Recently, I picked up a book by a poet whom I’ve admired for many years—Doug Ramspeck. Previously, I had only encountered his work in journals, which is to say, one or two at a time. With his book, Black Flowers, in hand, I am reminded how your sense and appreciation of a poet can change when you start to read them in depth.
For example, I had not considered him with respect to the rural tradition. This is a genre that I associate with Southern poets—but the locales in this book are near the Great Lakes—Wisconsin, Upper Peninsula, Ohio. Nonetheless, the poems in this book have a distinctly “Southern” feel to them–but without the overt biblical references.
Nature, writ large, is a brooding and impassive force in these poems. There’s plenty of mud, muck, and loam, and often it proffers the delicate skull of a small animal, bleached and moony. And the moon itself is a constant feature—it’s a rare poem in this collection that does not mention the moon in some manner. There are birds, too, of course. Herons, which typically assume a godly stature, and crows and grackles, which are vaguely associated with the poet’s mother.
In general, the tone is wistful and nostalgic, but largely unsentimental. The lineation is often sparse, with unrhymed couplets the preferred style. Though the language is mostly plain-spun, Ramspeck is clearly enamored by the sound, the physicality, of words. At times, the phrasing can be wonderfully surprising: “a clemency of clouds,” “alluvial darkness,” “the silage of stars,” “the cuneiform / tangles of your hair.” This is a poet who loves alliteration, and uses it to great effect.
I typically read poetry books in a desultory manner, but this one displays a thematic arc from start to finish. The poems in the first section (Conjuring) look back upon the poet’s childhood, or rather, adolescence—that transitional phase between childish longing and adult desire. We get a glimpse into a troubled homelife, and the parents’ eventual divorce. In “Notes on Beauty: The Skull,” the father finds a woodchuck’s skull buried in the dirt, cleans it off, and presents it to the mother “for their final / anniversary.” Such a wonderful image, as you’re not sure whether the gift was an honest gesture of love, or an assertion that their love is dead and buried. If it’s the first, then the father is (tragically?) unaware of their impending separation; if it’s the second, he’s handing over the divorce papers.
In the middle section (Claiming), the poet is in his prime—he experiences love and marriage, haunted initially by a miscarriage but redeemed eventually by a child. This brief section is replete with primordial ooze—even in the titles, which include words like “Dust,” “Mud,” “Stones,” and of course “Moon.”
The final section (Burying) reflects on the final stages of life. Here we see the parents, no longer the hale and earthy creatures of the first section, but now wispy and shrunken with age. Death, and impending death, are the overriding themes. This section contains one of my favorite poems in the book, “Paper Skin.” While it focuses on an elderly neighbor, its real subject is the pragmatic and dutiful father, who “commanded” the poet “to mow her grass in summer and shovel her driveway in winter.” And while it seems that the father is driven by a sense of decency and courtesy, of noblesse oblige, he nonetheless tells the son to filch some useful tools from the lady’s basement after she’d died, before her relatives could come and claim them.
In fact, this is not the first we’ve seen of the elderly neighbor in these poems. Like many poets with an obsessive fascination with the past, Ramspeck replays and recasts scenes throughout the book. We see the elderly neighbor more than once, along with her granddaughter, an early subject of the poet’s gaze and desire. We see young lovers carrying blankets to the river’s edge again and again. We encounter the boy who drowned in the river more than once. As a young man, he lived across the street from a funeral home (is there a better place for an emerging poet to live?), which becomes another recurring theme. In fact, we occasionally get some variation of “formaldehyde” (e.g., “the stars // grew slowly mired in their jar of formalin”), which may be a direct result of his proximity to the embalmer’s workshop. He’ll often try different ways of executing the same idea—so for instance, to describe the color of sunrise or sunset, we get “the dusk sky / slitting the throats of the clouds” in one poem, and in another, “dawn / would slip its necklace / of blood over // the horizon’s neck.” On the other hand, the recasting and reviewing sometimes comes across as too much reliance on phrases or images that have worked in the past. The adjective “low-slung,” for example, sets a tone the first time it appears, but by the third time, it just draws attention to itself. And, as mentioned, the force of the moon as objective correlative gets diluted with repeated use.
Ultimately, what I love about Ramspeck is his joy in language and his ability to tweak and extend a phrase into something unexpected and beautiful. For example, these lines from “Ars Poetica with Heron and Dance”:
…at dusk, the grackles in the trees gave way
to bats, as though everything transforms in darkness
to something ancient.
Ramspeck also has a new book out from Cloudbank Books and another forthcoming from WordWorks. I look forward to checking them out, too.