On 'Portraits & Repetition'

Portraits & Repetition; Stephen Ratcliffe in the surf.
Portraits & Repetition; Stephen Ratcliffe in the surf at Bolinas.


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.


Indecipherable realism

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.


Decipherable realism


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.