Vol. 3 No. 3, Fall 1998 (#11)
University of Illinois Press ($11.95)
by Kelly Everding
Upon first reading Heather Ramsdell's first book of poems, Lost Wax- selected by James Tate as a winner of the 1998 National Poetry Series- the mind trips alarmingly over the interrupted phrasings and stutterings, the incompleted or partial thoughts, the pure rhetoric of instruction manuals. Upon the second, the third readings, the incomprehensible sling of words begins to work on a deeper level, to bridge the gap between personal and public, emotion and reason, thought and word.
Ramsdell expresses disconcertion within her twisted grammar, creating a sort of syntactical philosophy:
Sad, to shut
to shut other
things into the space left
the space that I left
the space in skewed perspective twisting
foregrounds, sags in glass--this is your conscience
speaking. . . .
In the structure of her language, moments of clarity and revelation speak through turmoil and digression, the clamor of fear and confusion, the ineffable. The section titles of the book, "Proof by Pointing" and "More about the Closet" for example, serve as markers on this map of the inner, uncertain world. In "Bridge Segment," the speaker, in a lucid moment, maintains,
In an unfair light we are moving
with nauseating speed, either the background
blurs or we blur but the room is a real
room with its attendant rug and door, a series
of arrangement, the random accretions.
The abstract quality of Ramsdell's work appears to be influenced by music and its abstractions, its mathematical precision juxtaposed against its ability to say the unsayable. The physical realities of bridges and ligatures find their meanings mirrored in musical composition: "A chair has no assignment. We / are also composed."
In her essay "The Cannon," Leslie Scalapino writes eloquently in defense of obscurity in poetry:
[T]he individual in writing or speaking may create a different syntax to articulate experience, as that is the only way experience occurs. Or they may describe their circumstance and context, as if from the outside, using normative language. The dichotomy is in anyone as a function of our mind: language as interior and entirely from the outside at once--which is a series of actions.
Ramsdell's poetry is difficult. But in difficulty and complexity a profundity arises that defies the merely occasional or the wholly exteriorized, easily summarized poem. "Ligature," the final poem of Lost Wax, addresses this issue: "To promise at once / comprehension in a flashing / fire is the punishment of the story." Hints of the connectedness in the world, the repeating patterns, keep us in pursuit and evolving; the punishment is to comprehend the story, our place in the universe, because then the story would be over. We would lose the sense of wonder expressed in the closing words of Lost Wax, "Look, clouds."
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