Rae Armantrout, “Decor”

I like to believe that I think a lot about aging gracefully, but have I put in the effort to actually age well? I’m angry at myself for not reading and writing enough, for not exercising and meditating more, for not being as organized or tidy as I should be. In short, I know what to do, I’ve made a start, but I haven’t built the habits I need yet.

My commitment is shaky, and as a result, I’m missing that feeling of contentment which accompanies serious thought and effort. All the same, I do know people with good habits who are monsters. Adulthood should mean better habits, a sense of consistency. But it absolutely means consciousness of value, and therein lies the problem. No number of good habits is the same as being sensitive to how value works. Value itself poses a host of problems for those of us who would like to believe we stand for something. I wonder if I am capable of practicing what I preach. Certainly, there are plenty of times I haven’t just failed, but have done wrong, and I wonder if I should even be allowed to talk about values.

So: how to age? I’ve been wading through Rae Armantrout’s collection Versed for some time now, finding myself fascinated with her fascinations. In this part of her poem “New Genres,” for example, it sounds like she’s been watching Ghosthunters on cable and wondering “what the hell is this on my television:”

A witness claims to have seen a spirit. From this premise
a ragged band sets out,
tramping through an old house in the dark,
joking or bickering,
carrying equipment meant to measure "fluctuations."
The existence of the spirit
should remain an open —
so foreclosed —
question.

More relevant to the matter at hand is a recurring theme in her work: how love and desire change as we grow old. From her poem “Stretch:”

In rest home beds, patients
hang on
as if to love.

Hang on / as if to love might be the most succinct description I’ve encountered of what I hope I’m doing when I’m trying to do right. One might say hang on / as if to love is no less than “living.” Surviving, struggling, failing—it’s like I’m pretending I can love, I can do some good. Now if I, in middle age, believe that this is how love and and life work, I have to ask myself whether this conception will change later. If I’m elderly and the television becomes an important part of my world, will I discern a wisdom and power in, say, televangelists that I could not see before? The only certainty is that love and desire will change, somehow. Some people grow well as they get older. I’ve known some who have shrunk.

*

All poems are paintings, but Armantrout’s are especially like an art gallery. I typically imagine each of her poems as a collection of still life at an exhibition. At a gallery, I would take the feelings and thoughts each painting inspires and try to see how the pieces converse—nothing unusual there. But applying this “method” to Armantrout’s work has a radical effect. A number of smaller paintings within a poem implies a multitude of ambiguities—no, worlds—to explore.

“Decor” begins with a quietly anxious series of thoughts in a café. Drinking tea to pass time; / growing leaves to pass time. “Growing leaves to pass time,” you could say, brings up a question not unrelated to Aristotle’s nutritive soul. Some things, like plants, thrive and bloom with the proper elements and surroundings. They don’t just “pass time,” they absorb and grow. Human beings, if they were exactly the same as plants, might never feel any insecurity or doubt. Unfortunately, we move. We consume caffeine and prepare to act. And when we act, we want a certain result. Our happiness depends on our actions being effective—on luck—a lot of the time. “Drinking tea to pass time” is a bit of a joke, I think: what is one staying awake for? Or trying to be calm about?

Decor
Rae Armantrout

  1

Drinking tea to pass time;
growing leaves to pass time.

Concrete wall —
the arm slung round this
café patio — is studded
with uneven stones.

  2

Ground cover of pert
green hearts:

mass market.

And these hot-pink,
splay-petalled pinwheels —

such toss-offs!

  3

Already 
it's started again

with new bodies
inflected differently

so that most of us
will end up loving

some dated version,

feeling shame

Armantrout glances at where she is, looking for clues herself. She notes the surface decoration. Concrete wall — / the arm slung round this / café patio — is studded / with uneven stones. A concrete wall with uneven stones sounds tacky, but she’s not interested in aesthetic critique, I don’t think. The wall is an “arm slung round.” It’s solid but bumpy. These are hints that we can speak of love, loneliness, and age with regard to this poem. Time is passing, alone, and one might say that without intimacy there are only surfaces of things and people.

*

I probably need to say a bit more before I continue talking about this poem. It is the case that you can have a significant other, you both love each other very much, and you still feel lonely. You may even feel unappreciated or isolated while having a relationship that works well. You can feel like you’re not even there when surrounded by friends and family and being continually praised. Someone might say this is a sign of a disorder, but I don’t think that’s necessarily happening. Love is asked to do a lot in our lives, fill all kinds of voids we don’t even know we have. Can love, by itself, really address what we face as our bodies fall apart and death becomes more visible? Can love, by itself, guarantee I’m giving anything to the next generation worth a damn? Can love put me in a position where I feel I can do more than simply pass time?

I think about the times where I’ve been at, say, Starbucks, and I wonder if anyone notices if I’m there. Maybe someone would just sit on me like they didn’t see me, or avoid the table entirely as if I were a carrier of plague. Maybe “lonely” isn’t the right word for what’s happening to Armantrout’s speaker in the first stanza. Does she feel invisible? Incapable of grasping the attention of another for a moment? Love, of course, is asked to address this—this feeling of powerlessness and indignity. I’d be lying if I said love, power, and dignity could ever be neatly separated. They can’t, although juvenile extremes are often reached in trying to love someone for the status they confer.

With that in mind—that feelings of loneliness, desire, and alienation are valid and wrapped up in a complex—I want to speak about the second stanza. Armantrout shifts the scene; perhaps she’s left the café and gone out into a marketplace. She doesn’t note the walls this time, but the floor and the display. Ground cover of pert / green hearts: / mass market. / And these hot-pink, / splay-petalled pinwheels — / such toss-offs! The market looks childish, too sanguine, too “pert” to her. It’s disposable. It mimics nature, resembling a grass and flowers.

But a “mass market,” especially for one needing attention and love, seems utterly unnatural, a cruel joke. It’s as if it means to emphasize you as disposable. It keeps things upbeat for the sake of shopping, but it certainly does not care for any individual shopper.

The second stanza reinforces the feeling of passing time. Only, it isn’t a felt absence causing this. Society at large—the way we’ve built the world—expects that you are passing time, that you think you are only passing time. It caters to that.

I travel in academic circles which discuss terms like “nobility” and “greatness” without irony. I can imagine someone interjecting here to say that the soullessness of modern culture is indeed a concern, and without being able to try for something great, something dignified, one can only take one’s pleasure from the “mass market.” I don’t think that sort of complaint is related to this stanza. There’s an outstanding question about intimacy, knowledge of others, and knowledge of self. If you’re feeling like you’re completely invisible in public spaces, only expected to consume, how can you know anyone else? And if you don’t know anyone else, how do you know yourself? The trivial surfaces of a café and market are revealing of one’s own sense of triviality, which, while unjustified, points to a serious concern. What do I have to know—what do I have to feel—in order to feel whole?

*

Armantrout’s third stanza veers into the terrain of desire and identity. Now she’s looking around, not at things, but at other people. How are they dressed? How do they carry themselves? They express themselves in various but similar ways, as if each corresponds to types: Already / it’s started again / with new bodies / inflected differently. We take on poses to assert ourselves and make ourselves seen. We hope people will see us and appreciate us because we look like them. “Love” serves, with regard to this poem, as a catch-all term for the series of activities by which we hope to be taken seriously and take others seriously.

Everyone, dressed and posing in similar ways, is trying to be trendy as well as loved. They’re being fashionable in more than one sense, as they’re trying to fashion themselves. Most of us / will end up loving / some dated version, / feeling shame—these lines are a lot to unpack. When you see someone be fashionable for the sake of being loved and appreciated, and you love and appreciate them for that, you see yourself—”some dated version”—as them. Armantrout isn’t looking at, say, skater girls trying to pick up skater “bois” and judging. She’s wondering about the different inflections of her own self, what she wanted and did for the sake of her deeper needs. As we get older, wisdom comes to an end, as you can only see so much of this life. You may end up loving “some dated version” of your self, and at once, you would be right to feel shame, as you weren’t perfect, and you can only feel shame, knowing you don’t know enough.

So: how to age? I’m thinking loneliness, desire, and alienation are natural, but they need not break a person. I’m thinking a desire for intimacy is very real and far more involved than sex or even a long-term relationship. There’s something to really knowing another person that’s invaluable, but it’s hard to know just that much, as it feels a lot of the time that no one thinks the same of you.

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