Here is the first poem in Rae Armantrout's Versed (Wesleyan, 2009):
Click here to vote
on who's ripe
for a makeover
or a takeover
in this series pilot.
Votes are registered
at the server
and sent back
Click here to transform
From this point on,
it's a lattice
disguised as means:
the strangler fig,
I've developed the ability
what I'm waiting for
so that letter
while the contrapuntal
of the Chinese elm leaves
The poem begins with instructions: "Click here to vote." You are sitting at a computer, and you can use the mouse and its clicking to participate in an online vote. The clicks of all the users will be tallied up in "the server" to produce results. This server is a classic "black box," its input and output clear, but its internal processes unknown. The voters apparently given the power to determine something must have faith in "the server" that is supposed to be "serving" their empowerment; in fact, at the very moment when they participate in the production of power, they surrender their power to that "server."
This is not a political vote but a trivial bit of entertainment; the voters here are being given a sense that they are participating in the production of a television show. Their votes will supposedly determine which character is "ripe / for a makeover // or a takeover." As a characterization of a maturation process, "ripe" naturalizes the highly technological voting procedure as organic growth, and the illusion of empowerment is matched by an illusion of naturalization.
All this is done for a "series pilot," which makes the whole thing even more trivial: it's not even an established series but just a test run for a new program. If this whole process produces "results," their object is trivial, their provenance is obscure, and the participants' empowerment is illusory, as is any sense that this highly technologized procedure has anything "natural" about it. This may not be explicitly about politics, but as a critique of the role of voting in the production of spectacles, it ends up also being a critique of the reduction of voting to a spectacle.
When the second section then begins with an echo of the first ("Click here to transform ..."), what follows is immediately subject to the first section's critique of "clicking." So the transformation that follows is as subject to doubt as the "makeover," the "takeover," or the processing of results by "the server." In the transformation here of "oxidation / into digestion," a chemical process becomes a biological process. As one feature of digestion is oxidation, this transformation involves making a process more complex when you "click here." The complexity thus produced is that of evolution: out of chemistry comes biology. In this version of evolution, then, life is created by a "click." But given the illusionary nature of "clicking" in the poem, this turns out to be a critique of one approach to the theory of "intelligent design," in which the "intelligent designer" sets things going but then does not intervene in the evolutionary process anymore.
So "from this point on," once "oxidation" has been transformed "into digestion," evolution takes place without further intervention, without any more "clicks." The "lattice" makes evolution a network rather than the familiar "tree of life," while also associating it with the "clicking" used to navigate the World Wide Web. If this whole lattice is read backwards from one point in time, then "ends" will be seen as being "disguised as means": evolved characteristics may look like "means" used by evolution to develop later ends, but they are actually "ends" in themselves, the "results" of a random process of natural selection without the will to transformation represented by "clicking."
The unusual forms of the two organisms mentioned emphasize the unintentional quality of evolution, in which the evolutionary "end results" at any given moment will look like they followed from earlier "means" that were actually also just momentary stages in a nontelelogical process. "The strangler fig" picks up on the image of the "lattice," as such plants create a "lattice" of roots and branches overlaying the trees they "strangle." The "anteater" evolved in a unique and unpredictable fashion in response to its environment, ending up with an especially unusual appearance. In both cases, the "just-so stories" of a popular understanding of evolution depict the shapes of organisms as the "results" of an interplay of "ends" and "means," but those stories and the "results" that they explain are as illusory as the spectacle of "voting" to produce "results" earlier in the poem. This second section, then, extends the poem's critique of the illusion of "results" to the common misunderstanding of the theory of evolution as a teleological process.
The third and final section is quite different from the first two. It begins not with the imperative "click" but with the first-person: "I've developed the ability ..." There's no dependence on a black-box here, or on a process that runs itself after an initial input. A first person takes center stage and engages in a process with a clear result, a positive product whose agent can legitimately claim to have produced.
Yet the ability the speaker develops is "the ability / to revise / what I'm waiting for." The confidence of the first line continues, but not as an assertion of agency as a source of power and control. This is an adaptive agency that adjusts to developments; the ability the speaker has developed is the ability to develop while "what I'm waiting for" changes. There is a result here, but it's about sidestepping the expected, about changing one's mind, and about doing so consciously, with a full understanding of what is going on. This first stanza of the third section shifts away from a critique of results to a depiction of how to escape the desire for results.
The rest of this third and final section develops this shift from mechanisms that produce the illusion of results to an agency that relinquishes the need for that illusion. The second stanza introduces a letter-changing game in which one changes one letter in a word to produce another word, with some other particular word as a final goal. (As in this sequence: letter, latter, batter, banter, banner, tanner, tinner, dinner.) This may be a result that the person doing the puzzle desires, and such a puzzle does in fact generate an illusion of empowerment like that found in the first stanza, but it is an illusion that is recognized as an illusion from the start. Such puzzles allow for the assertion of agency without the risk of deception; they may be as inconsequential as internet voting about a spectacle (with its potential implications as a figure for politics), but the inconsequentiality is not hidden away inside a "server" that obscures the disempowerment of the agent.
The evolutionary images of the second stanza are also reworked here: evolution becomes "development," "revision," and "redistribution" that take place "gradually" and "contrapuntally." The strict determination of "results" in the first two stanzas is replaced by an emphasis on process and an image not of linear development but of the weaving together of line in counterpoint. This approach to development even allows "ennui" to be "redistributed" as one stops waiting for anything in particular and accepts what comes.
The poem's "result" is a depiction of an alternative approach to process that is not fixated on "makeovers," "takeovers," and "ends disguised as means." Still, such a result is subject to the very critique of results developed in the first two sections of the poem. From this perspective, the poem reads as if it were oriented toward the goal of not being goal-oriented. If it escapes its own critique of results, it is able to do so because "click here" is not "read here": the process of reading the poem to develop the implications of its critique of results and its proposed alternative to their illusions involves the reader as an active agent. When we read this poem, we are not just "clicking here" in an illusion of participation; we are engaging in a gradual, contrapuntal process full of revisions as we try to find our way from "letter" to "dinner."
As depicted in this poem, the ambitions of poetry are vast. Poetry aims to displace the naturalized illusions of politics, society, and even religion not with its own naturalized spectacle but with the self-conscious and self-confident artificiality of the puzzle or the Bonsai tree (so often made with Chinese elms). In its puzzling quality, it takes the risk of becoming another "server" that obscures how its output is related to its input. But as the puzzle pieces fit together, it reveals itself completely.
Excellent exegesis Andrew, and pretty much faultless as far as I can see. As I've often said, I am not good at puzzles and I missed quite a few things which now seem rather obvious, though I will forgive myself for misunderstanding the letter/dinner reference as I am not familiar with the game in question. Your suggestion that, from one [perhaps crucial] perspective, 'the poem reads as if it were oriented toward the goal of not being goal-oriented', makes sense to me, and you made a very good point about the refrain 'click here' being something quite different to 'read here'. Unlike the poem, your close reading is far from puzzling.
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