Rae Armantrout, “And”

And (from Poetry)
Rae Armantrout


Tense and tenuous
grow from the same root

as does tender
in its several guises:

the sour grass flower;
the yellow moth.


I would not confuse
the bogus
with the spurious.

The bogus
is a sore thumb

while the spurious
pours forth

as fish and circuses.


Break-ups, tough moments, rejection: a few times I needed to walk away, numb with rage and disappointment. Stretched, I was tense and tenuous, I myself the root of both. Every nerve in my body tense, waiting for worse. The mind unanchored, lost in how tenuous it all seemed.

Walking outside allowed me to witness the several guises of tender. Unlike the speaker, I didn’t quite appreciate that nature mirrored my situation. The sour grass flower, considered a weed in the New World, not only stretches above its peers but shows itself relentless in trying to survive. Just last night, I watched a moth continually get too close to an electric light.

Everything stretches, moving through nervousness and hypersensitivity to… somewhere tender, I guess.

Still, tense, tenuous, and tender are all only one-half of a conjunction. The other half:

I would not confuse
the bogus
with the spurious.

The bogus
is a sore thumb

while the spurious
pours forth

as fish and circuses.

I would like “tender” to be an end, to leave this poem alone after just the first half. For some reason, I have to consider the bogus and the spurious, as Armantrout claims an inability to confuse the two. “The bogus is a sore thumb, while the spurious pours forth as fish and circuses.” That seems clear enough: the bogus is more or less accidental fakery, whereas the spurious involves lying on a godlike scale. One might be tempted to consider it an appropriate finale for a poem entitled “And,” as it neatly distinguishes between the mistakes we do not mean to make and the delusions in which we immerse ourselves. If I can make such distinctions in my life, the tense and the tenuous should drop away, as I can govern myself better.

However, the poet did invite us to look at the roots of tense and tenuous. Why not do the same for the second half of the poem? “Bogus,” upon closer inspection, does not have accidental connotations. The word primarily describes counterfeit money. Bogus and spurious are pretty much the same word: there is no term for our genuine mistakes, only the stresses and stretching we endure. No one really recognizes the difficulties we try to overcome. Only we, as individuals, can know a sore thumb from the fraud of bread and circuses. We know our limits, and it makes us tense, and we hope it will one day make us tender, perhaps more in control, certainly more appreciative.

Juan Ramón Jiménez, “I took off petal after petal”

“I took off petal after petal”
Juan Ramón Jiménez (tr. Robert Bly)

  I took off petal after petal, as if you were a rose,
in order to see your soul,
and I didn't see it.

  However, everything around—
horizons of fields and oceans—
everything, even what was infinite,
was filled with a perfume,
immense and living.


In loving you, I did not want to stay at the surface. Romance depends on a sense of mystery, and I’ll admit, as I worked to know you better, quite a bit of mystery seemed to fade away.1 At times, I wondered if I had done any justice to you. If you were a rose, if your beauty depended on your presentation and reception, that was not something to throw away. In pulling petal after petal, I worried I neglected your particular sensitivity.

Still, did I know anything about you? Did I know the truth? I hadn’t seen your soul; doubt instead of trust almost overcame me. What saved us was the vastness of your soul, the depth of your heart. I was looking for a statement in which to place trust, as if your soul was a summary, you were a sentence. But all the things you knew, enjoyed, and loved pointed to a love of the world. You were not starry-eyed, I realized, but grounded, open to the real. Fields and oceans set the horizon; only in seeing them did the sky reveal itself. And when the sky opened, when we gazed at the stars, your scent was most noticeable. Nothing was cliché, everything was immense and living. In looking for your soul, I almost completely missed your spirit.

Sappho, “Cyprian, in my dream”

Cyprian, in my dream
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Cyprian, in my dream

The folds of a purple
kerchief shadowed
your cheeks – the one

Timas one time sent,
a timid gift, all
the way from Phocaea


After we put the remains of little Timas out to sea, I had this dream about my friend Timas from Phocaea. She sent me this gorgeous kerchief once: it was soft and silky, holding this rich, deep purple color. The package it came in was redolent of perfume. I dreamed no less than Aphrodite wore it, looking shy, a bit timid, all the more delicate and amazing.

The kerchief was a timid gift. Timas and I met in person and kept a correspondence for a while. Our talk centered on my work and only my work, as if she had nothing else to offer. Only with this gift did she reveal herself. It’s funny how beautiful she was, how she knew she was beautiful, and yet she invested this kind of object with a confidence she denied herself. She understood the power of her own beauty and in a way worshipped it, but worship can be just as much a product of terror as of belief.

Eugene Ostashevsky, “The Proof of the Axiom”

Poem and an incredible etching by Tatiana Lyskova: please do read over the poem and take a look at the etching before reading my thoughts. It’ll be fun, trust me.

There are times when we think we know everything. Not in a smug, overbearing, secretly defensive way, but in the way we understand, say, a field. If you ask me about the history of political thought, for example, I’m pretty clear that I only know about a few select Western sources, of which I’ve read even fewer over and over, holding some opinions which have been more or less tested. If it seems like I’m professing humility, I’m doing anything but, as I have the same confidence we witness in this axiom and question:

She circles inside
the proof of the axiom

The axiom is self-evident
Is it true

This self-evident axiom establishes itself by having a person call it home. That someone circles inside it makes it home. Is self-evidence the same as truth? For our part, we can’t assume she thinks she knows everything. She’s perfectly within bounds, within “the proof of the axiom.”

She thinks, to some degree, she resides in truth:

Is a wavelength blue
Is a wave a wave

She performs a gesture
with her hand

Some wavelengths might be blue: they’re not just mathematical abstractions, but the moving particles and energies around her. A wave is a wave. Her gesture, I assume, is demonstrative, confident. She knows she is in this world, and that knowledge empowers.

What could possibly be wrong with this picture? We all have to live within what we think is knowledge. That she circles within “the proof of the axiom” hints that she has accepted limits to what she knows. How could anything go wrong?

If she hit rock
she could build a house

If she built a house
she could look out of the window

Knowledge of one’s own limits, it turns out, is pretty limited. What she wants is a real home. Not just to circle within the axiom, but to take this one, limited bit of knowledge, and turn it into a foundation. A place to live, a place to bear witness. Does knowing your knowledge is limited yield a fruitful perspective? Did Socrates get anything because of his knowledge of ignorance?

O, no! There’s an axiom
inside the proof of the axiom

and another
and another

She cannot tell
the net from the knot

fact from effect
All, as Parmenides says, is one

She wants to mine what she knows, and finds that she’s been assuming, well, a lot more than just one axiom. How much does one have to assume to say “I have a hand here” and wave it around? Turns out, you have to assume a lot, and those further assumptions are slippery in a curious way. If you can prove some of them, you have a godlike amount of scientific knowledge. If you can prove others, you have a tremendous grasp on how we use language, on how conventions are established and communicated. If you can prove yet others, you understand something about mind that maybe no one else has understood before.

“She cannot tell / the net from the knot,” the realization that like a knot, she’s trapped herself. “Fact from effect:” she lacks any faith that she can cause anything. “All, as Parmenides says, is one:” is this wisdom or resignation?

She walks in woe
from lodgment to lodgment

trying to make
an analytic judgment

“She walks in woe / from lodgment to lodgment” sounds like both wisdom and resignation. Strangely, we’re back where we’ve started at the beginning of the poem, but a bit humbler, a bit broken, a bit shaken. The lure of knowledge is being able to procure the good for oneself. When that proves impossible, all we want is a moment of clarity. Just knowing you can know would make you happy.

Sappho, “We put the urn aboard ship”

We put the urn aboard ship
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

We put the urn aboard ship
with this inscription:

This is the dust of little
Timas who unmarried was led
into Persephone’s dark bedroom

And she being far from home, girls
her age took new-edged blades
to cut, in mourning for her,
these curls of their soft hair


Little Timas suffered the worst of fates. Far from home, without a husband, she died young, alone, away. We did not know how to deal with such a curse. Not being promptly buried in her native soil, her soul was wandering, tortured. Lonely and scared, she never got a chance to grow, to secure her confidence, to receive the honor of her city.

So we put the urn on a boat, to send her back, to take her curse far away from us. Of course, we missed her too. It wasn’t enough to return the remains, so we sharpened blades and swiftly, decisively cut off our hair. The loss of her was at the same time the loss of our honor.