Theory of Mind: New & Selected Poems 1978–2008
Bin Ramke, Omnidawn $16.95 (paper)
Bin Ramke has a dedicated readership, but it is not a particularly large one. His work is probably too strange, too difficult, and too huddled around a particular vision of the self and the world to appeal to a broad audience. On the one hand, he avoids direct confrontation with the subjects (politics, erotics, inexplicable sadness) and eschews the accessible, read-once-and-you-“get”-it aesthetics that tend to garner poets mainstream attention. On the other hand, he is too invested in the centrality of certain subject matter (family, the pursuit and use of various kinds of knowledge) and traditional models of craftsmanship to be a central figure within the narrower canon of the contemporary American avant-garde. Ramke’s work falls somewhere between the traditional and the experimental, blending some aspects of both, rejecting others. If he is well known to poets as the long-time editor of Denver Quarterly, he is still too-little known for his poetry. Those who love his poems love them passionately because they drill as deeply as literature can into questions about selfhood, about the relations between fathers and sons, and about the ways language alters the world to which it refers.
In his most recent book, Theory of Mind, Ramke combines new poems with a variety of works from his 30 years of writing, 30 years in which his poems have grown increasingly strange. It is surprising, then, that in his selections for Theory of Mind, Ramke seems reluctant to show us the more conventional, less edgy part of his development: his journey from accessible lyrics about growing up in the South to his experimental late style is an achievement worth highlighting. Ramke’s first three books—the Yale Younger Poets Prize-winning The Difference Between Night and Day (1978),White Monkeys (1981), and The Language Student (1986)—are filled with reminiscences, alternately troubled and warmly nostalgic, of his father and his boyhood in Texas. The books abound with lyrics about his then-young son and about the relationships between poetry and other disciplines. It is not until his fourth book, The Erotic Light of Gardens (1989), that we see the contemporary Ramke begin to emerge. But when it came time to assemble Theory of Mind, Ramke chose from his early books only coiled sequences and the most fragmentary of his lyrics—poems that point toward his recent work.
This is a shame because many of his simpler, less stylistically venturesome poems are among his most beautiful. Consider “Westminster Chimes,” the opening poem fromWhite Monkeys, in which the sound of church bells returns the adult speaker to a childhood frame of mind. It is not included in Theory of Mind, but here it is in full:
We are moved to memory: it is
after all, spring. After white days,
not of, in this southern state, snow,
but of frost internalized,
of cold incipience.
I lean into the white waltz
of birds across the evening sky,
I remember a child I was,
and see him at a window
listening to the whippoorwills
call across a dreary field
which glistens in the last light,
orange. He lived there
and loved the world.
I hear a chime from town
strike the hour—after all,
it’s spring and all the windows
open—a beat behind the clock
in the living room. Nine,
my old bed time.
can keep me from sleep.
In fact, though his methods change, Ramke has never left his early work’s concerns behind. In the 23 new poems included in Theory of Mind, Ramke is still obsessed with bridging the uncrossable distance between adulthood and childhood, still trying to gather together various moments in time—from his own life and from others’—into one moment that unfolds on a page. Memory interrupts every thought in Ramke’s poems, intruding on musings about all kinds of things, as in these lines from a new poem called “A Sort of Drowning, A Slower Dance”: “It is the way horses appear to walk, that one toe / delicately picks a place to step or once we walked / my child and me down sixth avenue.” Science gets mixed up with the everyday, complicating common things, like the way a cat greets her owner in “There Are Seven Manners of Loving”:
but really you do know the love of the world
is in the small flickers of her tail which have to do
with anything but you, have to do with the history
of the mitochondria, with the shape of proteins well-folded
and with the many molecules floating into your vision
Ramke is always searching for “the love of the world,” in books, films, monuments of culture and science, always accompanied, as he says in the stunning new poem “Anomalies of Water,” by “the waiting, the dissipation, and the dread” of death and the many smaller endings that prepare us for it. All signs—literary or scientific—point to loss, and, like Robert Frost’s notion of the poem as a “momentary stay against confusion,” the accretion of fact and observation in Ramke’s far-flung collages is an exercise in bracing against that loss. “Water shrinks on melting, as do all who cry,” he says, figuring existence as an inevitable, gradual diminishing of the self over time. Ramke returns again and again to his own father and childhood, as if trying to see in retrospect something he had failed to notice at the time, hoping to make more sense of the present: “He took me to his work inspecting the boilers / at the hospital, caves he guided me through he knew // water and knew the corrosives which hid in heat / and would eat metals back into the soil.” Overall the new poems collected here are among Ramke’s best—an unusual achievement for a poet at his stage—because in them he is finally able to synthesize the personal and intellectual realms into poems that feel, if not seamless, then certainly of a piece. But his journey here was strange, and can make for difficult, if often thrilling, reading.
Theory of Mind suggests that Bin Ramke wishes to be thought of primarily as an experimenter, a tireless autodidact and collage artist.
Take “The Ruined World,” which first appeared in his collection Wake (1999). This is a typical poem from Ramke’s densest period—a two-page spread containing a dizzying array of unlike material drawn together for the sake of the poem. It is almost impossible to quote effectively, or even accurately, due to its heavy dependence on typographical arrangement. There is a stanza lifted in full, properly lineated and cited, from Shelley’s “Stanza’s Written in Dejection, Near Naples”; followed by three stanzas of Ramke’s own verse, which a stage direction labels “Overheard” (“Never trust the words,” Ramke says tellingly amidst this blizzard of attempts at articulation); followed by a large block of text from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “Sound”; followed by another half page of Ramke’s verse, a passage from John Cage, another bit from Britannica, a question addressed or attributed to Kant, and a plea: “thee o lord, lord hear my voice.”
As evidence of a mind overwhelmed by centuries of culture that have nonetheless left the same basic questions unanswered (“How can I know? . . . What may I hope?” Ramke asks), this is arresting. Those basic questions haunt Ramke to the point of deep, almost wild, obsession, sending him mercilessly in search of sources and intellectual buttressing, anything upon which to lean. This kind of poem is also a challenge to read, its centrifugal tendency making it difficult to track the relation of its elements. As a direction to push his writing in, it is perhaps unsustainable. From here, how could a poet reach any farther without sending the poem flying in all directions? Ramke would almost have to claim authorship of the Internet itself.
By Tendril (2007), his last full collection, Ramke had begun to bring things back into a single column and to write in a somewhat simpler manner, or one at least more legibly organized. With the new works in Theory of Mind, the anxiousness of Ramke’s poetics has continued to calm, resulting in poems that present a singular take on the life of the contemporary mind and heart. Perhaps after years of testing the edges of his mind, stringing out his voice and stretching it to encompass others’, Ramke now feels he can incorporate more of the character of other voices with fewer of their words. Whatever the reason, there is more of Ramke’s voice in the new poems in Theory of Mind than there had been in collections of recent years; these poems are hardly free of quotation, but it occurs perhaps once or twice per page instead of all over. Ramke is most himself in these new poems, mirrored by everything he looks at, a very late Romantic who is utterly compassionate about how difficult, and beautiful, it can be to delineate and trouble where the self ends and the world begins: “Looking down he saw himself as in a pool / he leaped across, a wet inversion / and would have stopped mid leap to see / himself below look up his glance.”
A poet’s retrospective of his or her own work necessarily reflects what the poet thinks of as his or her most memorable or valuable achievements. It is also, often, a chance for revision, for refashioning the poet’s image. Theory of Mind suggests that Ramke wishes to be thought of primarily as an experimenter, a tireless autodidact and collage artist. And it is no wonder that these aspects of his work should have interested him more than his safer, early style—his wilder poetry is, in fact, interesting and surprising, if often hard to understand. To be fair, Ramke is not pretending not to be a poet of memory and nostalgia—his newest poems are still brimming with those themes—but he does deny his readers the chance to discover how one kind of poet became another kind, to watch the gradual development of his complex mature style from humble origins, and perhaps even to sense why the change was thought preferable or necessary in the first place.
Though it collects some of the most intellectually and emotionally authentic poetry written in America over the last few decades, Theory of Mind does less than it could to teach us how to read it. Many readers will have a hard time relating to what Ramke is doing, to how his poems try to make sense of a life’s worth of pains and joys by gently piling shards of experience and reading one atop another. But Ramke is not after a wider audience; rather, as he says in a poem from The Difference Between Night and Day, he wants to write a particular kind of poetry, his own kind, in which “to keep time with our particular fate.”