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  • Poetic Theology
  • Angela Ball (bio)
Theory of Mind: New & Selected Poems. Bin Ramke. Omnidawn. 197 pages; paper, $16.95.

Like Wallace Stevens's "Planet on the Table," this collection's title is both supremely modest and supremely ambitious—and completely appropriate. From the start, with his Yale Award winning 1978 book, The Difference Between Night and Day, Bin Ramke's poems have interrogated the world with an intelligence, clarity, and intensity seldom seen in the work of his peers. Full of unsolemn seriousness, the poems mingle structures of meaning derived from mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, and, above all, etymology: the transformations rooted in words. They enact the multifarious ways in which mental operations connect us to the world that both nurtures and ultimately dissolves us.

If you are not yet familiar with Ramke's work, or if you have lost touch with it, Theory of Mind will guide you. Not a mere piling up but a honed collection, the volume's opening section of new work and the poems (and parts of poems) selected from the previous nine books form a long and completely absorbing conversation. The collection enacts Ramke's vision of language as a complex unfurling that preserves and transforms the shape of its origins, as in these lines evoking the poet's own beginnings:

mirages and red wing blackbirds on the pavement

cormorants an alligator dead on the highway Cameron, Calcasieu, Jefferson Davis, Vermillion

these the names of Parishes: Latin parochia, from

Greek para + oikia = "a temporary staying" (para, paradise, paranoid, etc.)

These poems are not jeux d'esprit riding on the back of Frank O'Hara (wonderful back though it is). They are not brief imagistic encounters with the "infinite." They are neither "confessional" nor "post-confessional." Though they have been praised as a bridge between L=A=N=G=A=G=E poetry and [End Page 20] "mainstream" poetry, they are nothing so narrow.

These poems say, "It is hard to know things. 'Hard' as in the turtle's / shell, the feel of pebbles in the mouth or pocket."

They say,

dream is a shadow cast by Mind shading into itself, the little mind making itself seem large in hope of frightening

itself into resolution; then dream is a kind of color that light distorts, dissolves, discards. But color is light, is the behavior of light in the world. What is there to love but the world, its things and shades and matter. Let us love the names: what is the name of this world? Space. What is the name of the other world? Time. What is the name of the light? Color. What is the name of color? Change.

They recall the "deep delight" of Robert Penn Warren's biographical dream vision, Audubon (1969). (As a graduate student at Ohio University, Ramke won a contest judged by Penn Warren, the prize a signed copy of Audubon.) They are pastoral and in love with innocence. But they are also cosmopolitan and deeply experienced, telling what it is like on the unraveling edge we inhabit.

Where are we, exactly? It's already a cliché that in the process of trolling the virtual for bites of reality we are becoming clichés. (Just as, in Michael Pollan's description of the dominance of agri-business, we have become "giant corn chips.") Unripeness is all. Perhaps the young will spend their lives green—all the while thinking themselves eminently in the know. Of course, it is important to us to believe that our departure will mean diminishment—that our decline corresponds to the world's. Yet there is a fair amount of evidence for this assumption.

Since war first blew us to smithereens, we've pursued wholeness. Maybe we will stop worrying and love the fragments, as Frank O'Hara seemed to do (though he grieved for Lady Day and for his dead friends). Or wholeness will leave the question.

The work of a visionary collagist, Ramke's poems engage all the above questions and many more, without proposing to solve or dissolve them—engage them perhaps most compellingly in "Wake," the title poem of its original book: a pages-long, beautifully incomplete sentence transporting...


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