Stephen Ratcliffe, a view from the writing table

A review of Stephen Ratcliffe's 'Conversation'

Conversation

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.