Friday, October 13, 2006


At the beginning of Bin Ramke’s Airs, Waters, Places, the tone of the speaker suggests he seems to have just emerged from a department meeting fuming and struggling to believe in kindness as a viable structure for human interaction. The voice is wounded and patching holes in its armor. It is dark and poisoned by the ineptitude of the physical world (the airs, waters and places of it) despite the speaker’s seeking solace in it. It is a hard voice to warm up to with its vision of a difficult and thankless world full of foreboding, a world where one dare not be generous to others so that we might not see the self in them (as in “Tiny Wounds: A Theory of Generosity”), a world where the stranger is to be feared in order to escape empathy. This is not a very sanguine world.

Yet every time I wanted to shy away from the darkness that pervades Airs, Waters, Places, I admonished myself for doing so. For it is my belief that one of the greatest public services literature does is that it allows a reader to linger in the presence of others whose tempers and predilections are different than the reader’s own. In short it breeds tolerance. If only one weren’t charged (the price of the book) for the experience.

So I charged on, unsure of whether I could come to some position of reckoning with Ramke’s speaker in this book. This was dismaying because after “Matter,” a book largely concerned with epistemology, and a book I thoroughly enjoyed, I was wondering whether I may have made a wrong turn into this book.

After all, the long cycle of poems in “Against the Cycle of Saint Ursula (Carpaccio)” in which the saint sets out with the Pope from Rome for Cologne only to be slaughtered upon their arrival does not lend a reader to a deep massage of the feel-good spot. Also in this poem the life of, presumably, the poet and his relationship to his itinerant mother is juxtaposed against the life of Saint Ursula.

In “Surface Tension” the last lines that one comes across are “People touch and between them is a layer of darkness a thin skin of no-light keeping them apart. A world. To touch is to darken the space between. The tear is bright, it glistens, is a lens—the tear is the girl in light and the shape the world takes.” After I read these lines I knew I was in a space where all is mediated by sadness. I am not given over very easily to combing through the layered growth of pervasive sadness. Yet I continued to watch Ramke’s display in the book, perhaps a bit awkwardly, as though I were watching the pornography of grief.

I pressed on, knowing that, like eating spinach, reading this book may be good for me. I felt that it might be an important place for me to go after peering over my 8-year-old son’s shoulder as he watched his cartoons and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. But still there was more darkness as in “The Science of Reunion and Opposition”:

What is the dark if not the warning
against which we wildly wave
our little hands like antennae
dreading the crushing weight of wisdom,
of absurd logic and laughable necessity.
It is a hopeless case, and I disclaim it.
I am such a burden to me, so homemade
and so necessary.

Here the speaker seemed to self-consciously acknowledge that he is his own worst enemy, stewing up his own burden of grief as though it emanated from an internal crock pot held deeply within him.

The grief seems almost to be a natural element within the world, clinging to every bump and fold of the space-time continuum. Again, from “The Science of Reunion and Opposition”:

If I had bones to break, it would mend them
If I had numbers to puzzle, it would delude them
into submission, it is such a world
such a speculative ambition.
All is in flames, and we wish it so.
All is flame, and wishes. So.

And a little earlier in the poem, the speaker wishes for exclusion from this world.

. . . I do NOT wish
to extend so vulgarly into the world,
the room, to displace the air so rudely

The physical world seems to be a place where the ill-mannered dwell. It is thoughtless and inconsiderate too. Anything that evokes physical sensation in the speaker is “casually arrogant.”

However, Ramke is not a poet who uses his display of words to primarily explore an emotional landscape, even though the landscape of grief and darkness is dominant. He is not a confessional poet.

Like the often-invoked Rilke, Ramke’s speaker wants to seek refuge in the immaterial, the other realms (where one thinks terrifying angels might roam?). The primary other realm that comes to call is the realm of the textual. The textual interrupts continually throughout the book. It frequently emerges as marginalia (near the right-hand margin), commenting on what is going on in the text of the left-hand margin. The textual colors the physical world it is commenting on, and it serves as periodic escape hatches for the reader to bail out of the dominant left-hand margin “text of the actual world.” the brief right-hand margin quotations from mostly serious literary sources [no quotes from the Beatles or Steven Wright or Oprah Winfrey or any pop culture personality for that matter here] such as, Anaxagoras, Maurice Blanchot, John Ashbery, the Bible, Shakespeare, Rilke, Empedocles, Wallace Stevens, Pythagoras, etc.

One place where the textual actually competes with the physical is in “Moths and the Occasional Dog.”

Someone’s telephone ringing in the distance—
a sound of traffic like some ocean—wind in trees et
cetera, closer—the occasional dog—Siehe, ich lebe

I love Rilke because German is not English but almost
and I hide again and again in translations each
an obvious failure each providing room for me, Reader.

Reading a burning book turning the tinder page
at night by the light of the burning book reading
nothing burns like paper like nothing alive.

A little cluster of words to arrange—
house, school, church, a village, see how
the lights glow through painted windows.

(A bottle in the medicine cabinet
is labeled “hope” but none of us
is fooled all who can read know better.)

False fronts like western towns in the movies
behind which a duplicate reality lies
the difference is lighting—erotic to pornographic.

Seduction to delivery—the brightness of the room
and the color of its light will change or
the neon sign blinks in on

the lovers, sometimes blue,
sometimes bathed in blood
it would appear, if we could see.

The speaker is “hiding in translations” and tending the written word as though tending a bonfire. The translations here are literal ones [Siehe, ich lebe is from Rilke’s 9th Duino Elegy] and the translation of te physical world into text. The words that are arranged on the page create an alternative reality that, though false, serves as suitable alternative where a little fake brightness can seep through (unlike the actual physical reality) and deliver its judgment of the fates and lives of humans.

As I read through the book, it became more apparent that as illusory as it is, Ramke’s speaker seeks refuge in the immaterial, the particular immateriality of the text. In “String” this business with texts approaches the erotic:

Her hair thick with music lies
on me. Each time is the first. Consider
that she now predicts gravity, her theory
an art: an accident of history makes her young.
Her skin is paper and her eyes are ink.
There is no note she cannot be, no need.
Music is something she might die of, or art or
that other mathematics, the one that predicts
the end of everything.

The skin is paper and her eyes are ink. Is the text the feminine other or are there associations to be made here?

As I continued with my voyeurism into another man’s grief and his literal eroticizing of the text, wading hip deep into the snatches of quoted text in the margins, and allowing myself to become ever more haunted by texts that stand apart from the physical world, I wondered how I might satisfyingly depart the ride I was on. I was growing more and more anxious about whether I was on a “trip” that might deposit me in some unexpected aura or whether I was being driven to a final destination, a subject matter that would be summary for all that had transpired beforehand.

I admit I finally “arrived” during the last piece in the book “Gravity and Levity.” For me, this was the piece de resistance within the whole book.

Picking up on numerous images and references that have been sprinkled elsewhere in the book (see herons, Rilke, music, bleeding bodies, mathematics, explosions, theories), Ramke’s speaker engages the notion of difficulty. In line 40 he says, “In German, a language, the art of heaviness is called schwerkraft [gravity (right-hand marginalia].” The cognate for this word is gravity or perhaps more accurately “gravitational force;” however, Ramke correctly observes that schwer translates to difficulty (or more figuratively heaviness). The next few lines also quote a Rilke poem of the same name:


Mitte, wie du aus allen
dich ziest, auch noch aus Fliegenden dich
wiedergewinnst, Mitte, du Staerkste.
Stehender: wie ein Trank den Durst_

Durchstuerzt ihn die Schwerkraft.
Doch aus dem Schlafenden faellt,
wie aus lagernder Wolke,
reichlicher Regen der Schwere.

The Force of Heaviness

Center, how you fall away from everything,
draw yourself away, even from flying creatures
come back to yourself, center, you, the mighty.
You stand upright: the force of heaviness rushes

through a standing man as drink through thirst.
But falling from the sleeper,
as though from a resting cloud,
is the rain endowed with a difficult weight.

[translation mine]

One might say that, for Ramke, the difficult weight is the trap of the physical world. One does not escape it easily and not without consequence. But heaviness can also be seen as ponderousness, and in the book Ramke among many other things, ponders, and he ponders beautifully. It is the beauty of this thought world that lures him away from the grief and difficulty of the physical world.

In I saw in “Gravity and Levity” that perhaps Ramke’s subject matter is the difficulty of being ponderous, the difficulty of difficulty. This was the way in to the book, the way in that I had been hoping for all along. The grief, the wounds held on to for so long, the hard edges, the textual interruptions of the physical world are all markers of a difficulty that is central to much of Ramke’s work.

We as readers are not going to arrive at the other end of the thing without enduring some bruises along the way: the obfuscations, the obscure reference that sends one shuffling off after reference materials, the discontinuities, the brave associative leaps, the unintentional darkness of the human psyche reflecting the world it perceives. But Ramke acknowledges the difficult journey at the end of the book.

This is a bigger world that it was once
it expands an explosion it can’t help it it has

nothing to do with us with whether we know or
not whether our theories can be proved

whether or not a mathematician
knew a better class of circles

(he has a name, Taniyama, a Conjecture)
than was ever known before—

not circles, elliptic curves. not doughnuts.
Not anything that is nearly, only is, such

a world is hard to imagine, harder to live in,
harder still to leave. A little like love, Dear.

The “Dear” at the end is quite probably the reader. It is difficult to leave the world of the book that Ramke has created, but indeed we must (as readers). In this last reference to a dearly beloved, Ramke has acknowledged the difficulty of creating such a world as the book portrays and the difficulty off inhabiting it for the reader. It is only one’s passion, a love of sorts that stands as a model for how this is to be accomplished. In this last line Ramke seems to be saying that to be charged with a true passion for something is equal to enduring difficulty. By the tie one has reached the end of Airs, Waters, Places the reader has earned Ramke’s appellation of “Dear.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might want to correct this: "a bigger world THAN" (you have "that) Thanks for posting this.

Sun Jan 17, 03:19:00 PM PST  

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