by Liz McGehee
I had the pleasure of meeting Bin Ramke a few years ago at a poetry reading in Denver. I felt compelled to approach him after he recited a few lines referencing his inadequacy with French and a burning desire to communicate with his mother in this language. The ties to East Texas and Louisiana were abundantly clear through dripping imagery and specified flora/fauna. I suspected then that Ramke had Cajun origins similar to my own, which he confirmed after the reading.
Ramke’s poems are riddled with location and one’s disconnection within it as a result of outside forces. His most recent title, Missing the Moon, is no exception. Being from the Gulf Coast, Ramke’s poems have always resonated with me as snapshots of what I lost after Hurricane Katrina, a landscape and culture marred with years of remoteness, forgotten, then suddenly ripped away.
Missing the Moon isn’t merely a book of poems. It is an archive. Ramke’s need to catalogue the environment speaks to the displacement of Gulf Coast natives within their own land and to those who’ve been forced away post natural disaster: “contain is what a body does/until it doesn’t, and spills itself” (13). This retreat into the body mirrors the evacuation of Cajuns into the swamp, the pressure keg of a people forced to assimilate, and the eventual burst when this becomes too much.
Wandering is present throughout the text, along with invasion, appropriation by outsiders, and linguistic colonization:
Someone entered our city
under cover of umbrella, the first,
of many the last to linger he
learned a new language he
came to say to stay, stray.
In this poem, the colonizer forces a new language on the citizens, and stays for a time before discarding the city and people once colonized and drained of any resistance. The remnants of colonization in Louisiana remain physically preserved, unlike Cajun culture and language, which continues to deteriorate daily. Cajuns exist widely in popular culture through the same stereotypes invoked by the education system to regulate them.
In “Locally Euclidian,” Ramke perfectly captures the dislocation of Cajun descendants living between the remote, primitive location of the swamp and the encroachment of colonization, which has forced them there:
Butterflies are known to drink tears
of children along river banks—salt and similar
hormonal secretions attract the metamorphic
species. A child of empire, helpless
little leaflet floating just beneath the surface.
Forest rivers fascinate, beguile by being two worlds
both dangerous. As of overlapping centuries
we belong in neither, tree nor water, air nor
rock. He heard sounds but turned to the piano…
The speaker lives between “two worlds,” one composed of forest and the other of rivers. In this environment, there is nowhere to stand, “we belong to neither.” Cajun people, then, live in limbo represented here by marshland. Both worlds present different dangers, although it seems that nature provides a type of cover, even if unstable.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker states:
rock. He heard sounds but turned to the piano
to interiors; child of Empire, taught the sound
to sit up, to speak, to beg. He would touch
one key with one finger again and again
hours at a time, then sleep, then again
to cure himself he said. But I was thinking
of myself, my days along rivers among trees
wholly within the sounds and airs of anger,
of angels of heat, insects and other stinging
Nor was it the history of water I was recalling
nor was it music, the making of a note.
This poem indicates that the speaker has been forced into this remote existence, retreating “among the trees/wholly within the sounds and airs of anger.” He retreats into the swamp and, ultimately, into himself. The child, taught by the empire to sit, speak, and beg, directly reflects the colonial policing of Cajun children in schools, who were brutally punished for speaking their native French:
…some educators subjected French-speaking students to harsh, humiliating penalties. They called them names like “swamp rat” and “bougalie” (a Louisiana term meaning “lower-class Cajun”), forced them to write lines (“I must not speak French at school”), made them kneel in corners on kernels of corn, or slapped them with rulers (Bernard, 18).
Throughout the book, there is a reoccurrence of children, language, and control working in tandem. In “Inaudible Child,” a young boy is chastened through the English language:
Surely goodness and mercy et cetera
Evilchild is attested as an English surname
from the thirteenth century
Bad Boy he would say when he failed
answer failed boy ailing bad answer
The boy you had had a mind
Of his own his owning a mind
engaged engulfed him how
fear flows through the minding
mannerly behaviors fearful tears
of infancy infect A parent fails…
Here, the boy fails in English and is shamed by the very tool that fails him, referring to himself as a “Bad Boy.” He struggles with autonomy of his own thoughts, which are regulated through the education system and translation. His parents fail to protect him from this.
Following the Red Scare Louisiana’s “Board of Education banned French from classrooms, a move sanctioned by lawmakers in the state constitution of 1921” (Bernard, 18). This move almost single-handedly contributed to the deterioration of Cajun French, allowing educators to discipline French-speaking students. This history is the crux of Ramke’s Missing the Moon.
In “Why It Is Painful to Speak,” we see the damaging effects of translation:
I translate myself into myself—
sane phrases, words and words
Returning into Sabine Bay we would
stare forward into a horizon the dark
smear of cypress and palmetto not
yet arisen to separate sky from water
the shape of the boat a word…
The speaker is forced to translate himself into foreign words. “Pirogue,” the word for boat in Cajun French, has been taken from the speaker. Everything, every word, every part of himself is translated into the language of the colonizer. Words, images, and the self, lose all meaning through the other’s language. One becomes separated from one’s original language, culture, environment, community, and, subsequently, one’s selfhood.
The book concludes without any sort of resolution, reflecting the shambles this community continues to dwell within. “He heard their whine as warning:/full bodies to blood fly, fierce;/little creatures we are, too defenseless/nestled, nestling infestation of self/within self…” (98). Ramke echoes the flight of Cajuns from systematic colonization here. People that would rather occupy unlivable land than submit to the erasure of Americanization.
Missing the Moon speaks to and for a forgotten people, exposing the not-so-distant remnants of this Americanization. It exists as an archive for the voiceless, rewriting history through displacement, and exposing the raw nerves resting quietly under the surface of the swamp.
Omnidawn (2014): $17.95
Bernard, Shake K. “The Cajuns: Americanization of a People.” University Press of Mississippi. 2008. Print.
Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.