Accidents whose prerequisite is fast movement provide a peculiar kind of fun, one that both requires and neutralizes the possibility of harm. The sheer in-betweenness of acceleration intoxicates, not least because when we are flung or thrust or dropped we savor in those moments the illusory absence of the very mass upon which our speed depends. A kind of oil-slick ecstasy, then: weighted and weightless. This unconsummated velocity, speed shunted aside rather than full-stopped, is a defining attribute of much of Rae Armantrout’s work, and her therefore aptly-named Up to Speed makes of this feature both a subject and a method. These poems tease with the thrill of whiplash just averted; they stop on a dime and race off again before you can collect your nine cents in change.

Armantrout’s poetry thwarts easy description, but the frustration I encounter as a result of this hardship induces giddiness rather than consternation—when I try to nail down that marriage of subject and method, I’m reminded of the happy impossibility of trying to reproduce situational humor. It’s an appropriate feeling, because Armantrout is often exquisitely funny, and for some things you really do just have to be there:

“You can tell ’em
I’ll
be
there”

in the old songs
where verbs stand around,
edgy,
between hungry ghosts.

*

Woman in a sing-song voice:

“I coulda gone
to the fabric store
alone . . .

but what but what but what but what

*

Relive the dream
with Grace Slick.

*
Light stays light

but “toward”
becomes unclear.

*

Bush stumps
for agenda

amid giant redwoods.)

*

I don’t mind
learning
I’m in hell

if
I can learn it
again and again

—”Another Sense”

What’s so funny about this? I ask as one who can’t really get enough of this poem, who finds it not just funny but completely convincing. The answers compress a great short course in poetic economy and intelligence. Bit by bit, the bits approximate explicable shtick: