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.