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This review is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

Cover of Party: New and Selected Poems 2001–2015
Ian PopleThrift

Rae Armantrout, Party: New and Selected Poems 2001–2015 (Wesleyan University Press) $28
Rae Armantrout’s vatic, spare poems have, for some time, been amongst the most lauded from the
L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets of North America. The blurb accompanying this volume describes the poems as, variously, ‘refined’, ‘visionary’, and ‘potent, compact meditations’. And much of that is true. The poems very seldom run longer than one side of the page, and, even at that length may contain two or three sub-sections, each comprising not more than six or seven lines; each section separated by a short, horizontal line on the page. The titles are often only a single word, and there is an amusing irony in the fact that ‘What We Can Say’ is, at four words, the longest title in the book.

There is a kind of centripetal quality in all this brevity. In a poem such as, ‘Life’s Work’, that inward pull is quite literally present. The ‘I’ that begins each line feels very deliberately the ‘empirical’ Rae Armantrout, even where the tensions emerge from contradiction, ‘Did I say I was a creature/ of habit? // I meant the opposite. // I meant behaviour / is a pile of clothes // I might or might not wear.’ The sparse syntax and the short lines freight the poem so that the reader moves slowly down the page, at the same time as Armantrout draws the reader into her world, with the pun on ‘habit’.

That sense of the centripetal combined with the short titles and the very short lines creates immense pressure within the poems. This pressure is, perhaps, where Armantrout scores ...

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