Michael S. Begnal Reviews Billy Ramsell (#6)

Review: The Architect’s Dream of Winter (Dedalus Press, 2013) by Billy Ramsell

The Architect’s Dream of Winter (Dedalus Press, 2013) is Cork-based poet Billy Ramsell’s second collection. In it, he argues that our humanity is being subsumed by the technology to which we have given the task of regulating the contemporary world. The opening poem, ‘Secure Server’, contains the lines, ‘Connect yourself via the ports // in your face to the system’, implicating the reader as cyborg. But wait a second, someone might say, we the people cannot be implicated in this; we didn’t agree to live in this dystopian society; we are merely victims of the elite and the corporations! Not so fast, Ramsell might reply to that — we tolerate it by literally buying into it:

Then I’m asked for my PIN
and the transaction transforms into light
flickers through the fibreoptic’s pristine filament,
traversing in a beer-sip
vast acres. . . (‘Present Fears’)

In the poem ‘Memory House’, the speaker ‘outsource[s] all my memories to machines’, echoing the current real-life obsession with more and more all-encompassing technological devices. Interestingly, though, the poem then takes a weird impressionistic turn and veers away from the satirical and didactic. There is one last memory saved, of two women ‘Aisling’ and ‘Saoirse’, the latter dancing to the former’s piano-playing: ‘Her shoulders are pulled back and golden. She shapes a taut arc of enfolding, / extends her arms sunward, turns on her toe tips, goodnight.’ Perhaps, the author suggests, there is something human left to grasp onto after all. Though the women are individualised in these images, their names cannot be accidents, Aisling meaning a vision or a dream (in Ó Rathaille, a vision of Ireland struggling free from oppression) and Saoirse of course meaning ‘freedom’.

This human thing is fleeting, though. Ramsell offers a ‘Lament for Esbjörn Svensson’ (a contemporary Swedish jazz musician recently dead), which vaunts music and therefore all art as redemption, but redemption which exists under the shadow of death: ‘Or if dying translates us into the condition of music; // leaves us weightless, melodious, floating bars of thought / uploaded like data into the mind of God.’ The poem itself also gestures toward music in its utilisation of slant-rhymed couplets (rhyme, slant rhyme and near-rhyme occur in a number of poems throughout this collection). Less contemporary heroes too offer a way out of present-day dilemmas, as in ‘Lament for Christy Ring’ (Ring, the great hurler, described here as ‘aboriginal’). Ring is depicted first in action, carrying the sliothar ‘on his stick of ashy liquidity / that’s rippling, eel-flexible, alive’ — these are great lines. Later, he is figuratively carried into a neolithic passage tomb, connecting him to Ireland’s ancients.

Ramsell, however, does not dwell on the mythic past. The humourous ‘Half Time’ renders the Greek pantheon as an ordinary Irish household watching a hurling match. Numerous cúpla focal of Irish-language words punctuate the book, but this is not a gesture of historical reverence; rather they are reminders of Ireland’s postcolonial present, of what has not been lost but struggles under the weight of political and corporate indifference. Even silence has been commodified and in the poem ‘The Silence Bar’ is marketed as offerings on an expensive menu:

‘Mark and Amanda €20
An old-style post-orgasmic silence that manages to be languidly insouciant yet vibrantly crisp. An intense blend of slowing heartbeats, breaths and nothingness.

[. . .]

Green Dolphin €30
This season’s musical special: Bill Evans’ famed 1959 solo rendition of ‘On Green Dolphin Street’. Every microsecond of silence from this exquisite recording has been isolated, segued and looped.’

There are other such inventive moves; ‘Section 3: The Unseen Poem (100 Marks)’ is a prose-poem set in Russia followed by a series of exam questions, one of which refers to Ramsell himself, or a version of himself.

As the 80-page The Architect’s Dream of Winter moves towards its end, Ramsell continues to focus in on our current plight/s. ‘What normal people do’ deals with surveillance and paranoia, and, while partly satirical, ends with a grain of truth:

‘Yeah you oughtta be shaking, Charlie.
They know. They remember everything.
I can almost hear your locks unbolting one by one to let them in.
Their eyes. It never finishes. Their blank magnetic faces.’

The series ‘Distant Fears’, about money, provides this comment on the Irish bailout:


She remembers the day the money went south.
Níl rud ar bith tógtha ná curtha ar ceall.
She remembers the tide still came in and went out
though the men in grey suits were at the airport of the capital.
She remembers forced and muted conversation in the bar
as if a final or a trawler had been lost.
They poured like any other night, the wine, the beer.
She remembers that no rum could get them locked.

It brings to mind the work of Kevin Higgins, who is also able to render contemporary politics in poetry in such a way as to avoid banality.

Harry Clifton’s blurb for the book claims that ‘Billy Ramsell is one of the younger poets who has most fruitfully brought into Ireland the best influences of a British generation including Don Paterson, Michael Donaghy and Ian Duhig. . .’, and this is probably true. But he is just as much in the mode of Irish contemporaries like the aforementioned Higgins. In his cosmopolitanism, Ramsell also has much in common with Alan Jude Moore. In the cyborgian, almost sci-fi aspects of this book (further iterated in poems like ‘For the Bodiless’, ‘Still’, ‘Reel’ and ‘Code’), he could easily sit alongside Patrick Chapman. Ramsell himself name-checks Trevor Joyce and Ciaran Carson in his acknowledgments, along with Ilya Kaminsky. Cross-pollination is always a good thing, and poetry knows no borders. But at the same time, Irish poets need not feel that they must only look abroad for models of innovation. Indeed, Ramsell now provides one version of it himself.