The ocean is said to be our
origin, and we hear the echo of this origin in many a remarkable poetry.
It is in Emily Dickinson, perhaps, the unconscious: "The brain is deeper
than the sea / For, hold them blue to blue, / The one the other will absorb,
/ As sponges, buckets do." It's in Jack Spicer, no less melancholy,
but again, perhaps, the unconscious: "This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
/ Tougher than anything. / No one listens to poetry. / The ocean / Does
not mean to be listened to. / A drop / Or crash of water. / It means /
Nothing." In fact, it's a well-documented constant throughout many
poetries, as many readers have observed. It's also a constant in
Stephen Ratcliffe's Sculpture, but not as figure. Rather,
it (or, more precisely, the Wave) recurs line to line as the symetry that
shapes his elegant and not so blue rhythms, which succeed each other in
a progression more musical than linear, mapping an on-going and ever-changing
process, as opposed to a narrative that culminates in significant import
only at its close. Like ocean waves, his lines lap the shores of
imagination, memory, essence, a life force that can only cease when the
body no longer breathes and the brain no longer actualizes pattern that
is every living being's connection to the source of being, the origin wherein
we're all connected, really.
I've lived along the ocean. I can recall many an evening lying in bed at night and listening to
it, many a late afternoon or early evening watching it unfurl itself and roll in on the shore, its measured and regular sheets of form sliding in and, almost simultaneously, back out upon themselves. That close to the ocean, we had a bungaloe no more than 200 feet from the high tide waves, the sound was as powerful as the sight of the waves, but their beauty at night, on moonlit nights, was extraordinary. We'd watch it for hours. Of course, we were college students in Florida at the time and perhaps a little grass had had an effect, but each new wave seemed majestic, its sparkle in the moonlight just a little different each time, the overall pattern almost identical, but the particulars of each successive roll, break, and recoiling different somehow. But
I wax on too romantically. And others would perhaps relie on their own, perhaps fresher, experiences watching and hearing waves, perhaps visit or revisit a local shoreline if possible and watch and wait and listen for a couple of hours. A bottle of wine doesn't detract from the experience either.
Still, I'm not saying its the sound of waves one gets in Sculpture. No, actually, it's a feeling of the rhythm of waves that his lines reproduce, are an analog of, are, I'm quite certain, patterned after--their long, languid lines resembling, on the page, lines of prose. I'm speaking here of the units within the end punctuation, by the way, not "lines" as in units that break at varying junctures along the righthand margins, though indeed Ratcliffe very adroitly employs a good deal of linebreak effects, as does most truly good poetry. Here is a stanza of these long, languid lines:
How it is that light could be misconstrued as being more than brutal, the field of protons
taking one's eye out just to the place where letters begin to separate, meaning
in the spaces between them being heard as the potential for sound
that has not yet come into the world. The feeling for instance inside I 'think'
whose meaning can't be determined except as a turning of the body toward the approaching wave,
how it walls up out of green blue water the hour or so after sunrise, wind
a kind of whip as it lifts over the one who drops into it. The person who is reading
outside the window, the wave still breaking in a different, more dim light. (26)
The linebreak effects are numerous here, but I'll point out a few of
them for good measure, for their good measure. At the end of the
first, for example, the reader comes to "brutal, the field of
protons" before proceeding to the beginning of the second line, "taking one's eye out," that is,
"brutal, the field of protons / taking one's eye out" (26). The reader conjures an image, perhaps
of an explosion, say nuclear or microscopic, one that brutally relocates a person's eye. This is an entire subset of meaning within the larger syntax that begins with the first word "How" and ends
with the period at the middle of line four after the word "world." There are other subsets I particularly like, for example, proximal to the second linebreak, at "where letters begin to separate, meaning" turns into the next line which begins "in the spaces between them," that is, "where letters begin to separate, meaning / in the spaces between them" (26). Now, the word "separate," here, is supposed to be wrapping up, as last word before the comma, the subordinate clause that precedes it, namely, "where letters begin," itself wrapping up the prepositional phrase which begins with "to the place," which, in turn, completes the modifying phrase beginning with "the field of protons" (26). However, most all readers of this stanza are equally delighted to read "where letters begin to separate, meaning" as a "complete" subordinate clause all by itself, in other words, sans the comma, such that "letters . . . [themselves] separate . . . meaning" (26). This is beautiful linebreaking, almost surprising for such long lines, as such torqueing is so much more abundant in shorter, more tightly woven syntaxes, but it subtlely yet powerfully charges these long, languid syntaxes with abundant additional energy and meaning.
I'd like to observe another groups of effects, as well as some of the linebreaking effects, from another new fragment unit, the following: "The feeling for instance inside I 'think' / whose meaning can't be determined except as a turning of the body toward the approaching wave, / how it walls up out of green blue water the hour or so after sunrise, wind / a kind of whip as it lifts over the one who drops into it" (26). Observing this line rolling and unfurling its way across the page reminds me, obviously, of the way a long, "glassy" wave seems to go through several unpredictable but eternally wondrous revolutions before smoothening out at the completion of its unaetherized shoreward run. And I feel there are almost ten intervals within this new fragment, three that work off of the linebreaks, where a poet turns meaning and syntax and emphasis almost naturally but most often quite deliberately taking advantage of the small, wide instant between righthand margin and next lefthand margin, a shift of not only the eyes but the ears, time, location, context, in some cases, the universe. But there are numerous other shifts, turns, contextual changes within this line as well, and, remarkably, they are no less irresistable than those aided by the linebreaks: (1)"whose meaning can't be determined" centers the reader momentarily within the topic of "indeterminacy" when suddenly "except as a turning of the body" shifts if not snatches the reader away from such a "writerly" and abstract subject matter, playing on the ironic contrast between "intellectual" or "head" concepts and "immediate kinesthetic" or "body" experience.
This latter subject matter "turning the body" (again) turns/shifts itself no less than four words later with "toward the approaching wave," now locating, or should I say relocating, the reader by way of relocating the "turning of the body," which may have been, say, in bed, or in a house, or kneeling. Now, following "toward the approaching wave," the reader via this seemingly eternally "turning . . . body" may be on shore looking out towards the waves, or kneedeep looking out towards the waves, or on a surfboard ready to catch a wave or in several other locations particularly more physical than "inside I 'think.'" Naturally, perhaps, the linebreak after "wave" will take the reader, relocate the reader (and/or context) further: "how it walls up" could be merely the wave or it could be "the feeling for instance inside I 'think' / whose meaning can't be determined." It could also be the wave walling up "out of green blue winter," these latter five words providing for another new relocation. There will be at least five more before this new wave, this new fragment, finishes unfurling itself: "the hour or so after sunrise," "the hour or so after sunrise, wind [my italics]," "wind / a kind of whip," "as it lifts," "as it lifts over," "the one who drops into it," and "as it lifts over the one who drops into it." To reiterate, there are multiple intervals of distinct sense within this new fragment unit and its many cousins throughout Sculpture, and they unfurl at unpredictable but regular locations.