Airs, Waters, Places

Airs, Waters, Places by Bin RamkeBin Ramke
Iowa University Press ($16)

by Dan Beachy-Quick

Anaxagoras—a philosopher to whom poet Bin Ramke repeatedly returns—differed from his predecessors in one extremely important way. Rather than searching for the origin of the world in an earthly element (water, air, fire, dirt), Anaxagoras claimed that the universe was kept in order by the power of Mind (nous). The source of all is no longer at hand in the clod of soil, not in the tip of flame heating air, but rather can be found in all these, and elsewhere too. The genuine world—the ontological world—is nowhere and in all things, hidden and ubiquitous at once.

Such is this poet's world, our world, in which we strike for wisdom where we can, and hope for illuminating resonance in return. If Mind lurks in the universe turning considerations into constellations, then surely the language that bears our thinking shares in the order(ing) of the world. And it is in that sense of order—order extending from the stellar dust that collapsed into this planet to string theory and ultraviolet wavelengths, from childhood to parenthood, from public to private life—that Ramke so sincerely and beautifully attends.

The first motion of that attention rises to a height that can almost encompass the world:

and from the air, from the airplane I saw
I saw beneath me during that time (I think it was time)
of year I saw the fall of the leaves around each tree separate

To the poet at Apolline heights, each tree in death speaks its death, and each is clear, discrete, distinct. But this speaking is different than we might suppose: "the tree speaking not to me only to itself like God." No privilege of vision, no gift of the land unfolding from a plane window, offers an entrance into the thinking of the world we live in (we do not live above it). Ramke descends as far as he's risen; to speak always risks corrupting what we speak of, always threatens "a further fall." On the other hand, to speak, to poem the world, Ramke says, is to stand inside the "calling" of all things that surround themselves "with vibrating molecules / known as noise." The poet can risk his own disharmony.

Ramke ends his first poem with Lear's response to Cordelia's honest silence: "You recall, Nothing / will come of nothing." The allusion serves as more than threat; it echoes forward through the book as a Pre-Socratic fragment. This "nothing" is tangible, and if nothing births nothing, then the vacuum that nature abhors is a vacuum that is possible. The poem speaks against such a nothing, ultimately asking: what is?

The question is as personal as it is universal in Ramke's book. Indeed, as Airs, Waters, Places progresses, the tangle of the stellar, the private, the mathematical and the matrimonial, is allowed to become more tangled, "A little like love, Dear." In "Zoo" that tangling begins:

a formula        flies thrown through the
air arced                     adhesion of

things attach to           fact     there is real
and there is not not     is a

difference                   the imagined is a kind
of real                         memory too

there was
a day I                        was a small child

The child who dreamed of math for comfort becomes the adult whose comfort is in remembering being a child. This comfort is not solace. It's the recognition that what was lived and what was imagined attach themselves to the world in a manner that is real. The arcing formula adheres to life, carries life along with it.

The strange complexity of such attachment is that life feels anything but individual. The fact outlives the thing; the child outlives the day. And yet—half-miracle, half-torment—all is at hand. From "Zoo": "I should have remembered the war it happened / two years before my birth." The self is not the boundary of experience. The self is permeable, a dashed-line, a definition to keep in question:

I whistle and the poem unfolds
a kind

of pose, a kindness exposed,
. . . is a story a sequence a word
and a word and yet still the pool

the face of posed Narcissus
he is knowledge he is Adam
he is home alone . . .

Ramke keeps himself in his gaze—in actual reflection more often than self-reflection. This gazing into the water, this Adamic naming and knowledge, infiltrates the form of some poems; they bifurcate, calling into question the other half:

Someone tell the neighbors someone
drink to her life in the light. My
life hath been one love—no blot it out
My life hath been one chain
of contradictions . . .

I watch through the
on such a day my face
against, the breath as I speak
to myself the words freeze

Here, the two lines of the poem run parallel, intersecting only by the will of the reader. Elsewhere, as in "Surface Tension" (a poem in concert with the cover's painting) the two halves reflecting each other relate:

in a lake-a litter of leaves
the pages a book in her one hand
legs might be cold she wears
above the water the girl reads
Here: think of a girl standing
surrounds her, she is reading
she is doubled—wavery—radiating—her
a dress the hemline
what she believes—

Words frozen on a pane obscure the face of who spoke them. The girl reading in the river wavers; her book is filled with tears. Tears are "me down my cheek" falling. The book is as much a surface of reflection as Narcissus's pond, but Ramke points out there is no simple staring at anything—least of all, our own beauty. The universe intervenes—its thinking ripples and fractures the surface. Ramke records those fractures not as breaks, but as connections.

Ramke continually turns toward collage—of his own voice and of others interrupting the speaking voice. He writes:

Those are not tears on the page those are tears on the page. Water Marks. Shadows. Those are tears on the page. That is a splash

But the page is not torn. Ramke collects other thoughts, other words. He sees a poem, any poem, joins in the equation of every poem. We speak, Anaxogoras speaks. The whole world lives in one mouth. All speaking becomes Nous: the Mind that orders the world. It cannot help but be so. Talking to ourselves we say each other's words. What we hear, Ramke says, when we listen, if we listen, is not one voice in aria, no—we hear the harmony amassing.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002