Barnado: ’Tis here.
Horatio: ’Tis here.
Marcellus: ’Tis gone.
(Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1)
‘Here’ is a poem by Rae Armantrout and here are some ideas about it. To announce someone or something as ‘here’ – present, correct – is to anticipate an imminent departure. ‘Here’ is both exact and unlocatable – like Old Hamlet’s ghost.
When I mention to a friend that I’m writing about ‘Here’, he sends me this: ‘The word “here”, both in its sound and sense, is haunted by the vanishing memory of “there”. To be here is not to be there, but it is also to recognise that one can never truly be “there”, only here’.
‘Where’s that from?’ I say.
He says, ‘It’s a parody, you gobdaw’.
But that’s neither here nor there.
Here I am, still not quite writing about ‘Here’, which is just over there.
Because ‘here’ is always relative, the word is both exact (you can point to it: for the speaker there is no ambiguity) and unlocatable (you couldn’t put it on the map). The word ‘here’ both shuts out and summons up everything from which its speaker might have been required to choose. ‘Here’ tends to imply presence: ‘here I am’ or, as Armantrout’s poem has it, ‘I’m here’. But the poem is also concerned with absence, a son who no longer plays in the street; ‘what the past might have been’; a crematorium.
When a poet titles a poem ‘Here’, it is a ceremony of presentation – ‘here is the poem I’ve now written’. But ‘Here’ thinks against its ability to represent. ‘I’m here to recreate my own fleeting impression (that is, sudden insight) that other people saw themselves as ‘repositories of experience’. ‘Here’, she says, ‘is how I remember what it might have been that I did think’. It makes sense for Armantrout to think of ‘here’ in the present perfect conditional: ‘here’ is always also what ‘might have been’. The first two lines are not far from the idea of poetry taking ‘its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’ – Armantrout, of course, leaves Wordsworth’s name out of it. Her consciousness of what ‘Here’ is ‘supposed to be’ suggests anxiety. . This is the Sisyphean task of memory – impressions are fleet of foot. They leave words, even present simples, trailing behind them. And even the predominant contractions (‘I’m’, ‘it’s’ and ‘there’s’ save time over ‘I am’, ‘it is’ and ‘there is’) are not quite quick enough. Writing is always supplementary. It might be grounded in the ‘here’, but it has no real way of getting ‘there’. We replay things with – and as if by – mistakes. (‘Repeatedly with only minor variants the same bygone. As if willing him by this dint to make it his’, as Beckett has it in Company).
‘We’re on a trek’: we’re on the move. Simply by moving, ‘here’ quickly becomes somewhere else. ‘There’ and, no less teasingly, ‘where’, are only a letter away. It’s a trek through wild country, not simply into the past but into what the past might have been, presumably, if we hadn’t tried to civilise it. The experience is inauthentic, a film within a dream, and one that requires a voice-over, each remove making ‘here’ seem further and further away (or at least making it less and less clear where ‘here’ actually is). Because Armantrout plays hide-and-seek with sense (to try to say what the poem is about, what experience she is actually attempting to recreate, seems perverse) she is often lucid about absent things. Nostalgia – a ‘pain’ (‘algia’) for ‘home’ (‘nostos’) – explains why the Western appeals to her avant-garde sensibility. For Armantrout, the lyric is as hackneyed a form as the cowboy film. But the pursuit of it becomes a happening. The frontier is a movable ‘here’.
Most contemporary Westerns are remakes. The poem is about impressions, which need to be seen and sounded again. We want to reenact what is no longer present in its original form. Still, it’s not difficult to find the join between the first and second sections: they follow down the skinny path of the page like the cowboys on their trek, the boy ‘firing caps in the street’ meting out his own frontier justice like the actors in his mother’s dream. And yet, the motif comes back less than intact, the second section dithering against the comparatively rough-hewn composition of the first. There are even more misgivings; the section is dictated by what ‘it’ is supposed to be like, rather than by a fleeting impression, lost but recreatable.
It’s supposed to be beautiful
to repeat a motif
in another medium
(But it’s not… ?) This self-consciousness creates cracks in the cast of recurrence. ‘A regular / dither / in the strings’ suggests a disruption, a composition rendered hesitant. It is as though Apollo, God of stringed instruments, here presiding over a crematorium (less song there than in a graveyard), has botched his routine. It would be entirely ‘regular’, however, to dither on approaching the actual Apollo Crematorium in Emeryville, CA. While no ‘I’ is mentioned, the speaker is present in precise relation to the soundness of the structures she describes. Against the dithering strings stands the confidence of the fountains, which ‘make a statement / about the ability / to keep up one’s end’, holding the speaker to an unspecified promise. This is not just about keeping one’s part of a bargain but also about preparing the rituals that mark the end of life.
When the rituals come they are humbled. Cremation is a hastening to dust, and the second section’s ‘crematorium’ demands a rethink of the first section’s ‘repositories of experience.’ Repository, here, is no longer emblematic of wisdom but suggests, quite literally, a receptacle or container – perhaps an urn except that, within this poem, that would feel too grandly ritualistic. ‘Here’ trades on disruptions to ritual. If ‘as my son did’ sounds so ominous because ‘did’ is the only past simple in the poem (could the son be the figure mourned?), it is even more unsettling that another boy, like the son, is firing caps while a cremation takes place. The church ‘plays’; the boy, whom we would expect to be playing, is firing. There are no bells here either. What the church plays is ‘its booming / recording of chimes’, ersatz, and too loud.
The diminishment of ritual seems to diminish the possibility of belief in a hereafter. In King Lear, France tells Cordelia: ‘Thou losest here, a better where to find’. But this poem is not convinced that there is a better where anywhere. Just as ritual is downgraded, lyric itself is cheapened by not being trusted with – not being thought capable of – recreating a fleeting impression, repeating a motif. This is a poem preoccupied with the unattainability of lyric immediacy, the impossibility of making there here and then now.
(‘Here, as before, never’)
I’m here to recreate
the ‘fleeting impression’
that others once saw themselves
as repositories of experience.
In a dream,
I’m three old actors
known for playing in Westerns.
We’re on a trek through wild country
to show how the past might have been.
A voice-over says that our saddles
are especially worn and rough-hewn.
It’s supposed to be beautiful
to repeat a motif
in another medium.
in the strings
Cremation. Out front,
make a statement
about the ability
to keep up one’s end.
There’s a boy down the street,
as my son did
while a church plays
recording of chimes.
From Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001); originally published
in The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001). Reproduced with permission of the author.