“A Force that Takes” Edward Ragg (Cinnamon Press) – Poetry Review

A Force that takes Edward Ragg book cover

Edward Ragg’s default style is a spare, three short lines in each stanza with use of enjambment to move the reader onto the next line or idea. It’s not his only approach, but seems to be the one where he’s most comfortable. The advantage of this approach is that it gives him space to advance an idea and then think around it and/or give the reader space to think, while the enjambment moves the poem forward. The title poem thinks around the theme of comprehension:

“Each poem has its drama,
whether minuscule or minute,
wherein one voice

or another, the reader
at its table, the paper-weight
and impressing heel

become a force that takes.
The intellectuals and the merchants,
the currency between them.

Theirs is the larger drama
touching the minuscule,
or forced from there,

not prehensile, but feeding,
multiplying, digesting,
like the autolysis of yeast.

One has felt the force
of the offices and shipyards
and sheet metal,

another scorched words at a
study wall, the fury between
them, as a force that takes.

What I have in mind is
your comprehending touch,
waltz of a woman’s hips,

that if the poem has
comprehended anything
it has told us, in so many

words, this is the force
that runs through it, this is
the minuscule we comprehend.”

The poem explores how a reader brings their own baggage and instincts to a poem, taking the relatively small focus of a poem and expanding it into a bigger idea depending on their interpretation and understanding of the poem’s words. This also places a limitation on the poem as the reader restricts their reading to their own interpretation and understanding, potentially closing discussion to another reader’s interpretation. Or creating an argument in a situation where there is no one correct answer: the poem is open to whichever understanding the reader has. It sets the philosophical tone of many of the poems. It’s also difficult to quote extracts from these poems because they present an intact theory arrived at organically and the thread of understanding can get lost if a reader focuses on only one stanza. Their strength lies in their use of a plain vocabulary: Edward Ragg’s intention is to provoke thought in the reader and engage debate. He doesn’t intend to baffle with jargon or multi-syllabic words, an approach which can send a reader to reference books and search engines and the suspicion that the choice of obscure words was deliberate to shift the burden of work to the reader, a little like a pedagogue patronising a student rather than a poet to a reader.

“The Meaning of Failure” considers the necessity of failure to learning and ends:

“If all argument ends
in death, the argument ends.
Yet its very terms

as from a child’s world,
if they will have one, is
of argument without end.

Success is so inessential
and failure a condition
in which we may begin

to make again a world,
as when you pour the tea,
you kiss my cheek,

you walk from room
to room moving in a kind
of triumph barely seen.”

Edward Ragg grew up in England and moved to Beijing in 2007. Some of the poems mark the transition from being a foreigner, hesitant in a new language and customs to settling in and making Beijing home. “Chongwenmen Market” finishes

“I intone in snail Mandarin the prices of eggs,
pork belly, mutton, counting change in the abacus
of a new speech and would like to say more:
something about the colours of the aubergines,
the less recognised fruits, the tastes of them.”

The last line recognises the irony of the fruits being less recognised to the Englishman not the stall holder and the regret at wanting to try what to the speaker are new experiences but frustrated by an inability to find the words to ask. There’s a beautiful tenderness in “For the Love of,”

“and yet the woman I love,
her Chinese hair now bending
under the cooker hood

has made me forget winter,
the month of May, the willow
trees bending the water’s way.”

Edward Ragg manages to combine the philosophical with personal observations without becoming didactic by a careful choice of words aimed at engaging the reader. His is an assured, undramatic voice that allows his poems to speak for themselves. “A Force that Takes” is available from Cinnamon Press.

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