Rae Armantrout, “Equals”

At times I wish I were a physicist. I would like to properly marvel at the forces at play in driving a race car or understand the energies indicating the presence of cosmic objects otherwise unseen.

However, learning to appreciate is incredible work. It took me so long to get a decent grasp of what happens in American football. Madden, the video game, taught me about formations and pre-snap reads. Football Outsiders, the analytics website, didn’t just get me to think about measuring efficient play—their writers back up their opinions by breaking down tape. And then there’s all the reading I’ve done about professional football over the years, mainly about the lives of players and coaches and their approach to the game. This Grantland profile of Bill Parcells I keep coming back to. I’m amazed how Parcells’ techniques work; I’m convinced he is a monster; I will never treat a human being the way he did.

It would take years upon years to learn physics and love its ways. I don’t even know if I’m putting in the time to properly understand my own field. But I do know this: the knowledge is worth it. The reflection on that knowledge is worth it. One immediately senses there’s something special, something hair-standing-on-end, with E = mc2. Something concerning the very heart of all there is. Which makes the joke Armantrout indulges in “Equals” that much more stark:

Equals
Rae Armantrout

1

As if, after all,

the thing that comes to mind
squared
times inertia

equaled the "real."


2

One lizard
jammed headfirst

down the throat
of a second.

As if, after all, the thing that comes to mind squared times inertia equaled the “real.” Armantrout changes “mass” to “inertia,” implying masses in motion which stay in motion unless otherwise acted upon. She changes “the speed of light” to “the thing that comes to mind.” Thought can be our light, but it is factored with “inertia,” our desires, our failures, our motions which feel predetermined when not simply sinking.

Honestly, this bleak equation seems real enough to me! But she prefaced her statement with “as if.” All the cynicism in the world is a mere coping mechanism, not equivalent to the “real,” unless.

*

So. The thoughts giving me anxiety and the general feeling that I’m not in control of my life are not “real.” I guess I can accept that? Armantrout’s first stanza, though, doesn’t sound terribly hopeful. The tone is dismissive, as if I’m not even entitled to my cynicism about myself.

The second stanza explodes with brutality. One lizard jammed headfirst down the throat of a second. Before, I could not equate the “real” with an idea in my own head or a movement pulling me along. But the lizards can be equated, even if one is being destroyed by the other. Hobbes speaks of the strength of an individual as useless in the state of nature, as armed mobs will quickly gather to put you in your place. We’re all equal, strength or no strength.

How does the second stanza relate to the first stanza? It’s not only shocking in terms of content, but seems to come out of nowhere. A tenuous link: maybe the lizard is the thing that comes to mind. Maybe the lizard eating the other lizard is the thing that comes to mind “squared.” Not simply double, but a creature enlarging itself by means of eating itself. If I am allowed to make that speculation, then I have a further question: Is the second stanza “real?” Or is it also subject to “as if?”

Armantrout, I believe, has captured more than a mood. She’s captured how our individual imaginations, in searching for an equal, a thing that defines us exactly, find only morbidity. She’s glimpsed why this might be the case. If you were to search for what makes you “real” with more impressions than self-knowledge, you’d quickly cannibalize yourself. You’d be ransacking you for you. It would be a gruesome process, one caused by a faulty imagination, with real consequences.

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