The Volta: Friday Feature

Money Shot by Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

cover of Money Shot

Reviewed August 31, 2012 by Nick Sturm.

“Staging,” the first poem in Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot, begins massively:

Everything will be made new.

The precision coupling

and uncoupling,

the studied


and folding

have already begun.

Use these lines as a means of understanding how these poems operate: taut direct statements will be rigged to detonate, the tension created by opposition will create a friction that makes disjunction both explicit and ambiguous, and language will be stripped (an ambiguously appropriate verb) and used to simultaneously erect (another appropriate verb) and raze our expectations of these poems, as well as what we thought was a secure, stable understanding of our current situation. In other words, you will leave this book shocked and exhilarated, feeling a bit defiant and ripped at your now-quite-visible seams. You will be finishing the first poem in this book and be presented with the lines, “The spray / of all possible paths.” Then you will read the last line, looking for a moment of cohesion, some kind of revelation, and you will receive neither; instead, a terse, audacious voice will make everything new: “Define possible.”

And there are a lot of possibilities. Which is exciting, and frightening. Even the book’s title, Money Shot, is packed with referential pressure. The most common and provocative reference is to the moment of the male orgasm in porn films, raising issues about the exploitation of the body, the gendered quality of language, and the commodification of pleasure. However, a money shot can also refer to the most expensive scene in a movie, or an intensely physical or emotional scene, and also to the moment when, on a surveillance tape, a gunman is seen reaching over the counter at a convenience store to take the money. But separated from one another, as Armantrout would surely require that we consider, the words ‘money’ and ‘shot’ point towards a cluster of ideas swirling around concepts of worth, violence, manipulation, privilege, and control. These poems are interested in utilizing the anxiety between the singular and the multiple inherent in this language in order to invest a necessary amount of doubt and wonder into our myths about gender, economics, and politics.

In “Soft Money,” all of these factors come together with a clever dose of reimagined language.

They’re sexy

because they’re needy,

which degrades them.

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 ambiguity of the pronouns makes these lines unusually disconcerting. Furthermore, the sexual and social vagueness of “beneath you” is an example of Armantrout stretching language to its most illuminating limits. The poem ends with an amazing moment of twisted sexual language: “They want to be you, / but can’t, // which is so hot.”

Another apt example of Armantrout’s interest in politics and the self occurs in “Spin,” a poem in three short parts, each of which considers the idea of the self and language, and how these things are spinning or spun.

That we are composed

of dimensionless points

which nonetheless spin,

which nonetheless exist

in space,

which is a mapping

of dimensions.


The pundit says

the candidate’s speech


“all the right points,”

hit “fed-up” but “not bitter,”

hit “not hearkening back.”


Light strikes our eyes

and we say, “Look there!”

The self is an accumulation of disjunctive pieces, the poem seems to suggest, and our participation in the world can be reduced to series of reactions to stimuli. Politics, perhaps the most volatile stimulus of opinion, and therefore identity, is revealed by Armantrout to be nothing more than a game of dead rhetoric, a spinning of language to fit a particular ideology. One might call to mind a certain conservative opinion maker who claims to exist in a no spin zone, and how the very declaration of such a space is a rhetorical contradiction, a bloated, preemptive assertion of truth. No, these poems are not concerned with truth, but they are more than willing to point to the spaces between what we think of as true, and in doing so, make us question those truths. From “Day”:

It flashes

but doesn’t gather.

It rhymes and does not


There is no wholeness, no affirmation, but there is music, and the need to confront what masquerades as absolute. From “Following”:

We think things moving in tandem

are parts

of some larger being.

We think

things coming in order

move in tandem.

Daybreak and nightfall

are parts

of some larger being —

someone perfect

and impervious

to grief.

If truth is perfection, says the poet, then truth is devoid of emotion, and how can that be when emotion touches everything? Like Armantrout’s poems, all we have are pieces and parts, fragments and conflicts, and it is our responsibility to revel in the pressure created between these bodies of language. That these poems continually resist resolution is one of the most engaging aspects of Money Shot. The second section of the book’s title poem is the essential example of this resistance.

I’m on a crowded ship

and I’ve been served the wrong breakfast.

This small mound

of soggy dough

is not what I ordered.

“Why don’t you just say

what you mean?”

Why don’t I?

Cut short of the money shot, these lines not only emphasize the grotesque absurdity of luxury, they stress the importance of defying the acceptance of the idea as is, suggesting that there is an alternative space between clarity and confusion where the energy of “what you mean” is all the more clear and baffling because of the ambiguity that surrounds and informs it. Though an obvious contradiction, one could call Armantrout’s poems an exercise in precise ambiguity. That these poems can contain such a contradiction makes them all the more striking.

What else is striking in these poems is their lack of comparative language. But this is no detriment. What is real is more than enough. From “Measure”:

I am not alone in this


A bee has landed,


on a purple tip

of lavender,

pitching in wind.

In the midst of a natural chaos, small piece of hope. But what’s small isn’t always so buoyant. The last section of “Bubble Wrap”:

An immigrant

sells scorpions

of twisted electrical wire

in front of the Rite Aid.

The desperation contained in the image is what is most unsettling, and the social and political repercussions are ours to deal with. Descriptions of the self, and the body, are also jeopardized. From “Outage”:

The body is sprouting grapefruit.

The body is under-

performing in heavy


Armantrout’s fight against cancer is aligned with the failed economy of the body. The poem ends with a proclamation against thinking more about how we say what we mean.

Reception is spotty.

Someone “just like me”

is born

in the future

and I don’t feel a thing?

Like only goes so far.

Indeed, the charged openness of language is itself enough to power these poems. What makes Money Shot such a success is Armantrout’s ability to distill this linguistic energy without compromising the ability of these poems to make lucid associative connections. Though Armantrout is commonly linked with the Language Poets, these poems don’t treat language as inadequate or feel like cold, post-structural experiments. Yes, Armantrout is continually calling into question the language she uses, and these choices are always elegant and amazingly intelligent, but there is genuine emotion in these poems. One can sense the poet’s fears and bewilderments beneath the language, as evasive as that voice may at times try to be. There is something startlingly, crushingly human about the existential crisis in the following lines from “Advent” that make me believe Armantrout at every turn.




Pick out the one

that doesn’t belong.

Let’s play a game, Armantrout seems to say. This game has to do with language, and either it will destroy us or leave us alone on a sunny day. Take your pick.

* * *

Nick Sturm is the author of the chapbooks WHAT A TREMENDOUS TIME WE'RE HAVING! (iO Books, 2012) and A Basic Guide (Bateau, 2012). He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.