Rae Armantrout, “Attention”

For a few weeks now, I’ve been thinking about someone. I have only fond memories of her. I know she too enjoyed our time together, which makes her disappearance from my life rather strange. I understand that for many, friendships and relationships depend on being in a particular phase of life, and when one phase is over so another can begin, then friends and lovers are abandoned for new ones. My sentiments have evolved in accordance with this: first, I began to accept rejection as normal; now, I have learned rejection for little or no reason is most normal.

Still, I found myself drawn to this cryptic poem of Armantrout’s, which seems to cope with rejection? That we want attention from a beloved? I confess myself confused about what it says, but the mystery of the poem calls me to unlock it. At first, it does seem like the rejected speaker took a different approach from the rejected me. Ventriloquy is the mother tongue, she declares, announcing that all of us aspire to displace our voices, hear our own words spoken elsewhere, by another speaker. Emotions ask to be extended so much that they fail to belong to us. They are universal, primal drives which implicate everyone in guilt, make all of us the same. Can you colonize rejection
by phrasing your request, “Me want?”
If you could, you’d reduce everyone, including yourself, to infancy. The one doing the rejecting would be just as infantile as you. This logic could console someone, I guess. For some strange reason, though, rejection continues to hurt, and I still want attention:

Attention (from Poetry)
Rae Armantrout

Ventriloquy
is the mother tongue.

Can you colonize rejection   
by phrasing your request,
                         “Me want?”

Song: “I’m not a baby.   
      Wa, Wa, Wa.

      I’m not a baby.   
      Wa, Wa, Wa.

      I’m crazy   
      like you.”

The “you”
in the heart of   
molecule and ridicule.

Marks resembling   
the holes

in dead leaves
define the thing (moth wing).

That flutter
of indifference,
                feigned?

But if lapses   
are the dens

strategy aims   
to conceal,

then you don’t know   
what you’re asking.

Reduce everyone to infancy, trying to make rejection and a lack of attention stingless. You can’t take it personally, as you’re dealing with a child. The trade-off is that you must become a child yourself—Song: “I’m not a baby. Wa, Wa, Wa. I’m not a baby. Wa, Wa, Wa. I’m crazy like you.”

This isn’t sustainable. The adult voice immediately interjects, remembering what is stake—The “you” in the heart of molecule and ridicule. Rejection hurts because you wanted to be with someone, rejection hurts because you feel as if all of you is being rejected. On this reading, pride is a defense mechanism.

The adult voice tries to salvage the previous logic, though. Marks resembling the holes in dead leaves define the thing (moth wing)—we had to turn childish because the absence of the beloved is the absence of completeness. Having that someone fills a fundamental emotional need, not just base desire. The holes in us define us; we are moths attracted to the light; without some fulfillment, we feel dead. This salvaging might actually work, if it were not immediately turned to lower purpose: That flutter of indifference, feigned? We fake our indifference, hoping for more; we hope the beloved has gone too far with rejecting us and might reverse course.

Armantrout’s speaker has tripped over the problem in her various attempts to deny pain. The problem with pain is that the beloved was worth loving, and inasmuch as he was worth loving, he is involved with a judgement which, for better or worse, has to be taken seriously. Arguing that we’re undeveloped or incomplete doesn’t adequately address our need, but merely uses it as justification. But if lapses are the dens strategy aims to conceal, then you don’t know what you’re asking—on the surface, we’re asking to displace our pain, put on a brave face. What we’re really asking for is permission to be in denial.

I think my story is an important addition to the chain of emotions and reasoning this poem presents. Sometimes it really isn’t you that’s the issue. In fact, I’d bet a lot of times it isn’t you. In which case, one can see Armantrout’s speaker grappling with insecurity more than anything else.

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