Susan Blackwell Ramsey
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.
"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 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 email@example.com.
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
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
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.