Here’s something—not quite a paradox, but close: I find the more pleasurable an experience is in the moment, the more difficult it becomes to describe at a later time, to call forth on the page or conjure for a room full of listeners, eager or otherwise.
My friend says, “That’s not a paradox; that’s a good, old-fashioned dilemma.” Perhaps she’s right. Other words also come to mind: vicarious, mimetic, simulacrum—which was once explained to me using this analogy: Real mac ‘n’ cheese isn’t radioactive orange powder and elbow pasta from a box, but the Kraft kind has replaced the authentic, creamy white cuisine in our collective American imagination and appetite.
So, this is my dilemma, writing this review of Conflation and ALOHA / irish trees, audio recordings of poems by Rae Armantrout and Eileen Myles, respectively (Fonograf Editions, 2017). I want to give you an experience that is more than vicarious, more than mimetic. I want to give you the real mac ‘n’ cheese.
For the past three weeks, I’ve been wandering around Miami—plus a weekend excursion to DC Pride—listening to Rae Armantrout and Eileen Myles read their poems. I’ve been piping their voices like postmodern Muzak into my days through standard white wires attached to my phone. Sometimes their questions strike me ephemeral and haunting—“Would I like a vicarious happiness?” Armantrout wonders; “Is it crazy to be the citizen who is only partially there?” Myles muses—which makes them ghosts of a kind, but visceral, too, spirits spelunking through the caverns of my inner ears. And sometimes they echo each other, these unlikely doppelgängers, placing me in the cross-hairs of their call and response:
EM: Nudity’s back, and I hope to find lovers everywhere.
RA: Come find me—I stand behind these words.
At home, where I mourn the loss (years ago now) of my Fisher Price record player, two visually stunning vinyls from Fonograf Editions recline against my desk: Conflation by Rae Armantrout, declares one; ALOHA/irish trees by Eileen Myles, proclaims the other. They are art-objects which, thankfully, also come with a code for downloadable mp3s.
These albums are brand-new—just released in March of 2017—yet at the same time, they appear old—deliberately retro, valuably vintage. This, I realize, is an actual paradox, and it gets juicier: the poets too, in their persons and their poems, embody the new-old juxtaposition. Armantrout, now seventy, meditates on mortality with the verve and insight of an ageless person, or perhaps a youthful sage; Myles, at sixty-seven, is younger than I have ever been, more vital than I can ever hope to be.
The ninety-five live recordings (fifty-nine from Armantrout, thirty-six from Myles) include published and unpublished poems, new work and old work, all of it made more-than-fresh in this rendering. Their poems, which I have read in printed form for years, always seemed to warrant the designation real. So what to call the experience of listening to Rae Armantrout and Eileen Myles read their own poems at their leisure in their own chosen spaces, commenting and contextualizing at will? I reach back for a word and concept I loved in graduate school—the hyperreal. I reach for it like groping around in the back seat while driving, one hand steady on the wheel. (Good news! It’s still there!) In postmodern theory, hyperreality is defined as the inability to distinguish between reality and a simulation of reality.
In this intimate, auditory format, you can hear the poets’ pages crinkling as they turn them—such a reassuring sound—turning pages instead of scrolling screens! At Armantrout’s domicile, you can hear, occasionally, wind chimes in the background. They’re soothing and—I suspect—serendipitous as well. I doubt she has planted them within earshot, though who really knows for sure? At Myles’s pad—this word feels most akin to something she would say—you can hear her pause to unscrew a water bottle, take a swig, swallow. (Myles doesn’t sip.) There’s also a moment when, in the midst of reading “Western Poem,” she exclaims, “Oh shit, this one—I don’t have the end.” There—right there—that’s hyperreal! Does any poet, ever, really, for any poem, have the end—a certified, guaranteed, date-and-time-stampable finish? Or are poems always that which is interrupting life (which in turn is interrupting poems…), that which is bubbling up between the wind chimes and the swigs of water—and yes, the profanities, too? Myles has so many of these, though Armantrout might say—as she does say—if we asked her: “What if there were a hidden pleasure in calling one thing by another’s name?” Armantrout’s poems are threaded with this pleasure. Who’s to say all her obscenes aren’t just calling each other scenes, all her profanes hiding inside her fanes, playing a semiotic trick on each other?
These poets with their poems and background noises and off-the-cuff remarks—they seem to invite my participation. With listening, unlike reading, there is often the freedom to roam, to multi-task. We move around while listening. We fold our laundry. We scrub our dishes. We cook dinner. (I did these things while listening to these poems, and I found the mundanity of household chores enhanced by the profundity of poems, some of which actually addressed the mundanity of household chores!) We sit in traffic. We walk on the treadmill. We run on the beach. (I did these things while listening to these poems, and my stasis became a kind of motion, and my motion became a kind of stillness. More paradoxes of the hyperreal!) And because Armantrout and Myles were speaking directly into my ear—not miked-up at a podium in a crowded room—I reveled in the privileged status of being an audience of one. I laughed aloud. I nodded vigorously. And once, on the Hollywood Broadwalk, I said with authority as a man jogged past: “This is the hyperreal mac ‘n’ cheese!” When he looked back, I made a serious face, so he would know I meant what I said.
At the same time I’ve been hearing hyperreal voices in my head, I’ve also been teaching my summer creative writing seminar. It’s a multi-genre, introductory class that emphasizes exposure to a variety of literary forms and emulation of particular literary examples. The penultimate assignment of the six-week term requires everyone to write a cento comprised of lines from a minimum of 10 sources/authors to which they have been exposed. (Typing this now, I fear the word exposed calls to mind a trench-coated stranger in the woods, naked but for the light beige gabardine and raglan sleeves…Then, I wonder if there isn’t something about every encounter with a new text that is more like a trench-coated stranger in the woods than unlike such a person…and I recognize also that this analogy is the direct result of what may be termed an Armantrout/Myles binge.)
I thought, in a spirit of solidarity with my students’ centoing, that I too should write a cento, and that perhaps my cento should be an attempt to capture what it’s like to have Rae Armantrout whisper profundities in your ear while Eileen Myles turns up at your aural locker with a brilliant bone to pick, some salaciously witty gossip to deposit. As I’ve played and replayed the postmodern Muzak of two poets whose voices are so different from each other as to harmonize completely, I think maybe this cento—comprised of lines I felt compelled to rewind and write down—making them somehow more mine but also more yours, in this sharing of them—is the closest I’ll come to giving you that (hyper)real mac ‘n’ cheese I wanted.
All lines, words, and phrases included below come from the live recordings of Conflation and ALOHA/ irish trees, though it should be noted that some derive from the poets discussing their poems, not the poets reading their poems verbatim. I suspect ultimately these two kinds of speech-acts will blend together, indistinguishable.
I Cherish This Time Alone: A Cento
The future is all around us
It’s a place, any place, where we don’t exist
As time speeds up, everything will flicker
Ponzi scheme, rhyme scheme
Flag lolling on its pole like a dog’s tongue
Quick, before you die, describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet
All the young politicos in the park
All the midriffs of men I have bored through
Terrific and terrible are cousins after all
I say always go to the party, which doesn’t mean I do
If I lived forever, would the present’s noose be looser?
The most exciting violence I ever saw was at high school dances
I keep wondering if it’s OK for David to be down here with a girl
She’s so fast and accented
“Kelly, can I show you my poems?”
Straight people everywhere with their happiness like scarves
and their misery like blankets, and I want my share of both kinds of fire
Flames are ideal new bodies for us
That’s part of your costume, the ugly daughter mask,
a nice mom who lived in the country and promised
“You are worth your weight in cherry hibiscus gummy pandas”
C’mon, Poets, word it till it’s yours or no one’s
A thousand little titles wiggling for years
Who doesn’t want to be a revenant?
A stern-faced man in pink pants and a bomber jacket stands
on satin sheets holding a small briefcase or purse
What do we like best about ourselves?
Not having the greedy antenna between my legs
I was a pushover for the laws of physics
My thighs—I’ve known you since I was a kid
This is taking forever,
yet I want to slather myself in the day
My thighs—I know you didn’t do it
Let’s remember no one is Werther
Kind of a furless pussy, my heart
Author photograph of Rae Armantrout © Andrea Auge. Author photograph of Eileen Myles © Libby Lewis.