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Wake
Bin Ramke
University of Iowa Press, $10.95 (paper)

by Max Winter

On the first page of Wake, Bin Ramke’s sixth collection of poems, the poet offers a description of method wrapped in a description of the world: "A place of consequence, of sequence. I pick up scraps of paper and smooth them, pushing with both hands flat against my thigh. The papers are various. I carry a tool for poking in debris. I live this way." Ramke shows that the wrinkles--the inevitable twists and warps that shape history--make the papers worth examining. This type of housekeeping began with the modernists and has continued, in varying degrees, to the present. What distinguishes Ramke’s project is his pervasively abstract approach to it. This intellectual distance allows him to define the targets of his address more clearly and discuss them in a manner which is, beyond all else, reasonable. His miniature cosmology is filtered through his own recollection, reading history, and internal wit. When he bears down upon the world he describes, he finds it to be full of imperfections and pettinesses--and it is his unflinching comparison of fault and perfection that makes his poems believable.

From his first book in 1978 to Massacre of the Innocents in 1995, apprehension of the inevitable has given Ramke’s work pressure and gravity. (In Wake, it almost sets the poems ablaze with foresight.) You could say that Ramke began small writ large; his early work used terse phrasing toward the making of an open-ended and riddle-like verse of universal relevance. As he has developed momentum, he has broadened, both formally and intellectually, in the manner of poets like Jorie Graham or C. K. Williams. These poets once addressed subjects larger than themselves on a spare scale, and now they have included the immensity of their subjects in the form of the work itself, as if the beginning of a line were a deep breath and the line itself were the heart-rending, incredibly difficult, but in the end necessary statement of a life-shaping truth.

Ramke is ultimately more restrained than these poets; his calm execution of each line could be called aloof but might more likely be called unearthly. His poise suits his urge to measure the worth of each tangible and intangible entity and then put it in its proper place. Ramke writes as if he views all human and earthly events from a position of great remove; his visions, as with all the wisest utterances, are unsettling. In "A History of His Heart," a meditation on the cannibalistic murders of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ramke quotes a fragment from the killer’s confessions--"My consuming lust to experience their bodies...."--and then goes on to give a version of history: "they talk / about you then they talk to you then / you talk back." In this transformation, the murderer’s means of talking back is not just transformed into a poetic mechanism. Rather, the criminal act becomes an integral part of historical process, a step towards humanity’s current ethical position, not a hideous deviation. Some readers might feel disturbed by this connection; history becomes a construction of deeds and misdeeds, with misdeeds in the lead--by a head, so to speak.

Ramke’s erudition is impressive and humane; he deploys quotes, such as those from Dahmer, not to separate the sheep from the lambs among his readers but to encourage readership itself. "A Great Noise the World Makes" and "A History of Tenderness" seamlessly mix together passages from such disparate sources as Audubon’s journals, Dickinson, Nabokov, and cellist Pablo Casals; the quotes seem to speak directly to us, drawing us into a dialogue on the poem that houses them. And the citations also have a direct share in the progress of the work, rather than interrupting its progress and disrupting our attentions, as they might if they were any less skillfully used. Although blends of texts from different sources have become a form unto themselves at this point in literary history, Ramke’s adaptation of the technique echoes Williams’s use of it more than it recalls any recent attempts. In Paterson, his book-length quasi-history of Paterson, N.J., Williams mixes together fragments of letters from authors and patients with historical documents and literary fragments--what emerges from that poem, as in this volume, is not the clang of decades but, rather, a sense of their community. One feels reassured that if generations talk to each other, they may well agree--and further, that texts from different times, places, and stances could mingle to create a coherent work. Ramke chooses external passages that are blazingly clear and yet do not overwhelm his own voice. The ghosts in his poems may walk through every room, but they are strangely untortured. When they moan, we listen.

And they have a lot to moan about. Ramke chooses blazingly clear passages that strengthen his own voice as he builds towards the ultimate suggestion that history is a gradual downward slide towards a heap of best laid plans. This dour interpretation surfaces in many of the poems in this book. Ramke even writes, "We are a small group of humans, full of good intentions. We are full of despair." Ramke’s humanity despairs, indeed, at not following up on those intentions, even as it may hope to be up to the task someday. The book overflows with this kind of longing, with dissatisfaction with what has been accomplished so far--which is what drives most of us, but also what causes us to grind our teeth in the night. When Ramke describes sadness as "equilibrium amidst / the flurries of mania and depression," this less savory emotion suddenly becomes a sort of refuge; in the face of dissolution, perhaps it is spiritually safest to be simply sad.

Ramke repeatedly refers to Audubon as a sort of muse or, at least, a role model. In painting each of the different kinds of birds and placing them in their proper categories--and, further, in laying them out for us to see and distinguish--Audubon was suspending the motion of a perpetually moving species, bringing each of these creatures of movement to a complete stop. This action radiates outward through the book as Ramke brings us in, closer and closer, to his subjects, until we feel as if we are breathing their breath. In one solipsistic moment of adolescence, Ramke pauses from "listening to my own body swerve into itself" to notice choice minutiae: "the letter C glittering after snails and such small fish / as can be caught. I saw the dance of the Little Blue Heron / and I heard its wing and I saw its blue beak." And for what purpose? Ramke asks his readers to examine themselves just this closely, to ask themselves not if they are happy, but if they are using their space on earth adequately, if they are doing as much as they could. At times he bears down on the reader with the quiet force of an ordained Puritan minister. And yet he offers, in "The History of Tenderness," that "Music may save us" and, later, that he himself wishes to be Audubon. The two desires--to make music and to order the world through a visual catalogue--may be more similar than we think. Just as Audubon might have reached outward to bring the wilderness within himself, a composer, or poet, or even a person in the act of prayer might somehow push away from the general muck through a self-conscious summoning of order.

Even at the rare moments when his verse might seem more casual, Ramke’s sober self-knowledge is nevertheless present. In the longer work "Testimony," Ramke tries for an informal retelling of the story of Daniel, beginning with "I like this one because he stands here surrounded with languages and cultures not his own, and he reads to save his life and he sleeps through the night while the king keeps dreaming dreams and suffering." There’s nothing casual at all here; even in the mildly clownish voicing of this story lies the bringing of the mythic into a human perspective, the use of biblical paradigms to examine the negligible status of the reader, scholar, or even poet in a society potentially hostile to his pursuits. In these lines from "Grass Fires," Ramke runs the gamut from slavish attention to the subject of his gaze to a conversational, almost confiding tone: "The landscape swerves--I awake / this morning as if I know something and I love / the way it makes me feel dangerous. The loud world listens. I as farmer." The poet is half willing to reveal his self-awareness, half frightened of the "danger" implicit in that knowledge, as if he runs the risk of becoming a part of the "loud world" if he speaks his mind.

Of course, in the title poem, Ramke opens himself up quite confidently--or does he? "Wake" is at once convincing and elusive. It begins with a bewailing of innocence--"what do you do with a boy who wants the world beautiful" and ends with two lovers’ dance, watched, presumably, by the same boy. Between these not-so-distant points lie memories of childhood among boatmen, quotes from Pound, Graves, and Milton, and numerous passages in archaic, inverted, and Latinate diction. The poem moves with the speed and spontaneity of Beckett, as one image contradicts another and is then followed by a report on the previous contradiction, and so on, until finally the reader is sucked into the poem and becomes a part of its semi-forward, semi-outward movement. The verse swells as notes might rise together to a crescendo--and in its lack of punctuation it keeps its caution off its sleeve, unlike the other poems in the book. The poem is also a sustained performance, a glimpse of a life that might well be the author’s but could easily be that of a character whose life Ramke faithfully records. Performance though it might be, it is a persuasive argument for the power of the lyric and for each human being’s right to unmediated detailing of time’s bombardment.

The strength of Wake will not necessarily rear its head immediately; Ramke’s refinement will not allow for instant comprehension. But the sense that gathers, as one reads the book, is that this collection is the result of half a lifetime’s ruminations, if all inward and previously unaired. Readers should be thankful that Ramke has shared his inner peregrinations; those sturdy enough to withstand the hard Sophoclean light of his examination of humankind and the world at large may be the wiser for it.

Originally published in the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review



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