The Volta Picks: Stephen Ratcliffe’s Selected Days

For this installment of our recent micro-reviews series, the poet/critic Housten Donham weighs in on Stephen Ratcliffe’s Selected Days, released last year from Counterpath. I can only imagine that Donham wrote this review on a word per day basis, finally finishing it yesterday morning.

Stephen Ratcliffe’s Selected Days, recently published by Counterpath Press, represents six snapshots in the continual daily poem(s) that Ratcliffe has been working on for years. Every morning since February of 1998, he’s written a poem which often resembles the poem that precedes it. There have been small, sometimes slow changes over the years (which can be traced in this new volume) but the poems are often more the same than different from one another. These “days” have been collected before, in three 474-page volumes and another three 1,000-page volumes, but Selected Days is the most accessible distillation of the project to date. This volume serves both as a convenient introduction to Ratcliffe’s massive body of work and as an art-object that encapsulates the conceptual force of Ratcliffe’s daily experiment.

These “days” make up thousands of pages—few, if any, readers have or are going to read the entire body of work. I certainly haven’t. The force behind Ratcliffe’s work, nevertheless, is enormously powerful. The poems read like a kind of natural news report, calm and consistent daily coverage of a world that more or less remains the same. In fact, I enjoy reading one each morning before I read the newspaper, which can be done in “real time” on Ratcliffe’s dutifully updated blog, Temporality (stephenratcliffe.blogspot.com). These quiet poems reflect both the beauty and the peaceful indifference of the natural world. They also represent a sustained and seemingly fruitless experiment in endurance, as Ratcliffe faithfully records the world from his home in Bolinas. Reading several of these “days” in one sitting produces a kind of droning, hypnotic voice in the reader’s head; this voice is probably the closest one can come to the voice of nature, or of God: disinterested, docile, objective.

Oddly enough, no one writing about Ratcliffe’s project has yet to read it as conceptual writing. Kenneth Goldsmith claims, “The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read.” Ratcliffe’s work doesn’t need to be read in order to be understood, or enjoyed, and so this volume stands as a small representation of his sustained, grand, and unreadable text. Boredom, Heidegger wrote, “reveals being as a whole.” It is in this sense that the poem(s) in Selected Days are profoundly boring. Nothing and everything are recorded in this project. It is a representation of exhaustive and devoted work via writing and recording, but it is also the record of a kind of dreamy intellectual dormancy, a lazy but loyal subjectivity. While most conceptual writing is indeed boring, it rarely reaches this transcendent boredom, the boredom that Heidegger meant. The concept behind Ratcliffe’s work is “being as a whole;” how does one approach such a vast and incomprehensible subject except through sustained, droning boredom?

Ratcliffe

Ratcliffe’s continual experiment takes being as a whole (“all in one piece”) as its concept, representationally realized in the infinite vastness of this project. Selected Days is a helpful and crucial gathering of this endless work.

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