EXCHANGE ON STEPHEN RATCLIFFE’S POETRY AND THINKING

Judith Halden-Sullivan

Halden-Sullivan:  In an email to you long ago, I noted that, had hermeneutic phenomenologist Hans-Georg Gadamer elected poetry as his mode of sharing thinking, he would offer texts just like yours.  There is a distinctive, persistent phenomenological moment unfolding in all of your verse, from 1992’s spaces in the light said to be where one comes from to volumes I and II of sound of wave in channel (2018) to your current daily poems in the aptly named on-line collection Temporality.  In a 2007 interview with Double Room, you discussed Real (2007)–your collection of 474 days’ worth of poems, a poem per day—claiming that this text is “writing that transcribes actual things/actions/events in the world as they were, or seemed to be in that moment of seeing/noting them.  The writing in REAL tries to do something of this ‘translation’ of world into words . . . because I’m trying to give a ‘shape’ to things (the lines) on the page (among other things)” (Bio & Response Double Room).  In my reading of your texts, I experience a pursuit of presence, a non-hierarchical melding of abstract reflection—the moment of knowing—and the situated lineaments of daily lived experience, the architecture of real life.  In your verse, I see embodied Gadamer’s notions that “the work of art does not simply refer to something, because what it refers to is actually there” (“The Relevance of the Beautiful” The Relevance of the Beautiful Cambridge UP 1989, 35) and that the language of poetry “does not intend something, but rather is the existence of what it intends” (“On the contribution of poetry to the search for truth” Relevance of the Beautiful 113).  Please discuss the evolution of your “phenomenology.”  

Ratcliffe:  Thanks Judith for this, a lot to think about here – which I’d like to think about now, but where to begin?  Maybe with the statement from the Double Room interview about REAL (Avenue B, 2002) the second of three 474-page poems each written in 474 consecutive days, which talks about that 474-page poem as “writing that transcribes actual things/actions/events in the world as they were, or seemed to be in that moment of seeing/noting them” – that is to say, writing that writes down (inscribes) real things that are happening (going on) out there in the world, “translating” those things in the three- (or four-, including time) dimensional world onto the two-dimensional page of words arranged in lines.  And to break that down a bit further, I would note that the words in the 474 seventeen-line prose-looking poems in REAL are made up of letters, each with its own particular shape on the page (and also sound in the air) put together into syllables (each also with a visual dimension, or presence, on the page as well as an acoustic one in the air).  I say “prose-looking poems” because while the words on each page of REAL appear to prose paragraphs the line breaks are a crucial, essential, determining factor in what’s going on in the poem: i.e., words set in Courier (the equivalent-spacing font in which each letter, space and mark of punctuation has the same width, a period or comma as wide as a “w”) giving the right margin of each page a visual shape, the lengths of lines being longer or shorter in relation to the lines above and below them, which doesn’t appear in the original handwritten-in-notebook piece of that day’s writing but came about when the words got typed, reworked to get whatever shape it became on the finished page that day.  The right margin of each page in REAL has a different shape, intentionally so, but also accidentally (it just came out that way) – the visual shapeliness of words on the page giving some sort of shape to the actual (real) unfolding of events in the world which are themselves (also) happening (in words) on that page; things-in-world recurring in (transformed into) things-in-words.  The poem as document, transcription and record of, testimony and witness to actual (“real”) phenomena taking place out there in the physical world (and also inside: thinking these things in these words), is not simply “refer[ring] to something,” as Gadamer puts it, “because what it refers to is actually there” on the page, enacted in the words used to transcribe it.  Here for example is “9.19” (the day it was written on in September 2000, the day I am writing this in 2020) :

Almost half moon in he predawn sky above left
edge of building with green trim, faded yellow
petals falling one by one to the table. Woman
in the white house filled with children across
the street from the tennis court, man on porch
noting how loud it’s become. Short-haired girl
opening envelope of shells wrapped in Styrofoam,
grains of sand enclosed in a fold of the letter.
The twelve year old boy making up the National
League season by rolling dice for box scores
under hot Oklahoma sun, boy with black hair
ducking under the edge of dull green wall.
Man with pins in his back brushing sand off
right shin, shape of pregnant woman talking
about paddling out. The angle of grey fog below
blue white sky, white curve of the wave breaking
across the horizontal dark blue plane.

The things happening in the words of the poem here (seventeen lines arranged in five sentences, each sentence divided into two parts separated by a comma, the shaped right margin made by line breaks) were also things that happened in the “real world” sometime before the actual writing of “9.19” (maybe on that same day or a few days before): the half moon in the predawn sky, faded yellow petals falling one by one to the table, the pregnant woman talking about paddling out.  The writing down of these real, actual things in words arranged on the page is an act of re-membering them, keeping track of them before they disappear, that “boy with black hair / ducking under the edge of a dull green wall” (of an unmentioned wave) no longer there.  The present, continuously unfolding moment is preserved, or at least perhaps appears to be, in the snapshot glimpses caught in words unfolding across lines moving down the page as one reads them (or hears them read aloud).

But where did it all begin, this “evolution of [my] phenomenology” as you called it.  Quite early on I think, at least back to the poems I was writing in the 1970s (living first in Berkeley then moving to Bolinas in 1973), poems I’ve recently put together as a book called Some Time / Poems 1970 – 1980, going back to them now in the process of working on my papers for the Stanford Library these last couple of years, many of them appearing in magazines back then but the whole thing never published as a book.  In looking back over these early poems certain things come to mind as being formative to my work from that time onward.  Attention to the syllable, word and line for one thing – writing poems a matter of placing words as objects next to each other in lines, one word beside another, the word in the middle between the one before it and the one after it.  Words also made of letters giving visual shape to lines on the page (seen by the reader when read by the eye), the acoustic shape of words in the air (heard by the listener when read aloud).  Words also compressed (“Dichten = condensare” as Pound said in the ABC of Reading (New Directions, 1960, 36), chiseling the poem out of stone so to speak – all the possible words out there, only these words making the poem, which in my writing of these poems sometimes went through many drafts and sometimes came right out as the “finished” made thing, the “poem . . . a small (or large) machine made of words” as Williams said in Selected Essays (New Directions, 1969, 256).

Paying attention to the sound and shape of words in the opening lines of “The Eagle’s Song” for instance, one counts syllables – “The sun’s ray [3] / lies in my wings [4] / before dawn [3]” in the first stanza is echoed in the last one – “the dark earth [3] / falls in the sky [4] / at sun down [3]” (with a variation in the second stanza – “my shadow turns [4] / thinned as I lift [4] / at high noon”[3]) and the repetition with variation in the 4th lines of each stanza – “O in my wings / O as I shift / O in my eye.”  Likewise in “Pause, Pico Blanco,” the presence of the four-syllable line (made up of one-syllable words and six two-syllable words – “Pico Blanco,” “mountain,” “into,” “open spaces” – all of them accented on the first syllable, the “falling rhythm” of a trochaic foot).  Attention to the weight/duration of syllables making up the measure (length) of the line in relation to those around it. Attention also to sound of syllables and words in that poem – dipthong ou in “mountain,” “brown” and “bounds”; long o in “Pico Blanco,” “open,” “bone” and “so”; short-i in “in,” “into,” “in,” “its” and “is”; long a in “spaces” and “places.”  Attention to things like sound and placement of words in lines sharpened by my work on Thomas Campion (contemporary of Shakespeare, the only poet of his time to write both the words AND music of his songs) tuned my ear to what’s taking place in the poem – visual shape of words on the page, acoustic shape of words in air – Campion’s “silent music” until read aloud (or heard in the mind’s ear) at which point the poem’s visual shape also takes on an acoustic shape, becomes words “sounding the air” – Pound first and then Creeley pointing the way back to Campion, in whose songs (words + music) one sees the possibilities of the “principle of rhyme” – how rhyme-like identities pull simultaneously together and apart. 

Attention also to the possibilities of the serial poem, short pieces put together by shared visual shape, sound, subject matter and so on. “The Eagle’s Song” for example – three seven-line poems whose lines mirror and echo one another in a multitude of different ways at once:

The sun ray
lies in my wings
before dawn
        O in my wings
tight in the long feathers
it lies, the day
slow to begin.
      *
My shadow turns
thinned as I lift
at high noon
         O as I shift
light in the wind circling
it turns, the shade
gathering in.

Also “Readings from John Muir’s Journal” and “Rustic Diversions,” which begins with a translation of the 16th century French poet Joachim de Bellay’s “D’un vanneur de blé aux vents” (from “Divers Jeux Rustiques,” “Little Rustic Diversions”) –

Angels on wing
sunlight rising
over earth-spin,
as meadowland
flowers in fanned
shadow begin,

I give you these --
lilac, lilies . . .

where the arrangement of words in lines calls attention to the sound, weight, duration and accent of syllables (accent on the first syllable of two-syllable words [“Angels,” “sunlight” “over,” “flowers,” “shadow begin,” “lilac lilies”] and the one three-syllable word [“meadowland”]; equal weighting of monosyllables in “I give you these”), and where the constraint of counting in syllables and words in lines works to give the poem its visual shape on the page, acoustic shape in the air –

Past, the present
seems to compose
decay begins
to press to-
wards in re-
membering pose
               me
flowering again: 

Also in another way how the compression of shaped lines in poems (typed on a Smith-Corona typewriter in Pica or Elite font, now the equivalent spacing of Courier on the computer) makes for the possibility of right as well as left justified margin, as in “Planting” –

Over crowding
every word we
plant
     watching
how they lean
forward & now
reverse . . .

which also gets registered as sound in the air for the listener who hears it read aloud (but who won’t see the shape of those lines). So also in “Star Route Farm Journal,” a serial poem made of parts (from “Milking” to “Peas” to “Potatoes,” as the subject matter shifts), and also in “T h e r e,” another serial poem made of parts, where words are cut loose as objects floating on the page – line minimal, white space, people talking, time stopped at this moment, the fact of things in (and also as) words –

chalk bluffs
always there

two orange chairs
as usual
      *
gin
and
tonics

on the rocks

(“which I’ve done much of,” as Creeley once noted in a letter to me – Creeley again being an influence on these early poems, as was Campion and Pound, who first steered me toward him).

What I’ve been talking about here (attention to letters, syllables, words and lines; visual and acoustic shape – shape of words on the page, sound of words in the air; the durational poem) has been going on in my work since that early work and is still present, as you’ve noted, in the daily poems including the three 474-page books (Portraits & Repetition, REAL, and CLOUD / RIDGE) and the six 1,000-page books (HUMAN / NATURE, Remarks on Color / Sound, Temporality, c o n t i n u u m, sound of wave in channel, and w i n d o w) with a seventh 1,000-page book (m o m e n t)now in progress.  It might be useful to take a look at what you call here the “architecture” of “a distinctive, persistent phenomenological moment unfolding” in these books (all of them written in consecutive days) and some of the books that came before them (most of them also made of poems written in consecutive days). 

The original draft of Present Tense (The Figures, 1995) was written by hand on yellow pages and in notebooks between March 15, 1983 and March 14, 1984.  During the day I would write down (often illegibly it seems) notes on things going on in the present moment which happened to catch my attention – bits of conversation, things seen and heard around me (sometimes while driving around in my car) – that first spring in Bolinas, then on a three-month trip to Europe with my wife and eight-year old daughter, then back to Bolinas for the rest of that year and into the next.  At the end of each day during that year I would write a page or so of “sentences” for that day in another notebook, six of such notebooks at the end of that year.  Later on I made revisions by hand in those six notebooks, crossing things out, rearranging a bit, chipping away at things.  Two years later, in the summer of 1985, I turned those 365 “days” scrawled in the notebooks into 360 stanzas typed on 180 pages (eight lines followed by six lines on each page, something like a sonnet).  Several revisions (and years) later, having taken out more material and making some of the lines longer, what began as those hand-scrawled notes became the book Present Tense:  twelve sections of eight pages each, the first page of each section with a four-line stanza followed by a three-line stanza, the other pages of each section with a four-line stanza followed by a three-line stanza and, after some space, another four-line stanza followed by another three-line stanza (fourteen lines on each of those pages), the whole poem still adding up to 360 four- and three-line stanza “days.”

[where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG (O Books, 1989) is a series of 154 poems written between May 22  – June 6, 1987. Composed from the photocopy of a source text (Shakespeare’s Sonnets), each poem has fourteen lines, each with at least one word (or part of a word) placed in the same exact position as it appears in Stephen Booth’s edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale UP, 1979), everything else in Shakespeare’s poems “disappeared” (missing in action, eroded away as if by the waters of time) but also still present, in our imaginations at least, as the silent absence whose presence determines where each word in my poem appears.  Rather than being an “erasure” of Shakespeare’s source text, as in Ronald Johnson’s Radi os (Sand Dollar, 1977), which I didn’t know about then, I underlined the words and/or letters in each line moving down across the page, making a kind of falling visual (words and letters in white space as if falling down the page) and also acoustic (words and letters sounding the air) shape. For instance, the first four lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 –

        That time of year thou may’st in me behold
        When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
        Upon those boughs which shake against the cold
        Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang

become in my poem –

                                                             in
                           one, or
                   which
                                                                       birds sang

In putting together the book for publication, Leslie Scalapino and I decided there would be no explanatory note as to where the words came from, nothing on the back cover except the text of Sonnet 73 with all of Shakespeare’s words half-appearing through the color of the book’s cover (both present and absent) and my words (all that was left after the washing away of his words) showing themselves in the white space which contains and preserves them. 

spaces in the light said to be where one/ comes from (Potes & Poets P, 1992), which you noted as an early instance of “a distinctive, persistent phenomenological moment unfolding in all of [my] verse,” is a series of 88 poems written in two separate stages (1-42 between October 31, 1987 – July 7, 1988 and 43-88 between October 5 – November 17, 1990).  Each page (one for each key of piano) is one twenty-two line sentence (i.e. beginning with a capital and ending with a period). Like [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG and before that DISTANCE [Avenue B, 1986] (a book of 100 prose poems written in notebooks between July 20 and October 6, 1982 whose working title was Random House, its sentences put together from words found in the Random House Dictionary), the words in spaces in the light come out of a source text, The Discovery of Poetry (edited by Frances Mayes, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), an anthology I was using in my poetry writing classes at that time.  As such, it is an instance of what I called, in an essay also written at that time, “Writing [Echoes] Writing” (Listening to Reading, SUNY P, 2000):   “the possibility that writing can enact – reenact – previous writing, can come out of and be based upon not simply one’s experience in the world but other writing as well (the world of words). Poets whose work I talk about in that essay include Zukofsky (sound translations of Catullus), Ted Berrigan, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Padgett, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Susan Howe, Anne Waldman, and Jackson Mac Low (his  Words ‘nd Ends from Ez, which I had published as an Avenue B  book in 1987).

Mallarmé:  poem in prose (Santa Barbara Review Publications, 1998) is a series of 100 fourteen-line poems written between December 31, 1988 and April 23, 1989.  Like spaces in the light, it is also “Writing [that] [Echoes] [other] Writing,” that other writing being in this case Keith Bosley’s translation of Mallarmé’s prose poems (Mallarmé: The Poems, Penguin, 1977).  The following passages from the book’s “Preface” will give an idea of how the found words of the original text have been rearranged to make the new text (passages in italics are from Mallarmé: poem in prose; passages in quotations are from Mallarmé’s “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument,” “The Evolution of Literature” and “Crisis of Poetry”):

Writing that echoes itself “where chance seems to capture the idea . . . material” words to appear like objects/ . . . you read’ a line finishes . . . music on the keyboard . . . measured by the pages of a score.

The repetition (“rhyme”) of elements in effect circling the text back upon itself, the phrase its terms/ reverberate . . . levels/ thinking “the personal and passionate control of the phrase.”

The line being a unit separate from but also linked to each other line, the rhythm of reading in the present equal to the time one is moving through the poem called/ by absorbing a litter the eyes part the space where such perception might take place.

This writing of other writing (letters) turned, bearing off toward the place of this reading instinct.

Mallarmé  being where these poems began and lead to, rereading the whole pause, what/ . . . absence/ . . . scattered since them, then the sense of what connects.

Selected Letters (Zasterle P, 1992)is a series of 49 fourteen-line poems written between April 18, 1990 and June 4, 1990 (one per day).  Having to do with things going on in my life at that time, the book is also another instance of “Writing [Echoes] Writing,” i.e., of putting together words found in a source text, Marcel Proust: Selected Letters (1880-1903).  Written by hand and typed the same day, each poem follows from a title as one apparently continuous sentence (no period at the end of it) leading on to the next poem.  Here for example is the first poem (“Proust”):

        forced always to be next to the wall, letters
        before the phone call in the story
        which is not a sign, whatever you may think
        I mean, the talk at the table rising to such a pitch
        one only has one’s room, nothing to read
        the bed turned the other way
        (by mistake) on the train
        in a less beautiful spot reminds me to work
        at breathing, at all one could hear in the distance
        of what may have slipped through my pocket
        as soon as I finish talking
        about the calm, not having slept much
        which is not always the case the night before
        the sentence left at the border

And then on to the next page (“the great joys are mute // never mind who said he opens his mouth / seeing I know so little French”), one day unfolding to the next and then the next.

SOUND / (system) (Green Integer, 2002), a series of 240 fourteen-line poems written in consecutive days between June 1, 1991 – January 31, 1992, is another instance of text as source (all of its words come out of The Letters of Henry James (edited by Leon Edel, Harvard UP, 1980), the period of James’s life in London and Italy between 1883 – 1895).  The book explores  the poetics of narrative (long poem as novel); sound as thought; how the shape and sound (motion) of words on the page make meaning; how the durational poem continues through the period of its writing; how the poem can be made to “fit the dimensions of line(s) whose rhythm(s) move, making the sound of the page a tangible space.” Here is the first poem in the book (“KNOWLEDGE”) from which everything follows: 

        [A] for “atmosphere”
        or way of adding
        what is said
        to be information, letters
        addressed to the person “outside”
        (the same) in other words
        fiction, writing
        submerged as a picture
        as immediate the second time
        it appears as absence
        when it begins
        or action itself, certain
        other places (ways)
        translated to the world

Sculpture (Littoral Books, 1996) is series of 98 poems written between September 8, 1993 and April 23, 1994.  It is divided into four sections with 24 poems in each section, each with nine lines except for section three which has eight lines.  Each poem was originally written by hand on yellow pages, then typed up (usually the same day) into long lines running clear across the horizontal page.  The shapes of the poems on the page (long lines with irregular right margin) continues to explore the possibility of the long line first begun in spaces in the light said to be where one/ comes from. The book is dedicated to Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, whose long-lined poems in books like Empathy (1989) and Sphericity (1993) I was reading and had written about during that time (“Sound [Shape] as Thought,” collected in Listening to Reading). The title “Sculpture,” which appears at the top of the first manuscript page on September 8, goes back to my early interest in sculpture – looking at Rodin figures at the Palace of Legion of Honor in San Francisco, taking a sculpture class at Reed College in 1967 (documented in a photo of me a deck outside the studio making a chicken-wire armature for what would become a papier-maché covered, red-and-black painted six foot “double helix”); it was also inspired by a show in the fall of 1993 called “Space/sculpture” by Richard Tuttle, Mei-mei’s husband, at the University Art Museum in Berkeley.  The poem was written during the months leading up to the end of my twenty-year marriage to Ashley Ratcliffe, events suggested perhaps in lines like these:  “The conversation in place of the person looking across the blue walls of a room/ in which the other person becomes a figure of speech whose head, held at such an angle (approximate),/ intersects the reeling between what is spoken and what is not.” 

Rocks and More Rocks (two volumes of a single work, Cuneiform P, 2020) were written on two different backpacking trips in the Sierra Nevada, the first (from South Lake to Whitney Portal, 120 miles over six 12,000 foot passes) between August 12 and August 18, 1993, and the second (from North Lake to South Lake, 60 miles over three 12,000 foot passes) between August 15 and August 21, 1994.  Both works were written in notebooks as a  kind of walking meditation, counting syllables while taking steps being a way of keeping track of the continuous present moment of perceptions (of things seen) and thoughts (of things passing through the mind).  Rocks (585 lines) is composed in three-line stanzas (five syllables in the first line of each stanza, three in the second, five in the third, with a comma in each stanza), beginning here and going on without stopping clear to the end:

        between lines, spaces

        meaning what
        sound a thought makes

        once it is gone, one
        doesn’t know
        where it went or why

        like a shooting star
        say, as if
        in meaning that

        part of a planet
        that’s broken
        off, so long ago

        meaning it gets dark,
        Perseid
        meteor erupts

        in a little bit
        as if it’s
        finished, on this line

More Rocks (886 lines) is composed in two-line stanzas (four syllables in each line, comma in each stanza), beginning here and also going on without stopping to the end:

        cloud, suddenly
        there is one and

        after that two,
        how mitosis

        in cells goes on,
        how at times one

        notices how
        another per-

        son appears, that
        a spark can light

        the sky that is
        now empty, blue

        dome, as above
        that mountain that

        memory is
        thinking of, this

        form of being
        say, that water

Conversation (Bootstrap Productions / Plein Air Editions, 2011) is a series of 98 poems written between September 17, 1994 and February 4, 1995.  The title comes from a Matisse painting by that name:  the man standing in blue pajamas, woman sitting in a black robe facing him, window between them looking out onto landscape, blue chair, blue walls, an image perhaps of relationship at impass.  I first saw the painting in Los Angeles at a show of paintings from the Hermitage, and had been thinking about it ever since.  The epigraph from Gertrude Stein’s “Portrait of Henri Matisse” means to suggest something of the poem’s focus on the interaction of unnamed persons in situations such as these:  “Some were listening again and again to this one telling about this one being one being in living.”  First written by hand as prose (the first 12 on yellow pages, the rest in a notebook), then typed in Courier (which created the shaped right margin of each poem, a shape preserved in the typeset book) in long lines running clear across the horizontal page, exploring how what Stein called the “continuous present” might be enacted (both spatially and rhythmically [temporally]) on the two-dimensional page.  As in Sculpture, the poems continue to track events in my life in the months after the end of a long marriage.

Idea’s Mirror (Potes & Poets P, 1999) is a series of 144 twelve-line poems (12 x 12 = 144) written between January 5 and June 1, 1996.  The title comes from a sonnet sequence by Michael Drayton (1609) one of whose poems begins, “Since there’s no help, come, kiss and let us part.”  There is a double space between every line (each line separated from and connected to the lines before and after it) and each line also has a comma, with the same the number of syllables after the comma as before the comma in the next line (“where landscape / isn’t heard,” “what happens elsewhere / so it isn’t seen,” “the woman / who is called,” “idea / for instance”). Words set in lines on the page (words as things/events in space), the poems register something of what was taking place in my life during the time of the composition, words as register of time both of and in the composition as Stein once said (“Composition as Explanation,” Gertrude Stein: Writing and Lectures 1909–1945, edited by Patricia Meyerowitz, Penguin, 1971. p. 28). They move around from concreteness to abstraction, looking at how writing might move from physical (“body on left”) to metaphysical (“another system”), action we can’t see (idea) to action we can (mirror) whose exterior surfaces reflect interior (offstage / invisible) action, that motion of things both coming into being and disappearing which, as the epigraph from Heidegger suggests, “becomes present as it lingers in the jointure … between a twofold absence” (Early Greek Thinking, Harper & Row, 1984, p. 42). Here is the first poem in the book, from which everything follows:

light in the window
closed, how it fades
an airplane, apparent sound
after the shower, which looks like
hair on shirt, after which
mouth opens, teeth
white, how he puts
on her coat, going
like thought, a letter a day
drives off in a car, another
car in dream, wheel stuck
in chain, which is red

Painting (Chax, 2014) is a series of 81 poems written in 81 consecutive days between February 4 and April 21, 1997.  The title came from a hand-written note to myself (“PAINTING”) stuck to the dashboard of my car during the time I was writing the poem as a reminder to pick up one of my daughter Oona’s paintings, one of which appears on the cover of the book.  Transcribing perceptions of “real things,” the poems demonstrate how the three-dimensional world might be registered in lines again running clear across the horizontal, two-dimensional page.  Each page has nine lines divided into 3 three-line stanzas giving the poem a numerical “shape”:  3 x 3 = 9, 9 x 9 = 81).  The poems are set in Courier and each line is one or two spaces longer or shorter than the line before or after it, giving a visual shape to the right margin – a pulsing movement of expansion/contraction which can be seen by the reader but wouldn’t be heard by someone listening to it being read aloud.  The long lines also work to foreground the materiality of the page as a temporal fact, the shift from one moment to the next being part of that continuous linearity unfolded across the page from one line to the next.  Just as Mondrian’s grids can be viewed as an abstract enactment of how and what we actually see, PAINTING means to enact (make present) the world-as-painting / painting-as-world that is my subject.  Thus “fact (geometric) / of lines a bird makes descending from upper left corner to the empty space immediately in front of it” (PAINTING 74).  The book’s epigraphs are from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour (U of California P, 1978) (“I paint the view from my window; one particular spot, determined by its position in the architecture of a house, I paint ochre.” 10e) and Albers’s Interaction of Color(Yale UP, 1975) (“In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is – as it physically is.” 1).

Portraits & Repetition (The Post-Apollo P, 2002) is a series of 474 poems written in 474 consecutive days between February 9, 1998 and May 28, 1999.  The book’s title echoes Gertrude Stein’s essay “Portraits and Repetition,” from which its epigraph also comes:  “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” (115). I wrote each poem by hand in a notebook and typed each one the same day.  Set in Courier, each poem has the same shape on the page:  ten lines divided into five couplets, the lines always the exact same length; the first line of each couplet three spaces longer than the second; one comma and one word in parenthesis in each couplet.  The words in parentheses come out of Wittgenstein’s Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (MIT P, 1994), and move around in the lines.  The poem’s words picture (“seeing” and “hearing”) things in language:  looking at things out the window, on the table, moving through the mind, they imagine how an intersection of the actual thing and perception of it (thinking) might be registered in a way that makes what’s seen and heard become present in the words the poem uses to enact / perform it.  Here is the first poem, “2.9”:

green plane of the ridge more bright than before, (position)
of sunlight in following line being what actually happens

how the mind turns back on itself, first person on the bench
(elsewhere) far away remembered in relation to two others

reflections of landscape below sky in water (psychological),
shape of the person in blue smiling on the opposite shore

picture where the sound of driving begins, (order) on a road
between fields of thought and the inside edge of the page

one is writing for years a letter, or listening to the sound
(passing) of white birds landing in the field on the left

CLOUD RIDGE (BlazeVOX [books], 2011), which takes up where REAL and before that Portraits & Repetition left off, is a series of 474 poems written in 474 consecutive days, between July 2, 2001 and October 18, 2002.  The title came to me early on, when I was hiking up the Shepherd’s Pass trail in the Eastern Sierra looking up at a sunlit white cloud hanging in otherwise bright blue sky above the ridge: typography of title a “word image” of the things themselves (“CLOUD” above “RIDGE”).  The poem’s words, arranged in 14 lines (counting each indented line as a continuation of the line broken off above it) divided into five stanzas, write down (transcribe, gives-shape-on-the-page-to) the perception of “real things” in the world as directly as possible, as they happen, before they disappear.  Each stanza has a particular focus:  in the first, what I saw looking out the window in the morning; in the next two, things recently seen/heard (“noted”); in the fourth, words I found in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse; in the fifth, things I saw out in the water surfing the previous day.  The poem is not about the landscape it describes, nor those things that happen there, it’s about the shape (and shaping) of its words on the page as an enactment of such things in that landscape, that world. 

HUMAN / NATURE (Editions Eclipse.  http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/HUMAN/; PennSound http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php) is a series of 1,000 poems written in 1,000 consecutive days, between October 19, 2002 and July 14, 2005. Written by hand in notebooks and typed on the same day, every poem has nine lines divided into four stanzas (“dropped” or indented lines counting as part of the line before it), the first and last stanzas recording things seen and heard in the world of “nature,” the second and third stanzas noting things seen or read/heard in the “human” world (things made out of language). Thus on every page perceptions of things/actions/events in the natural world frame what might be thought (written or said) about such things in that world. Here is the last poem in the book, “7.14”:

red finch landing on tobacco plant branch in right
foreground, circular orange flowers on green passion
vine-covered fence below it, sound of waves in channel

Matisse explaining “put a yellow ochre on a light spot,
start to reconcile the various parts”

                                        Gaugin thinking “the two corners are chrome yellow, with an inscription on the left, and my name on the right like a fresco on a golden wall with its corners damaged”
                                          grey white fog on horizon to the left of the sandstone-colored point, line of fifteen pelicans flapping toward it.

Remarks on Color / Sound (Editions Eclipse. http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/REMARKS/; PennSound. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php) is the second in a series of 1,000 poems written in 1,000 consecutive days, between July 15, 2005 and April 9, 2008.  Like HUMAN / NATURE, each poem was written by hand in a notebook and typed the same day, and each is composed of nine lines divided into four stanzas:  the first and last ones describing present things/actions/events taking place in the world, the two indented middle ones thinking about the presence and phenomena of those things/actions/events. There are two commas in the first stanza, one in the second, two in the third, and one in the fourth, which act as “stage directions” showing how the words are to be read (rhythmic pauses between phrases counterpointed against rhythmic pauses at the ends of lines, which are seen by the eye but heard only when one reads them aloud, i.e., takes note of them as breaks in the poem’s ongoing sound). Here for example is the last poem (“4.9”):

silver circle of sunlight in grey whiteness of sky,
shadowed plane of sandstone-colored wall in left
foreground, sound of cars passing in street

       when eye wanders away from the edge,
       white crops the image

       in this way, horizon of possible,
       though each appearance

edge of sandstone wall against grey white sky,
shadowed green leaves of trees across from it

Temporality (Edition Eclipse. http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/TEMPORALITY/; PennSound. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php)is the third book in the series of 1,000 poems written in 1,000 consecutive days, between April 10, 2008 and January 4, 2011.  Like Remarks on Color / Sound, each of poem has nine lines divided into four stanzas:  the first and last ones transcribe perceptions of physical things out there in the world, the two middle ones think about the presence and phenomena of those things. One hears what this poem is about when one reads it aloud (or hears it being read):  moments of perception of real things taking place in the world, which now take place here (on a page) as units of syntax going by faster or slower, being shorter or longer, building a momentum that goes from one page to the next – something one cannot get if one reads or hears just one page by itself, something that can only take place over an extended period of time, reading and/or listening to many pages of the work, as time passes.  Here for example is the last page of Temporality (“1.4”):

orange edge of sun behind black branches
of trees, motion of green leaf on branch
in foreground, sound of waves in channel

      one thing is that, to be in
      words the relation to
      a gesture, coming across an
      area, point to staged

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
white cloud in pale blue sky on horizon

c o n t i n u u m (Editions Eclipse. http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/CONTINUUM/; PennSound. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php) is the fourth book in the ongoing series of 1,000 poems written in 1,000 consecutive days, between January 5, 2011 and September 30, 2013. Each poem again has nine lines divided into four stanzas; the first three lines all the same length, followed by two pairs of indented lines (both first lines the same length, both second lines six spaces shorter), followed by two final lines (back on the left margin, both lines also the same length). The visual shape of words on the two-dimensional page corresponds to (performs) the shape of those things/actions/events out there in the world, which are themselves being described (written down, transcribed, pointed toward, simply recorded, enacted, documented, testified to and celebrated) in the first and last stanzas, and thought about (considered, reflected upon) in the two middle ones. Here for example is the last poem of c o n t i n u u m (“9.30”):

light coming into fog against invisible
ridge, black shape of black pine branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

      of what to say remains here
      instead, after a time

      as it appears, thing to see
      there, think about it

clouds above shadowed shoulder of ridge,
gull flapping to the right toward point

sound of wave in channel (BlazeVOX [books], 2018; Editions Eclipse. http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/CHANNEL/channel.html; PennSound. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php)is the fifth book in the ongoing series of 1,000 poems written in 1,000 consecutive days, between October 1, 2013 and June 26, 2016. Again set in Courier, each poem has nine lines divided into four stanzas whose visual shape on the page is repeated exactly from one page to the next (the first three and last two lines exactly the same length, two indented couplets in each of which the first line is five spaces longer than the second), that visual shape of words on the two-dimensional page echoing of the “shapeliness” of things in the three-dimensional world.  The first three and last two lines of each poem transcribe those perceived “real things” taking place out there in the world during the moment of writing them down in words that document them, translate them from the world into words like “sound of wave in channel” (which appears again and again in the third line of each poem, just as waves continue to break and sound down there in the channel. And as in the previous two books, the indented pairs of lines think about the presence and phenomena of those things in words that come from several source texts:  Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (Routledge, 2005); Kandinsky’s Complete Writings on Art (Da Capo P, 1994); Heidegger’s, Parmenides (Indiana UP, 1998) and Poetry, Language, Thought (Perennial, 2001);  T.J. Clark’s, The Sight of Death (Yale UP, 2006); Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity (Princeton UP, 1955) and The Principle of Relativity (Dover, nd);  Leo Steinberg’s, Other Criteria (U of Chicago P, 2007); Giorgio Morandi (Des Moines Art Center, 1981); and Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings (Yale UP, 2005). Here is the last poem in the book (“6.26”):

light coming into fog against invisible
ridge, waning white moon next to leaves
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

      reverse copies of subject
      and, following those

      element in picture, which
      just picture, optic

grey white cloud above shoulder of ridge
whiteness of gibbous moon across from it

w i n d o w (Edition Eclipse. http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/WINDOW/; PennSound. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php) is the sixth book in the series of 1,000 poems written in 1,000 consecutive days, between June 27, 2016 and March 23, 2019. The title comes from the window in my bedroom, which I take a picture of every morning. Each poem has eight lines of exactly the same length on the page separated into four stanzas, both the right and left margins justified (so the poem looks like a square on the page, something like the window). The first and last two pairs of lines are description (pointing toward, looking at, listening to, writing down, translating into words) things I see and hear taking place out there in the world in the present moment of the writing.  The two middle pairs of lines have to do with what the first and last pairs of lines have been talking about, perception of things in the world and thoughts in the mind, how we notice what we see in what we perceive in the unfolding moment, or think what we think at the same time. The poem as “window” into the world out there and also to what is inside (into memory, into the mind). Here is the last poem in w i n d o w (“3.23”):

light coming into fog against invisible
ridge, waning white moon next to leaves
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

      reverse copies of subject
      and, following those

      element in picture, which
      just picture, optic

grey white cloud above shoulder of ridge
whiteness of gibbous moon across from it

As an end to this rather long answer to your question, it might be useful to say something about the writing and reading of these long durational works. Six books of 1,000 poems, each one written in 1,000 consecutive days, a seventh book (m o m e n t) now more than half way finished, this writing has been going on now for almost twenty years.  One poem a day every day for all of these days, each book inventing some kind of form which gets explored over a long period of time (by the end of which I seem to have figured out what it is that I’m doing) – the passage of time has become the subject, the writing down of things taking place in the present moment of seeing and looking and thinking and writing. Given that it’s taken such a long time to write all these poems, it also seems unlikely that many (or any?) readers will be able to take the time it would take to read any one of them all the way through. (Perhaps one might decide to read a few pages at a time, maybe a poem a day, but that would take 1,000 days to read just one book, which again seems unlikely.) Still, at least one person has read each of them all the way through (me); twice in fact, once in proof reading them for publication over several days and once in one sitting, reading them in collaboration with various musicians in what is now called the Thingamagigs Performance Group, events that were recorded and are available at PennSound. So what happens when one hears 1,000 pages of the poem read aloud, the words of the day on the page as it turns from one day to the next? For one thing, just as a reader sees the visual shape of its words arranged on the two-dimensional page, a listener hears the acoustic shape of its syllables and words sounding the air. These two shapes (the visual shape of the poem on the page which the reader sees; the acoustic shape of the poem in the air which the listener hears but doesn’t see) correspond to the “shapelinesss” of things/actions/events in the world. For another, just as time appeared to slow down with I wrote the poem (nine lines a day for 1,000 days), time will seem to speed up for the listener who hears it read: 1,000 days (24,000 hours) passing in 14 hours. All this goes on day after day after day, each day the same (same shape on the page) but different; the physical monumentalism of page after page piling up on the table coupled to the minimalism of nothing apparently changing in the series of words moving across the horizontal line from one line to the next, the incremental changes taking place from one day to the next along the horizontal axis of time passing for 1,000 days; that axis of words-in-lines on the two-dimensional page being something like the actual horizon line out there in the world (between ocean and sky), the vertical axis (lines-going-down-the-page) something like “foreground” and “background” in the world.

One other thing to mention:  Along with posting each daily poem at “Temporality” (https://stephenratcliffe.blogspot.com/, which I began in May 2009 during the writing of Temporality, 4,227 poems to date) I have also been posting photographs, the first ones (for Temporality and sound of wave in channel) looking across at the Bolinas ridge taken from the same place out my back door at roughly the same time each morning, the second ones (for w i n d o w and m o m e n t) looking at the same view out my bedroom window. The poem + photo + view makes what I think of as a kind of triangulation of phenomena: 1) the word image of things seen and heard out there in the world; 2) the wordless image of the photograph of ridge, sky, window; and 3) the things/actions/events themselves out there in world. All of them versions of one another, none of them quite the same: that three-dimensional world out there; those words and photographs positioned on the two-dimensional page pointing in different ways toward that world: recording, documenting, testifying to, realizing, celebrating, invoking, enacting what’s out there.  As if words could bring those things in the world into existence – words making the things I look at and hear “look like themselves,” as Stein said, and also sound like themselves – “sound of wave in channel” repeated (insisted upon) again and again, becoming the thing itself, making those things and actions and events in the world be themselves (in words).

Notes

1.  I have done readings these first four 1,000-page books, all of which are available at PennSound (http://www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe.php).  A 14-hour reading/performance of HUMAN / NATURE with several musicians at UC Davis on June 6, 2008;  a 12-hour reading/performance of Remarks on Color / Sound with those same musicians at Marin Headlands Center for the Arts on May 17, 2010; a 13- hour reading/performance of Temporality with those same musicians (now called the Thingamajigs Performance Group) at the Mills College Art Museum on February 9, 2013; and tworeadings of c o n t i n u u m, a 10-hour reading into a microphone at the Kelly Writers House recording studio when I was the only person in the room on March 25, 2014, and then a 14-hour reading/performance with the Thingamajigs Performance Group, the Long Tone Choir, and dancers from Ink Boat in a WWII bunker at the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve on October 9, 2016.

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