Review: The Architect’s Dream of Winter by Billy Ramsell
Billy Ramsell’s second collection has been six years in the making. The poet’s methodical approach is reflected in a book that feels thematically coherent from the outset; almost like a concept album. There’s an allegorical beast lurking beneath the surface of this collection, a beast made of wires and cables and QR codes we read without realizing. It rears its head occasionally to remind us of its presence, but for the most part we’re lost in the surface language, lulled by its musical rhythms and surprisingly delicate imagery. This is an immersive collection, one that teaches you its language before ejecting you, leaving you with a heightened awareness (or perhaps suspicion) of the world in which we live.
So what does Ramsell have to say about the surface world, the world of the everyday? One of the elements which keeps the collection grounded is its concessions to the consolations of the mundane, of the real. There are nods to the tradition of Kavanagh in poems such as Half Time, which shows the Gods sunk in routine and succumbing to plain old boredom, that most human of conditions (as Kavanagh would have it, ‘Gods make their own importance’). There are also laments, including the moving Lament for Essbjorn Svenson, which imagines a stolen evening with the deceased pianist, and poems which celebrate the simple pleasures of a lost weekend, with partners in crime stumbling into the light of a Tuesday morning to find: The street sweepers out, the jazz-men gone/ and all the bank machines empty. (Jazz Weekend)
These poems introduce the wryly observant tone which spills over into some of the collections more formally abstract work; prose poems such as Section Three: The Unseen Poem and The Silence Bar follow a contemporary trend for text-block poems of which I’m not always a fan. Whenever I see these stolid paragraphs in the midst of an otherwise formally poetic collection, I find myself skimming for flab that might have been trimmed in order to allow a poetic form to emerge. Is it experimentation or laziness to offer the reader a chunk of prose? In Ramsell’s case, it’s definitely the former, but these poems are necessarily less pleasing to the eye and lack the airy dexterity of Ramsell’s usual long, scattered lines. (Ramsell gives an ironic nod to these misgivings in the form of the question contained within Section Three, squarely aimed at luddites like me: Do you think it is reasonable to describe this text as a poem?) I found myself mystified by Section Three: The Unseen Poem and returned to it a number of times. I’m still hunting for clues. Despite any qualms about form, The Silence Bar is an absolute delight and one of the highlights of the collection, a poem that somehow manages to be both satirical and joyful. In a world where there is no darkness that isn’t polluted by light and no silence that isn’t tainted by sound, the poet asks us to sample the new reality by choosing a delicately contaminated silence from the menu and checking out for a few minutes. I chose Mark and Amanda and was treated to:
An old-style post-orgasmic silence that manages to be languidly insouciant yet vibrantly crisp./ An intense blend of slowing heartbeats, breaths and nothingness.
(The Silence Bar)
Alongside the surface-reality poems live a series of transitional works, which demonstrate the intrusion of machines into our consciousness. These are among the most intriguing in the collection and find the poet engaged in daily activities, only for the many-wired beast to intrude on our reality. Present Fears, which begins with the poet sharing dinner with a companion, quickly succumbs to the realization of the networked nature of modern existence, where the information of this shared meal is transferred across the globe, where new kinds of narrative are formed by the intangible messages sent by credit card machines:
I can almost feel it ache for consciousness,/ for love,/ as you smile at me taking my card from the waitress./ And why shouldn’t it?/ It knows everything about us,/ every element of the meal we’ve just eaten,/ of the window-down journey that brought us here.
Every action we make leaves an electronic echo. Our lives have become more multiple, limitlessly consequential in a way we can’t really grasp. As Louis MacNeice put it only a few short years before the Colossus supercomputer was built at Bletchley Park, ‘World is crazier and more of it than we think,/ incorrigibly plural’. Ramsell’s imagining of these electronic symphonies plucks at least one possible narrative from chaos.
There is something of MacNeice’s perennially alert consciousness that runs throughout this collection as a whole, in poems such as From the Unconceived, with its echoes of the former’s Prayer Before Birth (in subject matter rather than tone), which again snags the wires of narrative before allowing them sink back into the chaos of choice. And there are further echoes of MacNeice’s clear-eyed pre-war and wartime social commentary in poems such as A Net of Limes which look at the symbiosis between human destruction of the planet and a virus’s gorging on cherished files.
Then there are the poems that take us right through the looking glass, which imagine the remnants of humanity in a post-human world, the echoes that may someday still exist, reverberating along copper wires. Highlights include For the Bodiless, which manages to invoke pity for the bad poetry-spewing computer programme which may someday bear witness to the extinction of our species. Poems like Distant Fears, a contemplation of the world through the language of finance, have less warmth than the transitional poems and are occasionally (and necessarily) a little more alienating. However, these poems too have their playful aspects, as demonstrated in Copper Holt, with its sinister corporate gruppenfuhrer chirpily asking a bunch of new recruits: You all got your O-Packs at reception, right?
The collection is bookended by two poems, They Dance to Keep From Falling, and Ahead Vast Systems Hunger, and a number of shorter poems which introduce internal echoes, such as Your call is important to us; with its repeated image of migrating swallows – flashes of information which might be preserved in some artificial consciousness (and, after all, don’t we have to hope that something of us will be preserved?) These poems seem to exist almost on the point between sleep and waking; the moment when logic dissolves and reforms into new meaning:
Surface to air, the swallows may be recorded/ for the purposes of quality control./ You breathe them. Which of the following words/ best describes the purpose of your call?
(Your call is important to us)
In this meaningless collage of existence it is the snatched memories of the real which sing to us, which allow us to hold on to our humanity as darkness closes in:
And now thank Christ, I can remember nothing except for this,/ this stay against night, this precaution for sleeplessness I couldn’t let go of…./ Aisling, I’m beside you in the high-ceiling music room.
There is a weariness to the humanity in Ramsell’s poems, but it endures nonetheless. This book is essential reading for those ready and willing to risk a clear-eyed engagement with our world as it is, and as it may be in the future.
Jessica Traynor was awarded the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary in 2014 and was Hennessy New Writer of the Year in 2013. She won the Listowel Single Poem Prize in 2011 and was featured in the 2009 Poetry Ireland Introduction Series. She teaches poetry and playwriting courses at Big Smoke Writing Factory. Poems are forthcoming or have appeared in If Ever You Go (Dedalus Press), The Irish Times, New Planet Cabaret (New Island), Peloton (Templar Poetry), The Weary Blues, The SHOp, The Moth,Wordlegs, The Stinging Fly, New Irish Writing and Burning Bush II among others. Her first collection of poems, Liffey Swim, is forthcoming from Dedalus Press in 2014.