Original Bodies, Doug Ramspeck
Southern Indiana Review Press. 2014. 60pp.

Doug Ramspeck’s fifth collection of poetry is the inaugural winner of The Michael Waters Poetry Prize, awarded by Southern Indiana Review. The collection is, from the first strum, a meditation on personal histories widening toward an eternal extent. Honoring another poet’s contributions with this book fits, then, the poem’s voices insistent: We overlap; we name each other; we have no names but dreams.

The book’s four sections are named after the four reverential images in the final lines of its prologue poem, “Crow, Moon, Crow.” That poem begins “So this is how I remember it: / a child is a crow is a moon is a river” and closes “For here is how I remember it: a river is a moon is a crow is a tongue.” Ramspeck welcomes the reader by enacting redefinition from the start, in the way only poetry can name mystery the best order.

Thus “River” is the name of the first section, and the diction trenches with shadow and refrain. “Night Mud” revises the ashes to ashes chant: “as though each body ripens and returns / to the manure field, what clings / to the bottoms of your boots.” The second section, “Moon,” features “October Mud,” which reminds of how “For a long time the spirits thought they were / the alterations, the cadences.” Three poems later, still in the second section, “Mud Grass” tells a birth story:

Here was the oracle of black stains
and their covenant with mud, the moon
a weed drifting above the creek that burrowed
forever into clay.”

Listed as lyric instruction throughout: the body knows the ways to live and make song, but worry has not earned its place. These poems do not decide, despite their declarations of longing, despite their understanding of the lives of crows, fathers’ lessons, owls, grasses, loam, and the overheard conversations of old men fishing.

Rather, this collection’s framework of instinct as its music is recognizable at the end of the second section (entitled “Moon”), of which the final two poems share similar lineation and length, but scratch images palimpsest.

They suspect that the moon each night
is a solitary bird, its white feathers as still
as when the ship of earth is stalled.
And the moonlight on the river is a consolation,
a syringe filling the world with the coming cold.
–(“Alluvial Prophecy”)

On the facing page, “Deposition” begins, “Say two birds at dusk in an auburn sky. / But which is an augury of which?” This statement speaks a central—and elegant—argument of the collection. Further down the page, the birds are “no longer / in their bodies in the darkness,” so that omen and testimony are assigned equal weight. The poem ends with the moon, recast from the previous poem: “Until there is nothing left, not even the birds / darting through the air like dreams. You sleepwalk / into it. The moon sealing itself to the lip of the earth.”

In the book’s final section, entitled “Tongue,” heat and winter (seasonal and personal) hold thematically. “Chronic Offerings” starts

To the gods we give the cold sky,
these meager flares of stars, magic
hair of midnight when we sleep,
entrails of dreams.

Throughout this collection, Ramspeck unriddles the illusory, his control of language sure as a fist opening, closing. This power can be seen in how he rounds out his list of “Chronic Offerings”:

(. . .) our endless passages
of recriminations and regrets, the love
we felt once like a bird speeding toward
the bright light of a window.

The reader, as is necessarily human in our time, needs these poems’ permission to order the world by tending to signs. “Birth Song,” from the book’s third section (entitled “Crow”), assures the reader it is fitting to trust “that sense that our lives are the space / between our heartbeats, / the instant before the eye blinks.”

Emily Borgmann
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