The Garden : Rae Armantrout

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The Garden

Oleander: coral
from lipstick ads in the 50’s.

Fruit of the tree of such knowledge.

To “smack”
(thin air)
meaning kiss or hit.

It appears
in the guise of outworn usages
because we are bad?

Big masculine threat,
insinuating and slangy.

-from Necromance by Rae Armantrout

The garden is archtypal; it is Eden where the tree of knowledge is; it is the place where sin entered; it is also, lest we forget, the setting of the first romance. Using this the poet explores gender, beginning with a flower, a puckering up. Oleander is poisonous; also Pliny the Elder claimed it was an effective snakebite cure.

“Coral from lipstick ad from the 50s” introduces kissing, which will be taken up further later. More is probably going on here than I can unearth. Perhaps the 50s are invoked as a faux golden age, the olden days.

The next line affirms our Eden idea, the “such” is the winkwink of innuendo.

“Smack” is the slangy term, entendre’d, and the action is pictured for us as the top line smacks the bottom line with “(thin air)” escaping between. Or the top and bottom line act as lips and the “(thin air)” escaping more like a blown kiss.

“It appears” could be a variety of things, God appears because Adam and Eve were “bad”, also Sin, or the Snake; moving away from the mythological level it could be the violence of a smack or the origin of makeup; the guise of makeup appearing because women aren’t beautiful enough (bad) without it. Perhaps more fully, clothes are the result of being “bad”, therefore fashion is taken up into the poem.

The appearance of the question mark itself is startling and serpentine.

The big masculine threat, Adam’s blaming of Eve, the threat of violence, the guilt, the weight of fashion, the piercing of the sexual act.

“insinuating” is such a perfect word here. What would any invocation of Eden be without the in-sin-uating, the falling into sin? Insinuating also insinuates the sexual undercurrent of the poem, the “slangy,” the double meaning.

In Rae Armantrout’s poetry words do double and triple lifting making the unweaving of such webs challenging and unending. Quite a terse bit of writing.

[Update: Ron Silliman just put up a much better piece on Armantrout here]

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4 thoughts on “The Garden : Rae Armantrout

  1. I could not fit in Leander, of Hero and Leander fame, into the interpretation. I was able to get the Greek word for man (ander) from “Oleander” thus finding the Ole Man (another Adam reference), but it seemed stretched so I abandoned that bit.

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