Book Review – “Versed”

The following is my book review of “Versed” by Rae Armantrout, posted on 06/09/11.

There are a few things to like in these poems and a few things that leave me puzzled and unable to get an accurate glimpse inside Rae’s mind, or my own for that matter. In the abstract, sparse stanzas, I was challenged to form an image and take away my own experience. I may have been looking at a painting, but the light was wavering, the image cloudy. It is not obvious at first what direction a poem has taken or what the inspiration may have been.

Divided into two sections, titled “Versed” and “Dark Matter”, this collection feels like a snapshot where random quips are thought and written down. Unlike John Haines, whose poems are nature based, with a simple form where each word has a purpose, Rae’s are about the everyday life, headlines and news flashes across the Internet. The moments that occur and the feeling that follows, almost the knee-jerk reaction, are quick, raw, and unorganized.

A few poems are direct commentaries on pop culture (Anna Nicole Smith, Iron Man) and the way social media specifically, and technology in general are consuming and taking over our lives, trading the real for the digital.

Overlaying this collection is Rae’s experience with cancer, and an attempt to seek out and bring to light the unknown and invisible, the dark matter.

Favorite stanza, from “Missing Persons”, page 89:

“A thin old man in blue jeans,
back arched, grimaces
at the freezer compartment.”

The use of punctuation, in particular periods, is interesting. Most of the poems, especially in the first section “Versed” do not end with one, even when the proceeding stanzas do. The last stanza does not. I have not figured out why, or the purpose, or even a pattern. I thought maybe is it is a convention where the previous poem ends, but as an overall flow continues with the next poem’s title or first stanza. Reading the poems consecutively with this in mind, it is not consistent enough to carry through the entire book.

Some notable poems: “Amplification”, “Heaven”, “Just”, “Dark Matter”, and “Missing Persons”, “Birth Order”.

Another interesting fragment of each piece is the title, which the majority of them a single word. Over the years I have also favored a shorter title. It gives little away to the reader and lessens the preconceived notion they may have about a poems topic or direction. In my recent poems, I have gone with numbers and/or colors, matching what Jackson Pollock decided to do in his later life and paintings.

Rae’s poems are sparse in their words, creating images not obvious at first. Each word serves as a guide, a sign-post if you will. Where I was being led, I do not know. Overall, I felt the effort was lacking and the poems suffered from oversimplification at the hands of a decision to be abstract for its own sake, and a form and writing convention that made no sense.

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