Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

sound of wave in channel, Books I and II

By Stephen Ratcliffe

Reviewed By Daniel Schonning

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Art critic John Ruskin writes, “No human capacity ever yet saw the whole of a thing; but we may see more and more of it the longer we look.” In a thousand poems occasioned across a thousand days, Stephen Ratcliffe’s sound of wave in channel affords his reader a long, honest look. His is a project of sameness, recursivity—from a single vantage, within a set frame, Ratcliffe’s work makes its world one naked image at a time.

To review a work so spare and so multitudinous, to try to distill sound of wave in channel for the purpose of response, poses something of a challenge—on a certain level, to write on it at all is to threaten the silence that Ratcliffe has curated so tenderly over the course of his text. While no one sliver can wholly convey the effect of such an expansive work, each atom of Ratcliffe’s project contains some facsimile of its largest crisis. From “10.5” (more specifically, the third “10.5” of this collection):

light coming into sky above still black
ridge, bird slanting toward pine branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

The senses are piqued, the world conveyed exactly. As this segment evidences, sound of wave in channel acts, in part, as almanac—record of movements both celestial and mundane. Within the collection, variations on “planet by moon above branches” appear alongside “cormorants flapping across toward point” and the frequent “still black / plane of ridge,” each hierarchized only by its place in the poet’s ken. If—in a conventional almanac—the motions of storms, tides, and planets all demand a written record, sound of wave in channel asks: Why not the cormorant? Why not the moment in which, one morning, the “first bird calls in field / in foreground”? Ratcliffe posits an economy of attention in which the movements of the world’s many bodies are vital on the merit that they are. What’s more, the poet offers this attention inextricably wrapped in his own subjective vision.

The texture of that subjective rendering is, for this reader, one of the most compelling features of sound of wave in channel. Robert Hass, in his introduction to The Essential Haiku, refers to poet Yosa Buson’s “painterly mix of precision and strangeness.” Perhaps no better description suits Stephen Ratcliffe’s own mode of visual thinking—precise, utterly and wonderfully strange. Indeed, Ratcliffe’s logic is very much painterly—as illustrated in the excerpt above, each poem opens with some variation on “light coming into sky,” “light coming into clouds,” or “grey whiteness of clouds.” At every outset, light or light’s absence fills the vessel of the poem, presents the occasion from which everything else may follow.

And, surely, the work is brilliantly strange. One sees in the poet’s “planet next to black pine branch” something of Heraclitus’s “The sun is the width of a human foot”: Again and again, Ratcliffe turns our vision from three dimensions to two, from window to canvas and back. As he writes in one poem, “planet above star next to branch / in foreground”; in another, “half moon by tree in right / foreground.” While length, width, and depth all vary in their plasticity across the collection, the reader is ever reminded of the forward increment of time—foremost via the project’s dated “titles.” In the subject of time, the reader finds sound of wave in channel’s metaphysical constant, finds the central subject that—for Ratcliffe—lurks behind all others. As the poet himself offers, “time the structure of space.”

Following each opening—the content of which borders on the sublime—the poems’ middle sections employ an altogether new mode. Across the collection, these central stanzas make up a literal and figurative interior, a voice buttressed by image. In the segment of “10.5” given above, Ratcliffe offers the transom; next, the open door:

visual more than meaning it
is, looking can think

that figure, far from being
from or for it, calls

Refusing the typical syntactic logic found elsewhere in these poems, the voice at center echoes and splinters, glances off in sentence fragments and non sequiturs. In the excerpt above, appearing nearly two hundred days into this subtle manuscript, we are given something of a thesis for the work: Looking can think; observation needs no outside hand. Indeed, for Ratcliffe, looking is ontology—the visual “is”—and it is this simple gesture that informs the project entire.

With the final section of each poem, the reader surfaces to find themselves, again, in a rich field of image. Closing “10.5,” Ratcliffe writes:

pale orange of sky above shadowed ridge,
gull flapping to the right toward point

Here, the poem leaves its reader to reconcile its parts, to place it in constellation with the myriad others prior and still to come. Other segments read, “pale orange of sky above shadowed ridge, / whiteness of moon in cloudless blue sky” or “cloud above shadowed shoulder of ridge, / white line of wave breaking in channel.” Always, an opening outward; always, a return.

In the time between each poem’s first and third section, moreover, that invocative light has been given time to percolate—by close, light has shepherded the world into being, has allowed it to be embodied. The poet turns to the channel at last as a figure not only heard, but also seen: rather than “sound of wave in channel,” “wave sounding in channel,” or “no sound of wave in channel,” the final stanza presents “waves breaking across windblown channel” or “grey white clouds reflected in channel.” In transitioning senses, the body sensed transforms.

One feels, in this arrival, the Objectivist attentions of someone like Lorine Niedecker, or—further back in the poetic lineage—the Imagism of H. D. or Ezra Pound. One is reminded of the lattermost, locked in his Italian gorilla cage, looking on “Mt Taishan”—per Richard Seiburth—“as if to read therein the signs of his own fate.” So, too, does Stephen Ratcliffe probe his closed vantage with the passion and attention of a person confined. His manuscript—despite being scrubbed almost fully of the personal “I”—sings as an intimate exploration of the self. Where Pound might record, “That butterfly has gone out thru my smoke hole,” Ratcliffe writes, “edge of sun rising above shadowed ridge, / line of pelicans gliding toward horizon.”

Ratcliffe’s words carry in them the promise that, somewhere in this sustained observation, there is an inroad to knowing. sound of wave in channel, across its multitudes, asserts and reasserts that there is value in bamboo, pine, and rose branches; in cormorants, crows, and sparrows; in planets nuzzling the garden’s trees; in gentle bodies held gently. As Ratcliffe writes:

somewhere called “HERE I AM,”
window, world changed

Daniel Schonning is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he serves as an associate editor at Colorado Review and the assistant director of the Creative Writing Reading Series. He was a finalist for the Puerto del Sol 2019 Poetry Contest, the 2019 Pinch Literary Awards, and the 2018 Indiana Review Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Speculative Nonfiction, Guesthouse, the Pinch Journal, Sycamore Review, and Seneca Review.