Book Review

About fifteen years ago, I wrote a review for Stephen Ratcliffe’s book of poetry REAL, writing that Ratcliffe’s work will be “demanding our attention for years to come.” Here I am, years later, talking about Ratcliffe’s newest books, released by Cuneiform Press in 2020. In the first review, I called Ratcliffe a “muse of stone” because his project, an almost mathematical attempt to escape the boundaries of being human, shone with a kind of objective beauty. In Rocks and More Rocks, the project is altogether different from much of his other work, but equally rewarding. The poems are meditations that take place over several days mountain climbing and hiking. In this new pair of books, Ratcliffe strives, as he writes in More Rocks:

that I
can be the sound

of thought itself
I think, thinking

the sound of what/is passing

Constrained in a manner that Zukofsky would recognize, Ratcliffe’s meditations in Rocks take the form of three-line stanzas, the first line having five syllables, the second line three, and the final line returning to five. In More Rocks, the rhythm shifts to couplets, with each line having four syllables and one line being broken by some form of punctuation, usually a comma. The measure, or limitation, fixes Ratcliffe’s thought as he moves, giving both books the inertia of hiking. Ratcliffe’s relation to rhythm and thought is integral. He writes in More Rocks: “how / rhythm itself, / disappearing // the moment one / stops thinking.” Thought for Ratcliffe is related to music and syllable counting is something like a musician tapping their foot, keeping the sound (and thought) moving.

While the meditative movement of the poems is partly in the structure, the contents are heavily centered on poetics, in a departure from much of his other work. With seeming simplicity, Ratcliffe speaks about the role of language in writing, often returning to images of flowing water to refer to the act of speaking and granite or stone to the reality of sound entering the space around him. Unlike the work of REAL, which exists in a kind of timeless, geometric space, these two new books are intimately involved with time. Suns and moons rise and fall. The quality of light changes, and Ratcliffe returns often to the idea of echo as a representation of time and our relation to the real. While Language poets often underline the ambivalent construction of words that can be pulled apart or pushed together at will, Ratcliffe represents a different branch of postmodern poetry, one that links human language with the world instead of detaching from it. As he writes in More Rocks:

to understand

the form of the
poem, thinking

in syllables
like this, liquid

flowing under
rocks, tongue and lips

Ratcliffe is a poet who searches for connection with the world, always reminding us that being, thought, and writing are intimately and musically linked. Ratcliffe’s rhythm and movement are often an interweaving of thought, language, writing, and our movement through it, as sure as granite.

While these poems were written in 1993 and 1994, they have appeared after his later, longer works. Unlike much of his published poetry, these poems are personal ruminations on the role of poetry in the construction of our relation to the world. Ratcliffe traces his work’s lineage with other poets, citing or referring to poets as diverse as Catullus and Lyn Hejinian. Meditations on the work of Wallace Stevens, George Oppen, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein proliferate on the page. In truth, it is difficult to encapsulate the range of Ratcliffe’s thoughts in one review. For example, Shakespeare takes a major role in More Rocks, as he compares the field of writing to a stage. The thinking is complex and various. For anyone who cares about poetics, these two books are an insightful journey through a few hundred years of poetic theory.

Besides his thoughts on poetics and his phenomenological eye for relations, Ratcliffe also demonstrates a gift for beautiful images. Take this line, for example, when talking about a woman’s voice: “voice / like a pillow // my head touches,” from More Rocks. The two books are filled with quiet, delicate observations that Ratcliffe produces with seeming ease. Reading Rocks and More Rocks is to be witness to a mind sympathetic to beauty and the delicacy of the moment in which one is living. Ratcliffe’s thoughts on the relation of human thought to reality is of real and consequential use to a world that seems always on the edge of outrage and sanctimony. Ratcliffe is a humble poet, in love with neither grandiloquence nor brash statements. His work is like standing in open, mountain air, listening to the whisper of wind through the pines. As I wrote nearly fifteen years ago, Ratcliffe continues to demand our attention. These two books should become major touchstones for contemporary poetics.

The review of these books would not be complete without speaking about the books themselves. Cuneiform Press has a long history of beautifully designed books, and Rocks and More Rocks are no exception. Both books demonstrate the same simplicity of design as the work they contain. The little black books bring to mind the hand-sized moleskin notebooks that a poet might carry with them on a hike. The overall simplicity of the design and typesetting is a reflection (echo) of Ratcliffe’s work. The print is clean as stone and a real pleasure to read. The care in the physicality of the book, always a goal with Cuneiform Press, adds to Ratcliffe’s thoughts and work, as Ratcliffe himself writes in Rocks:

the words themselves
as image,
as much as the object

as the object is
in fact, as
writing means itself

The mindfulness of word and design makes the two books a real treasure for any library of contemporary poetry.

About the Reviewer

Ben Lyle Bedard earned his doctorate at the Poetics program at the University of Buffalo. His poetry book Implicit Lyrics was published by Punch Press. His newest, self-published novel, The World Without Flags, won several awards, including a Finalist medal from Next Generation Indie Book Awards. After meeting a Fulbright scholar from Chile, he moved to South America to marry her. He is currently living in La Serena, Chile, with his wife, writing novels and watching birds.