Susan Blackwell Ramsey

Contributor Biography

Susan Blackwell Ramsey is the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for A Mind Like This. Recipient of an Irving S. Gilmore Emerging Artist Grant as well as the William Mitchell Award, she won the Marjorie J. Wilson Award from Margie: The Journal of American Poetry, and David Wagoner chose her “Pickled Heads, St. Petersburg” for the 2009 edition of Best American Poetry. Ramsey has taught spinning, knitting, and creative writing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

Divine Office Hours

Give me an inch. Let's say that prayer is good,

that prayer does good. I don't mind skipping how

since I don't understand my car, much less

computers working without moving parts.

Invisible just seems a logical step

to someone dependent on electricity.

It follows, if prayer does good, it shouldn't stop.

One line of logic leads to prayer wheels, then

prayer wheels in streams, grinding out good like grain.

The West chose protein prayer, meat kneeling,

but there are problems. We have to eat and sleep,

have to do some work. Saint Benedict,

a logical man, devised a relay system,

a set of shifts three hours apart all day,

starting at six a.m., one more mid-night.

All noons were local then, so prayer would run

west between towns like a crowd doing the Wave.

This schedule is described in water words—

 

a cascade, a fountain, which would make sense 

to any peasant who'd ever seen a mill

channeling water power. Then Sanford Fleming

 

killed local noons because railroads need schedules

to prevent collisions. "Time zones," said Fleming, 

and hundreds of noons squeeze onto a single clock,

dawn in New York, still dark in Kalamazoo,

but Sext being prayed in both at once 

instead of trickling west. Does this create

a dam of time, some spiritual hydraulics,

compressing prayer until it can turn turbines?

Maybe, then, local prayers work like transformers, 

boosting lower voltage into high?

Does prayer work like that? Don't look at me.

I just start the car, boot up, bend the knee.

Kalamazoo Visits Saint Francis's Tomb

Passing shop after shop of postcards, t-shirts,

statuettes of the saint, she thinks that Francis

must be to Assisi what Elvis is to Memphis.

Local boy makes good, and in this case

does good, too.  

                          She enjoys being jostled

politely by Japanese, Germans, turbaned men—

so many foreigners make her feel less foreign.

 

In the basilica, every couple of minutes,

a monk with a microphone booms Silencio!

Elvis read comic books, she remembers, so maybe

he'd enjoy these frescos, know some of the stories 

from his Sunday School in Tennessee.  

 

Maybe he'd be shocked as she is to see Jesus

demoted to supporting player leaning 

out of a cloud to chat with Francis. Maybe

Elvis would get a good son's guilty thrill,

when Francis sasses Dad back, jaybird naked.

She spots God's hand in that one, high up, small, 

and she's ashamed her brain croons Take my hand

smiles as it goes on take my whole life, too.

A Story of Small Subversions

Aqua regia: a highly corrosive combination of acids capable of

dissolving the noble metals, silver, gold and platinum

You know that story about the King of Denmark

and all his subjects wearing the yellow star

the Nazis tried to force on Danish Jews?  

Never happened. The Nazis promised Denmark

self-government if they didn't fight back, never 

forced yellow stars on anyone. What is true

 

is that after the Swedish Academy

gave a jailed dissident the Nobel medal,

Hitler prohibited any German, 

Jew or not, from having one. Besides, 

a third of a pound of 23 carat gold 

would certainly be confiscated. So

George de Hevesy, Hungarian Jew

and chemist, took the medals of his friends

the physicists von Loue and Franck, dissolved them

in aqua regia, shelved the flask among

dozens of others and escaped to Sweden.

After the war he found his laboratory 

undisturbed, precipitated out the gold, 

and gave it to the Academy, 

who recast the medals and re-awarded them.  

                                                  And so I ask 

 

what makes this such a satisfying story?

No lives were saved, no grand examples set.

A story of small subversions. And yet. And yet

I love wit hiding treasure in plain sight,

defying guns and muscles with learning, love 

the blend of spite, affection. And besides,

it’s the story for which we all yearn,

the one where evil’s beaten by smart and good, 

the one where everything we’ve lost returns.  

But wait, there’s more. In 1993

a wave of hate crimes ripped Billings, Montana—

Jewish graves defaced and rocks thrown through 

windows displaying menorahs. The editor

of the newspaper remembered how King Christian

and all the Danes put on the yellow star.

So the paper ran a full sized picture 

of a menorah, and all over Billings

 

people remembered something that never happened,

and lived up to it, putting them in their windows.  

There were more rocks, a bit more vitriol  

but in the end it worked. It seems that courage 

like any noble metal can be dissolved, 

but also can be precipitated out 

and make a story true—whether it happened or not.

The Flushing Remonstrance, 1657

So the Dutch governor of what we'll call New York

demands that every town evict its Quakers.

(Over and over, bad men massacre. Smarter men

order citizens to do their dirty work.)

 

A committee meets. Edward Hart writes a "remonstrance." 

"Since the law of love, peace and liberty

extends to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians" 

(Egyptians?) "so love, peace and liberty condemns

hatred, war and bondage." With him so far? 

Therefore can be a moral word—

     

"Therefore, if any of these come in love to us,

we cannot in conscience lay violent hands on them."

 

Bullies regenerate like starfish arms.

No shortage of examples.

Fewer cases of an eloquent, a gentle

resistance, and I hadn't heard of this

before, and I just thought you ought to know.

Author's Note:

"Divine Office Hours" was first published in Poetry East.

"Kalamazoo Visits Saint Francis's Tomb" was first published in Crab Creek Review.

"A Story of Small Subversions" was first published in The Southern Review.

Kelvin Tan

Contributor Biography

Kelvin Tan is a musician and writer. Besides being the lead guitarist for The Oddfellows, he has released over 150 albums that are available on Spotify and Bandcamp. He is the author of All Broken Up And Dancing (1992) and ‘The Nether(r);R’ (2001). His play, Flights Through Darkness, was adapted into a film by Wong Kwang Han, and was screened at the 2017 Jogjakarta Film Festival and the 2017 Asian International Film Festival. He recently composed, recorded and performed the theme song “Jie” for the 2018 Singapore Writers Festival.

Kelvin can be reached at metiokos@hotmail.com.

Mysterium Tremendum

If it wasn’t for the strength that I had

From the power of the word and the care

I’d have nothing to hold on to

I’d be needlessly searching

 

There is something that comes out of strife

That you put down to be part of the night

I can’t say that I would have learnt

If I didn’t follow the signs

 

When you spend your whole life thinking it’s all going to fall down now

When every path you took led you to the end

The stars fell out the universe

Painted your world so grey

You’ll understand why I wouldn’t be here

If it wasn’t for Yahweh

 

I was on the road that fell into space

And the writing was dying of age

The songs had no feelings of joy

They were children of starvation

 

I was lying to my bitter world

Saying things that were out of control

I came close to the edge of deadly infinity

No one could save me

Meditations for the Devil

I’ve been talking to the devil

He knows me by my first name

Well I ask him devil devil

Why do you drive the world insane?

 

He says I’m full of bitter anger

For what God had done to me you see

He said Evil is not misplaced good

It’s a reality that sets me free

 

I said devil can’t you see the good

There is in doing peaceful things

Instead of slaughtering all the innocent

In a world that’s clipped its wings

 

He said the world doesn’t deserve better

Cuz it leads itself to evil anyways

I said you seem to miss the point my friend

You’re blind to your endless tortured days

 

Well you drive people to suicide

Then you get them to kill lives

You set us against each other

You love to hear our violent cries

You deceive us to believe

In superficial things and lead

Us to deceive us to believing

Our vanity pride and conceit

 

Oh Devil Devil Devil

You monster of disgrace

But I feel sorry for you mister

Every time I see your God-forsaken face

 

I’ve been talking to the devil

About his awful evil ways

He admits he does it with pleasure

He doesn’t do whatever God says

I told him I love spiritual warfare

Cuz I don’t wanna be mediocre man

I gonna fight you sucka I said to him

There’s still a lot of the world to save…

 

I’m gonna get you now in the dark

I’m gonna watch you die no matter how much it takes out of me

And the Lord said Amen...

Icarus (and the Crying Angels)

I dreamt I was Icarus, flying too close to the sun

I found as I fell into the sea, that I was not the only one

Covered by a blinding light, bearing burdens for the souls

Who had lost their way in this hallucinatory world

All alone with my melted wings going down

On the road to purgatory a way I’d already found

Spreading my withered wings, I plunged into the sea

Icarus had somehow descended on me

 

I dreamt I was a tyrant, with too much power to extol

Destroying the innocent, while the deaths took their toll

I had no other logic, except the hate I felt inside

I had taken precious lives, to enhance my evil pride

Deceiving myself, that I was a holy God

I destroyed the world, cos somewhere deep inside I died

Secretly I raise my arms in despair at who I came to be

Icarus had somehow let go of me

 

Sometimes I can almost swear

I can hear sacred voices in the air

Angels crying for me

In this city of ruins

Where fantasy is entangled with broken dreams

Where nothing is really what it seems

A place where nothing holds nothing

Except St. Gabriel’s trumpeted cries

Where life is illusion

Life is illusion

To me

 

And I dreamt I was helpless, with absolutely nothing in my life

World-weary and vulnerable, with nothing left to hide

Susceptible to evil, destruction to the core

Not knowing why I was dying, or what I was dying for

Isolated from a world that didn’t care

All my life was bitter suffering, so meaningless and unfair

Looking up at the sky, I yelled with all my rage

And Icarus stood there, like a burdened sage

 

I dreamt I was hungry, for recognition from the world

For vanity and fortune, fame and worship unhurled

Wealth has the power I thought to set me free

Let the poor be perished by the likes of me

I dreamt these dreams and I dreamt much more

I put myself in all these shoes until I didn’t know myself

My heart became as troubled as my soul

Unaware of the dangers lurking in the mind’s lack of control

Emptiness caused my ego warmed to seek help from within

Icarus saw my confusion and he’s slowly descending

 

I dreamt I was the Chosen One, my hands outstretched by nails

Blood dripping down to earth, my body was assailed

Living for Truth and Good, in a world out of control

They finally framed me, and destroyed my Godly will

I cried out to Him above, to forgive their treacheries

Though I felt the jolts of agonies going down on my knees

Then I heard voices saying you’ll rise above all these

And I prayed that I had the strength to make the suffering cease

And when I knew I died for Love, I looked up at the skies above

But Icarus wasn’t there, so I prepared myself to rise

Author's Note:

The track "Mysterium Tremendum" is from the album, Alone Descending Sisyphus.

The track "Meditations for the Devil" is available in two versions from the albums, Jivin and Alivin and Hosea’s Tears.

The track "Icarus (and the Crying Angels)" is from the album, The Bluest Silence.

All three songs are available on Spotify.