Theory of Mind
Sunday, February 14th, 2010
“Theory of mind,” as a concept, is ontologically and epistemologically concerned with both the ability of the mind to observe itself, as well as to analogize the existence of other minds. It seems fitting, then, that a book of poems would invoke a discourse primarily concerned with how we know the instrument by which we know (the mind), since one immediate way of apprehending the mind is through language. That is to say, language becomes a reflection of the mind’s operations—a correspondence, perhaps—and a poem, like any artifact of language, is a small window into these operations.
Bin Ramke’s Theory of Mind, comprised of poems from his nine previous collections, as well as new work, is a record of the mind longing to know itself, and the poet making art of this longing. As a collected, the reader can catch a bird’s eye view of the evolution of Ramke’s thought over three decades of writing, the slow progression into the stylistic features that now define his work (fragmentation, intertextuality, dense repetition). The “theory of mind” that the book offers is thus dynamic, a picture of a mind in motion. That so many of these poems are marked by references to ancient and contemporary philosophical thought (and I use the word philosophical in a slightly Pythagorian way—that is to say, inclusive of physics, mathematics, literature, and any other aspect of human existence that can come under intellectual study) suggests that Ramke’s approach to knowing the mind is one that looks outward as much as inward.
Theory of Mind begins with a collection of new poems entitled Anomalies of Water, and then jumps back in time to The Difference Between Night and Day (for which he won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1978) and progresses forward in time to his more recent work. The little space allocated to Ramke’s earlier work (a few pages for each of his first five books) may short-shrift poems that are, in their own right, quite lovely. For example, a poem from The Difference Between Night and Day:
…We love because
it grows late and the tomatoes
are ripening. A morning glory
climbs one stake, mingles with
green and pink-striped fruit: tomorrow
we will look at what’s been done.
Certainly I would die for you:
that is the easy part, like falling
from grace or off a log.
(from “Martyrdom: A Love Poem”)
Yes, these lines are perhaps more conventionally lyrical than Ramke’s later poems, yet there is something satisfying about the intuitive balance of the lines, the subtle assonance of “late” and “tomatoes” which the poet picks up again in the word “stake,” or the soft “o” of “morning glory.” The poem’s final maneuver of undercutting the familiar language of “falling /from grace” with humor (“or off a log”) shows a quick wit and the kind of language play that we have come to expect from Ramke’s work. It may be easy, as a poet, to either disavow one’s early work, or else to cling to it like a former high-school quarterback reliving his glory days. I think, in the case of Ramke’s poetry, one should do neither, but as we do with our children, accept their differences and assess their success according to somewhat individualized criteria. This is all to say, simply, that on a global level, I think the book would have benefited from a more balanced treatment of Ramke’s oeuvre.
As we move through these collections, perhaps beginning with Wake (1999) but most certainly with Airs, Waters, Places (2001), we begin to see some characteristic features of Ramke’s poems—particularly what I will call musical and semantic causality. Consider, for example, the following lines from “The Naming of Shadows and Colors” (from Matter):
Me, I like them all, all colors, shading
into each other, you know, the spectrum,
a spectacle of itself, oh like a ghost. Specter,
inspector Ball provides the names…
We see here how spectrum becomes spectacle, which becomes specter, which becomes inspector (each word derived from the Latin specere, meaning “to look”). In Anomalies of Water, we witness a similar pattern, as “a place/a placement, a kind of depositing—deposit as in precipitate—/a life a precipitate of events and attitudes and biology” (“Was It Fallen It Was a Floating World”). A reader feels as if she is witnessing a game of semantic dominoes, as one word falls into the next, and so on and so forth. Or perhaps a more precise analogy would be that of Theseus following Ariadne’s thread to find his way out of the labyrinth, where the thread is etymological, and the labyrinth is thought. The fact that we do not find our way out of the labyrinth (which I suppose would imply “no thought,” the cessation of discursion, or at least the termination of a particular thread) but simply into different terrain is indicative of Ramke’s broader tendencies, which are to keep the reader in a state of extended journey, and even as a poem ends one has the feeling of simply pausing to catch his or her breath before taking up the road once again.
Among the themes that consistently arise in Ramke’s work are memory, the physical world, and what we construct (art and otherwise) from that world:
I could make that world clouds
of wax and a sky of honey and flora
and fauna of wings and
bees do love me and are honey for me
and make babies of wax which come to life come
home and immortal as the hive the
swarm which is a cloud stinging.
(from “What Did You Make the Clouds Out Of?”)
Here, in tumbling, associative language, Ramke foregrounds the “poet as maker,” a maker who is beloved by his creation (“bees do love me/and are honey for me”). And yet, the final image of the poem is one of hurt—the cloud of the initial creation is now a thing of violence. One can extrapolate this movement from love to hurt into an analogy of the age-old question, how could the creator of a world make a world so violent? Poem after poem in this collection focuses on the presence and function of pain, violence, and grief, but not without a wistful longing for a trauma-less world: “a silence of happiness the forests of my childhood are/ stories, songs silenced by/my own poor memory” (“Possible World Semantics”). If the possible world we live in is beset by misery, perhaps there is a possible world that is not, that offers us the “silence of happiness.” One doesn’t feel hope in these poems as much as longing, which perhaps is proto-hope, that which cannot quite imagine something better but desires it anyhow.
The characteristic that most famously defines Ramke’s work is his distinctive employment of intertextuality, often incorporating long passages of texts woven into these poems in such a way as to suggest they are at least as important as the parts of the poem that the poet himself composed. These referenced texts, in other words, don’t seem to operate in service of the poet’s thought as clarifying or elaborating structures, so much as they feel integral to the composition process itself. “The Naming of Shadows and Colors,” for example, quotes De Rerun Natura (“… semblances and thin shapes of things/are thrown off from this outer surface”), which initiates a series of thoughts about surface, matter, and light:
The sincerity of surface suffices as
dream is a shadow cast by Mind
shading into itself, the little mind
making itself seem large in the hope of frightening
itself into resolution…
The poem, which considers our perception of the material world (incorporating the work of Pliny, mathematician Richard Dedekind, and physicist Philip Ball, among half a dozen others), becomes something of an interdisciplinary conversation between minds—ancient and contemporary—all seeking to explain similar phenomena. Here, the speaker’s claim that the mind can only delude itself into resolution by “frightening itself” begs the questions: what is it the mind seeks to resolve? Why would delusion be necessary to this resolution, or would it in fact be ultimately preventative? It is difficult even to ask these questions, nebulous as they are. The poems, honestly, do not seem to want to clarify the questions, so much as to express the ideas that produce them, and which they produce.
It is my impression that the engine driving these questions is often emotional, as the tenor of these poems seems to tremble on the shore of suffering, as we encounter heart-rending lines like:
We do destroy ourselves daily
And dream it away every night
To watch such shadow-birds fly moonward…
(from “Knowing Better”)
…the humiliation of symmetry plain and
periodic agony not agony but a ghostly monotony
behind the arras a mother not uncle, standing
breast forward awaiting a blade and a piercing peaceful
as desperation in a phone booth
As Ramke’s poems often evidence a pervasive melancholy, an exploration of alternately acute and diffuse suffering, the texts that these poems grow into and out of become active participants in the machinations of thought and emotion that the speaker wrestles with. Pascal once famously wrote that “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas” (the heart has its reasons that reason doesn’t know), and in Ramke’s poems, the mysteries of emotional life are brought to the fore, with the addendum that the heart may search for explanation of its reasons, or at least resonance with them, in the experience or thinking of others. Furthermore, if we apply “theory of mind” to the way Ramke approaches the integration of external texts, one might say that it is an act of empathy (which involves the assumption of a mind outside of our own)—both the willingness to extend his empathy to others, whose texts he takes up and writes through, and perhaps to seek it even from those who have long since passed.
As I was reading Theory of Mind, I had a recurring vision of a person traveling down a river, hopping from raft to raft, boat to branch, searching for something that would carry him to less turbulent waters, if not to some sandy shore. Each boat or branch was a piece of text, an idea, a series of sounds, which he would rest on for a while, before leaping to the next vessel. Whether or not this is an accurate reflection of the work of the speaker in these poems, I cannot say with certainty, though I began to think about ideas as having, like boats, various degrees of integrity. The ones we travel with we hope are sturdy enough to survive a few storms. Regardless, it is at least clear enough that Ramke considers poetry a safe place to explore and test ideas, both his own and others. I will borrow from Ramke’s own words to say that poetry, like sleep, may be “a place you can dive into water and not drown.”