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Chemical Metaphysics

Nora Goldschmidt

weekBin Ramke
Theory of Mind: New and Selected Poems 1978-2008
Omnidawn, 2009
162 Pages
£14.50
ISBN 978-1890650414

Texas-born poet Bin Ramke is an established author with a string of acclaimed poetry books to his rather unusual name (“Bin” is short for Lloyd Binford Ramke). This new edition makes a selection of Ramke’s work available in a handy form, from the early Anomalies of Water to the stranger and more difficult collections like Matter (2004) and Tendril (2007).

At heart, Ramke is a scientific poet. In a 2007 interview in Poets & Writers, he explained that his initial calling was science: “I had always assumed that some element of physics, science, or mathematics was what I was going to do”. These disciplines continue to provide the poet with “other names and things”. He is fascinated by the chemistry of colour (“yellow ochre, ferric hydroxide/ red ochre, Fe2O3“) and botanic taxonomy (“laurus nobilis tillandsia usneoides/ epiphytic bromeliads“), and his poems carry titles that could appear in scientific papers (“Anomalies of Water”, “Surface Tension”).

At the same time, Ramke’s themes are deliberately mundane: landscapes, red balloons, bicycles, TV; scenes from childhood and love. This mix of the scientific and the everyday amounts to a modern version of metaphysical poetry, where experience can be counted in numbers and colour is measured by the chemical makeup of pigment.

Ramke’s poems are scientific in another way, too. As he told Poets & Writers: “I actually think that my work is experimental in a very real way, and experiments can fail”. Like T. S. Eliot’s famous ideal of poetry that “approach[es] the condition of science”, Ramke’s poems work like chemical reactions; they sometimes fail, but always intrigue readers to follow their strange and often surprisingly compelling processes.

Nora Goldschmidt is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford.

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