Versed by Rae Armantrout – a Book Review

 Versed by Rae Armantrout – a Book Review
By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
November 30, 2010

Terry Eagleton provides a non-poetic definition of poem:  “A poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end.” 1 Some poems have end rhyming, some don’t, some use strict metres, and some are more dynamic.
Rae Armantrout’s magnificent collection of poems in Versed have varieties in line endings, internal rhymes and rhythms, forms and metaphors, while intense burst of imageries in simple words, constructed like frothing ocean waves, one after another, leaving the trails of dispersed pathos in poetic but delicate flare.
An example:
As if, after all,

the thing that comes to mind
times inertia

equalled the “real.”

One lizard
Jammed headfirst

down the throat
of a second.
 Rae Armantrout explores the world of spirit and deity, with not “so foreclosed question” in poem New Genres:
A witness claims to have seen a spirit. From this premise,
a ragged band sets out,
trampling through an old house in the dark,
joking or bickering,
carrying equipment meant to measure “fluctuations.”
The existence of the spirit
should remain an open –
so foreclosed –

Pockets of self-reference arise. As if I
could read the mind of the creator,
I already see the father
is the stalker
he pursues
and, eventually,

I don’t recollect reading much of Rae Armantrout’s poems before. If one recites her poem aloud, slowly reading each word with paying careful attention to spaces and breaks of the lines, it feels that more is unsaid but is almost tangible, as if mysterious reality about to be unravelled. Here is a ponderous poem “New” that talks “about the camera”:

If yellow
Is the new black,

the new you
is a cartoon

who blows his lines

around bumptious 3-D

apologizes often,
and remains cheerful.


The new pop song
Is about getting real:

“You had a bad day.
The camera don’t lie.”

But they’re lying
to you
about the camera.


Since Fallujah
is the new Antigua,

sunlight nibbles
on pre-

in the electric fireplace.

The voice in her poems, sometimes gulps the remaining air of sanity in overwhelming fluorescence of clarity, though tiptoeing the meaning of “change” by “insisting only on insistence”. The poem “Own” throws luminescence toward trajectory of sorrowing reality:

Woman in a room near mine moans, “I’m dying. I want
to be fine. It’s my body!
Don’t let me! Don’t touch me!”

By definition,
I’m the blip
Floating across my own
“field of vision…”


On closed eyes I see the spartan wall of the ICU
covered in a scrambled hodge-podge of sticky notes,
crossing one another at all angles,
illegibly written over, snippets of reference,
madly irrelevant.


Symbolism as the party face of paranoia.

Chorus of expert voices beyond my door, forever
Dissecting my case.

“But the part is sick
of representing the whole.”


“We will prevail,”
says the leader on multiple
screens. The words
are empty, but he’s there
inside the lie
everyone believes –
that nothing
will really change. He’s become pure
being, insisting
only on insistence.


A crowd (scene) of cells, growing wildly,
by random access to stock types,
(Play any role you like and go on
forever. Who is speaking?)
Able to draw blood vessels to itself
by emitting a mock distress call.


From deep time,
on my grandmother’s crockery
to cover my closed eyelids,
lumpy fruits and flowers, brown
against a cream background.


Dream that Aaron is telling friends to be quiet because
he’s listening to a rumble, a white noise voice from his
own intestines which he believes is telling him how to
save me. “SHH!” he says to anyone who speaks.

From her own personal battle with cancer the poetess Rae Armantrout invokes solemnity, describing the patient perched in an examination table, and the doctor and the nurse duo, who are either “smug” or “snug” in their “relative safety” from the terrible gruesomeness of cancer, deftly delineating a scene in her poem “Together” that may be found in any hospital:

Now I am always perched on a metal examination table.
Two people, a doctor and a nurse, come at intervals
To tell me whether I will live or die. They do this with
practiced solemnity. They’re smug or snug in their
habits, their relative safety, of course, but that is to be
expected. And I wait expectantly, even eagerly, as if I
might be of some help. If the news is bad, I imagine,
they will direct our attention to an area of concern. For
a moment, we will lean together toward that place.

The book has two parts, containing 87 total poems. The first part is named Versed, and the second part is Dark Matter. The very first poem “Around” in the second part describes “The future is all around us”, reads like a reminder to human final destiny:
Time is pleased
to draw itself
permit itself
pendulous loops,

to allow them

this meaning,

as it goes


Chuck and I are pleased
to have found a spot
where my ashes can be scattered.
It looks like a construction site
but it’s adjacent
to a breathtaking, rocky coast.
Chuck sees places
where he might snorkel.
We’re being shown through
by a sort of realtor.
We’re interested but can’t get her
to fix the price.


“The future
is all around us.”

It’s a place,

where we don’t exist.

“anyplace where we don’t exist”, true for us the mortal beings, but the time defying poetry can certainly outlast the virulence of cancerous cells and fabled and vacuous “insisting only on insistence” modern paradox.


1.       Eagleton, Terry. How to Read a Poem.  Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 25.
2.       Armantrout, Rae.  Versed, Wesleyan University Press, 2009