Please Do Not Feed the Ghost by Peter Ramos. BlazeVOX Books, $16.
Strata by Joe Ross. Dusie Books, $15.
Reviewed by Andy Frazee
In her endnotes, Dawn-Michelle Baude calls the poems of The Flying House “site-specific writing,” the core of which is “the idea that presence—of the writer, of the word, and of the subject—is intrinsic to the work of art.” She goes on to note how “the act of writing became for me an historical ‘site’ . . . Actual details, conditions and circumstances litter the poems with a story of their making.” With the exception of the staggering, fragmented prose poetry of “Postcards from Ir)Rational Lands,” the poems here are themselves “littered” (probably the better word is “positioned”) down the page; like archeological digs, these excavations work to reveal the intertwined strata of self, place, and language:
I was late, delayed
by a ground fog
a mistral, a heron
I found a piece
it was missing
clung to the rock
the displaced plain
I found a number of mirrors
In the nine poems—mostly sequences—of the book, one, the “Fieldwork” series, reappears periodically throughout and serves as both structural principle and investigative model, developing the archeological-historical trope of “site-specific” in full. One is reminded of Emerson’s notion of language as “fossil poetry”—and here Baude’s use of the page, full of a syntactic tension derived from the Projectivist techniques of Olson and Duncan (Baude, in fact, studied with the latter), gives the “ruins . . . we’ve inherited” new life, as in “Fieldwork III”:
some spare misfortune at the extremity
of provenance          accumulations,
signs of the imminent
ruins      what we’ve inherited—
meandering depictions          odd metaphors,
on the flickering screens
of the unconscious self
thin and liminal
Implied in Baude’s notion of the site-specific, and in her loyalty to the historical and contextual, is a notion of witness. “The Beirut Poems” sequence in particular works to image the violence Baude saw during her time in Lebanon, deftly—through consideration of the teaching she did there—weaving in a discourse of poetry in tension with the destruction going on around her. In section V—a section beginning, “Because the wheelbarrow is red”—the poet juxtaposes the work of William Carlos Williams to the proximate turbulence, and meditates on what use poetry may have in such a world:
the rain glazes
the object that’s attractive
but a friend is in excruciating pain
where the good doctor
applies image to a wound
no medicine can ever
While this witness isn’t completely divergent from “the poetry of witness” outlined in Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting anthology and elsewhere, Baude’s witness implies an attention to the local that is always necessarily political, and is not limited to the singular, catastrophic event. In these poems, the process of the present becoming the past is itself an unending catastrophe of loss. One of the motifs of the book is that of the explosion, one both literal and metaphorical, and the history we are given is the post-detonation “history of gaps, disparity, lacunae” one must both attempt to understand and live within. While the notion of “post-detonation” may lead one to thoughts of “post-9/11,” it is important to recognize that here 9/11 is a recurrence, one catastrophe within many, if not infinitely many. Baude’s witness, thereby, is a kind of attention to the real, the present, the ongoingness of history—it is a mode of being in the world, of being responsible for what one sees and where one is, rather than a response to any particular event.
In this sense, Baude’s archeological-poetic investigation is necessarily also an investigation into the self, as we find it in the world and in language. On the page the “I” is itself figured as a kind of relic—or, more precisely, as a relic among relics; it is “a memory / (family) / (origin) / the artifact” lodged within “the context / of ages / the reliquary.” Ultimately, the book suggests, it is presence, this particular site-specificity in the world and on the page, that allows for the “I” to “orient the resonant fields of association,” thereby “constituting an artifact, its own, a document // in perpetual process and acts of formation.” Recognizing its own constitution as an artifact (though, importantly, as an artifact-in-process), the poem implies, allows the “I” a kind of awe, if not wisdom:
to let the circle predominate
the fluent          the continuous
no matter how deep
how very          high          overhead
With her concern with history, place, and formal experimentation, Baude positions herself firmly in the Pound-Williams-Olson tradition, and The Flying House extends that lineage nobly, giving us a vision not only of the world and of language, but also of our places in them—a vision not only historical but, as Baude suggests, urgent. “I detected letters in the profusion / a world of shadows // omissions,” the poet writes in “Fieldwork I.” “[H]ow else to know where we’re going // I pluck, gather, salvage what I can.”
In Please Do Not Feed the Ghost, Peter Ramos also performs a kind of historical investigation, though while Baude’s work feeds off that of Olson and Duncan, Ramos’s project is more in line with the Robert Lowell of Life Studies. Whatever lukewarm autobiographical verse Lowell’s work may have inadvertently unleashed on American poetry, Ramos takes up what continues to make Life Studies important: a recognition that selfhood is never self-contained, but is a performance that operates within, is even constructed by, the demands of family, desire, and national life—demands which in the work of both poets may take place years before their births.
Ramos’s subject in the most general sense is nostalgia, and the threat of the desire to indulge in it. Specifically, the book deals with the risk of not seeing the past as it needs to be seen, or in replacing the past with a myth that only serves to reinforce one’s illusions—personal or national—in the present. And in this sense the work is as much an exploration of the implications of the autobiographical or confessional mode as it is an example of it. Thus the book opens with the (aptly) quasi-autobiographical, quasi-dramatic delivery of “John Berryman in my Dreams,” where the speaker functions both as Berryman and as the poet dreaming of being Berryman:
Blacking out in some basement café, crowded
And alone in the sad mid century, I come back & go on
Hunting powder-puff angels, the pan-caked faces
Under bangs cut straight, the puckered mouths wet
With lipstick. Then do I move through night, glass
After each empty glass—am I all right?
In this mode of the late-night urban underbelly, the cover of the book, a video still, shows an update of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks—this time of two solitary figures inside a fluorescent-lit Laundromat. The window, as in the painting, puts us at a distance, in the role of voyeurs, with the figures inside like zoo animals. Ramos’s poems are filled with such ghosts of “the sad mid-century,” specters that waver between the worlds of objective presentation and the subjective “return of the repressed.” The former consideration takes into account the poet’s responsibility to the people he renders; “How will you speak for them?” the speaker of “The Put-Together Wedding Cake” asks, speaking, presumably, of his own newlywed parents:
The groom is learning the language, dull-eyed
for remembering what they said: “America the gold
and golden fleece!” The bride thinks of daffodils
which turn to kitchen gloves.
The latter consideration takes into account how those independent agents become figures in one’s own psychology, and of how one uses others in the construction of personality, if not neuroses. Not feeding the ghosts involves not transgressing the boundaries that define ghosts’ uncanny nature, lest they bring you back with them: “October, color gone from the wheat / and you straggle back,” begins the title poem,
full of loam, jacket lined with rot, crazy
as the leaves.
Each time I try to sleep you off, hoping winter
will stamp its feet, sober you up.
But the hallways soften. You
stuff me full of mothballs.
But, as the poems indicate again and again, it is just this feeding of ghosts, this return to the sites of origination and loss, where historical and psychological understanding resides, despite the risks.
The poems here, while operating from an autobiographical center, consistently seek to enlarge the context of that core, often taking a genealogical tack in dramatizing the characters of Ramos’s family, as in “The Put-Together Wedding Cake” above. The poet further broadens the landscape in approaching various notions of “America,” as in the tarnished vision of consumerism in “Mid-Century Modern”:
They rust now in the innards,
in the plumbing’s guts. Under linoleum,
secret in dry-wall, torn paper, they
bloom beneath layers of paint.
They are jewels in pitch glue,
asleep in the bracebeams.
These concerns—the autobiographical-genealogical and the historical—come together in the long sequence “Watching Late-Night Hitchcock,” which takes cues from both Lowell and Langston Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred, giving us a familial mini-epic of pre- and post-war Americana. In this poem, as throughout the book, the threat of a utopian nostalgia is undercut by the self-destructive grotesquery of the American underbelly—we find late-night cocktail lounges, alcoholics, and “dye-job” blondes, which in other hands may have devolved into nth-generation rehashes of Bukowski. Ramos endows these images, however, with precise description and an undeniable authority of voice—and with turns toward the disquieting and peculiar too concretely imagined to be merely surreal: “We like things clean: the boat flag / snapping in the breeze, // the platinum bee hive / sipping gin from a bird bath.”
As a worthy heir to Lowell’s undiluted project, Ramos’s quirky and often unsettling poems, far from repeating the formula of languid confessionalism, focus our attention on the particulars of the past, and how those particulars form their own kind of personal and shared mythology—one tantalizing, worthy of critique, and, in its capacity to overwhelm the self, frightening. But, the book suggests, we have no choice but to confront it, and to be responsible in understanding our role within it: “The green glass / dust between and all around us / is also too brilliant”—and, Ramos writes, “too excruciating to overlook.”
In his Autobiography, William Carlos Williams claims that the “difficulty” of poetry “is to catch the evasive life of the thing, to phrase the words in such a way that stereotype will yield a moment of insight.” In Joe Ross’s Strata the difficulty the poet sets for himself is less in catching the evasive thing, than in catching evasiveness itself—and the insight is in discovering that the insightful moment is always already lost. The fifty-two short poems here are, in the best sense of the phrase, hard to grasp; they pointedly enact the slipperiness, the fleetingness—not only of the moment, of the real, but of the speech that attempts to convey that moment’s actuality, “[w]hen the / knot finally slips and the world comes back,
When tomorrow correctly takes its place as today.
We began to talk but quickly chased the words away.
We put in a symbol, let it be A. It
immediately left for Not A. How to address this.
Though their true forebear (if we are to choose only one) is more probably Robert Creeley, Strata’s poems, following Stevens, “resist the intelligence almost successfully” in their attempts to capture that gap in time between the thing, its perception, and one’s speaking of it. The moment (“let it be A”) is always infinitely displaced by the discourses of the just after (“Not A”), and the just after displaced into further Not A’s. In those lost moments, the uncanny gaps between the prior to, pregnant with what is the “now,” and the now itself, already displaced, Ross situates the poem as what transcribes A’s leaving for Not A—not the thing itself, not A, but the trace of its passage.
As what populates this gap, what signifies the absent, lost moment, the poem is also what transcends or trans-verses the in-between of otherness. It is, from the point of view of the reader, that there (the recording of someone else’s saying) that is always here (present and immediate in its physical manifestation on the page). “This place, place one puts,” the poet writes in “Here,” “is now, is ever.” In this sense, in Ross’s poems, as in Baude’s, “the act of writing [becomes] an historical ‘site.’” While both poets in this way transcribe the loss of the present-tense of writing into the past-tense of the written, it is Ross who dramatizes it most fully. On each level of the book, from the sequence of the discrete, titled lyrics, to the syntax of each poem’s phrases, Ross emphasizes this displacement of moments and the loss that displacement creates:
This perfect, an act.
Resplendent palm slight of –
Gone from view, those few
we seldom thought of for fear
or its lack. A sudden not speaking
where only yesterday teased into or away
Ross further dramatizes this movement in the ambiguity of how we see the book as a whole. Is it as a collection of discrete lyrics, as the individual titles suggest? Or are we to see it as a poetic sequence or series? The book’s epigraph—“52 is some kind of magic number, isn’t it?”—suggests the latter, positing that these poems are to be seen in the movement of the weeks of the year, each week, and each poem, displacing the one previous, with the previous still present (printed on the page) in a palimpsest of memory and history. The ambiguity seems intentional in that we are persistently made aware of the gaps between the poems, and of our attempts to draw a continuity among them. Coupled with the content of the poems, we are drawn to what is not said, to what happens in between the poems, even as the poems are pointing outside of themselves, to the prior to, to the margin. Each section is both its own center (emphasized by the titles) and, at the same time, peripheral to all the others, and this schema extrapolates into the political: “The shallows / collapse. What was built upon mere sticks or the backs / of the lesser. The coal of civilization about to be / forgotten.” And: “To take up / arms or to reach out.”
While undeniably engaged with philosophical and theoretical discourses, these poems are—equally undeniably—poems of a lyrical moment, suggesting, intriguingly, that the instance of critical inquiry is as worthy of the heightened language of lyrical artifice as any other. In tension with the relative tonal flatness and syntactic gaps reminiscent of Language poetics we also find in the book, the poems often enact their investigations through a palpable music and an elegiac mood:
The words won’t
come, or do and not connected to
memories severed link of an attachment
to all that was, all that was once
the person on the end of bed.
These, and other pleasures generally considered “traditional”—an attention to the natural world, a hint at the loss of love, to name two—make Strata’s complex epistemological considerations an engaging, if not exhilarating, read. “Looking out / into the next break, we pause. / Frozen into stare, the eye cannot help / see itself,” Ross writes in the last poem of the book—one titled, aptly, “Beauty.”