Rooms by the Sea: Laynie Browne & Stephen Ratcliffe @ the Poetry Project

Tonight I saw Laynie Browne and Stephen Ratcliffe at the Poetry Project. This was my first trip to the Poetry Project in something like five years, since I saw an Anti-Reading there. I met some people I’ve known only by name, and was reintroduced to people I haven’t seen in ages. The group that gathered was small, but socially I felt that it was a good venture because, well, I got out of the house and met some people. That’s always heartening.

Laynie Browne’s work has been recommended to me numerous times and I’ve never really been able to get into it, and I felt similarly about her reading. It was by no means bad or even mediocre. It was good. It just wasn’t my thing. My companion enjoyed it.

Stephen Ratcliffe’s work was, for me, a whole different ball game.  I found it remarkable– painterly, like seeing a huge exhibition of Hopper or Hockney paintings if they painted much faster, smaller pieces. In this way– this sense of a fast-paced painting– it was also filmic, but with very long, slow shots in a non-developing narrative. A slow film or a fast painting! … Let me try to describe it a little better. In the first part of his reading, from REAL, Ratcliffe set little scenes like this (originally published in The Boston Review):

Shadow of three green rose leaves between circle
of light on ceiling and the surface of the plane
it falls across, line of lip in relation to left
eye of the subject. Black and white photograph
of man in blue sweatshirt holding grey and white
striped cat on his lap, left hand of the woman
on right knee of girl who took it. DiMaggio
liking fight game and girls and especially
blondes, Monroe thinking him unlike usual
Hollywood guys she used to hang around with.
Woman with hair pulled back kneeling down beside
man sitting beside short-haired woman whose left
knee is crossed, an accumulation of blue adding
up to Platonic idea of it. Grey gull on red
buoy below line of horizon, blue and white
reflection of sky in water across which motion
of small swells approaches.

This stanza seems slightly atypical of the series in that it mentions two people by name. But most of the poems in the series have these elements: blocks of primary colors (the eight color-names of a basic Crayola box), directional words (left, right), prepositions (between, on), unnamed people (man, woman, girl), birds and sky. Occasional references to Old Hollywood recur but with less frequency than these other materials. I could have listened to the little changes all day, seeing in my mind’s eye a woman’s left hand held up to the light, the bright red of a man’s sweatshirt, the white-on-white stripe of jet trails across the sky. The images were quick blocks of color and movement, neither moving nor still– most of the verbs aren’t active, most of the positions are stagnant. The descriptions don’t linger– even the color words are limited to a basic palette of and a few descriptors like “bright,” “pale.”

In contrast to the light skimming-over– the limited color vocabulary, limited use of verbs and pronouns, extensive use of “meaningless” words like articles and prepositions– is this obsessive detail, this daily diaristic note-taking. Minor things like the color of a sweatshirt or position of a hand sealed into the permanence of writing. I was amazed at how these simple things became important, complex, though never described complexly– how they were so detailed in miniature though neither detailed nor miniaturized. I’m still not quite sure how to describe the feeling, although it was definitely heightened by hearing so much of the work together, and even further heightened in the piece Ratcliffe’s currently developing, Remarks on Color/Sound. This piece is less about people and simply about the little changes to the sky and water, the movement of birds and the horizon line. It’s a poem of place, but it’s a poem of place without community. If listening to/reading hundreds of little daily entries as in REAL exhausts you, this will really exhaust you, because it’s about the tiniest changes in the landscape– darker and lighter shades of green, grey and blue; clouds in different positions, birds coming and going– all described with the same short strokes like a weather report, but again all culminating in this expansive, detailed sense of the world. Remarks‘s attention to the sea’s rhythm brings its own poetic rhythm and one gets into it, charmed and entranced by it and by the repetition of varying images. The piece is overwhelming– like the sea, you are swept up in it.

Hearing the work aloud really contributed to my understanding, and therefore to my enjoyment, of it– it doesn’t always. I bought Ratcliffe’s Sculptures years ago when I was first developing my theory of plasticity, hoping that it would contribute. I remember feeling actually angry at his use of page space. (For my obsessive search for plasticity to the detriment of my ability to read work on its own terms I was often faulted by teachers.) But now I hear and appreciate what he’s doing, and I really like it. I don’t think it had to be Ratcliffe reading his own work for the issues I liked to come across– let’s not mix up an appreciation for hearing the work for an appreciation of the Authorial politics of the podium-based poetry reading– but being subject to the rhythm of that flow for an extended time taught me about the work.

Ratcliffe’s work made me think about a lot of things– Eigner, Olson, poetics of place, the relation of poetry to painting, the relation of painting to film, Stein’s distaste for certain parts of speech, the power of the simplest color words, how rarely I pay attention to prepositions, Hitchcock and the attention to details like whether a woman’s hand shielding her eyes is parallel to the line of the window ledge behind her, difference and repetition, seagulls, the mysterious weight of the sea, California. And that is a lot to think about during a half-hour reading!


About Jessica Smith
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6 Responses to Rooms by the Sea: Laynie Browne & Stephen Ratcliffe @ the Poetry Project

  1. that is definately a lot to think about during a short reading! glad you enjoyed it : )

  2. SF says:

    Great report, and thanks for sharing.

    Ratcliffe’s Real is as you say a poem of place, and I think the specific place is Bolinas. California, yes, but Northern California, where the land and sea meet.

  3. t. says:

    i felt the same way about browne’s work until i read daily sonnets — really fine collection. ratcliffe’s real is only the tip of the iceberg — he’s been around writing/publishing/teaching for years. when i was in DC over xmas i stumbled upon some really interesting work of his in an old issue of temblor rod had.

  4. @tom hey, i miss you!

    from what ratcliffe had brought to the poetry project as merch, i could tell he had a lot of material 😉 … i’m looking forward to this Remarks on Color/Sound which as Jim put it was kind of “surfer poetry,” this knowing the sea/sky intimately, every day, the little changes and the weather and the morning colors. I found it even more intoxicating than Real since it was so unrelenting. Also I thought Lorraine would like it.

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  6. Stephen Ratcliffe says:

    Hi Jessica,
    Steven Fama told me about this a few days ago (he wrote a piece on my Listening to Reading on his blog, check it out if you haven’t seen it), and I’ve just now read it. Thanks for thinking (hearing, noticing) all such things (!). I’ve started putting my daily poems up on a blog
    (, 7.3 today, from Temporality …..

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