Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ambiguous Pronouns Are Hot: Notes on Rae Armantrout's Money Shot

They're sexy
because they're needy,
which degrades them.
So begins "Soft Money," one of the best poems in Rae Armantrout's new collection Money Shot.  It's representative of many other poems in the book for several reasons: it connects to sex and the body, it connects to money (the "money shot" of the title refers to the male orgasm in pornography  — but you knew that, didn't you?) and it can be a bit slippery about just what it refers to in the world.

One of my favorite things about "Soft Money" is the way it really exploits the ambiguity of reference.  Who, one wonders, are "they," those sexy, needy people?  It's easy to read the poem as a piece of gender politics, with the "they" as either men yearning, sexually, for women, or as women, yearning to be noticed by the male gaze.  In either case, the poem seems to say that there's something nasty going on: either women looking on men's neediness as pleasing because it puts women in a position of power, or men looking on the way women deck themselves out for the male gaze and settling smugly into their position of superiority, as the catered-to gender.  And these are just the hetero- readings.  So already we've got a kind of broad statement about how the field of sexual attraction is a place where desire is bound up with power, and people are more than willing to enjoy their positions of superiority over the self-degrading other.  It's a nasty view of the world, hard and cold, but it's delivered with a kind of abstractness and deadpan matter-of-factness that makes it read very differently than, say, the works of the Marquis de Sade.

The poem continues by working variations on the theme announced in the opening stanza.  Check it out:

They're sexy because
they don't need you.

They're sexy because they pretend
not to need you,

but they're lying,
which degrades them.

They're beneath you
and it's hot.
The first proposition here takes the sexualization of power that we saw in the opening stanza and reverses it: those who turn away from us are sexy, because they're so above us.  We seek them out because, we think, their lack of neediness for us indicates that they're something special.  Desire is inflamed, Petrarch-style, by inaccessibility.  Interestingly, this is just as plausible as the opposed proposition of the opening stanza.  But just as we're about to settle into this new version of events, Armantrout undermines it: they only pretend not to need us, these ambiguous people (women? men?).  And their "I don't need you" act is a sign of how much they really do need us, how they're trying to intrigue us.  Which means they're in some sense beneath us — and once again Armantrout uses the strong term "degrades" to indicate this beneathness, and suggests that we're attracted to people when they make us feel like we're in the superior position.  It's all a bit like the old Hegelian master-slave dialectic, with its co-dependency of the slave (who fears and labors for the master) and the master (who needs the recognition of the slave to maintain his sense of himself as an empowered agent in the world).

At this point, I suppose, we should say something about the title of the poem, which both re-enforces and undermines a reading of the poem as being about the politics of sexual desire.  The poem's title, "Soft Money" re-enforces that meaning best when we read it against the title of the book, Money Shot.  If the money shot of the book's title indicates masculine sexual performance, "Soft Money" would seem to imply a kind of failure of that kind of potency — a masculine disempowerment that plays into reading the referent for the word "they" as "men" (who are, in this reading, desiring but disempowered — which would make the speaker of the poem a bit of a power-tripping misandronous figure, whether female or male).  Such a reading is certainly available, but the poem can't be reduced to just that.  The title-based reading is suggestive rather than definitive.  One could still read the speaker as a smug male figure gloating over the power of the male gaze to make women objectify themselves.

But even these readings, in tandem, are too limited — because soft money is also something specific in the realm of politics.  It's the common term for the unlimited monetary donations rich people and corporations can make to American political parties (as opposed to individual candidates).  And this opens up a whole new way to read the poem.  Suddenly, we can read the needy people as the political class, and the speaker as the corporate class, "the loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires" (to use Paul Simon's line) that buys the deference and loyalty of politicians from both major parties.  And now the smug speaker looks on the politicians as "sexy" because "needy" — a kind of condescending attraction. And when we read the degradation of that ambiguous "they" as the degradation of the elected officials of what is nominally a republic, we feel the degradation as a betrayal of what the politicians should be — representatives of the people.

The middle part of the poem introduces something new:

They're across the border,
rhymes with dancer —

they don't need
to understand.
I like these lines, in part because of the rhyme, in part because they can be read as a kind of comment on the interpretive possibilities the poem has already laid out for us: "border" is a political term, "dancer" is more connected with eros and desire, and the two "rhyme" — that is, in the context of this poem, they've got some deep similarities.  The political and erotic readings are both available, and the poem shows us the kind of smug attitudes that can come with being empowered in either realm.  As for "they don't need/to understand" — well, that's got a nice double-edge to it to, don't you think?  On the one hand, it could be read as an expression of the (politically? erotically?) empowered person condescending to the disempowered people.  On the other hand, it could be read as something like "they don't go around needing us as a rational thing, as a means of understanding — it's all more primal than that."

The next bit riffs on the old Archibald MacLeish poem "Ars Poetica," with its famous contention that "a poem should not mean but be":

They're content to be
(not mean),

which degrades them
and is sweet.
Read in terms of the "this is a poem about eros and power" paradigm, these lines seem to say something about the disempowered people in the equation being mere objects, not subjects who have opinions and might "mean" something.  That sort of lines the poem up with a male speaker, looking on "them" as self-objectified women, the kind of people who'd hang around high-status men and be ornamental, rather than being full participants in a conversation.  But when we come to the next stanza, where the disempowered people are described as "sweet," the speaker's idiom is more feminine — "sweet" is a word some women apply to men who do things for them to ingratiate themselves without much hope of any kind of reciprocation.  So the ambiguity of who "they" are continues to allow us to see the speaker as either a smug male or a smug female in a position of erotic superiority.  But there's also the political way of reading the lines, the "soft money" paradigm for reading the poem.  Looked at this way, the lines can be read as a condescending statement from those in the realm of economic power toward their political subordinates, who are happy to walk around being people with titles like "senator," but who defer to their funders in matters of opinion and policy and don't mean to have any opinions of their own.

The next lines are even better, and work with some Kantian or Sartrean philosophical language:

They want to be 
the thing-in-itself

and the thing-for-you —

Miss Thing —

but can't.
The disempowered people (men? women? politicians beholden to moneyed interests?) want contradictory things, here.  They want to be independent ("the thing-in-itself") but they also want something from the erotically or financially empowered, and want it so bad they would change who they are to get it (becoming the "thing for you").  Those dashes — the most ambiguous form of punctuation — are great, because they allow "Miss Thing" to function in two different ways.  "Miss Thing" (a slang expression for the sexually provocative and desired woman) can be the person the disempowered people, men, want: they become the thing-for-you, with you being "Miss Thing."  But "Miss Thing" could also be the disempowered woman, the self-objectifying person, the one who became a "thing-for-you."  Good stuff!  

But not as good as the ending:

They want to be you
but can't,

which is so hot.
There's the stuff.  The disempowered want to be the empowered, but can't, and this pleases the empowered, because they get to experience themselves as in an enviable position, a position they find arousing.  I love that the final line echoes Paris Hilton's characteristic phrase, since it comes off as nasty, shallow, self-indulgent, and privileged — which works well for any of the myriad interpretations the poem proposes.  Which is hot.


  1. When we published that poem, I asked her a few questions about it; her answers are here:

  2. When we published that poem, I asked her a few questions about it; her answers are here:

  3. This was an interesting commentary. I feel, though, as if you're finding more in the poem than is really there.

    In part, I feel that way because I don't really "get" a lot of this kind of language-oriented poetry. And I can't but feel that a poem that requires an explanation somehow fails, on some level.

    It's very interesting to contrast this, back to back, with Edwin Muir's poem, and with George Mackay Brown. One of the reasons I like Brown is that he can push the language quite far, but you never lose the thread, never lose the narrative, or the image. It never turns into just words on the page. Armantrout, for me, is often just words on the page, with not enough referents for me to hang anything on; so it all feels disconnected, cerebral, chill, by contrast to Brown or Muir.

    It's great that there are so many different kinds of poetry out there. Your two sequential posts here have helped me clarify in my own mind why I like the one more than the other.

  4. Thanks, Don, for the link — somehow I never saw those comments, and reading them feels, by and large, like a confirmation.

    And thanks for sharing the reflection on your own tastes, Art — me, I'm pretty ecumenical, though I spent a very long blog post once trying to figure out why I didn't enjoy a sonnet that was, in every respect, perfectly well done, and that accomplished everything it set out to do.


  5. I was going to post about what rhymes with "dancer", but it's discussed at the link too. Notably, just "across the border" from Armantrout's territory is Mexico, land of laetrile and other dodgy cancer treatments (also, for obvious economic reasons, source of many "dancers").

  6. Brenda Kwang10:10 AM


    - Never point out that there are might be limits to the possible "ambiguities" in a reading, especially when a poem might be exploring lived experiences of *hurt* in the world. After all, RA said that her poem "Soft Money" began with a recognition of the "very objectionable" nature of a Duran Duran song that contained, yes (say it!) DEMEANING and DEGRADING lyrics to women. HURT can't always just be *anything*--the referents targeted by hate are frequently very SPECIFIC; oh, there may be limits to the slipperiness, to the "ambiguity" when it f[...]ing HURTS, when it offends, when your lived experience is elided by self-serving professorial laziness, when complex forms of sexualized sexism can't even be identified as such in a critique for fear (however veiled) that your criticism will be labeled as behind-the-experimental-times.

    - Oh, never go here: never say that, after all, it's not like the black gays-cum-drag folks that say (or really SAID...slang goes in and out) "Miss Thing" have the same kind of caché in this world in comparison to other "referents." YUP! Even the much lauded poet Carl Philips (along with another gay poet, Mark Doty) got turned down for the Thomas Rattigan Professorship of English, a vaunted endowed professorship at Boston College because, in his own account, the institution was homophobic:

    - Never say these things or you will be accused of simply having a different "taste" and not having valid points about sound criticism, scholarship, and strong poetic analysis. After all, lazy readings are as popular as lazy writing. Good thing RA's writing is far less lazy (and incredibly purposeful, actually) than a few of her commentaries about it.

    This is not anonymous. My name is Brenda Kwang. I live in Baltimore, MD. You can email me at vegetablelollipo AT gmail DOT com or brendakwang AT mail DOT com. Don't get mad if it takes me a while to respond. Vicious Korean dykes like me are BUSY!

  7. Brenda Kwang10:11 AM


    - Never sharply point to the moment when RA (not Rae this time, but rather the blogger) says that "Miss Thing" in the poem refers to "a slang expression for the sexually provocative and desired woman" when even RA (Rae this time) says that she knows full well that the term is "gay/camp" vernacular in RS's Poetry Foundation interview.

    - Never critique the laziness of both RAs for not doing the actual critical work to point out that "Miss Thing" is actually specifically *African-American* gay and *drag* slang.

    - Never, ever critique authors and critics for not pushing themselves to examine the *implications* and *effects* (and not just the "being") of colliding, juxtaposed referents.

    - Never, ever, ever point out that not all referents hold the same linguistic or cultural power in our readings! Oh, never point this out. People will consider this an attack. People may not realize that this is, in fact, a very apt critique that pushes critics to do more and go far deeper out of their arm chairs to examine the way language constructs (difficultly, complexly, polyvalently) the cultures, subcultures, and expressive systems within which we communicate and live.

    This is not anonymous. My name is Brenda Kwang. I live in Baltimore, MD. You can email me at vegetablelollipo AT gmail DOT com or brendakwang AT mail DOT com. Don't get mad if it takes me a while to respond. Vicious Korean bi/lesbians like me are BUSY!

  8. Brenda Kwang10:11 AM


    - Never critique lazy readings by authors, critics, or professors.

    - Never critique lazy readings that suggest (or even outright say) that a poem can be or convey just about anything.

    - Never take even RA to task for saying (in DS's Poetry Foundation interview) that the pronoun reference "they" in her poem entitled "Soft Money" could be "aliens": oh, never say that such "ambiguity" is lazy and self-serving, especially when RA clearly said in that same interview that the poem began after recognizing the "very objectionable" (meaning, I would hope, sexist) nature of a Duran Duran song.

    - Never say that perhaps RA's poem is actually a good old new fashioned *feminist* exploration.

    - Never say that "Soft Money" is a fifth wave feminist poem that uses "avant-garde" strategies of radically juxtaposed vernacular and *seemingly* vague pronoun references to sarcastically and satirically explore the nature of what may be demeaning to/for/by/against/with female persons who are hyper-sexualized/objectified (female person being both women and trans, as we may soon see in this comment).

    This is not anonymous. My name is Brenda Kwang. I live in Baltimore, MD. You can email me at vegetablelollipo AT gmail DOT com or brendakwang AT mail DOT com. Don't get mad if it takes me a while to respond. Vicious Korean bi/lesbians like me are BUSY!

  9. Hi BK,

    I'm not sure why you want to position yourself as someone who is violating some kind of prohibition in making your remarks, but okay. It strikes a certain heroic pose.

    As for your interpretations here -- I like them. I don't think the poem lends itself to being bound exclusively to them, though, and "Miss Thing" is a phrase almost as ambiguous as Armantrout's pronouns, so I think the reading you make opens up another avenue of understanding without shutting down others.

    As for lazy? Sure. It takes me four cups of coffee just to wake up.

    This is not anonymous. My name is Bob Archambeau. I live in Highland Park, Illinous and you can email me at archambeau AT lakeforest DOT edu. Don't get mad if it takes me a while to respond. Befuddled Canadians like me aren't so much busy as we are easily distracted.



  10. Oh, hey, BK: I missed part three of your posting and responded before reading it (it ended up in the comments-spam reader, which sometimes happens when people post several comments in rapid succession).

    I, too, think there are limits to the number of valid readings of even very ambiguous texts. For instance, if someone were to say "That Armantrout poem you blogged about? It's a pro-McDonalds, anti-Arby's poem, predicated on the pronoun standing for Mayor McCheese," I'd say that lies beyond the interpretive pale. But the thing about ambiguity is that it's pretty flexible. Indeed, it's theoretically possible for a poem to hold open an infinite number of possibilities, and yet for some readings to be invalid at the same time (there are an infinite number of odd numbers, but not all numbers are odd -- so it could conceivably be with a poem). But I don't think Armantrout's poem points in quite so many directions as that.

    All best,


  11. Thanks for the interesting post Bob. 'Ambiguity of reference' (or just plain ambiguity) is much sought after now, so far as I can see, by both the 'MS' and the other tributaries. It can occasionally load the rifts, though often the 'ore' appears to be merely 'or'.

    I am in several minds about RA, though I may purchase this collection.

    Regarding that sonnet, I'd be curious to see it. It may have been 'perfectly well done', though hardly 'in every respect', and I doubt that it 'accomplished everything it set out to do', since in my experience this would involve delighting and surprising the constant reader.

  12. Yeah, I hear you about indeterminacy, ambiguity, elliptical verse, etc. -- there are days when I feel that these things have become a received climate of opinion in poetry. I once read an article from several decades ago that argued that the new doggerel was confessionalism, since it had replaced rhyme and meter as the sign of poetic authenticity and had therefore become a kind of cliche. Sometimes I think ambiguity is the doggerel of our time. But then again, I also believe that a poet can succeed spectacularly in any idiom. And Armantrout was working in this mode before it became What They Tell You To Do At Grad School.

    The sonnet? Let me see if I can find the post where I talked about it... okay, here it is:



  13. Ah! The old article on doggerel is online now, too, as a pdf:


  14. Thanks for the links Bob. Re Gwynn's sonnet, I didn't get through all the Kant, but I imagine I largely agree with everything you say about it. God as administrative 'dude'? Nah. And the anecdotal 'cuteness' is pretty awful, especially "God only knows"! I have no problem at all with 'light verse' (great examples of which are often much less light than people think), but this one is far too cosy with itself.