Appreciation: Rae Armantrout’s “Bardos,” by Trevor Root

National Poetry Month 2020

Rae Armantrout, a San Diego native famous for her terse, funny, brainy poems, visited Miami to read from her poems last April. Thanks to generous funding from the Clark Capstone Fund, Armantrout was in Oxford for several days to visit classes and meet with students for individual conferences. Author of over ten collections of poetry and a memoir, Armantrout won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for her 2009 book Versed.

Miami MFA student Trevor Root is a fan of Armantrout’s mercurial, skeptical style. Thanks to Trevor for contributing the following appreciation of Armantrout’s poem “Bardos” to the blog:

While reading through Rae Armantrout’s Partly, I found myself drawn to single lines. This wasn’t necessarily the most efficient way to approach reading, but it did allow me to unravel Armantrout’s consistently tight, condensed poems.

In “Bardos,” the line which caught my attention first was the opening line of the second section: 

Let volume speak volumes

This struck me in two ways. First, it responds directly to the topic of disquiet. Second, it seems to elucidate the function of friction in Armantrout’s work; the volume of linguistic friction and content non-sequiturs speaks for itself and moves the poems whether the poems are willing to move with it or not.

But a poem usually isn’t just one line, and this poem in fact has four sections.

In the first,

Some say the soul

hangs from the ceiling

In the second,

One claims

he can recreate the sound

of a family argument

In the third, 

One uses leathery

maroon tongues

And finally, in the fourth, 

I’ve been telling someone

“Bardos” is a poem about telling, and the failure of telling, and it ends without actually communicating what the speaker wants to communicate. That isn’t just my reading, it’s quite literal. The poem ends on the unfinished prepositional clause which promises to tell us why the killer is a hypocrite. It’s very direct: the friction of hypocrisy carries the argument itself, regardless of what conditions or qualifies the hypocrisy.

“Bardos” is also a poem about between-ness, and death, and distraction, and how trauma voyeurism serves as an antidote to the boredom forced on us by the fact that we aren’t dead yet. None of that is very comforting and then it kind of just ends, much like life, which feels like far too epiphanic of a conclusion to the close reading of a poem which tells me it’s failing to tell me something, but oh well. 

Listen to Rae Armantrout read “Bardos” here.