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This review is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

TROUT TICKLING RAE ARMANTROUT, Versed (Wesleyan University Press) £21.50
ALAN HALSEY, Term as in Aftermath (Ahadada Books) $15.95

Rae Armantrout is a terse and edgy poet who mingles cultural commentary with introspection. ‘Versed’, the first of two sequences which make up this book, carries the meaning of ‘reversed’, both in the sense of an analytical negation of the meanings of what is offered to us seamlessly as ‘experience’ and as the verso or underside of the glossy leaves of contemporary media culture. One of her ways of achieving this is to subject our language detritus to intense scrutiny (‘I think our incentives/are sexy and edgy’); another is by means of pained self-analysis. (‘Look - I’m co-operating!/I can pull myself apart/and still speak’). As a woman she feels herself doubly under scrutiny - she suspects a female alcoholic in the supermarket of imagining herself in a film; as a citizen she is subject to other kinds of routine monitoring and surveillance.

Versed is, in part, a book of quotations, from instances of monitored experiences (in ‘Dark Matter’, her second sequence, that of her own cancer and recovery) which are picked over and rearranged so as to reveal their socio-cultural freight, and also, since it is so beautifully measured, it is a book that is irresistibly, brilliantly quotable:

The spread
of vicious Talent contests
mimics the selection
of those best adapted
to the stage
of service industry capitalism
                                                                       (‘The Light’)

This calls to mind Walter Benjamin’s method, criticised by Theodor Adorno (though more or less ...


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