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”–
Armantrout reading “Apartment”