RAE ARMANTROUT'S poems roll out in gentle bursts. They are short, often funny, but also deeply felt works written in plain, direct language, with unusual line breaks that keep your attention on their singular rhythm and pointed, poignant imagery.
Take, for example, "The Gift," a poem featured in the literary journal Conjunctions, which quickly turns a ribald joke into a musing on disconnect in a relationship: "You confuse / the image of a fungus / with the image of a dick / in my poem / (understandably)," she writes, "and three days later / a strange toadstool / (white shaft, black cap, / five inches tall) / appears / between the flagstones / in our path / We note / the invisible / web / between fence posts / in which dry leaves / are gently rocked."
"There's a double edge to my work," Armantrout says, speaking from her home outside of San Diego. "I'm very sensitive to ironies and discrepancies all around us, and pick them up and reflect them. I imagine I am in, perhaps, a flirtatious relationship with the reader, showing something of myself and asking them to come closer."
The 67-year-old, who will give a reading and a talk in Portland later this week, has been cultivating that relationship since she emerged in the literary world in the late '70s as a part of the first wave of Language poets, writers who used plainspoken, unmannered English to explore the complexities of their experiences and the world around them. Of that group, which includes Ron Silliman and Carla Harryman, Armantrout has garnered the most prestigious accolades, including a 2010 Pulitzer Prize and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for her poetry collection Versed.
The acclaim for her more recent work is especially bittersweet, as it follows a particularly trying period for Armantrout. In 2006, she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that required extensive surgery and treatment. She is now in remission, and emerged from her illness with a clearer view of her life and work.
"I don't think something like that is ever fully behind you," Armantrout says. "You have this vivid vision of mortality that doesn't really go away. Right now, I feel fine and very lucky. It's amazing I survived that cancer. We're all mortal, though. I keep hearing about other people having cancer and it's almost like cancer is the new normal and I'm waiting to get my next cancer. But, for right now, I'm fine."