eye. I wondered how she could stand to touch it—the rubbery gelatin, the—I learned the word for this especially—vitreous humor. There’s nothing funny about an eyeball when it stings or when it snaps shut. I’m the worst for tearing up at even a mention of optometry. But I do like the concept of lachrymatory. Why did Magritte paint it, I wondered? The False Mirror. What was he trying to say?

We saw it one year in the Museum of Modern Art. The eyeball with clouds floating through and beyond and away. It was a poem. A poem about narcissism or solipsism—I’m never sure which. A poem about the discrepancy between what we see and what we are.

Call it an apple.

The poem? Is the poem an apple? Is it like The Botany of Desire? Is it like Gwenyth Paltrow’s daughter? Did you know fruit breathes? I like that fact. I wonder if poems also breathe, if poems also need room to breathe. And why we bring apples to our teachers in elementary school, and why we stop bringing apples to our teachers in college, when our teachers are called professors instead and we are still called students, but with a coy smile. Am I developing a Peter Pan complex? Some people speculate the apple was the original forbidden fruit, but I hear it’s more likely a tomato. Both fruit and vegetable. More versatile than the apple. More virile. I like to think that maybe my old apple-poems are becoming tomato-poems. Apples grow on trees and are more predictable in their seasons of living and dying. Tomatoes, on the other hand, are vine-plants. They can be served fried and green or red and juicy. They are perfect for salsas and pastas and salads and sandwiches and of course as the primary ingredient in tomato soup. Tomato soup is perfect with grilled cheese sandwiches. They become correlated somehow, so if you are having a hot cup of tomato soup, you may become suddenly hungry for cheese and bread smushed together and buttered and warmed in a frying pan. Or vice versa. The sandwich necessitates the soup. Maybe this is what happens to poets. We apprentice ourselves to a particular appetite and then continue to serve it. Someone—it may have been Charles Wright—says we write the same poems over and over. We are preoccupied with the same themes. Nowadays people tend to say motifs, but I think that is just a dressed-up way of saying themes, and if the poet is right, we have a few central themes that restrict our content to what we know or don’t know or want to know or hate knowing. Theme is to content as variation is to form. 

The saline solution.

Perhaps it is not a “solution” but a “problem.” More and more I find my poems are questions, quandaries. More and more I find I have less and less I can assert with certainty. But the poems grow hard-ier, vine-ier . . .

Call it an apple.

Or a tomato.

Call this a test or a joke.

Or something else.

Perhaps a poem is a mezzanine between two extremes. A test is serious business—standardized or otherwise. A joke is humorous—mostly a set-up and a punch line. But a poem is more like a riddle, more like the concept of one hand clapping. There is a name for this. I have forgotten. But maybe poems are about the place where the name escapes us or is so multivalent as to become utterly meaningless. I am a poet who talks about what I cannot answer in tests and what I do not laugh at in jokes. The ineffable maybe, but that’s also a word, and like all words, it falls short. Poems extend. They leap over high, linguistic hurdles. My poems have become more Gumby-like as I have become more confused.

Call it an apple.

When I was contemplating graduate school the first time, I received a copy of Willow Springs, a literary journal from Eastern Washington University. Though I did not end up applying there, I loved that unassuming little volume and the provocative poems clasped between its pages. I don’t know who Jennifer Oakes is or whether she became famous—as famous as a poet can become—but she had a poem published there in that issue called “The Listener.” In the concluding couplet, Oakes wrote: “It would take fire or breaking glass to tell them / the poppy, the apple, the vein.” And I thought just now of that somewhat ineffable line and of a particular kind of joke called “the triple.” The first two pieces establish a pattern, and the third disrupts it unexpectedly. We are supposed to laugh. On The Dick Van Dyke Show: “Can I get you something, Mel? Doughnut? Cup of coffee? Toupee?” It is a which-one-of-these-is-not-like-the-others conundrum, but not so simple if you think everything is like everything else and/or everything is like nothing else. Is the apple a poppy? No. Is the apple a vein? No. Is the poem a poppy? Yes. And an apple? Yes. And a vein? Yes. How this is possible is the riddle at the heart of the writing process. How the poem is flower and fruit and blood. How the poem is the varied flesh of the varied bodies. 

Call it an apple.

And a poppy. And a vein.

From now on, apple will mean arbitrary choice or “at random.”

There are a lot of poems, any number of poems, I could have used to talk about poetic process. “As We’re Told” is one of many poems that I carry around in my head and heart. It’s the one that popped up when I began writing this essay, and the choice to use it here was random—as is death and life and love and all the double-decker words that tangle and attempt to trump each other in their riddlings and wormings-about on the page. Maybe a poem is the worm inside the apple of thought, struggling to get out and say something new and impressive, or old and impressive, since we’re always talking essentially about the same things. And we could put the same worm on a fish hook and go fishing for new ideas, but I’m not sure we’d find any. I do like how the worms in kids’ storybooks are always smiling and amiably anthropomorphic. They seem friendly. Yet I also remember my mother pouring salt on a slug, which resembles a worm—a fat, long, hearty worm—and watching him struggle. It was random. The slug wasn’t hurting anyone or anything. The best I can give him, thirty years later, is a stab at an elegy, which will also be random. Mary Oliver has a beautiful poem about snails called “Snails.” She writes of their “gritty music” in the salt marsh. I wonder about saline solution and whether it could have saved that slug. A koan, I think, is what those unlikely pairings are called. One hand clapping. A poet might call it an oxymoron, which is partly right, but not quite. I think a snail is like a slug with a shell, a slug that carries a house with him so he will never be left out in the cold. There is a riddle about turtles, about a turtle losing his shell: what would he be—naked or homeless? Is the shell aesthetic or functional? Sharon Olds compares a slug to a naked man and titled the poem, facetiously, “The Connoisseuse of Slugs.” A slug seems more vulnerable than most creatures—a snail without a shell, a worm without the ability to hide underground. Mary Oliver has a poem about clams. Clams, as you know, are mostly shell, yet they have feelings. She reminds us that they, too, are sentient; they, too, “have a muscle that loves being alive.” My poems used to be slugs, but now they are clams—more guarded, less immediately accessible. The reader has to dig down to reach them. Maybe my poems are razor clams; they are acquiring, over time, a sharp edge. I like the idea that they might be geoducks, which are kind of like clams and which we used to sing about in grade school. Not beautiful at first, or maybe ever. But furtive, and playful. If you want to catch one, you have to be quick. If you want to crack one, you have to be hard.  

. . . arbitrary choice or “at random.”

Because what, in the end, isn’t random? Purpose and good intentions are random if others do not understand your motives. I am a good agnostic, an excellent skeptic. I don’t believe a poem is a proof or that anything can truly be “proven.” But neither do I believe that nothing exists. Geometry is true to the mathematician; physics is true to the scientist. Neither is true or untrue to me. But death is not only true to the doctor or the mortician or the gravedigger. Death is true to everyone. Maybe that’s how it is with poems. Robert Hass says it best in “Meditation at Lagunitas” when he writes: “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” Like apple, or poppy, or vein. All perhaps chosen at random, superstitiously endowed with meaning, and now, over time, emotionally and historically charged. What word is not a “loaded” word? What story is not replete with morals? Because I am preoccupied with mortality, I see in every poem an elegy. You will see it differently, even if you also believe a poem is an elegy. When I write a poem, I flex the muscle in me that loves being alive and fear every sloughing-off of cells, every part of me that is already dead.

Any fence maintains the other side is “without form.”

But there is always another side. Not one side and the other side, but so many others. Each poem is both not-like-the-others and exactly-like-the-others. A peculiar blend. A particular amalgamation. Hence, the necessity of exclusions. Like in a life when you choose this thing on one day when, on another day, you might have chosen that one. It doesn’t make what you have chosen less valuable; in fact, your chosen thing may become all the more valuable because you have winnowed by selection a preponderance into a playing field. Charles Bernstein suggests Adam didn’t so much “name as delineate.” He drew lines. He marked boundaries. Of course Adam is made up, but there is such power in fiction, such authority in myth, that all the squabbles about autobiography hardly seem worthwhile. Even if we’ve lived it, we don’t understand our story. Maybe the distinction (delineation) between truth and lies is what’s got poetry so misunderstood. For instance, I believe it is Li-Young Lee himself, as well as his father, in Lee’s story-poem about the sliver, but it doesn’t have to be him. He may have never had a sliver a day in his life, and that’s okay with me. Or he may have had many slivers, but his father never fished out even a single one. That’s okay too. But I surprised myself with how angry I was at Frank Bidart when the speaker in his poem “Herbert White” claimed his mother strangled his cat and it turned out never to have happened. What is it with writers and their cats anyway? Annie Dillard didn’t have a cat at Tinker Creek, so it couldn’t have left bloody paw-prints on her chest, yet I reveled in that messy metaphor for love. I guess I’m still a little sore at her for calling the book “non-fiction” when she could have just as easily called it a poppy, an apple, a vein. Maybe as poets we’re too attached to words, and that’s the problem. We fly poems like kites when really we should release them like red balloons and watch them disappear into the infinite, ever-expanding sky.

When we’re thrown out, it’s onto the lap of our parent.

Poems can also seem to be about exile, about escaping from or reconciling with our past. There is so much I cannot give my parents, so I fill a basket with poems as if with apples and wonder if it will be enough. For someone. My offering back to the world. My little legacy of picking and sorting, my attempt at being fruitful. Poems strike me as small attempts at reclaiming something we lose at birth. An autonomy, an entirety. Because we are always, for the rest of our lives, someone’s child, even long after we grow up. And maybe we don’t want to grow up. Maybe that’s where the Peter Pan complex comes in, and graduate school, and too many loans and not enough time and wondering when to replace curriculum vitae with resume. They’re just words after all. Maybe also elegies to some job I didn’t take because I was busy apple-picking my vocation. In my parents’ day, people stopped school after bachelor’s degrees. Many got on fine without them. They didn’t know anyone who wanted to be a “scholar.” It sounded so flimsy, so ungrounded. If Eliot’s right, I’m in trouble. “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started from and know the place for the first time.” An endless feedback loop. Trying to figure out where we came from and how we came from there. A litany of lineage. One theme with countless variations.

Later, though, Mother puts the apple into Snow White’s hand, and then it’s poison!

I used to read a lot of James Hillman in college. He was obsessed with an ancient concept called the daemon. For all intents and purposes, it could have been called anything; he likened it to a kernel inside a husk. I might liken it now to the ineffable body inside the distinguishable shell of the poem. And this daemon is the force that makes us choose our parents. Even before we are born, Hillman suggests we are navigating, postulating, somehow arriving exactly where we should be, guiding ourselves like the imponderable light that cannot be hidden by a bushel. People persevere, and poems persevere, because we have already drawn the map in our minds and then forgotten it, and we do not know that what we want is impossible, so it becomes possible. We choose our parents because they are the best possible way for us to get here, even though we forget that choice long before we are born. I want to call it a test or a joke. Most days I want to call it a joke. But then something resonates. I read a beautiful line like Mary Oliver’s from The Leaf and the Cloud: “How shall we speak of love except in the splurge of roses . . . ,” and I think, it is so true and yet so untrue. There are more ways to speak of love than there are loves to speak of, but sometimes I believe the Romantics. I suspend disbelief and accept that, for this moment, in this poem, there is no other way to speak of love. In another poem, it may be equally true to say, “How shall we speak of death but in the splurge of roses…” and the question will mean differently but mean nonetheless. I do not call myself a poet to exclude other genres, which are perhaps all permutations of the same. The word essay, as Phillip Lopate writes, means “to try or attempt, to leap experimentally into the unknown.” Poems do that also, of course, and epistles, and fairy tales, and cookbooks, and instruction manuals, and literary translations, and diary entries. The “poison” is not the poem, or neglect of the poem, or over-analysis of the poem. The poison, it seems to me, is believing we can master the poem, pin it down like an insect under glass. The poem, like the poppy, the apple, the vein, is part of something living, and like us, it has a muscle that loves being alive.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 collections of poetry and prose, including the newly released Skirted: Poems (The Word Works, 2021) and the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020). A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. Julie is married to Angie Griffin and lives in Dania Beach.

Cover photo by Daniel McCullough