Who am I
to experience a burst
of star formation?
I know this –
after the first rush
recedes and dims.
is the inverse
shape of what’s
One might try
the matter up
in a single
and feigned ignorance
I first encountered Rae Armantrout’s poetry after her book Versed won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. It was considered an unlikely winner, as Armantrout specializes in opaque, language-centered poetry rather than the conventional lyric poetry that the Pulitzer committee tends to recognize. (When I say “language-centered” poetry, I’m using a shorthand to describe postmodern philosophical and poetic currents going back to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of the 1970s.) I picked up Versed and was immediately hooked. Armantrout is now one of my favorite living poets. Her poems never fail to simultaneously delight and challenge me.
Many of the poems in Versed emerge from Armantrout’s battle with adrenal-cortical cancer. (You can read more about her experience battling cancer in this three-part interview.) “Dark Matter” comprises three parts that at first seem to have little to do with one another. The first begins with the interesting image of experiencing a “burst of star formation.” Then the poet talks about the idea receding and dimming, which makes it seem like the “burst” was perhaps the idea itself, the proverbial light bulb turning on as someone makes a discovery or has a sudden stroke of insight. But another way to understand the image is as a reference to radiation therapy. The poet is describing the enthusiasm of beginning treatment, and the technological mysticism that accompanies the idea of shooting charged particles through a person’s body to damage cancer cells. We have harnessed the very power of the universe.
The second stanza would make a brilliant poem on its own. It’s like a little zen koan, a meditation on what it means that things exist, that matter is present in space and time. We usually think of emptiness as the inverse or negative of matter. But here the poem asks us to consider matter as the inverse or negative image of nothingness. It reminds me of this poem by Mark Strand. I particularly like the enjambment of the second stanza, with the line breaking on “one.” One what? Person? Object?
The third stanza introduces another idea and image altogether. It also begins with “one,” but this is “one” as a pronoun. We might initially take “dark matter” as a reference to the theory in astronomy of a substance filling apparently empty space so as to explain otherwise inexplicable gravitational phenomena. But when the poet talks about “summing the matter up,” we realize that the entire poem is pivoting on the other meaning of “matter,” an event, thing, affair, or circumstance that is of some concern to someone. The matter in this poem, of course, is death, or at least the threat of it. But that’s hardly a topic for polite conversation. It is acknowledged only in passing, only by putting a brave face on, by feigning ignorance.
This turn in the way we read the word “matter” ties the entire poem together. Imagine the poem as an extended answer to the question, “what is the matter?” one that riffs on the question to also consider its close cousin, “what is matter?” The two questions are pretty intimately tied together, after all, since from one perspective to contemplate death is to contemplate the end of existence. Given this idea, the three parts of the poem actually correspond to birth, life, and death: the burst of “star formation” in the first part, the miracle of existence in the second, and the terrible end of existence in the third.
I keep coming back to that first stanza of the poem. It’s another wonderful use of enjambment, as the first line constitutes its own, provocative question, “who am I?” that then becomes the very different question, “who am I to experience a burst of star formation?” The second question is formulated in such a way as to indicate the poet’s sense of humility and wonder. “Who am I to …” suggests that anyone could have been chosen to experience this miracle. Why me? Once we know what the “matter” of the poem is, however, that initial burst of enthusiasm becomes grimly ironic. It becomes a statement of existential despair. Who am I? Why must I, of all people, confront this dark matter of death?
This is a brilliant poem, but also an uncomfortable one, a poem that should make us squirm. That’s why I think it’s so valuable. We live in the age of what Philippe Ariés famously called “invisible death,” where hospitals and long-term care facilities have removed the specter of the dying from our everyday lives. The poem is coy about who or what the Judas-kiss in the third part refers to, but I think it could refer to the poet, who must repeatedly convince herself that treatment will work, that she need not die, though this is finally not true. Everyone will die. Or alternately, it could refer to the false or performed cheeriness of well intentioned friends, family, or visitors. “Complicity” seems a harsh word in this context, but I think it refers less to real culpability — no one is responsible for the poet’s death in the way a murderer is for his victim’s — than to the resentment the poet feels against the way that life just goes on. In this way, the poem hints at the verb form of the word “matter,” as in, will my death really matter? Will it be of concern to anyone?
It’s a dark matter, a sad poem, but I do think that the poem enfolds some hope within itself. That second stanza suggests that at least in the present moment (note how we refer to the “present” with a word denoting presence) our existence does matter. Our existence is literally matter, and metaphorically the only thing that matters. I like to think of the second stanza as the poet thinking about other people. It is a vision of plenitude. At least in the present, we are surrounded by so many people who are not missing, who are the inverse shape of what’s missing. They matter.
*This post is dedicated to my tía Rosa, who lost her own battle with cancer earlier this week. We love you and miss you already.