Read an ExcerptMATTER Poems
By BIN RAMKE
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2004 Bin Ramke
All right reserved.
Chapter One The things of which there is seeing and hearing and perception, these do I prefer. -Heraclitus of Ephesos, Fragment 55
THE TENDER GRASSES OF THE FIELD
When I was a saint I did not have visions but I could see and did note the color of the world-mainly gray, variations on dirt. It's ok, you can live here. The clean sky to attend the child whose hand is empty and mind is muddled.
Consider that earth is made of earth, a mineral and organic amalgam-beyond a tiny range, color is rare. Oh, they will tell you a particular plant, for instance, is red, that certain stars are red, but look for yourself. The color of fox, the color beneath the skin as platelets race, whirling alone in danger, for home.
What won't we do for the sake of the nerves, white threads of agony under the skin, on it, of it.... in the wake of remorse we need to pronounce bigger than names. Maybe a verb. Every saint knew how to keep custody of the lips.
The view is lovely, nice sun going, a mountain it goes behind, the mountain made of rock and all. Et in Arcadia Ego, you know. A sheep here or there. A cow. Water. The sound of water if not water. The sound of sheep if not the smell. You call it home.
THE QUESTION CONCERNING TECHNOLOGY
Proclaim thin anger through angelic flittering among dials and diodes: we who witness turn science sensible. The boy who was once a boy takes his medicine, sleeps surreptitious
through the day, schools himself in stray regulations, regularities. He schools himself in light. In sweetness. Weathers serotonin, luxuriates-from luxuriare, to be excessively fruitful.
From serum, from the Latin for whey, from serom, fluid. To become the monster is to risk revelation-silence suggests, if there were silence,
if the words would stop turning into words in his silent in his spinning silence: from the Lithuanian spéndzhiu, to lay a snare.
CANONICALLY CONJUGATE VARIABLES
In a certain window as I passed a Shepherdess watched from her painting, held her staff and stared with a delicate stiffness out across the backs of sheep-she was painted in Peru, and is of Peru in many ways while here she hangs on a nail in a shop. There is no Latin for "brown" or "gray."
And after the rain-and it is after, it does now seem the rain is truly stopped, not like the teasing pause that was a trap before-the glister of post-Carnival beads in the bare late-winter limbs and strung across wires and woven into the singular look of a wet city, this is the moment after
after that boy did casually yet auspiciously touch the back of the girl while walking home in this city in that rain in a similar light to now which roared about their innocent heads.... they were young, not their fault. They will never do it again.
And then from my window at the hotel I watched a taxicab catch fire, the astonished passenger struggled with his bag and I could see from my privilege a flame reflected in the gutter, the clean rain residue.
"For fools admire and love everything more which they see hidden amid distorted words, and set down as true whatever can prettily tickle the ears and all that is varnished over with fine sounding phrases." So Lucretius attacking Heraclitus. "Dyed with an attractive sound."
The air made visible by rain, the cars' wake crossed the sidewalk to lap at the steps of my hotel.
ASTRONOMY FOR BEGINNERS
In such a sky a moon seems narrow but behind this sliver the full moon darkly lingers-this light enlightens not, neither does it cheer: Dearer Reader, here it says, this earth says, Choose your own Adventure-as if options were at hand: when stars align we watch then wander luminous realms aghast and anguished; or we might happily whistle, wistfully choosing choosing-there was a clearing in the woods behind the house where he grew up, he would walk prodigally there, a son with his dog where power lines hummed to themselves and the sun and he would not hear nor heed but perhaps his dog could hear the pitch of electrons tuned starlike unearthly and above, his small, his bowed small head. He did hear other ecstasies, he did know dread, not of the forest but of the coming home after. We remember the days, don't we, when men walked on that moon, not the flimsy arc up tonight, but the full, rich moon of the past, the moon strong nations raced to reach, the one the Russians wanted, too: no one but that boy, perhaps his dog, remembers why. Glitter of sun, the nearest star.
49 VIEWS OF CHILDHOOD
But he was a quiet child, I was, he was never one, such a one as would wander
into wilderness alone-untrue, he was one to play at death as boys will.
I was small when I was small and then I was no longer. Dolls are delicate. Legs
and arms articulate to sit them around you and tell them stories, to have them
tell you stories tell him stories make them up. Dress them. If an end comes
it will come the sky will remain sky and weather will be simple, simply
where we live during it. Another version of this world engages these little ones
around us, about our feet, small humans who have forgotten the future who
splash happily as if weather were a cure for childhood. We didn't, he didn't, know
better than to sulk heavily as if I did not watch secretly gathering
clouds, gathering under them into likely groups-action figures. Us.
It was better when birds did not gather so forcefully, mournfully back
before ravens and crows had moved into cities following the pioneer
pigeons-boys walked under groups would dismally look down, boys and blackbirds
crossing Sunday paths home back before sparrows would
so cravenly eat from our hands; children of today know only
small wishes and crooked feet, articulated legs and artificial voices
to cry Mama or Papa at whim, at the least tipping of self into horizontal....
They do not see the green sky we knew then, such empty grandeur:
in silence such insolence, solitude's reward for being good, which is part
of every eros of childhood. In all parts of this world there are children
except in the coldest southernmost, Antarctica as imagined goal, to gather
there his dolls, my wish, his need for clean weather and snow
articulated weather; is there no child to sleep on that continent?
No child's dream floated ever above the white horizon of an ice containment
bends the bodies to its will, makes a wish. Like birds
the bodies fit in the fist. The still children play those little games
the birds of the air the lilies of the field, the insolence of the whole
agon; suicide as self expression is paradox, as is sex as self. He made
little houses for his dolls to sit through afternoons to peer
out narrow windows and be invisible to have things to see.
I have, he has, things to say, he has he had things. To say he was
a boy belonging to the end of habitation, health, and happiness.
If this doll could sin she would sing to him I would sing also, to her
is it like forsythia, logical because the branch wavers and blossoms bloom
while wind does what wind will? A dance is like this: to console
as to clasp these hands, touch there in the air away from bodies
and then to angle the arms, turn the hips and some part submerges
drowned as the doomed self would like voodoo, dolled up and doomed-
dancing anyway ever. He could sing and does deliberately, the child, it
follows that anguish is not me, nor do we suffer who make those cries.
He would drown his dolls slowly slide into agonized waters
which reflect the intricate lace of the bridge which trembled above
them, a bridge which fell in the end vortex shedding and resonant
oscillations, a dance the bridge did with the air, not the words the wind
is the reason for suffering. A past is anything's childhood is a reason
flares into mind like burning burning which might have been
mind, a doll could have one and could dance like anything.
VARIATIONS ON LAMENTATION
In those days in the capitol we who were interested in such things would gather on stormy afternoons to talk and watch the changing sky across the river. It was a large river then, not so muddy as now, with vast flocks of herons wading the far shore. The green of cypress and palmetto some days would glisten after a storm in such a way that argument would cease, and we would drink silent toasts to the light. Nevertheless, we hated each other with such intensity no one would shed a tear at the funerals, until finally I alone am left to mourn, or not, the last of my old companions.
Her company was, you know, delightful except for those moments when her eyes would fill and the room would empty. Later, when we heard the silence return, we would, too, and she never mentioned a word about it but would take up conversation like you would knitting, except of course for the fact there was one more on the growing list of subjects to avoid.
There are three distinct layers of tears when the eye is in good order: a layer as wetting agent on the cornea itself; the middle layer, the familiar salt-water solution; and a third, oily layer to retard evaporation. The balance among the three is delicate and essential, and astonishing.
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes write sorrow on the bosom of the earth Richard II
No one denies the erotic potential of her silent weeping, how desire grows unbounded with each heave of her shoulders, how the slippery glistening tracks down her cheeks must be traced, tracked by an erasing finger.
We have all heard the expression "the weight of years," yet years have faint substance, cannot be accurately measured except in the trivial sense. Weight would be a comfort, a relief, a positive joy when compared to the anguishing nothing which squeezes out our tears during the night, which causes us to wake on wet pillows even though we thought we were dreaming happy as children.
It is a curious thing, a child is born able to do some few things: suck, breathe, piss and shit and weep with such intensity he cannot be ignored. Really there ought to be a special word for this crying of the newborn, more anger than lamentation, filling the house with anguish. The only adults with such intimidating tears are the divas-remember Rusalka.
I was never a surrealist. My work has no glass tears glued to a stylish face. I want the dust to gather over time, the face streaked from real sins, not clever pain.
A small broken heart is the cliché by which we live with the weight of our years. Even as small boys we had a sense of what was in store, inevitable if unbelievable. The corner of the handkerchief with which we wiped away the tears (which were nothing but the effect of wind from standing too long on the porch looking for something on some horizon) had some girl's initials embroidered. Satin-stitch, so called. Cotton floss.
WHERE THE FAMOUS WISH THEY HAD LIVED
Parmenides of Elea
Where his influence could accumulate, where the horizon might retreat, where the basilisk smiles and the necessary arrogance of desire lingers into evening while yet hiding among the hieroglyphs. But I like it this way, he said to himself. Here shall I close my trustworthy speech and thought about the truth. Henceforward learn the beliefs of mortals, giving ear to the deceptive ordering of my words, he said. He watched stars move a certain way, the small sprinkling of the past he walked beneath when he was out late and lingering.
In a land of ha-has and paths of desire. Where Nothing hovers invitingly above the closest horizon. Between the angles of incidence and of reflection. Among the agonies in the garden. Elsewhere.
"If his lips are silent, he chatters at his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." And yet looking into the mirror otherwise known as morning otherwise known as night was not a revelation to him. He had a path, strewn with candy wrappers, or flowers, and lined with stones, which was a comfort to him when his throat ached and his head betrayed him. Still wouldn't it have been good to stop in at some familiar coffee shop, to order in a childhood language a childhood treat, something with chocolate and a little something to soothe the guilt which follows from having hoped too fervently and made all those promises. A place where the libraries do not contain your own books and the children are not afraid. Memory, remember, is a dynamic process like the eloquence of birds and the kinds of cancer which affect the jaw. The cave of the mouth from which words emanate, and breath. "I am still out of work and cannot swallow," he wrote after the first of his thirty-three surgeries.
"In dream I was a child-childhood is our myth of psychiatry, but children continue to live in dream-being chased across a landscape. I was not afraid-there is no fear in such landscape-but I did hurry. I would live there where there are no shadowy mountains, where rivers are slender gleams and cold, where the grasses vastly sound through the evening, sounding of air known as wind, felt-but there was a barrier, a glass wall under which a child's body might fit, but not his head. There is no child in this world but in the world of dream I want to live there, there on the other side. I want to live in someone else's dream, any healthy child's. I will live in any body."
If the stained things of the earth lie, as in lie, and a thread on the floor is remarked, there's a story to tell but not the one that leads out, only, for instance, beginning, or to begin again leads in, torn from elsewhere, now here, nowhere you know but still the face rises as in dream and speaks as in dream but that's a real child in the corner small and weak and beginning its own sort of threaded passage.
Now it makes you want to touch only surface, a blind tongueless traveler when the word alone is witness to all, the word which comes out of lung from an act of breath and constriction of the various parts of the throat-the breath
a thread dissolving on its way out- a child out of the warmth into the world ready to be fed, ready to listen: Listen,
Dvorak told this story: another creature of water wants to be mortal (to have sex with a human), needs permission from her father to die; there she sits
beneath the inconstant moon she sings an aria for him which asks the moon to say Mine are the arms that shall hold him, That between waking and sleeping he may Think of the love that enfolds him.
This mortality allows us to touch one another and thread our way out into bluish air and tinted anemones persistent in our paths, temptation and a kind of hunger
which only some can resist-hunger's catastrophe of touch-remember Alphais' inedia, her gift of subsistence on only the host, the wafer of bread received daily. To waste to essentials is one form of grace. Having lost her arms and legs, living in a lean-to next to the church-these legends grow beautiful in their cruelty, a thread thrown to the drowning, a sound which enlightens, even hunger quivers bird-like within the mouth
imitating with the mouth the birds' liquid sounds came before men could delight their own ears by singing sweet songs (De Rerum Natura)
The habit of hope saints evade, and the pettiness of life viewed from a certain angle. Avoid the certain angle. If the air were flavored with lemon, say, or any accidental floral that lines the walk, the habitual path from home compounding the inarticulate with despair, the last remaining virtue one learns with age to trust, to greet with a nod in the morning, ever waiting in the bathroom mirror, ready to carry on, to care. Among the things a long life teaches, none matter beyond a mirrored silvery way among the plants thick with insects eating each other into other forms, larva to pupa to the serial splendor of wings and delicate dining on nectar; such liquefaction of appetite can be learned in such a world can be learned by the singularly attentive, that the best birds are pigeons, next are sparrows; the full avian hierarchy founded on commonness-crows, boat-tailed grackles, etc. Nothing rare counts to the saint who has seen all things familiar and contained, who has seen and is content to see, and sigh. I can do all that angels can
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