It's been too long coming, but Armantrout finally shone as she should this year, receiving a nomination for the National Book Award and winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for this volume. Only apparently spare, her poems are in fact deeply distilled, glancing off reality in startling ways. With this work, she's achieved perfection.[Page 88]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
What you see is what you get in Armantrout's ninth book of free-verse poetry. A professor at the University of California, San Diego, Armantrout (Next Life) was part of the West Coast poetry community of the 1970s, which gave rise to language poetry. At best, her latest work contains brief, impressionistic poems--a few words surrounded by white space--held together by a subtle tension in the connections between words and phrases. Armantrout's poems possess a fleeting light as opposed to an epiphany and a half-heard sound as opposed to rhyme and rhythm. Take, for example, the repetition in the second and final stanza of "Someone": "I'm looking for a/ heart to heart,/ a rhyme/ between the blankness of my/ "my/ and the blue emptiness." It's difficult to know whether Armantrout's sound is, say, a mouse inside the wall or a tree branch brushing the roof of the house. When these poems achieve beauty, it lies not so much in the craft as in the eyes--and ears--of the beholder. Recommended for academic libraries.--Diane Scharper, Towson Univ., MD[Page 97]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Learning about the life of Venture Smith (1729-1805) gives readers insight into the all-too-often faceless world of American slaves and their pursuit of freedom. Smith bore witness to African and then American enslavement in New England, the tumultuous world of the American Revolution, and eventually freedom though self-emancipation. Driven by hard work and determination in the face of unremitting adversity, he persevered to become a prime example of the self-made man symbolic of American history. Smith's story was recorded by schoolteacher Elisha Niles, and a complete facsimile of that version is included in this slim but richly illustrated volume. Saint (president, Beecher House Ctr. for the Study of Equal Rights) and Krimsky (coauthor, Hold the Press: The Inside Story on Newspapers) admirably weave together their compelling narrative with recently uncovered clues about Smith's life in an effort to explicate Smith's remarkable and courageous story. The authors maintain that while the narrative of Olaudah Equiano's life contains much more detail, Smith's story gives readers a picture of a man who "most valued simplicity, frugality, and prudence." Highly recommended; this should become required reading in courses on early American history.--Brian Odom, Pelham P.L., AL[Page 87]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
In recent years, Armantrout's reputation has soared--she began in the '70s as an obscure, early practitioner of language poetry, and now her poems regularly appear in the New Yorker. Her new book comprises two sequences--"Versed" and "Dark Matter"--of loosely interlinked poems dealing with the prolific poet's usual subjects (the body, contemporary society, violence) as well as more personal explorations of illness and mortality, all relayed in Armantrout's concentrated, crystalline voice, with a predilection for skipping some steps along the way to sense. The first sequence, peppered with pop culture references and quoted speech, features silly yet surprisingly serious poems on topics like "'[b]reaking/ Anna Nicole news// as she buries/ her son.' " In the playful "Scumble," the poet speculates as to "What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words/ such as... 'extrapolate?' " The second section, "Dark Matter," is evasively intimate and occasionally, albeit characteristically, bleak, as Armantrout (Next Life) contemplates her own struggle with cancer "with a shocked smile,/ while an undiscovered tumor/squats on her kidney." In what may be moments of intense, sardonic honesty--"Chuck and I are pleased/ to have found a spot/where my ashes can be scattered"--the poet poses metaphysical questions with open endings: jarring moments in which the stakes are suddenly, impossibly high. (Feb.)[Page 33]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.