A report from the Marin Headlands
Maybe the mountain lion droppings on the hiking trails or the rocky splash shorelines make the Marin Headlands seem remote, but geographically, this place is a cuticle on the Golden Gate Bridge’s big toe. And here you can find Headlands Center for the Arts, which hosted Remarks on Color / Sound, in which Stephen Ratcliffe and composer Edward Schocker performed Ratcliffe’s 1,000-page poem on May 16, 2010, in the Gym Studio at the Center. Bay Areans who missed the performance could use the remote location as an excuse, but certainly not the time of the performance. Locals had fourteen hours to stop by, sunrise to sunset. That’s like seven poetry readings combined.
As press for the event describes it: “The reading of the poem will accompany sound, light, movement, and sculpture in an open dialogue with the architecture of the surrounding space.” The philosophically vague “space” mentioned is a converted military complex in a recess of eucalyptus and concrete bunkers, most nooks replete with ghost stories. Remarks on Color / Sound was in the gym, where national guardsmen once played basketball while on break from protecting the coast, circa first half of the twentieth century. Ratcliffe was stationed within, at a simple wooden desk.
The arts center is not exactly squatting in a decommissioned military base. The nonprofit is a breathing organism of Golden Gate National Park, which was incorporated in the early 1980s when local artists traded renovations for studio time and then mustered up a board of directors. It functions as a residency for local, national, and international artists, writers, and musicians, like Schocker, who worked in the gym several days a week for six months in 2010. In Remarks on Color / Sound, Ratcliffe read the 1,000 pages he wrote in 1,000 consecutive days beginning October 27, 2005, and finishing April 9, 2008. I sat through two months of the poem, at 11 a.m. and then again at 4 p.m. Knowing that the reading and music would last fourteen hours mediated my interaction as fragments not entirely lost from the shape of the whole. I was following a trace of writing from several years ago deposited into the gym. It was a crazy clock of invisible hand-me-downs cast on mountains staring at me through tall windows.
The poetry at this performance came to represent a place to enter and leave. Unless you were there at the very end, you had to leave the poetry, as opposed to the reading being announced as over. Schmoozing was at an all-time low. A fellow audience member, while in the made-from-scratch-all-organic mess hall, mentioned to me the off-putting hierarchy of a durational performance. How fourteen hours may be more intimidating than inviting, making the audience feel inadequate or left out, and as a result, noncommittal. Remarks on Color / Sound did not pander to the audience used to a time of trends known as participation. The performers took eating and resting breaks to stay afloat; some wore their pajamas. I saw Schocker at one point roaming away from the gym with a hot water kettle, the plug scraping along the ground.
Stephen Ratcliffe’s reading table.
As much as there was music and poetry coinciding, accompanying each other, a report on the event requires first some attention to Ratcliffe, the definitive star of the piece, with the most deadpan aria I’ve ever heard. This was a performance of active and accidental editing. It brought up the question of how is it as much the reader entering a long piece and leaving it as the writer selecting the best parts to read out loud. At times, there was no audience in the Gym Studio. Who was listening to this poetry then?
The audience for Ratcliffe’s work encompasses the insistent generalities of landscape being written of and the space the work is read in. Ratcliffe’s formal consistency — a daily production of poems — lives just up the coastal trail from Headlands, in a studio with a breathtaking view. Remarks on Color / Sound summoned spirits who refuse selection from a poetry of practice and then summoned spirits who denounce the conundrum of editing. Can editing be as rhythmic as waking up, as routine as taking in the scene and air immediately around you? And the relief, what’s edited out, is the time you are not inside a poem’s space? In other words, how do you edit Stephen Ratcliffe? You walk in and out.
Ratcliffe describes the form of Remarks on Color / Sound’s 1,000 poems as “ALL in the same ‘shape’ on the page, a three-line first stanza (with 2 commas), followed by two 2-line middle stanzas (the first with 1 comma, the second with 2 commas), followed by a final 2-line stanza (with 1 comma at the end of the first line).” And every poem is set in Courier font, “so there’s a physical shape to the right margin.” This sounds like a choreographer talking to a group of dancers. Ratcliffe’s form plays with notions of a performative score. And then the pages in Remarks on Color / Sound take on a conceptual sculpture, with all the pages looking similar from a few steps back. Wait: is this art or poetry? Wait, I hate that question. Let’s read the stack of 1,000 pages as the contours of a rectangular sculpture. But the consistency Ratcliffe yields does not equal or result in a reading of ambience at all. There are sharp incisions embedded here, in terms of content, especially with Ratcliffe’s criticality on his language product: “I do not visualize anything, all these landscapes are already there.”
silver circle of sunlight in grey whiteness of sky,
shadowed plane of sandstone-colored wall in lower
left foreground, sound of cars passing in street
when eye wanders away from the edge,
white crops the image
in this way, horizon of possible,
though each appearance
edge of sandstone wall against grey-white sky,
shadowed green leaves of trees across from it
Left to right: Zachary Watkins on electronics, Suki O’Kane on drums, and Stephen Ratcliffe.
It would be unfaithful to a full report not to start talking about the soundscape. Ratcliffe’s reading was embedded within the work of four musicians led by Schocker. A partial inventory of their instruments is as follows: wood flutes, enlarged glass vases, pots, rice, grills, walkie-talkies, speakers, a mixer, and a bass guitar. The musicians worked with their toy store at a rotation of fresh liberty to build accompaniments to solo breakdowns. The music’s randomness was not nearly as calculated as a Merce Cunningham score. It seemed the musicians were responding to what Ratcliffe was reading. The arrangement of the musicians on the basketball court was orbital to Stephen’s desk, but everyone seemed to be stuck in a visible earth tilt: backs were turned to each other like it was gravity’s fault, not bad manners. Perhaps these postures brought deviance to the switchboard: sometimes Ratcliffe’s words were not audible, but other times his voice was adjusted to maximum fuzz blast. I even had the feeling that the musicians were spiteful of the 1,000 poems’ calm constancy.
I’m feeling stuck on the words collaboration and interdisciplinary in describing my experience at this performance. This naming of the performance feels strained, like a tortoise and hare roleplay might, which brings up the risk of competition among mediums when they share the stage. The musicians achieved the problematics of democratizing instrumental sound with language sound by demonstrating that not all voices are equal. This echoed the experience of reading such a long work as Ratcliffe’s, how parts get lost and pieces get held onto. You’re given the illusion of control in a very large system.
Stephen announced each page with an easy-to-decode numbers scheme of month, then day. I heard no years. The date announcement is a pause where your own brood of birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays latch on to the date. Personal connotations bump into Ratcliffe’s subject, the three-dimensional audiovisual from a window. A resonating moment was the line “sound of jet passing overhead,” repeated and landing on the aftermath of September 11. This is not a timeless poetry. The date of the poem makes listening to the poem uncomfortable; it is unafraid of what the fact of time does to us.
Instrumentals at the Marin Headlands reading.
Then there is the page: something of a technical necessity at a durational reading. Don’t even try to memorize this or look up at the audience to connect. The poem in Remarks on Color / Sound is located in the act of reading the 1,000 pages. I locate the poem as a region on a mind map where poems are not singular places. Which makes Ratcliffe’s poetry, in refusing a selection, insist on the performance as its wedding night. Remarks on Color / Sound becomes a sort of did you hear about this event poem as opposed to a did you hear it’s very difficult to fund the printing of a book of 1,000 pages poem. And this performance becomes a legend to drag your cursor over.
But what about the power of institutions to promote the documentation of performance art so that it lives past the sparsely attended event? We depend on documentation just as we depend on performance art to do the unusual. I don’t think that makes undocumented work a spectacle. And I don’t think it makes documentation of an event any less complicated. On September 25, 2010, the Marina Abramović Institute West in San Francisco hosted 4 Better, 4 Worse, by Lital Dotan and Eyal Perry, an homage to Abramović’s 1974 performance Rhythm 0. Rhythm 0 was the piece where Abramović got a gun pointed at her head. She put the gun on a table with seventy-one other objects the public was asked to use on her.
Back to reality: at the famous performance artist’s nonprofit, the stage was a woman on an air mattress, plus anything the step-right-up audience felt like doing to her with household objects mounted on a wall nearby. A cluster of people behind two video cameras on tripods built the mirroring stage. This wall-o-documentation made me feel like a dog with an invisible fence collar zapping. Then there was the official photographer who looked like he was on the court at Madison Square Garden and then there were all the people the official photographer told me he couldn’t, or didn’t care enough to, stop from taking pictures of the performance. And this was an homage to canonically spectacular performance art, the type where you wait for blood.
This is all to say, the spectacular, or the thrill, in Remarks on Color / Sound lay in its challenge not only to the page, but also to the small space of a thirty-minute selection we tend to hear at the traditional poetry reading. Ratcliffe and Schocker have worked together before. Remarks continued “investigations into the integration/interaction of human beings and natural landscape that began in their 2008 performance, human/nature, at UC Davis,” described as “the relation between things seen/observed in the natural world and how such things might be made (transcribed/transformed) as works of written (or visual) art.”
In human/nature, Ratcliffe and Schocker underestimated the time it would take to get through the work by five hours. Ratcliffe recalls, “Sometime in the middle of the night I realized I was the only person in the room who was still awake.” And yet, how is that different than a poet’s potentially weak moment of unconnectivity with the words on the page to the people in the folding chairs at a poetry reading? Stephen Ratcliffe’s durational poetry readings are not necessarily radical but real to his work. And what would poetry readings start to look like if the formal aspects of performance started to speak this fluently to what the work wants and needs?
One thousand pages of reading at the Marin Headlands.
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).
In the early 1990s, Phillip Foss and Charles Bernstein coedited a special double issue of Tyuonyi ostensibly addressing contemporary tendencies in late twentieth-century poetry.To do so, they distributed a short survey asking participants to address what they called “patterns, contexts and time,” shaping (sharpening?) a praxis of the present by investigating the social and political factors influencing (both positively and negatively) tendencies in contemporary writing. In response to the question “What patterns, if any, do you see developing that are presently influencing habits of reading or readership within poetry?” Stephen Ratcliffe curiously addressed his contemporary scene by invoking none other than William Shakespeare: “The writing of today that most engages my attention reminds me of Shakespeare’s plays; one doesn’t so much want to ask ‘What is the meaning?’ but rather ‘Where does the meaning lie?’ — which is to say, ‘How does the work make meaning?’”
I’m immediately reminded of a dictum adduced by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben that “the contemporary … must firmly hold his gaze on his own time,” in order to stare squarely into darkness — to face the aporias, the crucial absences that all but define one’s contemporary scene (despite the glare of the popular, the fashionable — the bellicose glare of what comes to stand, for better or worse, for an age and our participation in it). For Ratcliffe, however, Shakespeare offers the possibility to read what a text does rather than what it says — to stare into the darkness of meaning in order to meditate more intensely on how it works. He writes that Shakespeare’s words “send a current my way, through the ear by way of the syllable, whose sense so to speak won’t hold still, isn’t easily tamed, caged or made in any way to fit the pigeon-hole paraphrase would set to trap it, chew it up, digest away the play.” Shakespeare, then, is Ratcliffe’s closest contemporary, for he is precisely the poet (to use Agamben’s terminology) who knows how to see this obscurity — “who is able to write dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present.”
Ratcliffe’s writing on Shakespeare in Tyuonyi is roughly coeval with the sustained meditations on sound-shape and sonic visuality in Listening to Reading in which he invokes an oft-cited Wittgensteinian text: “Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not in the language-game of giving information.” In Listening to Reading, Ratcliffe reminds us that language is only what it says by virtue of what it does — meaning made tangible (however temporarily) by the confluence of acoustic, visual, and intellective interplay; which is to say that the best writing doesn’t shrink from blatant, shrill, conspicuous meaning-making but rather asserts itself as crafted, material object next to what it says. This is precisely the manner by which Louis Zukofsky made Shakespeare his contemporary: in his massive critical statement Bottom: On Shakespeare, Zukofsky reminds us that Shakespeare’s characters are both actors and words on the page, words that can outperform their speaking counterparts even in what they don’t say.
Ratcliffe’s Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet (Counterpath Press, 2010) also begins with the mystery of Shakespeare’s characters, but where Zukofsky’s language “sees,” Ratcliffe’s is unseen — felt somatically (often deeply) through the interplay of senses. The book’s claims are humble and in some ways totally conspicuous, but its conclusions are much larger than they purport to be. Here’s the thesis: while we’re not always cognizant of the fact in the theater, the majority of “action” in Hamlet happens offstage, in and as language, through dialogue, anecdote, and aside; in fact, virtually all of the major plot-advancing action takes place through description, in the character’s speeches about absent actions: King Hamlet’s murder, Ophelia’s death, Hamlet’s voyage to England, et cetera. Which is to say that when we watch Hamlet, we find ourselves watching speech (or better, watching our minds seeing what they’re told to see). As such, Ratcliffe concludes that Hamlet performs, sometimes blatantly, how words can be entirely present while absconding their own materiality in the totally absent center of meaning-making. As such, “‘Words, words, words’ (2.2.192) in these speeches make physically absent things imaginatively ‘present’ … they ‘show’ us action we don’t actually see; how what is concealed from us (thus unseen, unknown) is essential both to [Hamlet] and to our lives in this world …” (xi–xii). Which is to say, finally, that words “see” what is unseen; they paint for us absent action and bring to life (imaginatively) language in our heads while somehow retreating into their own materiality (or lack thereof). So, for Ratcliffe, “words … are what Hamlet itself is ultimately about” (52).
It’s a brilliant thesis, hard won by Ratcliffe’s particular brand of obsessive close reading, but what makes it truly masterful is how it too, layer upon layer upon layer, rehearses how language actually works. While the book is ostensibly about offstage action (just as language has a determinate content), “there is more to it than meets the eye, and ear too for that matter” (30). While this book is certainly about Shakespeare, it is also just as much not about Shakespeare (in a prototypical avant-garde tradition); let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Reading the Unseen is an allegory for poetry, which makes Ratcliffe’s project, like Shakespeare’s before it, a book about words. Poetry is all about reading the unseen, making aurally-visible and visually-aural what is ostensibly not there — that poetry (and here Ratcliffe is actually talking about King Hamlet’s ghost) “may be taken to represent (“perform,” literally to embody) everything we cannot see (and thereby know) in this world” (3). Or better: poetry creates “a world made of words in which the eye sees only what the ear hears, thus sounding the limits of perception itself” (32). By staring squarely into the darkness of Ratcliffe’s text, we find what is most contemporary about its claims: that that which is most obscured by language is language itself.
Which is, of course, precisely the kind of all-too-obvious-and-thus-totally-brilliant thesis Ratcliffe makes about Shakespeare. But let’s abstract a bit further. I’d argue that Reading the Unseen joins the classics in the genre (say, Zukofsky’s Shakespeare, Olson’s Melville, and Duncan’s H.D.) in that every word applies too, and perhaps with greater precision, to his own work, making Reading the Unseen an occulted statement of poetics. Ratcliffe’s poetry practice is also about what goes unseen in “words, words, words,” in that much of what shows on the page is determined by so many exacting procedures unnoted in the text. For example, when I first met Ratcliffe his line lengths were often determined by the shape of the right-hand margin alone: using a stock version of Courier (because, according to Ratcliffe, the letter width is exactly the same for each character, including spaces), he’d slowly shape a wave in the margin until he was satisfied with its visual semblance. The problem, of course, is that such formalism is a bit Sisyphean, especially if the printer cannot exactly duplicate the margin in print. His work is often determined by these unseen constructs whether they register to the reader or not; for example, in Portraits & Repetition, Ratcliffe set himself a number of formal compositional constraints that, while absolutely crucial to what we see on the page, barely register to most readers: the book is 474 pages long (an arbitrary but exacting number as a handful of Ratcliffe’s books share a similar page length), five couplets a page, with line lengths determined solely by characters per line (sixty in the first line, fifty-seven in the second). At the end of the day, these formal restrictions (or permissions?) often mean very little to the reader of the poem, but they absolutely and irrevocably alter how the poems appear on the page. Ratcliffe wants to remind us that it is precisely the unseen labor of composition that most often disappears in the glossy reified book product as it’s prepared for publication, and in some ways his Reading the Unseen takes us back to the factory floor to underscore the poem’s status as made thing, clearly articulating the variety of unseen actions determining its hidden raison d’être.
Interestingly, this description applies as well to Ratcliffe’s unparalleled teaching style, a pedagogy in which each word’s unseen allusions are duly registered. As a result, his students learn to see language again as language — as it draws into itself as thing while pointing to the abstraction of meaning. So, yes, the poem does something — it shows us something — it has content. But it also has words and before words praxis. I once attended one of Ratcliffe’s classes where he and a particularly rambunctious student discussed the merits (and demerits) of Joyce’s lexicon in Finnegan’s Wake. “But most writers,” the student contended, “don’t obsess over language like Joyce.” “And that’s why,” Ratcliffe responded, “they’ll never be great poets.”
As a contribution to the occasion of Jacket2’s gathering of materials to celebrate the life & work of Stephen Ratcliffe, Robert Grenier proposed to ‘the Author Himself’ that the two of them might engage in a conversation addressing matters involved with (& otherwise concerning) his recently completed making of a (kind of) ‘selected poems’ (from the period) out of the six long ‘daily’ works (comprised of two triptychs, the first 3 of 474 pages, & the second 3 of 1,000 pages) begun in February 1998 & continuing into January 2011, to wit:
Portraits & Repetition, 2.9.98–5.28.99 (Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 2002)
REAL, 3.17.00–7.1.01 (Bolinas, CA: Avenue B, 2007)
CLOUD / RIDGE, 7.2.01–10.18.02 (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX [books], 2011)
Selected Days (forthcoming from Counterpath Press) itself consists of another progression of days/pages (made from a determination to take the last sequences of 15 poems from the first 3 works noted above + the last 30 sequences of poems from the second 3 works noted above, making a new sequence (& ‘time’) of 135 “DAYS” (pages)) — and it is the making of this ‘organization of materials’ (& related matters) which is spoken to, at some length (on the afternoon of Sunday, October 24, 2010) by the two of them, available here and here.
‘Duration’ is the heart of the matter — what is that (?), and how might that be addressed using Gertrude Stein’s distinction between “the time of the composition” & “the time in the composition” (in her 1926 lecture “Composition as Explanation”) (how are these ‘similar’ & how they are ‘different’) as a touchstone, as a means of engaging with Stephen Ratcliffe’s developing work …?
Herein ‘the Author Himself’ is provoked to provide his own account of …
October 29, 2010
Robert Grenier and Stephen Ratcliffe in Bolinas.
1. A reading/performance of the complete text of HUMAN / NATURE, in collaboration with five musicians (Dylan Bolles, Keith Evans, Michael Meyers, Edward Schocker, and Zachary Watkins) took place at UC Davis on June 6, 2008, and is available at PennSound.
The epigraph to Stephen Ratcliffe’s long poem Portraits & Repetition is a quotation from Gertrude Stein’s essay of the same title:
I began to wonder at at about this time 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.
Steve’s book is a painstaking exploration of or experiment in exactly what Stein might have meant by this. What happens when you look at anything, actually, over a period of time (say, a year and a quarter) every day, carefully, quietly, without many preconceptions as to what that thing is, and then at the same time (at the moment of looking, or just after — or as the moment of looking ) you are writing this, what happens, what do you see? Is there a sort of rhyme between the seen and the heard (what if you hear the sound of a bird at the same moment you are looking at a distant ridgeline in fog), and what about meaning — is ridge something seen, or something heard, is the word you are using at the same time you are seeing already always there in the seeing, and so the sound of the word must be there, in the experience of the seeing? Does the word ridge describe what you are seeing so that the seeing is primary and the word comes later as a label or tag pasted onto it, the experience of seeing (by now it is having seen), or does the word, the faint pre-thought of the word, come simultaneously with — or even before — the perception, so that there’s no perception without the word, and the word and the perception are the same or nearly the same? And then there is the writing of the word, later the reading of it, so that the experience in time is repeated in another time in another mind. A portrait repeated as the portrait as repetition is the portrait. As words are things seen and heard, and things seen and heard merge with words.
Each day for a year and nearly three months — February 9, 1998–May 28, 1999 — Stephen Ratcliffe wrote a ten-line poem that consisted of five couplets, the first line of each couplet always three characters longer than a second line. The words of the couplets appear in their published form in Courier font (which looks like typewriter font), making the words appear oddly old-fashioned or anyway informal and handcrafted in a removed sort of way. The impression is that the words are not printed words in a book, that they are somehow more abstract and at the same time more intimate than words one usually sees in books or in online writing. Spacing between the word is not standard: there is extra space between words (I am not sure whether the extra spacing is uniform throughout), which makes the words oddly abstract: the eye doesn’t follow along quickly as in standard text, where you almost miss the fact that you are reading words, but here the words, in this font, call attention to themselves as words, abstractions, and the spacing seems to function to make the line visually come out to where it should come out, so that each of the poems in the book — 474 pages/poems in all — looks exactly like every other poem, each page visually — relentlessly — the same as every other page.
The title of each poem is the date on which the poem was written (7.4, 7.5, 7.6) but, given in this numerical way, the dates appear after a while as free-standing numerals, abstract numbers. They do not seem to stand for days on earth but rather as a mathematical series: somber, calm, laconic. Within each of the couplets there always appears a word in parenthesis. It might appear in the first or the second line, it might appear toward the beginning of the line or the middle or end, it might be underlined (Steve does not use — and typewriters did not have — italics). Sometimes the parenthetical word is not a word at all but a letter (p). The effect of the parenthetical word is to distance or interrupt whatever is going on in the line. Though there is occasional enjambment, the couplets appear to be independent of one another. None of the first lines is capitalized. There is punctuation, but none of the couplets ends with period. They are all double-spaced, giving each line and each word that much more attention as such.
The couplets seem to include a variety of subject matter that appears again and again as the long poem evolves, poem by poem, poem after poem. Fog over a ridge. A pot of flowers in a glass vase. Stones on a windowsill. Birdsong in the distance. A tobacco plant. Words, language, abstraction, relationship between objects in a visual field, the negative space between them. A couple, a man and a women, in intimate — if indefinite and entirely wordless — relationship. The sea in the distance and close up, swimming in the waves. Houses. People seen at a distance. Sky. Colors, the colors of anything, distinct from one another. It appears sometimes that there is drama or tension occurring, but one can’t be sure. A poem of words — but everything seems quiet, wordless.
Notice how I have used, in the above paragraphs, words like appears, seems, might, as if, sometimes. This is because the overall effect of this almost obsessively precise poem is one of indeterminacy. It is not clear what is being described or what is going on. Despite the luminous clarity of the words and images.
shape of a blue flower in the window (same) which was placed
there by a second person, coming back from somewhere else
small white spider who tries to hide, right (angle) of stalk
below which drops of water are passing from unconcealment
Unconcealment, the Heideggerian word. From alethia, “truth” in Greek, which literally means “unconcealment.” This was Heidegger’s obsession (Ratcliffe’s?): that ordinary life, conventional experience, is concealed, that truth is an uncovering, an allowing of things to come forward to reveal themselves to us, as us, so that we can return to being embedded in the world rather than standing apart from it, as we think we do, and this makes of our experience a kind of aggression, in which we consume the world, as if we were not the world and could make use of it at will, for our purposes. The drops are literally concealed before they form as drops, they are not there at all to the person, to his sight, and then unconcealed when they appear as drops that can be seen as such, and named. Every moment of time’s concealed before it appears — every perception, every thought concealed in the moment before, then appears, then returns to concealment. Writing’s unconcealment. Which person writes what? When words appear and disappear, to reappear later (as reader’s experience), whose words are they? In this poem the words are no one’s, they come from nowhere, though at the same time the locations they depict are exact.
Something happens when you repeat. When you repeat and repeat and repeat. First, there’s the discipline involved. You do it, you repeat, whether you feel in the mood or not. The discipline, the commitment, replaces the sense of the personal, of what you want to be doing or saying. Whatever you want to be doing or saying — or whether or not you have anything you want to do or say — you repeat. There’s a system, a format, a procedure, a passion, a commitment. It, rather than you, carries the process along. Something happens that you would not have intended or desired. This is poetry as practice rather than as expression, or even as communication. It goes beyond the idea of skill or talent. It’s devotional, literally a devotional practice. Devotion to the art of poetry — and even more — or less — than this: devotion to this project, this pattern, this exploration of mind/heart/language. Because this is what emerges when you repeat this way, with this kind of relentless devotion. You find that you go deeper into what you are, how you are, how language is, how the poem is, what seeing, hearing, writing, thinking, being is than you ever would have been able to do if you based what you were doing on your skill intelligence knowledge personality.
I have devoted many years to contemplative practice and see that poetry is or could be the same thing. My own poetry is the same thing: contemplation, poetry as practice. And I feel a kinship to Steve’s project in poetry, which is the same as mine, and also the same as my Buddhist contemplative project. You do it; you simply do it with devotion. It sustains you for its own sake. You don’t write to publish. You publish to write. The writing as practice — as personal sense of meaning, as salvation — is the thing. And the community of friendship and support (not only with one’s contemporaries but beyond time, back through the generations of kindred writers you are in relation with, through your own practice, and forward to the generation of writers/readers now and yet to come). Writing that is both more and less than communication.
The poet is in his house writing. It is silent, he is alone. A lonely quiet place, not in a city, in a small town, on a quiet street, no traffic, no street noise, no one around. Wind outside, ocean in the distance. Clouds. Grey sky. A garden — simple, not lush. The poet has lived in this house many years by now, the same walls, same floor, same view. He is methodical in his habits, arises every morning same time, goes outside, comes back in, writes. Predawn. Sees, hears, thinks, remembers: writes words. Once a word is written it is different from the moment before it is written: the word is different, the experience of the word is different. Life is different.
This difference then falls away, and now there’s an inner impulse, a longing, a sense of grasping or groping, then there is another word written (a word arising to hand and ear, to mind or heart) and the experience of writing, of being about to write, of having written, and then writing again, begins again. The words come out of the quiet. They come out of the long habit of having seen, heard, felt, these same things in a former time that rhymes with this time, as echo. In the process of writing (daily writing, in a strict form, which makes the time seem to be the same yet different on any given day — as any other day, the same and also different in its slight variations, no day repeats any other day, no perception — writing of the same tobacco plant, the same bird sound, of invisible bird, far away, the same sea seen from the same window, the same picture on the same wall, but each day slight variations) each perception, each memory, each word, mixes with every other perception, word, memory, and in the depth of the quiet there’s an unfolding of time and space as the present moment of writing, as the present instance of perception, as sound becomes sight, sight sound, as selfhood, personhood, merges with perception, with memory, with feeling, each perception, object, memory, in relation to every other perception, object, memory, so that the shifting relationships condition the next experiences the next words, and the strict form holds it all in a kind of constantly shifting stasis, just as the form of night/day, life/death, man/woman, word/silence, sky/earth holds the life we are living in place, provides a format for its going on. The closer you look, the more intimate the experience of all this is, the more indecipherable it becomes. The more real it becomes. It is relentless.
upper left corner of table (surface) slanted below the sill,
composition of yellow and pink in various stages of decay
man walking around the corner of the house adjacent to color
above which cloud brushes against the ridge, (assumption)
(part) missing, curve of landscape in the painting analogous
to presence of the person who witnessed it but isn’t here
edge of tobacco plant leaf after which (another) drop falls,
all but illegible ‘scrawl’ that can in fact be deciphered
unidentifiable trills of notes from somewhere beyond cypress
(single) instead of traffic, image of grey sky above city
Outside, the man is walking around a corner of the house; inside, the table is slanted below the sill; in the distance, a cloud brushes against the ridge. Which order of reality, which geographic feeling (domestic scene inside the room; man walking around outside the house; cloud in distant sky) do we focus on, and are they different orders of reality, different spaces, places, experiences, to be carefully distinguished one from the other, so we “know where we are,” or are they in fact one flat (or infinitely deep) plane on which all this takes place simultaneously (in perception, in language, as consciousness)? A person witnesses this, but is no longer here: time has passed, is constantly passing (in the silence you can notice this; with too much noise it happens anyway but you don’t notice), the person of this moment is never here the next, everything passing from concealment to unconcealment then back to concealment simultaneously on one flat or infinitely deep plane. The drops falling from tobacco plant leaves are writing just as much as this that I am doing now is writing or the former writing of Stephen Ratcliffe (by now more than ten years formerly) is writing: they write a meaning, as much as these words write a meaning. The meaning “can in fact be deciphered”? But not explained, perhaps. It can’t be in prose. Its notes are “unidentifiable trills”; its image is “grey,” and the person who witnesses it isn’t here (as you read these words, no longer here).
5.28 (last of 474 poems)
figure across the field against grey background, behind whom
feeling of a pink-white rose fills shape of window (form)
(that) is motion of green leaves on a branch wind approaches
and/or leaves, example imagined before it actually occurs
pale yellow petal falling to a table on the left, which (is)
acoustic action continued as the listener turns toward it
subject standing in front of crack in rock beyond which blue
(position) of noon, angle of thought coming toward viewer
surface of ridge below cloud (c) above which horizontal line
of final action, landscape leaning against plane of glass
“Feeling” of a pink-white rose: not seeing the rose or smelling it: feeling it. Or perhaps no one is feeling it but the rose, in being unconcealed, produces or is a feeling. A figure — which maybe is a person — is there, in the background (rose in foreground?), appearing against a grey backdrop, very quietly, as a shape, a form, rather than a subjectivity, a personality. (Person as part of the field, figure in a landscape.) Leaves on trees moving in the wind (or leaves leaving?) but this isn’t actual — it is imagined by a subject before it happens, and does happen then in another moment (the next moment, the previous?). Inside (we were before this outside? Or are we inside and outside at the same time? Or is there any “we” at all, as reader, as writer, as person, to be anywhere, are “we” no longer, as “we” imagine “ourselves” to be, the central focus of any writing, any thinking, any perceiving, but just that perceiving is going on and “we” or some figure in the landscape, is present, part of the general scene) … inside, a pale yellow petal falls. It is so quiet in here you can hear the petal falling when you turn toward it, or is the falling of the petal contingent on your turning toward it, it falls when and because you turn toward it, your movement having jarred the table so that the petal falls, making a sound, but can you hear the sound? The rock-hard sense of your identity then cracks open: you see blue sky opening through the crack, for the first time you can feel a thought coming toward you from a distance, the thought is a cloud above the ridge, it is seeing itself, the final line of a poem you have been writing for more than a year and now (it suddenly occurs to you, quietly, and without emotion, but with a certainty) the poem is finished, landscape like something flat and contained leaning against the plane of glass out which you are looking, a thick sheaf of pages full of uniform black lines of words on white.