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Jeremy Hilton finds a heady mix of sublime poems in Jay Ramsay’s latest book. Out Of Time: Poems 1998–2008 Jay Ramsay PS Avalon, UK, 2008 ISBN: 9780955278655
Jay Ramsay is one of the most prolific, powerful and important poets writing today, tirelessly working to promote spirituality and spiritual healing as a creative force. In the past I have sometimes felt that his work has been inclined to take flight from the horror and mess of everyday reality, but then in the face of the terror attacks of 9/11, and the degradation of the invasion of Iraq, he was one of the first and very small number of British poets to address the issues that arose from those events, in a series of powerful works. Some of those poems are included here, though I would have liked to see more.
But the nature of reality is fully addressed in these poems of the last ten years, and the spirituality arises naturally and organically from direct experience of the natural world, of personal relationships, of psychological issues, and in the process transforms the experience and the poem. Even though the transformation usually, though not always, occurs in the second half of the poem, there is nothing formulaic about this: rather it is a matter of being grounded in the actual experience. The very first poem in the book opens up the possibilities: the photograph of Anneke, the memories of her at the arboretum, the birds in the garden and at the feeder,
And all your dying gone, into this
As if these birds had sprouted from
…your smile now as wide as Creation
As possible as anything
boxed bend of our minds.
In the early sections of the book there are some very strong poems. Some of the longer poems in particular work very well, for example ‘Improvisation on Flower Mountain’:
Being mountain, being man
Where the edge falls away
Bending your knees and lifting your
Until your breath becomes the air it
And you can feel the mountain
through your feet.
The second half of the book comprises two long sections, Psyche and Ways of Love, in which Ramsay is both more ambitious and more willing to stretch the boundaries of his spiritual concerns. There are some fine individual poems – No. 8 in the sequence ‘Midnight Sun’, for example (from Psyche), the first poem in the ‘After Rumi’sequence, and No. 13 in ‘Another Country’(both from Ways of Love), but what seems most significant here are the issues Ramsay addresses. One example is his use of the pronouns ‘you’and ‘we’in these two sections. The ‘we’seems to sometimes refer to humanity in general, or the poet representing humanity, as well as the poet in a specific context with one or more persons. In his (very frequent) use of the second person pronoun, as well as poems addressed to individuals he knows, there are poems, such as No. 17 of ‘Midnight Sun’, where he appears to be addressing himself in the second person, and the poem ‘You’(again in the Psyche section), is addressed to the poet’s ‘damon’(a powerful poem, this one).
Some poems, such as ‘A Dream for Easter’are addressed, it appears, to the figure of Christ. Indeed, as the book progresses, there are an increasing number of overtly Christian poems, the best of which remind me of the devotional poems of the Spanish poet St John of the Cross.
Another courageous area which a number of Ramsay’s poems explore is that of gender and gender transformation. At least one poem, ‘Antonia’, directly addresses the issue of sex change:
In our liminal duality, liquid as the
a man who is also a woman
in the truest invisible part of him,
rising like the stem of an impossible
It is not entirely clear whether this arises from Ramsay’s therapeutic role, and when this subject appears in other poems, for example No. 3 ‘Anamnesis’– “And she, he is your answer | that other one nearest of all within” – and then in several poems in the Ways of Love section (notably ‘Being You’), gender liberation, or transformation, now appears very much a matter of freeing the feminine within the male or the masculine within the female, and is linked to wider transcendental experiences, religious devotion, and spiritual union. And there is the sense, throughout the book but particularly in this last section, that behind the words even more important transformational work is occurring.
This amazing, but very challenging, material in that last main section, exploring the intersection of spiritual, gender, therapeutic and transformational themes, finally, in the last five poems in that section, returns us to physical reality, strongly felt experience, immediate relationships – the death of the poet’s father – and most of all, to a sense of felt urgency in one of the most powerful poems in the book, ‘The Words’, in which the immediacy of the language brings us right there, sharing the poet’s experience –
and with every phrase you find,
that what connects us across time is
deeper than any words can finally be
in the felt elastic sense that resonates
blood-warm in its lightning speed
and in this tiny space now as we
as far as that endless road I drove to
North beyond the motorway signs
to where the silhouetted land started
As good an example as one can find of the power of Jay Ramsay’s writing at its best.
For more information about Jay Ramsay www.lotusfoundation.org.uk