A review of

Up to Speed

by Rae Armantrout

Central question: Can a sufficiently careful attention to language overcome almost paralytic self-doubt?
Format: 80 pp., paperback; Size: 6” x 9”; Publisher: Wesleyan University Press; Run: Cloth: 200, Paperback: 1,500; Price: $13.95; Editor: Suzanna Tamminen; Agent: none; Name of author’s book of poems in French translation: Couverture; Author studied with: Denise Levertov, at Berkeley, in the seventies; Book designer: Katherine B. Kimball of the University Press of New England; Text typeface: Galliard; Average time taken to write a poem: about a month; Representative sentence: “Can a dreamer / outwit her dream? // Not on a first date.”

Have you ever felt that your world—from nuts to newspapers, travelogues to traffic lights—looks like something soaked through with lies? Have you ever felt that the choices you have made in life might be just effects of impersonal forces (such as social class or family habit, or the all-American pressure to buy more stuff)? Do you find yourself attracted to writers who test those uneasy and isolating feelings, and whose difficult, terse language tries to reveal suspicions that most of us hide?

If so, have I got a poet for you. Rae Armantrout first turned up in the late 1970s in the gaggle of left-wing, challenging (sometimes impenetrable) writers known as “language poets.” Unlike many of them, she gives her poems distinguishable subjects, and she keeps them sharp and short: they reflect not only her suspicion of systems (patriarchy, the market economy, habit) but also her astringent, self-questioning temperament.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

—Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt wrote Popular Music, a book of poems (CLP/Colorado, 1999), and Randall Jarrell and His Age (Columbia UP), a book of literary criticism. In 2006 Graywolf Press will publish another book of his poems, called Parallel Play. He teaches at Macalester College in Saint Paul.

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