Set 25, 2012

Scavenger Poetics of "The Way"

The first time I heard Armantrout read this, I thought that a case could be made for her "The Way" as a poem about poverty.

In the first stanza, we are set in a place of worship. But why are we not facing the altar? Instead, we see "Card in pew pocket" and learn that a possible divine "I" resides in that pocket. There's the word pocket, of course, but in the church of my youth, what you find in the pew pocket is the Misalette (a pamphlet-type guide to the Mass) and envelopes with words of green ink asking for donations. So, why is the divine located here? Also—if after the multiple "I" we are still allowed to assume a persona behind this poem—why is she looking at the pew pocket instead of the altar?

The second stanza is strong enough by now to support many other readings, especially that word "statement," which could be read alternatively as a financial accounting, a spare one at that, because of the "bad winter".

What's the way out? Grease! That is, a surplus of resources. You've got so much of the stuff that your car can't take any more so you put it on hair, hair that's too big for your head. The movie also features these kids wrestling with issues of conformity, rites of passage and so forth, but we must remember how rich they are with their shoes and their engines, their races and dances and what they've come to call problems. Imagine how these images must seem to a kid or adult with "real life emergencies"—ought she aspire for grease? Must s/he look away?

Why do these images take precedence over the speaker's life? Now, "behind the scenes," that's where all the errors are, in real life, where someone also resides, but is unmarked by "I". But this is the subjectivity that perceives the pew pocket "I" and the teen movie "I," that sees in them possible paths. But perhaps these "ways" are closed of to him or her by virtue of "bad winter" and "real life emergencies".

The I's present is less clear to her than her past. She was abandoned to fiction. Agreed, the best place to get lost in. But why was she abandoned in the first place? Mother and father looking for money? When I was a grader I had to stay two hours at the library after class after all the other boys have gone on home because my father was working extra hours. That's good abandonment, yes—and I remain grateful not only to my parents but also to our circumstances—but it's still abandonment and the cause was clear to the child: time, work = pay. But minus child. Therefore, even as a child, she also had to pay the price.

But look, she was given fiction, fairy tales, "story/ made of trees". And when she grew up, what did she pour forth? "A small/ gasp." Poetry! (against "Prose" in Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility," perhaps?) And it's this type of poetry, one that consists of scraps, that insists on one incomplete I after another, that moves from one fragment of dream after the next.

Viewed in this manner, "The Way" traces an ars poetica, a demonstrative manifesto of how to piece together beauty from the leavings of spare life.