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Carter Ratcliff

Poetry reading

2013 Season

Carter Ratcliff, recipient of the 1st Annual ‘T’ Space Poetry Award, has read his work at ‘T’ Space on two separate occasions. First on June 18, 2011 against the backdrop of Mike Metz’s exhibition, Snared-Trapped and Concealed, he read various works, including AntigoneArt and Uncle Four-EyesThe Architecture of Your TimesThe Tin Woodman with StringsMy JuveniliaApples and OrangesCult StatusThe Raven was RightFoolish GodsWho is Equal to Socrates?What Truth is SayingRide Out, BigfootA Partial on the Clip; and Your Egypt.

Ratcliff returns on May 25, 2013 and read Foolish Gods and Starlight for the opening of Ai Weiwei’s exhibition, Sugar Pill.

It is with great sorrow—and some reluctance—that I take up my pen to record the last days of Thomas More’s Utopia.  The Utopians had never liked Mr. More, though they owed him everything.  Their lives were each one a bore, and when they turned for amusement to his book, it was even worse.

“We’ve been had,” they cried, and rushed out together—some with the tools of their trades, others in their nightshirts.

Trees that make noise at night
these are listening devices.
The air invisible everywhere
carries out further surveillance.
But do not imagine
that a tree or the air or the darkness then
is doing the work of the gods.
Or if any of them ever does,
it doesn’t matter because
these are gods grateful for nothing
this world has ever done for them.


Do not imagine they live in our world.
They only stop by, foolish gods,
falling in love with mortals.


Imagine how foolish they are.
Or, no, don’t imagine that, imagine something
that better comports with your luck, the great good fortune
that gave you an imagination in the first place.


Imagine that all the gods love you
or some of them do, and one of them
has fallen in love with you.


Educated, morally sensitive,
you dwell on a sunny shore.


You are stirred to indignation
by the obscurities of the mystery cults,
by a brutally oppressive government indifferent
to the squalor, poverty, and illiteracy in which
the great majority lives.


The god in love with you sees what you are getting at
but doesn’t really care, is not visibly outraged
by a governing class that tramples on human rights
and impedes the daily distribution of justice.


This god believes in liberty, personal and political,
in the removal of irrational inequalities, and in truth,
which he is perfectly willing to join you in identifying,
at least to some degree, with scientific progress.


He believes in all that
but is not much concerned with his beliefs.
Or yours.


He wants you and will,
even if something distracts him, remember
to set the startled furnace of daylight
to the temperature that will persuade you,
suddenly, that it was not he
who wanted you but you
who so desperately wanted him.

They would say,
you have got to chose.


I know,
was her reply, always
her reply, and she would add,


as they knew she would,
I have chosen the long shot.


Right, they would say
to themselves and to one another: the long shot,
but whose?


The camera’s

long shot or the gambler’s?


Baby needs new shoes.
But grown-ups need new truths.


So truth needs more detachment.
Detachment needs to be needed
by Justice, and Justice needs new scales.


Who will provide them?
Not Antigone,


for she lives in darkness
and the backlog of light
provides Justice with her blindfold,


from beneath which she would peek
if she were not afraid of what she might see.


I have chosen to live in darkness,
here with Antigone, says the god
who refereed the recent injustices.


Speak for yourself, says Antigone.
I haven’t chosen to live here in darkness.


I have chosen the long shot, and whatever it takes,
I will give, and when it is weary of taking, I will give it
still more, for I have chosen


to know the truth
—the long shot
is the only shot


with a payoff,
and if grown-ups
don’t like this truth, too bad,


there is only this one,
the truth that has chosen all of you,
in your nameless multitudes


and then chosen to lose track of you
amid the myriad small truths, the comic truths,
that compose the large and tragic truth of this landscape
where you have no choice but to live.

The city’s clatter
drives you mad, say those who live in the city.


Those who live in the country say that madness is a weed,
a thistle, a sap-filled cruelty suited best to soil
stretched thin over bedrock far removed
from the sunny and permeable pavements of the city,
the magnet whose fluctuating allure we measure
by tracing shifts in the force of our desire to leave it.
On an infrequent jaunt to the countryside,
the blood-stained leader said that nothing is rotten here.
Even the earth, that cradle of decay, smells sweet.


And all agreed for the lamp of expertise,
working in the shadow of its Pinocchio-nose,
had taught even the olfactory image what to do, how to fit itself
to meaning too neatly, and so the nightmare could only fail
to qualify as madness.


And then the Revolution failed,
for expertise had liberated the people
from the very idea of history as an enemy to oppose.


recrossed his legs, the one
that supported the other being
now in its turn supported.


From the greater forms of madness,
the people must learn to oppose themselves.
They must learn to believe, he continued,
that revolutionary government is liberty’s despotism
ranged against tyranny.


Accused of playing god, he replied, I am not
playing god.  I am being human.


Light from nowhere
goes nowhere.  It is everywhere and forms all forms.
Every presence illuminates itself and all is darkness
for want of contrast.


Robespierre said near the end that from a certain angle
any fool could see that to be a revolutionary force the people
need not be mad.  They need only love themselves.


As for the mad, if they are to be sane,
they need not love reason.  They need only love themselves.


On this theorem
he built the throbbing geometry of the Terror, and from it
worked out corollaries of portico and autumn
leaf plastered wetly to newish stone and old light
at rest in the down on a nape bent archly
to the weight of the elegance of his proof
that self-love is the revolutionary lever
that wrenches open with perpetual screech the gateway
to the royal road to the rule of madness, legitimate
and eternal, if only the screeching would stop.


You see,
self-love was to be silenced by its cruelest corollary:
love of one’s interrogator, allegorical figure
of the joy of hearing one’s own voice tirelessly pacing
the length and graveled breadth of current events.


To resist in the name of one’s sanity
was to give in to what was now
our most subtly demented institution: history,
or that which had not been,
or not exactly.


In monumental falsehood,
we found a modest truth.  Having come from nowhere,
we could not be said to be lost.  But where,
in this rudely harvested field of data,
could we possibly be said to be going?


Agreeing to notice our dilemma,
Robespierre handed us a ring of keys.


Then we misplaced it, like altruism’s exact address
in the small and crumbling pyramid of modern manners.
Does altruism have a terrace?
A window?


In any case, the great project continues.
The mad are talked to.  The city is abandoned.
So is the countryside, ensuring that both feel overcrowded
and lost to any future we might possibly want to live.

They told me who made them.  I told them I suspected as much. They told me how they were configured and I said, I don’t care about that, the puzzle of your inward structure.  It is elegant, no doubt, but I care only about your outward behavior.  What you do in the world.


They said, in a chorus, that’s silly.  What we do in the world always follows, conclusion from premise, from how we were made by the one who made us, and I said, nonsense, between the intent and the act there is always a shadow, unless, of course, the act is the shadow, and then there is an abyss.


They said, we see where you go wrong.  You think there is intent.  You really think that but there is none, there is only the inward structure, the work of the one who made us, who laughs when you say that nature abhors a vacuum.


Nature loves a vacuum, and, if that love nearly always goes unrequited, it is cherished, it is requited to perfection, on those occasions when angels intervene.  I said, you are angels and you talk like angels, and the one who made you is the devil.  He made you to talk of big things like perfection.


You talk like angels and you draw like angels and you want to draw me the big picture.  But don’t do that.  Don’t draw me the big picture.  I want to see the small picture, the myriad small pictures, filled with myriad details.  They said, we are angels and we talk like angels and so you must listen and be careful, the devil is in the details.  I said, no, you are wrong, the devil is in the big picture.  In the details is redemption.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and art critic. His first gallery reviews appeared in Artnews in 1969. Since then his art writing has been published by major art journals in the United States and abroad, including Art in America, Artforum, Modern Painting, Tate, Art Presse, and Artstudio, and in the catalogues published by American and European museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona; Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum; and The Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati.

Among Ratcliff’s books on art include John Singer Sargent, New York: Abbeville Press, 1982; Robert Longo, New York: Rizzoli, 1985; The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996; Out of the Box: The Reinvention of Art, 1965-1975, New York: Allworth Press, 2001; Georgia O’Keeffe, Kunstshaus Zürich, 2003; Andy Warhol: Portraits, London: Phaidon Press, 2006; “Marisol: The Crowded Looking Glass,” Marisol 1960-2007, Neuhof-Edelman Gallery, New York, 2007; “The White Paintings of Richard Pousette-Dart,” Pousette-Dart, Washington, D. C.: The Phillips collection, 2010; Conrad Marca-Relli: A Redemptive Order, Southampton, New York: Pollock-Krasner Foundation, 2011.

Ratcliff has taught at New York University; Hunter College, New York; and the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture. He received a Poets Foundation grant in 1969. His other awards include an Art Critics grant, NEA, 1972 and 1976; a Guggenheim Fellowship, 1976; and the Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism, College Art Association, 1987. His books of poetry include Fever Coast, 1973, Give Me Tomorrow, 1983, and Arrivederci, Modernismo, 2007.

Ratcliff was the guest editor of the September 2013 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, in which he spearheaded the discussion: What is art? Ratcliff posits, “artists’ intentions are at least partially unconscious. With the exception of those happy to settle into a rut, artists try to bring their intentions to light—to clarify and strengthen and, it may be, reinvent them. Coming up against another’s incompatible intentions can speed the process. Awareness of who you are not can help you see who you are—or might become…”

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