In his Winter Conversations with Mark Halliday, Allen Grossman explains, “the word ‘person’ does not specify a static or isolated state of affairs, but a profound interaction, a drama always going on, of acknowledgement and presence.” This sense of personhood, which is transient, fluid, contingent on the ongoing shifts that define our experience of the world, is the subject of Money Shot, Rae Armantrout’s follow-up to the Pulitzer prize-winning collection Versed.
Money Shot collects 62 new poems written with her signature juxtaposition of various tones and modes of speech, and her incorporation of colloquial phrases and interruptions that bubble to the surface like the words that fall from a television program suddenly turned on in a public space. Many poems are split into sections and have the attributes of collage or pastiche, pieced together into something resembling Williams’ American Idiom if only to ponder the influence this collective Idiom has on the individual utterance.
When colloquial phrases or cultural references appear in quotation marks, we ponder their significance in the context of the poem. In “Spin,” Armantrout writes,
The pundit says the candidate’s speech hit “all the right points,” hit “fed-up” but “not bitter” hit “not harkening back.”
In “Sustained,” we revisit the language of the twenty-four hour news cycle, but without quotation marks:
Just now breaking
into awareness, falling forward,
hurtling inland in all influence
“Spin” and “Sustained” are linked in that they employ similar cultural signposts, and this type of linkage occurs throughout Money Shot. Phrases and references appear in and out of quotations, and, by filtering them through the shifting voice of the poem, suggest a collective language, a language that is shared on a fundamental level. The origin of these utterances matters insofar as origin is the subject up for debate, but on some level who or where or when these utterances are voiced matters little since they give shape and sound to the muck in which we are all mired. They are dropped by one and picked up by another – found objects for Armantrout because they were never lost.
As Stephen Burt once wrote about the various sources of voice in Armantrout’s work, “those other speakers themselves receive these phrases, and the attitudes they connote, from a system larger than they are, one that can do us harm.” This unsettling conclusion is one that Armantrout allows for by employing found language and its unreliable punctuation. It invites readers to challenge their own perceptions – in this case about the tension between singular and multiple utterances – because that is what Armantrout’s work is doing to itself.
But Money Shot doesn’t stop there. These poems wield a doubt that is hyper-aware, always turning back, reconsidering, re-visioning. In “Recording,” she writes,
Here everything is singular and strangeness may be hard to recognize as such. Or not. I don’t know and there is no way to ask the inhabitants about it.
At the point in the book that “Recording” appears, many poems have already demonstrated a willingness to engage culture and the language of culture in order to trouble it, to trouble us; resultantly, this doubt complicates the tone of the book. It’s an attack of a different kind, not on the language of culture, but on her original attack, challenging the (perhaps naïve) impulse to distance ourselves from culture, from our roles as cogs in its giant machine. What makes Money Shot such a trip is that it recognizes that simply acknowledging our role as cogs doesn’t automatically transform us back into people.
The I-don’t-know-ness of it all creates a very unnerving reading experience. It rattles us in our cozy reading chairs because we assume the artistic authority inherent in the poem after its creation, upon seeing it on the page. But in these poems, particularly in the stunning “Recording” when we read “I play along, though, / privately, / I still have my doubts,” the onus is on us, the readers, to think our way through the cultural allusions, juxtapositions and tensions between voices, sections, poems. The poetic capacity of Money Shot is not merely a result of its assumed artistic authority; the poetry, as it were, is also in the transference between authority and admittance, between the circuit that is constructed on the page and the light that is thrown across our minds.
In “Measure,” we read, “I am not alone in this / sentence,” while “Second Person” explains, “I know / you think / I wonder / if you think / of me.” These poems are ripe for theoretical discourse. Notions of the “drama always going on,” as Grossman writes, immediately come to fore, and for good reason.
Yet these lines are also striking for their profound mystery, and they implicate us in their mystery by speaking right to us. And so Money Shot is a participatory volume. It invites readers to field its dissonances and to ponder its tensions, which all employ language that is of-the-moment, very now in an attempt to figure out what now might mean.
Although this epiphany is ostensibly unattainable, Money Shot valiantly tries to create a version of the present to this end. And insofar as its moment of presence is contingent upon our willingness to admit its dislocated voices, Money Shot demands to be read.
CHRISTOPHER KONDRICH is a PhD candidate at the University of Denver where he is Assistant Editor of Denver Quarterly. Recently, his poems have appeared in Boston Review, Cimarron Review, Free Verse, Meridian, Notre Dame Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Sonora Review, The Journal and Zone 3.