On Rennie Ament’s Mechanical Bull

Mechanical Bull. Rennie Ament. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2023. 98 pages.

How can I order words?
I can’t identify a basic bird.
Poems are a bed of nails
and I am awake on their numerous tips. 

from “Cormorant”

Everyone has a story of riding a mechanical bull for the first time. Is that true? No, that’s not true. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in the presence of one. What I do know about these machines is that they were invented to train bull-riders for the rodeo. The spectacle of the rodeo is then reproduced in bars where the mostly drunk and bold mount the machine, only to be thrown to the ground within seconds. Rennie Ament’s Mechanical Bull (Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2023) plays with this spectacle of restraint and failure over four series of poems spliced up and woven together, some written exclusively from Oulipian writing constraints. Ament’s collection is an experience of the world in tension with its parts— the joy of being an animal is in conflict with the exhaustion of being a person, the pressure to procreate or partner up rubs up against the fantasy of a monastic life; the tender, intimate, and microscopic attempts to share a stage with the theatrically disappointing, absurdly programmed, and coin operated.  

As if to announce to the reader that this isn’t your typical rodeo, an illustration (by the artist Angelo Maneage) of a creature I have never seen appears on its first page—part horse, part cow, with a scraggly tail, blunted unicorn stump, an unidentifiable double snout, and spike udders. “Coat the cow in calm / Sing it a song” the first lines follow; both incantation and instruction for “how to make milk.” The poems are further populated with crows, hogs, fireflies, goldfinches, lambs, hawks, sheep, octopi, geese, lizards, horses, dogs, fish, not to mention dead dads, exes, and baby boys, a kind of bestiary of the present. Ament’s Mechanical Bull is a book angry with its enemies—first and foremost the human, and contrasts these special creatures to further illuminate the true “beasts” haunting pages—patriarchy, the threat of violence, heteronormative expectations. Such critiques sting (“It’s lonely out here with fellow people”) as often as they land with hilarity (“fetch me another hole”), but do not dare leave the speaker unscathed or on some pedestal. Often the poems speak from the place of one of the many humiliated subjects in the contemporary maw of the present, like in the poem that begins Mechanical Bull’s second section, “In Increasing and Almost Total Alienation”:

Hello. They’re wrong. I’m not alone—I live in this white lady, peeping out from her / keyholes. Soon I’ll install a light in here to enjoy eerie glistening / while all her sphincters hold me tight, like a small dog’s thunder blanket. (45)

Mechanical Bull ends with a day in the life of a saint. In Ament’s vision, even the saint, estranged from regular life (“I’m just sitting here drinking / hints of water / from a human skull”) is yet in service to a system bigger than herself. Ament obliquely dramatizes the limitations and commitments of the poet’s monasticism in Mechanical Bull, and the belief (however precarious) that there must be some kind of higher power in words. In “Little Brown Birds,” Ament admits: “I thought I could outthink myself / with words as naked as rocks.” And while there is no outthinking the self, as it turns out, for Ament there is at least the assertion that words, naked as rocks, could make something happen if tended to religiously, as in the ritualistic and sometimes compulsive practice of writing poetry. The risk the poet takes in writing alone, or in being alone—“My neighbor’s period is late / My hands warm up over her life”—is concluded to be worth it compared to the company of humans who are “doomed to sit and think” (72). To put on full display the absurd taboo of “being alone,” systematically programmed into the speaker by other humans, Ament zeroes in on unexamined rituals of our species as if from the flatly detached perspective of being of an other species, in the poem “Annual Human Events:”

God people
love a list We like
to believe in the linear We like
to think there’s a we
We like to count to 10 slowly
We like to count
backward from 10
and wear little glittery paper hats
and peck at each other’s
face with our lips
as if there was an axe in the air
held by a ghost muttering
Don’t be alone (17)

How can we be with others of our species when there’s so much relentless violence? Through the compulsion to “peck at each other’s face with our lips,” Ament animalizes the human: “[a]nd what have you learned from your training,” a poem title asks. She explores the absurd human impulse to control one another, in turn revealing technical mastery of her own Oulipian poetic control, working from within and against her own impulses. Ament even uses her own name (“Renata S Ament”) as material from which to construct a poem, both repurposing those letters and freeing the “self” from its name, which once cracked open—“Tart / as a manatees teat…Maneater, / Amen,” reveals previously unreachable truths about those who might also, but are likely not, for example, named “Renata S Ament.” Mechanical Bull is for those readers who, through supple poems of intensity, might enjoy the reminder that inside of our at times robotic shells is an animal-like being, potentially indomitable, resolutely unprogrammable.

Ariel Yelen is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection I Was Working (Fall 2024), selected by Rowan Ricardo Phillips for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. Her poems have been published in BOMB, The American Poetry Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. She lives and works in New York City.