This book arrived a few weeks after I spent a long October afternoon in Bin Ramke’s backyard, both yard and afternoon touched at the edges with cold, shifting shadows, and decay, the tree that straddles his and a neighbor’s fence in aporia, questionably upright while anticipating a future fall, its line leaning the other lines—fence, house, power, etcetera—precariously together. A squirrel ran the edge of the fence eyeing the last peach. The wasps were not, but on a warmer day might have been, buzzing around the deep blue bottles (meant to catch stray spirits) on the arms of another tree. The footpaths offered narrow passages to other angles of incidence, “and don’t forget the snacks”—in this case, some of the last apples.
It is at the sort of precarious, material edge that the poems in Earth on Earth are intensely, intelligently active, listening and sounding themselves out sometimes for and always with human and beyond-human others, their matters folded in at various distances of time and scales of space.
The collection opens with resounding: “Midmourning” offers a concentrated echo from the previous collection, Light Wind Light Light, which ends between “morning and mourning,” between the father’s face and the speaker’s, enacting “The Past and Passing” in the dim light of the remembered church.
I would not look into my father’s face in the coffin,
but I did see from
across the church aisle it was
him within; the light in the church was dim.
Its final lines hold a note, like a depressed piano pedal, not answered exactly, but certainly extended in Earth on Earth, on a different set of keys.
My brain here next
like a cat on a keyboard
makes only accidental music
The memory is no mirror...
Ramke structures the activities of speaking and remembering in this book as that of inquiry and not of authority, allowing for accident in the music, with no perfect mirrors, and no perfected sense. Memory is yet involved—the past and passing regularly appearing—as are wind and light; the collection’s ear is however more firmly turned to earth, insisting on the imperfect interactions, and uncertain futures, of visibilities and invisibilities right here.
Many poems explore heterotopias—Foucault’s term refracted in the words of Cuban painter Yorjander Capetillo Hernández—places parallel to utopia’s transcendent trajectory, without perfection or hegemony, but “with special rules that provide them with a certain degree of autonomy,” including possibilities of relationships real and unreal. The exploration requires a clamor of sense. In “The Garden the Family,” heterotopia is drawn in discursive turns particular to the place (“in the garden path we take and don’t forget the snacks”), by the sound of radios on windowsills, in a phenomenal time (“while everywhere glitters sprinkled irrigation”), and with interpolations of memory, desire, and much activity beyond-the-human:
petunias quiver marigolds welter beneath the trees
while some small rodents cringe.
Here is a world operating by “something other than terms.” The human speakers are equally entangled with all that is un/becoming; there is no mastery of perspective pretended, but there is play and interplay.
Play is a necessary element of making, though some games are fatal, or violent, and the players can get weary. In “Earth B: Where to Live,” an intricate set of directions demonstrates how to make a clay instrument in the shape of an animal, which becomes a way of measuring earth in human terms after all. “How human it is to name the notes,”—any shapes we make out of air for that matter—to order being here, to attempt an understanding of “isness.” The act is flawed: “being / does not announce itself the same / at all times and turnings.” The clay, of course, also references the material we are cut from and cut into, arrogantly, unforgivably, perhaps; the instrument we make of ourselves, and the sounding we do here, nonetheless, as the book’s epigraph reminds us, is already “beginning / to cease to be.”
The poems collate these metaphysical and epistemological concerns across centuries, from the pre-1400 poem the book’s title revises to the present. A recently observed snow, for example, and the whiteness of it
formed and falls not angular but parabolic
fallings soft then deathful
like power functions swerving into then out
of the picture.
Weather in an era of climate change is a threat we have definitively come, and are still coming, to know, and so is whatever frenzy falls “with white weather.” They are not extricable. Ramke does not shy away from investigating these fraught relations, including structural inequalities of place and race, nor the many terrors they engender, of which we might be one, at times knowingly, at times with dubious “innocence.” That word is posed to the former child of the bayou, a landscape of “lost things borrowed / nor returned by rights. / Things of the theorized landscape, things of the hushed and haunted, specular.” The poems work at making language literate to substances like air and water, or fear, or love, or the repercussive effects of past actions on the present and future. They suggest that one thing a poem may do is ask us to consciously attune to all that we cannot grasp but really feel our way around.
Which is not to say they are not precise. These poems are radically precise, often mathematical. Doubles abound, as do numbers, but not as perfect mirrors, fixed points, or constants. They serve as mutable figures, invitations to agitation and to the question of isness. “The days on planet Mercury are longer / than the years,” the speaker observes. This measure baffles the human mind, but every person is nonetheless caught in the real paradox of such calculations—so it’s a good thing the mind of these poems, to sense earth on earth, is extended far beyond that self. The neural network reaches through
Every growing thing, some green
There are eyes better
than ours, one might say, to see. A kind
of shrimp, for one, can see, they say,
colors beyond the human range of sight.
The book arrived. The book is yet arriving. What resonates—and encourages future returns—at its close: a major effort of minor attunements, an entry into a resounding, an invitation toward being thoughtful with our matters, and a way of holding paradox gently, with precision and generosity.
Leah Nieboer grew up in Iowa. She is a PhD candidate in English and Literary Arts at the University of Denver, a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, the recipient of a Virginia Center for Creative Arts Fellowship, and the winner of the 2022 Mountain West Writers’ Contest in Poetry. Her first collection of poetry, SOFT APOCALYPSE, was recently selected by Andrew Zawacki as the winner of the 2021 Georgia Poetry Prize (UGA Press, March 2023). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Western Humanities Review, Interim, Ghost Proposal, and elsewhere. She lives in Denver and is at work on her first novel.