Reflection in Armantrout’s “Apartment”

In our class on November 17th, we discussed Rae Armantrout, one of the Language poets. The Pulitzer Prize committee (she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book “Versed” in 2010) explained her poems as “little thought bombs” that “tick in your brain,” which I think is a accurate description. I very much admire her style of poetry so I wanted to write my last blog post on a new poem we didn’t read in class. We examined the use of white space and that these breaks could be used to show a thought process, or to create suspense. I saw them primarily as a way for the reader to have time to digest the poem, to immerse oneself in a stanza and then have a moment to reflect before going on the new thought. In “Apartment” (one of the poems in the packet we received, but was not assigned) her pauses help the reader reflect, but they also help Armantrout reflect on her life. The poem describes the sensation of seeing oneself years later, the mixture of the past and the present.

“Apartment” begins with the author looking at a photograph of herself. From when, we are not exactly sure. It is before the tumor that “squats on her kidney” was discovered. It is important to note that Armantrout was diagnosed in 2006 with adrenal cortical cancer, a very rare type of cancer that affects less than one in 500,000 people and has a 5 to 15% survival rate. However, she underwent the chemotherapy and the cancer has not since returned. So this stanza is looking back on her life before the diagnosis. The woman in the photograph “doesn’t much resemble [her]” showing a change that she has undergone.

In the second stanza, we are introduced to the present, “a sentimental favorite.” It has been “truncated / framed,” in her mind, with the “grandiosity / and abjection.” I think that this present that is being “truncated / framed” is the present that was in the photograph in the first stanza. It is a mixture of “grandiosity / and abjection.”

In the third stanza, she is talking about how she is reflecting on herself, maybe when she had cancer, or before she had cancer, but her feelings at those moments are distant now. It feels, for her, “as if I’m subletting / a friend’s apartment,” meaning her feelings are an extension of herself. But she doesn’t know who that person is; she is “trying to imagine / which friend” the apartment belongs to. I think of this idea similar to when you look at a picture of yourself from a long time ago or read a note from years ago, and you always have this weird feeling like, “Was that actually me?”

At the end of the poem, she’s “trying to get / all of [her] robes together.” Her choice of the word “robes” is interesting—it could have been any other type of clothing, or object. But she is trying to get them all together—“robes I really own and/robes I don’t.” This is where my question of the blog post comes in. I’m unsure of what these “robes” are. My initial thought was that she was trying to gather the thoughts, or memories, of the moment from the past, but she can never really be sure of what she was thinking at the time because the present she is currently in has changed. Also, the significance could be that robes are what one puts on when there’s nothing else to wear; it’s what shields you from nakedness, what’s between you and the outside. Maybe Armantrout is trying to say something about that? I might be reaching for something that’s not there, but what do you guys think?

 

Some things I looked up while writing this blog post that you might be interested in listening to:

Armantrout at the 2010 National Book Festival, she gives a talk about her life and work and then reads a few poems from “Versed”–
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOyMCzqxm3k

Armantrout reading “Apartment”
http://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Armantrout/KWH-10-22-09/Armantrout-Rae_17_Apartment_KWH-UPenn_10-22-09.mp3

 

Niedecker and Rich Challenging Traditions and Myths

As we discussed in class, Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken” is about her call to women to help change the myths, traditions and roles that have been pushed onto them.  Niedecker and Rich both challenge these traditions. Rich challenges the myth of women as a monster in her poem Planetarium, and Niedecker alludes to various women, discussing their talents.

In her essay, Rich describes the time when she felt lost, unable to differentiate herself from being a mother or a poet. Being a good woman had been described to her as taking care of her family, not being selfish, to be kind, compliant, and silent. However, she could not be like that all the time: “if there were doubts, if there were periods of null depression or active despairing, these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster” (1093). This idea of being a “monster,” the myth that has been created in literature, is a theme I see in her poetry (“A thinking woman sleeps with monsters”: a line in her poem “Snapshots of a Daughter in Law”). However, Rich has learned to fight these myths. “Planetarium” begins with the lines: “A woman in the shape of a monster/a monster in the shape of a woman/the skies are full of them” (465). The skies, meaning literary works, are filled with these myths, and she is “bombarded” with them. “Yet, [she] stand[s],” ready to fight, “for the relief of the body/and the reconstruction of the mind” (466). Relief and reconstruction is not just for herself, but for all the women who are reading her work.

In Niedecker’s poetry, she alludes to many women who help reconstruct these myths and traditions. In her Homemade/Handmade poems, Niedecker discusses Mary Shelley. “Who was Mary Shelley?/What was her name/before she married?” Niedecker starts the poem (212). Like in Rich’s essay, there is the struggle of being both a wife and a writer. Niedecker uses Shelley to show a woman can have multiple roles. Even though she “eloped with this Shelley,” she was still “Frankenstein’s creator” and was educated, as she could “read Greek, Italian” (212, 213). Her life was also tragic: “She bore a child/Who died/and yet another child/who died” (213). However, this does not make her any less of a woman, as Niedecker shows in this poem. She was not a monster; Shelley created the monsters.

Another woman that Niedecker writes about is Abigail Adams in the poem “Three Americans.” Though John Adams was the president, “our man,” he was not always the most important. While researching about Abigail Adams, I found out she was extremely intelligent and on par with her husband. She was referenced as “Mrs. President” for the active role she took in politics and policy  firstladies.org). She was also an advocate for women to be able to own property and have other rights. And, as Niedecker puts it, “wrote letters that John/and TJ could savor.” Abigail Adams was well known for letter-writing skills. The purpose of Niedecker’s poem is to show us Adam’s understated qualities.

Sylvia Plath’s “In Plaster”

During class, we did not get to spend time on “In Plaster” which I feel is a very interesting poem. Plath uses the idea of the “double self.”  Literally, “In Plaster” refers to a person in a full body cast, but the metaphorical meaning is that there is an internal war between the two selves—this new, healthy versus the old, unstable, and one is being trapped within the other. The two sides are unable to live harmoniously together. I feel that this conflict is a symbol for Plath’s frustration between herself: the one side that is plagued by her mental disorder, and the other that is reaching for sanity.

The poem begins with the introduction of the two selves: “This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one.” The new, white self is seen as “the superior one”, “one of the real saints.” She is the same as the other self, “only much whiter and unbreakable and with no complaints,” which means that she is mentally stable. This side wants to help the other overcome the depression; she “humored my weakness like the best of nurses,/Holding my bones in place so they would mend properly.” However, it is not easy; the “old yellow” one, the one marked with her past experiences feels no connection to this other, new self: “I couldn’t sleep for a week, she was so cold./I blamed her for everything.”

In the third stanza, we see the old half understand that though she was not as stable, she was more well-liked: “And it was I who attracted everybody’s attention,/Not her whiteness and beauty, as I had first supposed.” The two lines struck me. When we read The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, there was the line that said, “above all, Sylvia Plath desired fame. As she put it at one point in her Journals: ‘it is sad only to be able to mouth other poets; I want someone to mouth me” (Rose, 3). Plath’s poetry, which are partially influenced by her depression, was what made her well-known. It is raw, edgy, fascinating in a morbid way; everyone was fascinated with her. As Jacqueline Rose puts it, “She is…a shadowy figure whose presence draws on and compels” (Rose, 1). I feel this internal conflict within her stemmed from the realization she must have had: if she had become mentally stable, lived normally without her depression clutching onto her, who would she actually be? She would not be the Sylvia Plath people had become infatuated with: she would be this boring, new self. Though this new part is trying to help her, she is unwilling to cooperate. After being you your whole life, how are you expected to change? This creates the shift between the two selves that you can see happen in the fifth stanza. The new self becomes angry with the old: “I felt her criticizing myself in spit of herself,/As if my habits offended her in some way.”

As the new self is becoming fed up, the old self realizes that she doesn’t want to leave the other—“She’d supported me for so long I was quite limp—/I had even forgotten how to walk or sit.” In the last stanza, with the line “Now I see it must be one or the other of us” Plath realizes that her two sides can either be “one”, united, or be an incomplete half. If they cannot work together, they cannot stay together. In the last two lines, Plath makes it clear which side will stay: “I’m collecting my strength; one day I shall manage without her,/And she’ll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me.” The first line could be perceived as optimistic and that Plath will be able to deal with her demons without help. However, as I read it with the next line, I feel as though her “collecting of strength” is for her to disappear, for good this time. The only way her other self could “perish with emptiness” is if all of Sylvia died.