Two systems are made immediately available as conceptual frames through which to read the elegant, glittery fragments of Stephen Ratcliffe’s SOUND/ (system). One frame is the letters of Henry James, which the back cover identifies as “a source” of the poems, and the other is the dates, “6-8-91— 2-2-92,” between which the 239 installments of this volume were apparently composed. But when one tries to hold this double frame in the mind, a number of competing axes emerge: the time elapsed between the letters’ writing and that of the poems; the time elapsed between the poems’ dated moment of composition and the date of their publishing; the writer-to-reader axes existing between James and his contemporary addressee, James and Ratcliffe, and Ratcliffe and his reader; the novel being discussed in James’s letters versus the absent text of the novel itself versus Ratcliffe’s subsequent text; the larger issues of absence versus presence; the inverting poles of writer-as-reader and reader-as-writer; and so on, literally ad infinitum.

This sense of being at the center of a thought-scape expanding in all directions—and dimensions—is precisely the experience of reading a single page of SOUND/ (system). Each installment consists of fourteen brief, double-spaced lines titled by a single, boldfaced word. These titles link the installments to a common epistemological inquiry, and there is significant repetition of themes and images across installments, yet each passage is so disjointed from the others by means of white space that it seems a mini-essay in itself. The volume begins with nods both to Zukofsky and, perhaps, to the dedicatee of the volume, identified on the facing page as ‘Ashley’:

KNOWLEDGE

[A] for “atmosphere”

or way of adding

what is said

to be information, letters

addressed to the person “outside”

(the same) in other words

fiction, writing

submerged as a picture

as immediate the second time

it appears as absence

when it begins

or action itself, certain

other places (ways)

translated to the world

Despite their abstract content, these lines engineer alacritous reading, brief as a glance into a room one is passing. This passage invites a lengthier look, yet its lack of connective syntax makes a sense of the whole difficult to gain; it is thus always “as immediate the second time.” The text poses and enacts the most basic questions of reading and writing, pointing out that text is written for a reader “outside” it, who can return, paradoxically, with continual newness to this space, that the written word enjoys a double status as tangible presence and confirmation of the writer’s absence, that writing is both a “place” and a ‘way,’ a where and a what and a how. The more conventional ambiguities of “writing” as a noun and verb, the triple status of the noun “letters” as literature, correspondence or figures on a page, seem elementary in comparison to the text’s more confounding slaloms.

The typographical elements used here—a capital letter acting as a variable and perhaps a concealment of a figure’s name, brackets and parentheses that suggest but do not assemble into a second level of commentary, the ambiguous enjambed/unenjambed status of the lines—are the building blocks of the book. Interestingly, ‘KNOWLEDGE‘ keeps the reader continually working at a sound- or thought-level and gives us no visual images to which to subjugate the words. Elsewhere, a larger quantity of visual imagery or an apparent extended attention to source material is set against the cerebral riffing. One hundred and sixty four pages into the book we arrive at the following installment:

PREFACE

a fact of “silence” the story

(called) fin de si’cle

after a subject

—still—which is the (case)

in a different volume, the author himself

certain in light of his performance

of the (play)—(say) immersed

[in] other work, [all] sign of which

he has returned to the impression of taste

as if to spell an ordinary act

implied to the reader

could not see, numbers [all]

—if so—the result

of what passes for the world

The question of “what passes for the world” is surely posed by the changing surface of this passage. In the first and fourth lines the parentheses seem an academic gesture, suggesting an adapted quote, but by the sixth line, “(say)” seems present to create a visual rhyme across the dash with “(play),” to supply a sonic rhyme, to suggest a command to speak, to hint that what follows is a conjecture, and to point up the equivalence between ‘playing’ and ‘saying.’ Similarly, the first two sets of brackets seem present to suggest adaptation but the last “[all]” may be a hiccup of the text or a renaming of “numbers,” a digression into contemplation of quantity. Meanwhile, some of the italics (“has”, “not”) seem present for emphasis, others to identify words that are being used qua words (taste, the world). The result of all this flexing and doubleness is, I think, to make conscious the madeness of the read world—as well as its repleteness—and to show the way in which reading is continuous with thinking, that neither action may be bounded off from the other or stopped.

So consistent in principle and various in detail is SOUND /system that any passage could be quoted as typical; difference from passage to passage consists of which images are repeated, which themes are engaged, and to what degree “plot” or character-evoking material enters the installment. One is tempted to call this volume ‘murky’ for the level of activity it demands from its reader, but in fact it’s crystalline, both in appearance on the page and, eventually, in the communication of its main themes. At the same time it’s prismatic, doubling and trebling its effects and acknowledging that the work is ultimately written (though never completed) in the mind of its reader:

(this place)—one version

the order of things

a reader will complete [July]

as an intensely private act the moment

Though Ratcliffe’s continually developing theory of reading identifies sound as the primary medium of poetry and thought itself, most readers will encounter SOUND/ system as “an intensely private act,” a silent and visual one. This book requires extreme reading, and the game and ready reader could write another 254 pages of poetry in between the lines of this one. In this way, though relentlessly cerebral, this poetry seems optimistic, even joyful. In refusing to delimit a path of reading or a final ‘reading,’ it remains an ever-expanding system, a universe always in embryo, the source of an echo and the echo itself, a celebration of the suppleness of consciousness.