Reviews - May 2013

Stephen Ratcliffe, a view from the writing table

A review of Stephen Ratcliffe's 'Conversation'



Stephen Ratcliffe

Bootstrap Press, Plein Air Editions 2011, 98 pages, $12.00, ISBN 0982160062

Stephen Ratcliffe’s book-length poem Conversation (2011) is a sharp and prescient writing that continues the one-hundred-year tradition established by the early Imagists. That there be “Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective. Regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase …”

In Ratcliffe’s writing, movements are on the page — with their own integrity and ruminative space, not simply for the purpose of character description. And this is an important distinction; the motion within Conversation is alive.

In addition, he actually procured the rights to the Matisse painting …

Robert Motherwell contemplated Lorca’s poem “Five in the Afternoon”; from this he initially painted and kept painting Elegies for forty years. Stephen Ratcliffe, after viewing Matisse’s painting Conversation, determined he’d work with the oil-on-canvas image for his book of the same title. Ratcliffe has had a long-standing interest in collaborative art and its relationship to duration. This past winter, for example, at Mills College in a gallery filled with sculptural wooden boxes, baskets, multicolored seeds: millet, rice, corn … he gave a fourteen-hour reading amongst musicians and dancers.

So there are ekphrastic writers; what makes Stephen’s efforts noteworthy is the awareness with which he searches for resonance, between Matisse’s painting and his own present physical and emotional landscape. I’m thinking of Basho, “Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old masters, seek what they sought.” And Stephen does this, writing in order to locate the source.

The poem opens,

how the voice is going forward in such a measure,

farther on,

rocks placed one on top of the other (meditation) in a landscape that isn’t under water,

How to acquaint oneself with a new place? Maybe by reforming the material at hand, maybe by going to the dignity of elements that reside there is a way. In Conversation, what otherwise might be considered details, or background sounds, are brought to the fore. Blake called these “the Minute Particulars.” It is refreshing in an age of post-post this, post-post that, to read this kind of mutual dignity from one page to the next.

I say to Ratcliffe that while Conversation occurs in a specific place that it also touches at state-of-place. He laughs, “Yeah, maybe state-of-time too.” In this way it’s less concerned with the epiphanic, and more with the ongoing quality of nature, where the features are inclusive and interdependent. 

Even the materiality of the work, the Courier font — with equivalent width of letters and spaces between words, as well as the horizon quality of the text blocks which may be read as long sweeping lines across both pages, or if preferred read down one page at a time — emerges from Ratcliffe’s sense of place and home. Namely, from his writing table which looks out to a span of scrubby pines, ridge, skyline.

sun rising in branches at top of ridge,
moon in cloudless blue sky above point

For those of you who know Ratcliffe’s blog, he posts a photograph of this view daily, documenting in poems its subtle changes and similarities. Here he enters another kind of portraiture, now turning his attention to the simultaneity of life — and the subtleties of human relationship, by turns frail and surprisingly robust. That in any moment one may discern the hopeful attempts at communication.

if what he wants to say will reach the porch of her left ear the moment she hears it, followed by the woman whose face registers what it means to face the end of his life.

Conversation could stand well alongside other equally multivalent texts — those of Gertrude Stein, Georges Perec, Ron Silliman, Robert Grenier — where the tactile form dignifies reader, writer, and the players there.

A study in how we define the world outside

A review of Maxine Chernoff's 'Without'



Maxine Chernoff

Shearsman Books 2012, 82 pages, $15, ISBN 978-1848611962

The cover photograph of Maxine Chernoff’s latest book of poems, Without, shows a scruffy western American landscape in the hallucinatory amber light of late afternoon. The black shadow of a porch cuts a geometric shape across the landscape, framing leafless trees and twisted stumps; in the distance lies a low hill covered in chaparral-like vegetation. The photograph, by Carolyn Guinzio, suggests a dry land lacking the moisture needed to sustain growth: it is a landscape without. But the photograph suggests something else: that “without” means not only “lack of” but also “exterior to.” This is a crucial addition, for Chernoff’s book is a meditation not only on loss but also on the poet’s (and, by association, every human’s) relationship to the exterior. It is a study in how we define the world outside—how our interior losses shape the exteriors that surround us.

In this series of sixty-four poems, each title is bracketed and begins with the word “without.” The opening poem, “[without resolution],” sets the tone and the place of the poems, which are dominated by ambiguity. Resolution is not only a driving force, a commandment to the self meant to better one’s behavior in social terms, but also an ending, the completion of a complicated and difficult situation. It’s as if the writer were not actually setting out to complete a discrete work of art but, rather, awakens in the midst of a chaotic and indefinite state. The poem’s first lines are true to the title’s implication:

consider our planet

 woeful cauldron

 far-fetched utopia

 oiled by power (11)


The poet asks us to join her in her perception of the world’s improbable mess, which is both “sunlight” and “jasmine’s / March-night scent / which slightly reeks”: we exist on a generic planet where “all the deaths / we are counting” form a “titanic excess.” Our Earth is a “woeful cauldron,” a blackened pot where witchy potions are brewed — potions that create doubtful and dangerous states of being, linked with elemental power. In this case, the brew is a mixture of sorrow, loss, and anger. Linked to the personal loss of relationship that appears throughout the book — “one ran / and one followed / one fell / one called after” — is the degradation of the planet and furious wars of the Middle East.

This intimacy between the self and the planet is most closely revealed in the poem “[without pain]” in which the ending metaphor guides the poem from the mind — “she signals rejection / he signals loss” — to the terrain of the Earth: 

who can say

 what a gesture means

 surveyors have

 their job to do

 locating where

 it used to hurt (41)


Although this mixture seems to swing over into the domain of pathetic fallacy, Chernoff enlivens more than the nineteenth-century concept of Nature. An animistic sense inhabits Chernoff’s understanding not only of nature but also of both the body and language:

all this hurts

 the ocean suggests

 as if waves

 could privilege

 ear’s dumb gestures

 or a ghost of a sentence learn

 to read its

 own dried ink

 ([without a listener], 14)


The ending metaphor intimates that language creates a material object with a separate existence. And that separation from the speaker or writer is also a type of loss.

The series is less dependent on the characteristic projections of poetic fallacy; it is, instead, a systematic stripping down of the world. Each poem suggests a view of the world as it would be without the particular emotional or mental feature stated in the poem’s title. But throughout the poems as a series, other words reappear that weave a web of association between the particular worlds: this multiverse may in fact be a universe. “White” repeats in “[without light],” occupying a funeral, and also appears as a summer night in “[without design]” and as the color of a monster, a sickness that goes by the name of radioactivity, in “[without substance].” White signifies relief as the color of the uniforms of the clean-up crew at the Fukushima reactor in the poem “[without intention].” And white variously inhabits bones, the ambiguously planetary moon, snow and ice, ash and salt, clouds and ghosts. All of which stream back to the writer’s blank page, which is endlessly capable of silence. The reappearing aspects of white tie the multiple worlds of the book together — each is somehow familiar, each a possibility of the other.

Among white’s many shades and hues is the color silver: a color vibrating between white and black, illusory in its indefinite character, as illusory as the images used within the poems:

what we tried

 to understand


 from our view

 like the sheen

 you see

 on roads

 when summer

 knows you


 just to know

 ([without a view], 72]


Throughout the book the ability to forget or to select wavers, and the reader must constantly decipher where the writer is placed in relation to the text. Does she pronounce the words or do they describe her? Is she subject or object? 

what to forget

 when knowing

 leeches out like

 oil buried

 in sandy ground


 laments unmute

 their billowing song

 their edges

 taut with recognition

 ([without erasure], 13)


The quality of the language is vaporous, escaping definition and giving the words the features of a vision. The writer — the poet spinning out words as if they were equivalences — assumes the countenance of a visionary. Thus loss becomes a doorway, a medial state like that time of day in Guinzio’s cover photograph: it exists in some time between day and night, a twilight zone with its otherworldly colors. Though in Chernoff’s universe the sky is white, that absence of color, milky as an overcast day, layered with strata of clouds.

The overall structure of the book is that of a list. A list, paradoxically, of absences. Within the individual poems lists make connections between things ambient and disconcerting: 

birds on a wire

 spycams winking

 the floods of 1873

 hairs of the elephant

 the lipsticked

 cup he used to kiss

 ([without number], 51)


The lists are delicately surrealistic in their unpredictability, often pairing opposites that cluster in startling relationship to each other:

painless torture

 painless denial

 painless poem masking

 its plan

 ([without pain], 41)


The poems are composed of short lines, most five to six syllables long; some, such as “[without movement]”, only two or three syllables in length. These short lines give the poems a breathless quality, which would move the reader through the poem quickly and comprehensively if it were not for the syntactical ambiguity caused by the poems’ lack of punctuation. Although it’s clear that meaning gathers as you read through the lines, it’s not always clear whether a line links to the line above or below, or is meant to be read separately, as its own image or idea. Thus, Chernoff compels two movements and two speeds in the reading. The first drives the reader forward as quickly as possible so that the lines can be gathered and interpreted. The second requires the reader to slow down, loop back, and reread the lines in different configurations. “[without shadow]” opens:

death stutters

in the voice of a judge



blatant and grave

the body asks

for frost

… (17)

It is impossible to say with sureness whether “ostrich-headed” modifies “the voice,” “a judge,” or “predilections,” and the same can be said of “blatant and grave,” which could modify either “predilections” or “the body.” This device is not unusual in contemporary writing, but it is used so unceasingly and it fits so snugly with the original and multiple worldview that Chernoff creates within the book that it’s worth noting; it is the central technique of the poems.

One of the implications of this technique is that the poems are oral in essence. Only through the poet’s speaking voice can the poems’ meanings be elucidated, crystallized (even though her performance may change with each reading). And it is here that Chernoff’s practice as a storyteller, both in novels and prose poetry, is revealed and transformed. There are stories behind these poems and a larger tale to be told, but like the more enduring of oral mythologies, they lie in a mysterious realm where existential sorrow moves the imagination to speak. Words rescue the lone human, stranded, unleashing her from the arbitrariness of loss. And the listener and the reader are drawn in by the mystery, searching within its enigma for truths and truth’s power to heal.

As the book closes the poet offers the long-delayed resolution: first apologizing to the dead that have vanished in life’s turmoil, then to the living:

i am sorry for


my slights of


my unturned cheek

I am only trying harder

to be what light

calls itself when

it enters a room

full of sorrows

([without sympathy], 78–79)


In the closing and longest poem of the book, “[without without],” Chernoff puts forward the image of art, following the mandate of her grandson — merged with the reader in an anonymous “you” — to “draw a dowel / draw a compass / draw a kind of cup / draw an old man.” She “would teach you nothing” — for the ability to imagine and to create is innate: “you know the words / you say them     you.” The resolution is that sorrow and even death are lightened by the human compulsion to speak and to create.

Ryan Eckes's American poetry

A review of Ryan Eckes's 'Old News'

Old News

Old News

Ryan Eckes

Furniture Press 2011, 70 pages, $12, ISBN 9780982629949

In her essay “Against Transparency: From the Radiant Cluster to the Word as Such,” Marjorie Perloff argues that poetic imagery can’t avoid reproducing the “videation of our culture.”[1] Noting Charles Bernstein’s concept of “‘imagabsorption’ — the ‘im-position of the image on the mind’ from without” (79). She attributes this condition to the conjoined histories of marketing, public relations, and propaganda in twentieth-century America. As wordy ads targeting a consumer in the decades of radio went the ways of a picturesque television, the message changed into a compact visual of simplifying elegance. In stores, catalogs, magazines, the news, a moment’s image proved infectious: “telenostalgia” (77). This shift in how many could experience the same totalizing picture in their head meant that, for some poets, by the conclusion of the ’80s:

Image as the dominant gives way to syntax: in Poundian terms, the turn is from phanopoeia to logopoiea. “Making strange” now occurs at the level of phrasal and sentence structure rather than at the level of the image cluster so that poetic language cannot be absorbed into the discourse of the media. (78)

When mediating images appear, the tongue should be tied in the grammar of what marketplace lies about them. Today, post-paper, there is a return (popular among many) to an imaginary life of typed pictures, but they are far from the direct treatment, whose sincere associative is-ness bears a hint of the absurd.

The spirit of this trend (whose identification will have to stand without proof or names), though still suspicious regarding the value of a hot commodity, which is the profound lesson from the Marxist Language school to the MFA (and perhaps accounts for its avid interest in writings from lost cultures), dismisses the Language poet’s denial of the validity of feelings to understanding the experience of readers. This history aside (ignoring the conceptual, and perhaps thanks to the confessional), it is now serious business to speak of the “emotional center” of a poem’s work: 

you need to learn to pump yourself up, she said. (Eckes, Old News, 13).


i wanted to say, i’ll pump you up

 but i could not pump myself up enough

 to say that. funny how you can leave your

 self so farx behind when you talk to some

 one. and where is that self, just now? (7)


All of this is too much preamble to Ryan Eckes’s stunning book from 2011, Old News, which isn’t concerned with movements or schools and so is interesting when compared to them:

you look for work, the world’s largest living thing. its door weighs
4,000 years and grows one centimeter every decade. (16)

In the first place, joining the experiential to the weight of the visual reminds me that the actual subject matter that becomes poetry, or any writing, will remain the base condition of its audibly cognitive, oxygenated rendering. I am also reminded that poetry, like any writing, can construct minds, even mock or titillate them, even if the writer’s wonder and trouble is still attached to the things themselves, their conversing and what it means; poetry is often discovered like a fresh membrane to filter through what preexisted, probably survives, and maybe even ruins his or her contemporary translation. The addictive quality of such reception has always been that, sometimes, from an admittedly uncertain but nonetheless methodic, scientific point of view, a novel (semantic) pattern of organization (and crossing this threshold spontaneously, into its own organism) may appear, however much the fleeting, ineffectual permeation into us. “Work,” and even looking for it, as “the world’s largest living thing” — this is an ecopoetic point of view, romantic as hell, and it is not new.

Within its first few pages, Old News explains:

we tore up the rotten carpets and the mats underneath, which were

 stapled to the old pine floor from the days before carpets, and found

 newspapers from 1923 spread across the room. some Philadelphia

 Inquirer, some Evening Bulletin. some 1923 in some 2007. (9)

Old News
lineates the ordinary language of the picturesque stories of people and events from those found newspaper pages, producing enjambed verse. Also peppering it are partial facsimiles of “the American Geographical Society’s pamphlet series ‘Know Your America Program: Philadelphia’ printed in 1951” (2). On one of the book’s pages, a photograph of congested traffic going into and from the steel horizon of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, capturing the “rush hour progress” of the almost identical vehicles standing still and probably emitting today’s smog, is juxtaposed to a larger image:

Looking past Logan Circle, central feature of one of Penn’s original city square parks, along the beautiful spacious tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway toward the Museum of Art and Fairmount Park beyond. William Penn would have liked this part of Philadelphia, for it is indeed full of greenery. (17)

And the fragment of some reproduced tourist’s propaganda, à la Perloff, that Eckes places under these pictures and their captions speaks of a similar marriage of industry to someone else’s beauty and independence. The material gleaned from a pamphlet and some old news, found under (someone’s) old carpet, brief snapshots of what the reader is to call “Philadelphia” in 1951 and 1923, form the frames for reading the poet’s more immediately contemporary poems, whose earliest indicators say “mouse-infested apt, Feb 2003” (13): 



 the walt whitman bridge is no cheaper

 than the ben franklin

lay on the horn all you want

camden is poor (36)


Regardless of national origin, the Philadelphian is aware of a rich heritage. He is aware that his city fostered the birth of a nation and through the years established an extraordinary record for political, cultural, and scientific firsts, many of which had far-reaching effects on the country as a whole. He is proud of all this, and of those who maintain the city’s best traditions. He works hard — but not too hard — and in his leisure time he goes to a museum, a concert, an opera, or at the very least he tries to support such endeavors. As in the time of Franklin, a well-furnished mind is practically a requisite for membership in the elite, especially if your ancestors didn’t happen to be among the Signers. (41)

Inasmuch as the poems in Old News paint things like frailty, error, and resignation as operative, nostalgic, wordy events for their contemplative “I,” the speed at which its history finds form is impressive, as diachronic and synchronic links and patterns emerge from experienced and reported situations within the tight, expository, conversational verse; next to an obsessive enjambment, down the page, identifiable units, often about the size of a line, link individual poems to the next, making Old News into a reader’s trip through its map of the city. And with his depictions of Philadelphia’s people, of their mostly wide-eyed desires and foibles amidst all that comes and came with their news, Eckes shows the reader a city vibrating with confused, misunderstood, historically determined attitudes and segregations. I hesitate to quote directly from their mouths, in which neighborhoods and race play a part. 

The poems in Old News do not shy away from writing (about) the tribe’s experiences, justified, in part, by an archival dumpster-diving methodology and quick wit whose attention to what’s what in his surroundings is razor sharp. The speaker articulating these poems in this city seems sensitive to the boundaries of the denizens filling it, to including its illustrious dead. And yet its frank curiosity and, at times, outrage indicates a gift (and willingness, it seems) for ignoring that. Living narrative is the dominant mode (enjambed), with some strict tercets and quatrains and almost some sonnets (with their crown-like quality, already described), with ample amounts of dialog and witnesses, but it is the strange secret of where they have come from that piques this renter’s interest: 

people say but you own it

but i know that it owns me

which is fine, it’s much bigger

than i am and older and here

i am writing my checks now

to […] (12)


With peculiar bits of history included in it, Eckes has written a book that is remarkably successful in addressing the psychological underbelly and larger implications of a people’s actions — it discovers a hidden story, linking past with future, out there. And as the undead of strange history is found to be infecting the city in this book, they seem to this reader to have been mostly actual things. The power of the poetry in Old News, like the news it finds and found, lies in an unsentimental use of language to depict what is witnessed and what is reported.

1. Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 74.x