Language is a tricky thing. It can be used to tell us with a point-blank simplicity how things really are, or it can be used to envelope the truth in irony and elegant words that force a deeper look into what is between the lines. Rae Armantrout, part of the first generation of Language poets on the West Coast and 2010 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, finds a way to give us both in her chapbook Custom.
At first read, Armantrout’s presentation is simple and graceful. The words fall into perfect place in the four poems (pulled from the scheduled 2013 release of a manuscript titled Just Saying), and we are lulled by the methodic and flowing nature of her poetic voice. There is something just below the surface, though, that begs for interpretation. Something past the beauty in her words calls out with a darker irony. I found myself reading and rereading these four poems, overwhelmed with what came out of each different examination.
Specifically, Armantrout’s title poem ‘Custom’ uses the everyday speech that she is best known for, but we are presented with a deeper question that is loosely hidden behind the simplicity. We are given an airport, a hotel, a plaid duvet and constant movement from terminal to terminal – and they are all regular, simple proclamations that sit on the surface of her words, in plain view. But with her last lines, Armantrout states that,
We are almost money. / We can wait at high speed.The image of moving between terminals becomes the representation of people as nothing more than a transaction for big corporations, and any personality that could be represented from person to person fades away as quickly as the stripes of an old, plaid duvet.
The language of Rae Armantrout’s Custom remains vast and open. I find that there are so many layers to her writing that there will always be more that you can pull out from the grace of her words. From a simplicity to a complexity that begs for fight or flight, the journey that she takes you on in four short poems is overwhelming, subversive, and completely worth the trip.