Words as 'things' ('actions'/'events')

Glass bowls used in live performance of Stephen Ratcliffe's Remarks on Color / Sound, Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, May 16, 2010.

The Greek thinkers speak of σωζειν τα φαινοηενος — “to save what appears”; that means to conserve and to preserve in unconcealedness what shows itself as what shows itself and in the way it shows itself — that is against the withdrawing into concealment and distortion. He who in this fashion saves (conserves and preserves) the appearing, saves it into the unconcealed, is himself saved for the unconcealed and conserved for it.

— Heidegger, Parmenides[1]



grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed
top of ridge, motion of leaves on branch
in foreground, sound of waves in channel

      this object in this appears,
      which was arrangement

      of “flatness” comparable to
      color, “subject,” one

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
wingspan of gull gliding toward horizon

(Temporality, 982)

The words are a writing down of the ‘things’ the person is seeing looking out at them ‘out there’ (in the world). And the ‘things’ (which are ‘events’/‘actions’) are taking place in a real present of time going on, from one moment to the next to the next. … The words are not those ‘things’ (‘events’/‘actions’) per se, are ‘equivalents’ (in their own time and place, i.e., on the stage of the page) of those things (actions/‘events’) — “grey whiteness of cloud … shadowed top of ridge, motion of leaves on branch … sound of waves in channel” — going on ‘out there’ (offstage, in the world). As phenomena, those things change from one moment to the next, one day to the next, as do the words that are ‘writing’ them into the present (presence) of the page (as site or stage of such writing). And so on 12.17, “grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed / top of ridge, motion of leaves on branch” becomes “grey whiteness of fog against invisible / ridge, green shapes of leaves on branch” on 12.18; and on 12.19 things change (and also do not) again, to “grey whiteness of fog against invisible ridge, sparrow perched on redwood fence.” The “clouds” and “ridge” are there in the distance, the “leaves on branch” and “sparrow … on fence” in the foreground — observer’s eye moving in such a perception of ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) in world, reader’s eye from word to word also moving. The words are an uncovering of what is ‘there’ in the world, visible but also “concealed” (from us, as viewers), in Heidegger’s sense that the truth of being in the world is also concealed, and that the poem can bring things forward to disclose themselves, as presence, in the appearance of their unconcealment on the page/stage (i.e., the site of their verbal ‘action,’ which ‘shows’ us (in words) that offstage action of those things/events taking place (‘happening’) ‘out there’ (in the world).

What follows those first three lines (i.e., two indented pairs of lines also set in Courier — an ‘equivalent spacing’ font/typeface in which each letter, space, and mark of punctuation has the same width; the first line in each of these couplets six spaces longer than the second; one comma in the first pair of lines, two in the second) shifts ‘things’ a bit:

this object in this appears,
which was arrangement

of “flatness” comparable to
color, “subject,” one

Does “this object” ‘point to’ what preceded it (a “sound of waves in channel”), as it seems to? Does the second “this” in the line ‘point to’ the line itself (i.e., to the prepositional phrase “in this appears”), where that “sound of waves” and, before that, the “motion of leaves on branch” and “grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed / top of ridge” also ‘appear,’ or seem to, as unconcealed ‘things’ (’action’/‘events’) now taking place as presences in the words, as it would seem? Are such words an “arrangement” of such ‘things’ (‘action’/‘events’) as words, whose “flatness” (i.e., on the page) is somehow (by what Prospero called “this rough magic”) made (mysteriously, certainly) “comparable [like, the ‘enactment’ or ‘performance’ of] to” such ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) as it also would seem? And does “color” (in the following line) ‘point to’ (or rather, ‘name’) what these words are here ‘talking about’ as words (i.e., their material ‘focus’ or ‘subject matter,’ so to speak); and “one” (perhaps? floating there as it is at the end of the line) ‘point to’ what’s coming next, in the final couplet, as it also indeed seems to —

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
wingspan of gull gliding toward horizon

— the words in those two lines (like the words in the first three lines) again also ‘naming’/‘pointing to’/‘performing’/‘enacting’/‘being’ those actual ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) ‘out there’ in that (offstage) world, whose ‘appearance’ here in words discloses them, makes them present (gives them ‘presence’ here on the page/stage), brings them into what Heidegger called “unconcealedness”?

But this poem (“12.17” so called) is only one poem/page of many — its ‘title’ pointing to the day it was written, 12.17.10, 12 days ago (I’m writing this on 12.28.10 having written a new poem/page, earlier this morning, “12.28,” which looks exactly like this one: one 3-line stanza with two commas followed by two indented 2-line stanzas [one with a comma, the other with two commas] followed by a final two-line stanza with one comma) — in a work that began on April 10, 2008 (with “4.10”) and will continue to January 4, 2011 (“1.4”): 1,000 pages, written in 1,000 consecutive days (“12.17” is page 982 — a work called Temporality. And before Temporality, two previous 1,000-page works: Remarks on Color / Sound (written from July 15, 2005, to April 9, 2010), and HUMAN / NATURE (written from October 19, 2002, to July 14, 2005); and, before these, three earlier 474-page works: CLOUD / RIDGE (written from July 2, 2001, to October 18, 2002),[2] REAL[3] (from March 17, 2000, to July 1, 2001), Portraits & Repetition[4] (from February 9, 1998, to May 28, 1999) — some 4,422 pages of ‘days’ — ‘days’ written in consecutive days — all of them sort of doing the same thing; i.e., “seeing, hearing, wording,” as Norman Fischer has written, keeping track (in words) of ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) ‘out there’ in the world …

Every page in each of these works has its own physical ‘shape,’ so to speak, so that when one turns the pages one sees, or seems to, the same thing: in Portraits & Repetition, five 2-line couplets, the first line always three ‘characters’ — letters, spaces, marks of punctuation — longer than the second, somewhere in every pair of lines one comma plus one word in parenthesis; and in REAL, a 17-line prose poem (or so it seems, except that the line breaks are intentional, the right margin of each page having or making a particular ‘shape’), each with five sentences and a comma in each sentence; and in CLOUD / RIDGE (its title ‘shows’ the cloud above the ridge), each page with five stanzas (with one comma in each), each right margin on every page also creating a visual ‘shape’ on the page (which ‘pictures’ the acoustic shape of its sound in the air); and in HUMAN / NATURE, four stanzas (with two commas in the first and third, one in the second and fourth), ten lines on each page (each indented line ‘counted’ as part of the line before it, each one moved three spaces to the right of that preceding line); and in Remarks on Color / Sound, nine lines in four stanzas (with two commas in the first and third, two in the second and fourth), the two middle/‘inner’ 2-line stanzas indented six spaces to the right of the two ‘outer’ ones, which ‘frame’ them, one with three lines and the other with two; and in Temporality, four stanzas of nine lines (the same pattern of 3, 2, 2, 2, the two ‘inside’ ones again indented six spaces to the right), two commas in the first and third stanzas, two in the second and fourth, lengths of lines somewhat shorter than in Remarks on Color / Sound, as for example in “12.17” above.

But so much for what one sees when one reads these ‘shaped’ words on a page, seeing/hearing/wording ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’). What’s the point? Why do it? Why every day? Why the same thing every day (day after day after day)? Is each day (poem/page) the same? Is any day (poem/page) better than any other? How can you know? How can someone read it — who will read it for that matter (or for that matter publish it)? How will they read it, or think about it, or ever remember it? What will it mean (to readers who read it, think about it, remember it)? And beyond questions such as these, these further questions (for writer as well as reader): what happens when you look at (or listen to) something, day after day after day, over and over again? What do you actually see, or hear? And how can you ‘say’ it (i.e., write down what it is that you see or hear)? What is the relation between the words you use and the actual ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) you see or hear? Is there a relation between the name of something and that thing, as Plato in the Cratylus seemed to propose: “things have names by nature”; “the name is to be like the thing”; “names rightly given are the likenesses … of the things which they name.”[5] That is to say, can there be words “that [make] whatever I [look] at look like itself … words that make what I [look] at be itself” (my italics), as Gertrude Stein writes in “Portraits and Repetition”?[6] And is it possible that those words are not, as Stein discovered, “words that [have] in them any quality of description” but rather are themselves those things — made (by naming) to “be” themselves as real/actual ‘things’ (presences) on the page that is the stage of their being (by being ‘shown’) ‘here’ (present)/(unconcealed)?

Though questions such as these might not be easily answered, they seem to be the questions raised by these long ‘serial’ works I’ve been writing these days (all these years it seems), works that go on and on and on, doing the same kinds of things again and again: noting ‘matters of fact’; turning, as Theseus says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “the forms of things … to shapes,” giving them “a local habitation and a name”;[7] trying simply to ‘keep track’ of what’s going on from one (present) moment to the next, one day to the next — an ‘impossible task’ as it turns out— looking at, and listening to, things “without many preconceptions as to what that thing is,” as Norman Fischer again writes, wondering as Stein did in her “Portraits,”

just what one saw when one looked at anything really looked at anything. Did one see sound, and what was the relation between color and sound, did it make itself by description by a word that meant it or did it make itself by a word in itself.

And while other poets have turned their attention to writing “the long poem” (Whitman, Pound, Williams, Stevens, Zukofsky, and Olson “to name but a few”) no one (it seems) has taken it to quite such an extreme measure. Perhaps with good reason (!) for the reasons named in the preceding paragraph. But there are nonetheless some ‘contemporaries’ whose work I would point to as being somewhat in the same direction as mine: Larry Eigner, whose Collected Poems, more than 3,070 of them, in four volumes, has just been published by Stanford University Press; Ron Silliman, whose compendious The Alphabet gathers twenty-six smaller books (one for each letter of the alphabet, Albany through Zyxt) into one volume (1,062 pages); all of Leslie Scalapino’s life work — poetry, plays, fiction, and critical writings, including her just now published The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom, which as Norman Fischer has said to me “is like seven novels, with every novel unfolding in every sentence”;[8] and Robert Grenier, whose poems (‘hand drawn’ in ‘notebooks’) are virtually unpublished, at least not as printed books.[9] What might one say about such ‘on-going’ (and, in Grenier’s case, impossible to publish?) work? Perhaps in the ‘glimpse’ that follows ‘here’ is the beginning of an answer to that question …

Bob Grenier, my good friend and neighbor here in Bolinas, started writing his ‘drawn poems’ in 1989, shortly after moving here. To date, he has completed some 130-plus ‘notebooks’ of these poems, each notebook measuring 8 3/4” high by 5 3/4” wide, each with 110 pages, which comes to a total of some 14,300-plus pages of ‘drawn poems’ by my count. The poems are written in four colors of ink, Faber-Castelli “uni-ball” black, blue, green, and red, impossibly expensive to print (in books) but now variously ‘available’ — both online and at the Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, which has sixty-four Giclée prints made from drawing poem images “from the ‘agricultural year’ 2003–2005 in Bolinas, California (rainy season to rainy season — a sort of Shepherd’s Calendar without shepherd or sheep) called 64” (see here for “rough [as Bob calls them] translations of the texts” of these poems). Here are “rough translations” of three of Grenier’s poems from “64”:

RED W [green/blue]
OOOD [blue]
[OODD (blue)]
RED [black]
WOODS [red]

AFTER [red]
NOON [black]
SUN [green]
SHINE [blue]

Note the presence of the afternoon sun shining on the wall of the house, which ‘[re]appears’ in such letters drawn in the poem that ‘says’ that light, lets it ‘come forth’ into being; how the words gather their authority from the things they name; how ‘to say’ it (what Heidegger in Early Greek Thinking calls “λεγειν,” “a letting-lie-together before which gathers and is gathered”[10]) “names the inexhaustible mystery that the speaking of language comes to pass from the unconcealment of what is present, and is determined according to the lying-before of what is present as the letting-lie-together-before.” …

APRI [red]
COT [blue]
JAM [green]
JAR [black]

Note how letters line up on the lines like jars of apricot jam on a shelf: the A and P and lower case r and dot over the i in the first line look like real jars of jam; so do the C and O in the second line; so also the J and the A and the first loop of the M in the third line, and the J and R at the end — which isn’t to say that a word-made-of-letters is ‘the same’ as what it ‘means’ – since it is utterly ‘unlike’ whatever it ‘points to’ or ‘names’ – but that it ‘corresponds to,’ or is ‘in accord with’ or ‘in the company of,’ everything else that’s going on ‘out there’; that it occurs with the thing, ‘vibrates’ together with it, which is very mysterious. … Word-conserving/preserving, “language” (Grenier writes) “like jam when it is being made, or cookies when they are being made, a gathering-of-‘ingredients’ (letters, e.g., letters into words) w[hi]ch allows what is to come into being, as ‘itself’”; after-the-fact of the occasion of the writing, what is said is conserved in ‘written form’ to be read.”[11]

And here are three more from the June 2010 notebook:

FOX W [red]
4 [black]
MORE [green]
FOX [blue]

Note the numbers: first one fox (the mother) then four more (her “kits”), then “FOX” singular (rather than plural), like the first one: 3 + 1 letters in that line ‘equal to’ Arabic numeral “4” in next line. …

A [black]
BAT [green]
A [red]
BAT [blue]

Again note the numbers (counting): first one bat then another — which disappears out of sight off the page to the left (vertical stroke of the B in the last line missing); a 1, 3, 1, 3 series of letters per line; one A in each line, two B’s and two T’s in lines 2 and 4. …

HERE [red]
I AM [black]
THERE [green]
YOU [blue]

A poem for Leslie Scalapino (who is no longer here), which echoes Creeley in Pieces[12] (also not here): “Here I / am. There / you are” — without enough space for “are” after the “you” in the last line (since Leslie also is not here). All of these poems are elegiac, in that time is passing in them (is registered in this writing of the pen moving across the page), these marks made by “this living hand” of Robert Grenier that bear witness and testify to the fact of being alive.

And here finally is one of the poems from Penn Scans:

ACROSS [blue]
THE [green]
ROAD [black]

Note how the words seem to bring forth the action: how, as Grenier writes, “Whether drawing poem texts like ‘the one about crickets’ (no. 39) accomplish (or help accomplish) whatever it is they are otherwise ‘saying’ — so that seeing/reading ‘crickets’ a reader may hear ‘crickets themselves’ (& even be able to literally go (‘by ear’) ‘across/the/road’?) — remains an animating question.” …


The examples that follow illustrate the practice described above. For more poems by Stephen Ratcliffe in this feature, click here.


From Portraits & Repetition


approach of a bird's sound before the observer sees it (out)
window on left, profile of figure standing in front of it

vertical edge beside (angle) of plane, appearance of subject
whose following perception includes the feeling inside it

sunlight in relation to thinking of the surface of the ridge
(see) adjacent to which it isn't an actual event, example

followed by object on left, the way the person's hand passes
across face in mirror leaning against the wall (imagined)

(not) like invisible action before it becomes the experience
inside thought, distance between stem in glass and viewer



Sunlit surface of an orange globe on white shelf
reflected in the window opposite it, small dark
bird crossing the pale blue of sky in vertical
window on left.  Pregnant woman in a dark blue
sweater who watches child jump naked into pool
at edge of brick plane, woman whose hair falls
across right cheek calling museum in Amsterdam
"the mother lode."  Ophelia pulling a necklace
on a string from bosom of white dress, wanting
to give it back to Hamlet who doesn't want it
back.  Silver-haired man in green sweatshirt
whose teenage boy tapes ounce of pot to his
groin before boarding plane for Mexico, gets up
each morning to a vial of insulin without which
he will die.  An inverted triangle of sunlight
slanting into canyon below top of ridge, bird
passing across low grey cloud cover above it.




upturned curve of pine branch against first grey
light in right corner, chorus of birds calling
from plane of field below it
                               woman in dark
green shirt recalling her parents not letting
her leave Beirut to see her boyfriend, locking
herself in her room all day to read Dr. Zhivago

woman in blue V-neck sweater asking “what would
Mrs. Ramsay say,” claiming she had been in love
         Mr. Tansley thinking “if only he could
be alone in his room,” noting that “he was not
going to be made a fool of by women”
circle of sun’s reflection in the motionless
grey green plane on the left, bits of white
shells scattered over sand bottom below it




golden-crowned sparrow perched on dried hemlock stalk against
grey white sky in right foreground, two red finches on feeder
across from it, sound of waves in channel
                                            man on right
noting “a streak of pure paint might give a sense of red,
its glow would be cross-hatched with green"
                                              man across
from him adding “I have limited myself to the use of black
and white, as being the most disparate colors, red the color
most opposed to both of them”
                                sunlit sandstone-colored point
against pale blue whiteness of sky in upper left corner, white
edge of blue green wave braking into foreground across from it



From Remarks on Color / Sound


silhouette of hummingbird perched on yellow and green tip
of branch against grey whiteness of cloud, golden-crowned
sparrow calling oh dear me, sound of jet passing overhead

     the eye moves from one to the next,
     measuring each one’s effect

     these perspectives, each one of us,
     cannot be simply juxtaposed

grey whiteness of cloud on horizon to the left of point,
shadowed green canyon of tree-lined ridge above channel 



1.  Martin Heidegger, Parmenides, trans. André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 120.

2.  CLOUD / RIDGE (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX [books], 2011); CLOUD / RIDGE and HUMAN / NATURE can also be found in the form of earlier drafts at UbuWeb here and here.

3.  Stephen Ratcliffe, REAL (Bolinas, CA: Avenue B, 2007).

4.  Ratcliffe, Portraits & Repetition (Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 2002).

5.  Plato, “Cratylus,” in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 429, 468, 473.

6.  Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetition,” in Writings and Lectures 1909–1945, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1971), 115.

7.  William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002).

8.  Norman Fischer, conversation with author, December 3, 2010.

9.  Larry Eigner, The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, ed. Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Ron Silliman, The Alphabet (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2008); Robert Grenier, “Penn Scans Note,” “64 / Robert Grenier Drawing Poem Prints,” “‘Rough’ Translations from Drawing/Poems, 2004,” and “Notebook,” June 2010.

10.  Heidegger, “Logos (Heraclitus, Fragment B 50),” in Early Greek Thinking, trans. David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi (New York: Harper/Collins, 1984), 64.

11.  Remarks here and elsewhere from Robert Grenier, conversations with author, January 2–3, 2011, and correspondence with author, January 2, 2011.

12.  Robert Creeley, Pieces (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1969).