Stephen Ratcliffe's 'REAL'
Thinking about the practice of Stephen Ratcliffe’s REAL begins with wondering about the practice and duration of reading itself. How to stay alongside — faithful to — a writing that over hundreds of pages meticulously records its daily meeting with a continuously framed and framing world. Does reading accompany the quiet imperative of this attention, its repetition and observance, or find another route? Is it a process to inhabit slowly, keeping pace a day at a time, and how would that be possible, in translating what it makes present into an elsewhere? How and where does REAL take place?
REAL is one phase of a continuous project of recording, which most recently can be seen on Ratcliffe’s blog, where the sequence Temporality is unfolding daily. Like this work, and other companion sequences, from Portraits & Repetition CLOUD / RIDGE (available in its entirety on UbuWeb and also forthcoming in print fall 2011 from BlazeVOX), and from the thousand-page HUMAN / NATURE (online at Editions Eclipse, making a kind of triptych with the equally extensive Remarks on Color / Sound and Temporality, which can also be found there), to REAL discovers its own material shape and organization as document. The documenting of this experienced world has extent and duration, like the living of a life, but it is also a registering of an unrolling enquiry into its abstracting translation by language and aesthetic form, via curious crossings, small and sometimes miraculous detonations of thought and reflection.
Each of these works has its own procedurally repeated shape on the page, often a framing observation of the early morning in Bolinas, California, Ratcliffe’s home: the ridge, sea, light, sounds of particular birds, occasional movement of creatures, cars, and planes, all surrounding or embedding, always in a repeated form, a fragment of reading, quotation, or moment of reflection on the practice of painting, music, film. These works are all in different ways founded on a dedicated enquiry into repetition and time, repetition understood as a Steinian ‘insistence,’ perhaps, which works to capture “that present ‘something,’” as Ratcliffe discusses in his reading of her. At the same time, there is a phenomenological pitch towards the world which at times suggest a Thoreau-like trust in that point of awakening, the opening of a field of perception which is both recognisable — it is the same ridge, the seeming same palette of movement, color, sound — and yet never the same, always present to rediscovery in new perceptual vectors as encounter. In what follows I want to explore aspects of what might be seen as the choreography of this process, and then how REAL in particular (as an intimation of what I see as a noir version of this) might appear to begin to test it.
Often in the philosophical and reflective fragments — portraits? — of these epic prose-poem sequences it’s not clear who is speaking, if evidently voiced. Or where the found material might come from. Texts about the Red Army. An ekphrastic invocation of Cézanne. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Media moments, reportage: “Wolfowitz recalling ‘how terrible it was for the Poles during the uprising, three thousand killed every day, a World Trade Center every day’” (HUMAN / NATURE 11.14, 758). In all cases the sustained and meditative practice of encounter promises the surprise of continual and sensed counterpoint. Like that instance in Remarks on Color / Sound, when the “sound of owl hooing through grey whiteness of fog” gives way to another gestics:
black-capped chickadee landing on shadowed tobacco plant branch
in right foreground, quail walking across wet brick red plane
below it, sound of owl hooing through grey whiteness of fog
speaking of a melon, one uses both hands to express it
by a gesture
hoot de-onomatopoeticizes, hoo re-onomatopoeticizes,
which is ugly but moves like a tango
grey white fog across top of sandstone-colored point, oval
grey green mouth of wave breaking into foreground below it (5)
If there is a process of stepping through this writing, it works to an acoustic rhythm, an often visible patterning of sound. Or to the sometimes awkwardness — ‘ugly’ — recursive tango of a moment of thought. You think about “the what of the line,” as Ratcliffe terms it in his wonderful Listening to Reading, through multiple kinds of texture and movement, the gestics of its deterritorializations and reterritorializations. The turn of a comma. There’s a kind of ghost freight in this instance, too: hearing in the “wet brick red plane” both a Poundian imagism of the “wet, black bough” and an echo of Williams’s red wheelbarrow, perhaps. But this is a spatializing quality of a different order. The quail is in its continuous present “walking across … a plane” — an abstracted surface crossed in curious mimicry of what the eye does in walking along a line in the act of reading. I found myself wondering whether the quail was moving against, “across” the grain of that act. “Wet brick red plane” suggests both a paralleling of empirical world and its aesthetic translation, and at once its subsumption by the painterly, in which the plane is wet and brick-red, the quail in its quail-ness finding its place in other dimensions.
Attempting to describe the quiddity of the object in time is a kind of ‘anchoring,’ as Merleau-Ponty puts it in his essay “Temporality”: “I do not so much perceive objects as reckon with an environment.” That environment might be understood here in geometric terms, recorded as a series of surfaces — planes — and arguably also as the inhabiting of shreds of spacetime. The natural world of a Bolinas morning is there in itself, but also the occasion for a kind of seizing. The body, “speaking of a melon,” works to capture its dimensions in both hands, but it cuts into the frame at this moment as a phrase as well as an imagined object. The conjured-up melon might seem tangible but its introduction through a montage cut has a spatial and indeterminate quality. There is no melon. No one is speaking of a melon. Or, “speaking of a melon” might seem at the same time a declaration of a universal or habitual case, as if it might become a thing, a gerund. Or again, “speaking of a melon” might be an interruption, as if a conversation has not been heard, and we are suddenly tuned in. Perhaps the melon is there. What appears to refer to the direct mimesis of an object in the world turns into a form of simple abstraction, or gives way to a multiplicity of dimensions.
What then does it mean to ‘reckon’ with an environment in this way? In his excellent blog (itself a richly continuous work), John Latta has recently discussed Thomas McGrath’s response to Williams, to the “so much depends upon” of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” McGrath preferring the late Williams where the “poems begin to sing, and they’re not so tied to objects.” As McGrath continues: “It’s a terrible presumption, you know: ‘so much.’ How much? What? — ‘depends upon’ this? A better, a far better poem, is a poem about the same time called ‘Nantucket.’ At the end of that poem he puts a key there, and that, in the whole poem, just opens like an enormous flower of possibility. What happens when you use the key in this place that seems nature morte?” McGrath’s point, as Latta describes, is that while the Objectivists moved away from the “decorative” moment of seeing in Imagism, they “left out” in his view “that objects exist in a fluid world. They have to exist with people; people put them there.” There is a sense here of the human — social — context for these positionings, the pivot of that relation suggested here by the semicolon. McGrath’s hunch about what is missing in Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” or what is barely hinted at by that “key” in “Nantucket,” might be linked, Latta argues, to “a whole unsung compendia of political and economic (human) contexts,” to what is omitted in the act of seeing.
The “so much depends” in Ratcliffe’s work is evidently of a very different order of duration and attention. Sometimes it verges on meditation. Its sheer accretion arguably underlines something like this notion to the reader, the necessity of that daily assignation. Something depends on a bearing witness to. At the same time it is a kind of disassembling of that presumption — what occurs is what happens to be on that day, a series of chance crossings, like the quail wandering across the plane. Each day opens onto the flow of a continuous present; things are on the move, becoming. The intense phenomenological extension into the world this writing captures might suggest philosophical routes to the understanding of what it means to be “outside oneself and open to the world,” that condition of “ek-stase,” understood through Merleau-Ponty, or indeed through Heidegger, who is clearly in mind in the pages of REAL in the notions of presencing (4.30) and unconcealment (3.17). But what would it mean to think this writing in terms of what is unsung in this encounter? What happens in its placing of objects, events, sensations? In other words, how might the real in REAL be grasped?
REAL was written daily from March 2000 to July 2001, and each of the 474 pages registers the date, followed by a prose poem that uses certain constraints: seventeen lines, divided into five sentences, each of which pivots on a comma. The font is Courier, the shape plastic on the page. A set of observations moves through familiar and repeated planes and thresholds: descriptions of weather, birds and flowers, and the landscape and ocean; recurrent observations of men (“long-haired man,” “man in black wetsuit”), women (“woman in fuchsia dress,” “woman in red jacket yelling Fidel to black and white pit bull”), and children talking and interacting; the presence of material and scenes (other cities, sidewalks, interiors) which may be televisual or movie images or some other incursion of memory or off-stage percept made present; the surfacing of images, directly quoted words or phrases, colors, objects, and unanchored ‘missing’ perceptions. If REAL works the same Bolinas horizon as its companion sequences, it also moves into another temporal tectonics, it would seem: identifying in its repetitions and namings the material presence of events that have not yet taken place, emotions that would have happened but did not, things that occur, like the sound of water, outside the frame. It is more peopled and mediated than Ratcliffe’s other works, at times resembling (for me) watching the choreography of Pina Bausch.
The material in REAL works a rigorous counterpoint on the comma in each line. At the same time as the poems extend into a phenomenological world outside themselves through their everyday deixis, they encounter that activity in fragments of philosophical thought, intimate instances of artistic making. I’ve taken one sentence from each dated entry:
stating “the main who neglects the real to study
the ideal” will accomplish his ruin, real being
“varying circumstances of life.”
Man in the green chair
looking across the red brick plane, Cézanne
noting that painting from nature isn’t copying
the object but “materializing sensations.”
The woman who doesn’t talk taking a two-
hour nap on two consecutive days, Stravinsky
also claiming “what diminishes constraint,
These instances contain an aphoristic charge, but embedded as they are they work in each case like random encounters, becoming as material and present in the everyday as the people and objects that pass through the space of each entry. Something in the writing and its repetition equalizes, brings material in to a quiet point of exchange, a quoted fragment of philosophical thought that might be balanced, say, with the angle of a building or barking dog, a color equal to the view of someone from behind, when the viewer isn’t there. This counterpoint hints at impossible lineaments of connection, which REAL stays alongside.
Ratcliffe has spoken somewhere about how the process of REAL reminded him of the journal writings of Dorothy Wordsworth, and there is something about REAL’s accretion which suggests both the randomness and matter-of-fact pitch of a datebook’s relation to its present: that odd distribution of material that joins unrelated details in the manner of montage as well as habitual observance, such that the writer might look back and recall what passed through on that day, testimony to his having been there. There is a passage here, it might seem, as things become present to naming and yet overlaid with something retroactive, somehow everyday and yet invested with potential weight because they are lived and already gone.
So REAL attends to what is clearly on one level a familiar and habitual world, focused on a circle of unnamed friends, and on a particular landscape where infinitesimal shifts in light and observation mean that repetition is always in some sense renewal, a logic of difference lived out as ritual. Poetry taking place among friends and among everyday patterns and happenings, as if elements of the New York School were transposed for a season to the West Coast. Yet this is a poetry which stems from place and the meditative traditions of the poetic environments of California: that would include Bolinas poets such as Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, and also Ratcliffe’s close friend Bob Grenier, who surfaces enough for readerly recognition.
Something in this intimacy abstracts. The way the sentence balances on the comma’s central point produces a kinetic effect, as if in watching the central bubble of a spirit level you might suddenly be overcome with vertigo at the flow tipping the weight one way or another. These might appear points of equilibrium, in which seeming contradictions or contiguities are worked through a rhythmic counterpoint. But while this balance is there, calmly, as if its cutting is simply documenting what is, its pivot can also swing to a point of intensity, sometimes disturbance.
Take, for example, the first two opening lines of 9.28 in REAL:
Prone position of the ridge in relation to white-
grey texture of sky pressing down on it, motion
of cloud embedded against it. Woman in window
in a black shirt leaning over the corner of table
above a surface of yellow and pink and white
circles, the man in a faded green tee-shirt
hanging up the phone on the word “venting.”
The description of the scene builds a sense of pressure: ‘prone,” “pressing,” “embedded”; the woman “leaning over”; but there’s a sense that you don’t really notice that until the word “venting” arrives as a release. The spirit level suddenly slides. “Venting” suggests a displaced description of anger, a verbal sounding off, the phone is hung up. As elsewhere there is nothing to explain this detail as event, though it appears as one instance of what might be seen as a telephone series, the recurrence of “telephone space” and its unheard conversations. These points of intensity render unease in what is otherwise a surface accounting without emphasis, producing other series of gestics throughout REAL. These gestics begin to accrete for the reader, often intimating violence, potential jeopardy: earthquakes, sharks, traffic jams, visceral encounters, sex, murder. As in 5.21, which I’m quoting in full:
Whirr of hummingbird approaching tobacco plant
flowers above the listener, the backs of three
bright yellow birds heading out into the field.
“Might Gertrude Stein lie open to criticism?”
asks the last page left in the black Royal,
followed by “it seems to be”. Top right corner
of moon disappearing through a gap in the trees
above crickets on either side of a gravel path,
the tops of tallest grasses slowly falling
as the weed whip moves to the right below them.
The woman attempting to pour red wine from one
martini glass to the other spilling it, small
pieces of glass embedded in man’s left index
finger. The long narrow frame on the floor
breaking, body lying on the table violated
by the man standing behind door who wants
to do it again.
This kind of attention in the continuous present is reminiscent, perhaps, of the ‘objectivism’ of the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet (I’m thinking of a narrative like Jalousie), in its detailing and its enumeration of environments that seem encoded with significance and threat. But perhaps it is more interesting to think of REAL as a phenomenological form of noir, and in that way revealing of an unsung Californian real of another kind. Noir in the sense that Steinian insistence “lies open” to another “transformational grammar,” in Mike Davis’s words, in which the arcadia of the West Coast landscape returns in sinister equivalence. In City of Quartz, Davis argues that noir offers up a “surrogate public history” of Los Angeles. Perhaps REAL offers a glimmer of that accounting in bringing the unseen and unknown materially into the frame, exposing the human violences and desires that work through the angles of things and environments. The sustained tone of REAL, noncommittal, neutral, is itself suggestive of a kind of symbolic violence. Or perhaps its reckoning remains no more than an extended desire to stay live to the documenting, as in 6.7:
The man on the radio understanding
man on glass porch in Swampscott, noting that
each next thing in Eigner’s poem is just that
For the reader, there is a rich sense of suspension living alongside the attention of this writing, its daily practice, its quiet. But it’s also possible to encounter it differently. I listened simultaneously to Stephen Ratcliffe reading from Temporality in a sound file (there is ample opportunity on PennSound) while reading Color / Sound online and thinking about REAL. The triangulations it produced were accidental and generative, new kinds of acoustics and crossings. At the same time dimensions of a small London yard reflected in the screen, “the world / being thus put under mind for verb and noun” (2.26, 349).
6. John Latta, “McGrath’s Objectivists,” July 22, 2011. McGrath is quoted from a 1987 interview in Thomas McGrath: Life and the Poem, ed. Reginald Gibbons and Terrence Des Pres (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992).