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This review is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

POSSIBILITIES IN THE TRADITION RAE ARMANTROUT, Versed (Wesleyan University Press) £20.95
MICHAEL O’NEILL, Wheel (Arc) £8.99
COLETTE BRYCE, Self-Portrait in the Dark (Picador) £8.99

Rae Armantrout’s new collection comprises two sequences: ‘Versed’ and ‘Dark Matter’. Much of the first deals with the superficialities and disjunctions of consumer culture, the ‘Dolls as celebrities (Barbie); / celebrities as dolls’, and those with

Pupils fixed

on the ‘It Girls’’
production

of fame’s emptiness. (‘Dilation’)

But Armantrout is not the high-minded satirist; she includes herself, and takes a fascinated enjoyment in the whole:

It’s not that I wish
to pledge slavish devotion
as the singer seems to do;

it’s not that I want to be the
object of such attention -
but I’ll listen to this song

again and again. (‘Locality’)


As well as an eye for detail, Armantrout has a philosophical intelligence that always goes behind the surface, looking to make sense (and art) of the inconsequential:

Pairing matched fragments,
the pausing -

archly? -

Mozart creates a universe
out of pleasantries.

‘How is everything
for you today?’

the hostess
at the front desks asks. (‘Vehicles’)


With her command of tone, she can be alternately funny and serious, especially in the second sequence, which draws on her recent experience of cancer:

Chuck and I are pleased
to have found a spot
where my ashes can be ...


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