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..:: CONTENTS ::..
   Volume I, Issue II

..:: POETRY ::..

..:: PROSE ::..
..:: ART ::..
..:: REVIEWS ::..
..:: ETC ::..
   Contributor's Notes

..:: ARCHIVES ::..
   Volume I, Issue I
   Volume I, Issue II
   Volume II, Issue I
   Volume II, Issue II
   Volume III, Issue I
   Volume III, Issue II
   Volume IV, Issue I

Stephen Ratcliffe, Portraits & Repetition 
(The Post-Apollo Press, 2002)
J.D. Mitchell


    Stephen Ratcliffe's newest book Portraits & Repetition is not for the weak-patienced reader. The book, a series of 474 consecutively dated, obscure portraits of the famed North Coastal poet-town Bolinas, Ca., is the beginnings of Ratcliffe's magnum opus, one systematically charting shape, color and action as sound.

    Certainly, one first takes notice the book's title as an exact derivative of Gertrude Stein's well-known lecture. Indeed, the poetics Ratcliffe enacts in P & R is driven by, rather ::in dialogue with:: or ::an extension of:: this lecture, as foundation.

[E]ach time there was a difference just a difference enough so that it could go on and be a present something. Oh yes you all do understand. You understand this. You see that in order to do this there must be no remembering, remembering is repetition, remembering is also confusion. (Stein, "Portraits and Repetition," 106)

    But let us not be confused though, by remembering Stein's immediate, concentrated doses of repetition. Ratcliffe's exploits are deeply informed by Stein's investigations into repetition and, ultimately, the essence of things, however Ratcliffe asks a different set of questions and P & R ravels a new set of explanations.

    Formally, Ratcliffe's portraits adhere to a five couplet structure [making for a quick read] with each couplet containing a parenthetic word [generally underlined]; each couplet also being self-contained in that it is a single unit: an observation, thought-utterance, breath-line::perhaps a sentence in the portrait as paragraph:: yet paragraph may be an ill-suited word for Ratcliffe's portraits. Too, contained within themselves, by date--if for no other reason, the portraits are more two-dimensional substitutes for three-dimensional grids than they are paragraphs/poems. And like Stein's portraits, Ratcliffe's rely on rich color and objectified pastoral/action/sound notation, often blended with brief philosophical commentary/discourse, to get to the essence of things.

feeling in color for instance blood, image reversed (is)

as if sound approaches the fence between house and street

edge of sun through green distance (where) blue passes above

shape of tree, memory of a bird landing and/or leaving it

woman behind grid of tones whose right arm extends to corner

(picture) on the wall of invisible action perhaps, or not

object seen, its thought therefore continued into the middle

distance in which the body at the table isn't (different)

(that) starting with what's written, hear where a sound goes

after the telephone rings and the person leaves a message

("12.17," 312)

    All given, it should not be surprising that Ratcliffe, characteristic of earlier works [as well as Stein's], also theoretically draws from the arts' most visible media ::theatre, film, painting, sculpture, etc.:: to chart movement: sight and sound.

song of birds again in front of the weather, "Who's there?"

in response to the play's seen but unspoken action (here)


    Despite the common poetic ground Stein and Ratcliffe share, there are [obviously] evident, fundamental differences to approach and product. So let us say, Ratcliffe's is macro-method to Stein's micro-method.

    While Stein's portraits and meditations were narrowly concerned with particular objects [a red hat, potatoes, a room, etc.] or persons [Matisse, Picasso, etc.], pronouns, etc., Ratcliffe works from a broader sense of object ::existence of place and its activities as thing:: and in doing so P & R records the daily essence of things being/constructing Ratcliffe's Bolinas. The inclusiveness of Ratcliffe's method opens to unlimited essence (afterall, WCW died at work on his sixth book capturing the essence of Paterson).

    Because P & R embodies a larger object's essence ::a larger, more complex essence:: its usage of repetition becomes disparate and less poignant in relation to Stein's; only when the essence of a particular time and space shares similar essence of another particular time and space does P & R exercise repetitive technique. If the rapid-fire reiterations employed by Stein may be considered micro-repetition, Ratcliffe's then is of a macro-repetitious nature. Here, Ratcliffe's collection refines Steinian methodology and by doing so creates unique emotional provocations. It is not until the reader has digested a considerable mass of P & R before the repetitions of movement/color/action/sound/essence be experienced in full. When that time finally arrives the mind conjures images resembling those Ratcliffe constructed in earlier portraits and remembers. During these moments ::as Stein lectured:: confusion certainly accosts the mind and a sense of deja vu overwhelms. This is indeed a remarkable, uncanny achievement! No writer or collection in my experience has manifested such a strange, emotive phenomenon. And yet amidst these moments, Stein's arguments against the existence of repetition haunt, and it seems the path leads back to the beginning : 
    :where Ratcliffe's investigation started:

I began to wonder at at about this time just what one saw when one looked at anything really looked at anything. Did one see sound, and what was the relation between color and sound, did it make itself by description by a word that meant it or did it make itself by a word in itself.

-Gertrude Stein, "Portraits and Repetition" 
[epigraph from Portraits & Repetition]


1Stein, Gertrude. "Portraits and Repetition," Writings and Lectures: 1909-1945, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (London: Penguin, 1971), 106.


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