When Rae Armantrout came to Lewis & Clark College last week to give a reading, one of the books she read from was her recently published Entanglements (Wesleyan 2017), a collection that results, as her “Note to the Reader” says, from her “years-long interest in reading about science, particularly physics.” As I often emphasize to my writing students, it’s good to take courses in science because we do well to write our poems in the world as it actually exists as disclosed to us by the best thinking we have available, and certainly this includes the thinking of the sciences; if nothing else, the various language worlds of physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth can provide a writer with a fresh store of metaphors. So I was certainly glad to discuss Armantrout’s Entanglements with them.
Like entangled subatomic particles, which behave as if in direct contact even when they are trillions of miles apart, Armantrout’s poems exist simultaneously in multiple worlds. They communicate, not merely across vast distances and expanses of time, but also across the seemingly insuperable divide between the loftily theoretical and the deeply personal, yielding a sense of who and where we are that is at once strange and uncannily right. As she puts it in her poem Entanglement, “The material world is made up / entirely // of collisions // between otherwise / indefinite objects.” We are ourselves composed of collisions within collisions, and yet the emergent properties that result, such as the inwardness of human consciousness, remain radically unpredictable. This same poem ends, “In a long dream, / I’m with Aaron, // visiting his future, / helping him make choices.” The realm of dreams, which emerges out of the unconscious, alters—not unlike the distances and velocities of relativity theory—our sense of time and how it works.
We might think of theoretical physics as a metaphor of the human lifeworld, or the human lifeworld as a metaphor of physics. It works both ways, for as Armantrout’s poems disclose, one realm is always there to inform the other, as all of our thinking is swept into the constant transformations of metaphor. As Armantrout says in an interview on the Wesleyan University Press website, “Together similarity and difference are the basis for sentience. We may observe problems with metaphorical thinking, but we can’t abandon metaphor.” This is a statement well worth contemplating at length, though for now I’ll merely affirm that without the interplay of similarity and difference—here and there, in and out, up and down, dark and light, self and other, the “is” and “is not” of metaphor—there is no feeling, consciousness, or thought. For these to happen, we need the interplay of difference within a realm capable of recognition. The very term metaphor, which in its Greek root means to carry across, is its own apt metaphor of what metaphor does; it carries meanings and associations from one language realm to another, often forming new wholes that add up to something beyond merely their constituent parts. Without the constant circulation of metaphor, our discourses would quickly reach stagnation.
Keeping human language on the move is at the beating heart of Armantrout’s poetics. As she has also stated, “I like to put material from very different sources, different levels of discourse, in contact with one another to see how they interact.” In other words, every poem is an experiment in the lab of artistic endeavor. Thus, the work of the poet and of the scientist are not as discontinuous as might might be inclined to believe. “Scientists and poets are lured by something beautiful they sense in the world,” she further comments, “something that (thus far at least) no formula, mathematical or verbal, has been able to fully capture.” Hers is a poetry that enables us to engage more deeply with the beauty as well as the mishaps and injuries—the collisions and vibrations—of our cacophonous world. Amid all the noise, there is music yet to hear.