Entanglements, Rae Armantrout

Wesleyan University Press, 2017   $6.95 USD, £5.50 GBP

The poetic physics of life

After Rae Armantrout won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2010 (for Versed), she was described in The New Yorker magazine as ‘the most genuinely experimental poet’ to have done so since John Ashbery’s 1976 win. Armantrout’s experimental spirit is strongly present in this chapbook, which includes work from her previous books as well as four new poems.

Entanglements is the product of Armantrout’s years-long interest in science, particularly physics. In ‘Note to the Reader’ she explains the twofold inspiration for the title. It is inspired first by the way particles can become so entangled that any space between them becomes irrelevant and they can ‘appear to communicate instantaneously’. And second, by the way in which the poet’s ‘daily life experiences and emotions’ became entangled in her poetry with her interest in science.

In ‘Dress Up’, for example, a toddler seeking attention is interpreted as emitting virtual particles, and in ‘Accounts’ the nature of light is understood in terms of God ‘balancing his checkbook’ and ‘encrypting his account’.

‘Chirality’ begins with a basic question:

If I didn’t need
to do anything,
would I?

The poem’s response uses the imagery of molecules or ions that cannot be superposed on their own mirror image by any combination of rotations or translations.

Armantrout has remarked that both scientists and poets are ‘lured by something beautiful they sense in the world, something that (thus far at least) no formula, mathematical or verbal, has been able to fully capture’. In combining the two perspectives, the poet entangles her daily life with quite abstract and complex imagery. Ultimately, her experimentalist spirit bridges the gap between scientific theory and lived life in a bold and thought-provoking way.

Tim Murphy