Rae Armantrout, “The Job”

It is nothing but six sentences. However, I find each of them relatable, walking me through an experience rather than striking me with wordplay. That experience quietly unfolds by means of a series of thoughts and gestures more halves than wholes, more hesitation and fixation than certainty.

I confess the first of these sentences could be thought a bit too smart, as “attending to verbal constructs” sounds stilted, evasive. Still, let’s look at it: Attending to verbal constructs makes care long-term, not acute, which is for the best because, though flawed, each one is salvageable or replaceable unlike my flesh. This sentence is awkward above all, filled with second-guessing and resignation just as thoughts occur in the mind. As I was saying, relatable:

The Job (from Poetry)
Rae Armantrout

Attending to verbal constructs
makes care long-term,
not acute,

which is for the best
because, though flawed,
each one is salvageable

or replaceable
unlike my flesh.
Words can be compared

with moments,
houses, trees, wires,
wires, trees, houses.

All stand
on their marks.
Still,

there’s a lot of overlap.
I move my eyes
to make time.

I take their measure
and create a duplicate.

I pay too much attention to words. The care I give them is “long-term,” not “acute.” Already, I’m hesitating. Why did I think my attention acute? Because I was nervous, I am nervous, I want to know I can find an answer if need be, I want to know that I can deal with anything.

See? I’m thinking about words.

I have to stop myself. Slow down, breathe. The care is really “long-term;” I’ve got to make myself believe that. It’s “for the best.” If I’m investing in words, I’m investing in what’s “salvageable” or “replaceable.”

I’m not gunning for immortality. I just want to know I care for the truth, that I care for something—anything—more. What’s salvageable or replaceable speaks a sort of wisdom; it’s not about what lasts no matter what. It’s about what’s left after catastrophe, what’s usable, what can be built from.

I keep learning day after day that hate and excuses for murdering each other will last forever. I’m not looking for a wisdom which merely justifies. I want one which makes things better.

Armantrout goes on. Words can be compared with moments, houses, trees, wires, wires, trees, houses. Words simply compare with moments—this cuts deeply. Both flesh and memory fall away and words, because they dared to make a comparison, are the only thing we have to mark moments. For other objects—”houses, trees, wires, wires, trees, houses”—words invite valuation, but maybe it’s more important that all stand on their marks. Armantrout has her fourth stanza set up such that “houses” stands above “wires,” “wires” stand upon “houses,” and “trees” are atop and underneath “trees.” Words compare with moments differently from everything else. Natural objects speak themselves; our non-verbal constructs, such as houses and wires, follow whatever logic we assign.

In the space of a few lines, Armantrout deploys a metaphysical rhetoric for justifying writing. It goes something like this: she attempts to give words their proper weight. If they have a roughly correct weight, it is because they preserve moments, i.e. our time. This allows for the “salvageable,” the “replaceable,” the true wisdom. We attend to verbal constructs over the long-term not because they simply scream our experience, but allow for better understanding, perhaps even utility for others. That words aren’t exactly right for any situation speaks to the possibility of perpetual betterment.

And then she nearly undoes the whole argument: Still, there’s a lot of overlap. Objects don’t correspond to each other strictly, words do not exactly correspond to them or moments. There is an ideal—we can sense we can speak more precisely, more powerfully—but we’re not sure what it is. We just know some messes ought to be untangled, and others should be approached very carefully.

I move my eyes to make time. This might be one of the most gorgeous lines I’ve ever encountered. The simple act of moving one’s eyes literally does make time. If nothing ever changes, there is no time. In this case, the drama of the poem is fully revealed, as she hasn’t been writing as much as wondering what she actually does. She’s been seized by some kind of doubt. Shifting the eyes is shifting focus. Words, salvageable, replaceable, have become better. I take their measure and create a duplicate.

1 Comment

  1. Is anything ever finished? How many duplicates does it take to make one original work of art? Only after the patient has been nursed for a long time, and only after our clones have been assembled, perhaps we might shoo him out of the bed. He/ she might sprint somewhere. However, we are getting way ahead of ourselves. We need more duplicates. That is our love.

    What a pity we are co-dependents.

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