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book

Ritual and Bit

Year

2016

Type

Poetry Book
Ritual and Bit by Robert Ostrom
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by Stephen Burt

About half of Ostrom’s compact, elegiac second book excels in a familiar mode, at once strongly felt and jumpy, dissociative, as in “For the Ghost of Carlos”: “At night / I am a hallway wrapped in an ocean. When the waiting / becomes what I don’t talk about, I sing to him and every / note is E-flat.” In “Tenet Meadows,” a lyric of childhood memory, “We are a small house // in a big-house neighborhood. The kids / chirr like longhorns in dead corn.” Readers of Matthew Zapruder—or of Federico García Lorca—will recognize the attractions of the mode. The book’s other half seeks schemes and layouts that belong to Ostrom alone. First he offers a series of works in high diction and stately epistrophe, each called “Litany,” as in “Litany for Exodus”: “To pack up and without a word, grant me the grace to desire it. / That I may exit unceremoniously, grant me the grace to desire it.” Then there’s the 20-page memorial poem “Cross the Bridge Quietly,” part white space, part dreamt images, part catechistic: “What was it like to be with me? // Imagine a car at night / The side of a road … What was it like to lose me?” The loss feels immediate, the consciousness real. Ostrom’s visions, in which “pale trees bent toward us like whale ribs,” construct a melancholy afterlife with an “electronic heartbeat,” one that feels traditional—if not quite timeless. Nonetheless, if it’s enough of a book to give the feeling that Ostrom is still handling big influences, it’s also a book whose sorrows, and whose assured acoustics, will linger on their own.


This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2016.

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