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Cal Doyle reviews Billy Ramsell's newest poetry collection






cal doyleCal Doyle’s poetry has appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including The Penny Dreadful, The Burning Bush II and Penduline. An alumnus of Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series, he has participated in many literary events and festivals around the country. A bookseller by profession, he also works as the poetry editor for The Weary Blues. He divides his time between Cork and the internet.










architects dream of winter

The Architect's Dream of Winter

Billy Ramsell

(Dedalus Press, 2013)

ISBN: 978-1906614782

€11.50 paperback

Buy from Dedalus Press





In Billy Ramsell’s excellent second collection, The Architect’s Dream of Winter, the poet shifts through the vast array of registers and forms of language that one encounters in the Ireland of the Post-Everything-Century with remarkable dexterity. This book is omnilexical in the most unpretentious sense: you’ll find the rhetoric of romantic love come up against the terminology of cash-flow capitalism and the language of spiritual yearning uploaded and processed through computer networks to be left suspended in iClouds. It is staggering, and can be dizzying: the poems themselves often stretch and sprawl beyond the polite twenty line, single page nuggets that one finds in so many volumes of poetry. That is not to say that Ramsell is ever sloppy or verbose in his work, far from it, as he is as ambitious with his range of forms and styles as he is with his content. We find short lyric poems (‘Secure Server’), villanelles (‘Colony’) and paratextual experiments (‘Ahead vast systems hunger’); and prose poems with the longer narratives and monologues. Ramsell holds all of this together with a voice that is at once both distant and seductive, “high” and “low”, and absolutely unafraid to look at the big questions.

It is in fact the big questions which form the spine of the collection as a whole: if God is a non-entity rendered obsolete by networks of fibre-optic cables and Wi-Fi routers, are these acres of servers our new godhead? And if that is the case, are we made in its image? Or more accurately, is He made in our image? (And as Ramsell playfully suggests in his poem ‘Half Time’ the Gods are in fact made in our image.) With the risk of sounding a little beige, I am willing to state that as a society we are more connected now more than ever, but the “what”, “where”, “how” and “why” of our connexions form the spine of the book. From ‘Secure Server’:


Before stepping into the rush

hour traffic sit back.

Connect yourself via the ports


in your face to the system[.]



It is in this connexion that the poet gestures toward the ideas of the philosopher Donna Haraway, who writes in her book length essay A Cyborg Manifesto that “by the late twentieth century[…] we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” This idea of human-as-cyborg is not a particularly new or revolutionary thing in Irish (or any) literature; it goes right back through Tristram Shandy and beyond. But what sets Ramsell’s work aside is the sheer scope and ambition of his vision. In poem after poem we are presented with speakers that exist and address us from a seemingly liminal plain. They are neither of our world, nor the digital one. They are human, but their voices collectively swell and are transmitted out from our newly born heaven, the pixelated other-world. From ‘Memory House’:


I outsourced all my memories to machines.

Addresses, specifics, had long been the stuff of paper and pen.


Numbers went then: the digits of colleagues and loves to a SIM card,

long division then arithmetic to the buttons of a calculator.


All was subtraction. I delegated satnavs to remember my way for me,

handsets to carry birthdays and tasks, deadlines, anniversaries.


Next trivia. Dates and places evaporated, became droplets in the Cloud,

as I downloaded app after app for remembering, for forgetting.


Ramsell presents us with an entire identity and her history uploaded and stored in the ‘Cloud’ with all of the others. But with this delegation there also comes an implied power-shift: if we are in the business of forgetting, the network acquires an almost axiomatic omniscience; it becomes all knowing, all seeing. This is a poetry that seeks to interrogate our own “reality” by striving out and beyond mere mimesis, the poems become hyper-real in the era of the hyper-god. Ramsell’s art “transforms into light / flickers through the fibreoptic’s pristine filament” and shifts our take on ideas of spirituality and what that means in the twenty-first century.

This hyper-reality is perhaps best illustrated in his poem ‘Still’, one of the book’s several highlights. Using the “he said / she said” conceit, Ramsell juxtaposes two disembodied voices which may (or may not be) in dialogue together. The epigraph (credited to the mysterious Alberto Cenas) reads: “And yet the possibility of leaving physicality behind, of transferring human minds to computers, to other storage devices, is simply too beguiling to be dismissed entirely.” The idea is every bit as seductive and conflicting as it sounds, and that is reflected in the poem’s rich imagery and fragmentary dialogue. The “He” of the poem wishes to leave the kids behind and depart with his wife (or lover) to become “floating tendrils of counterpoint, / rococo strands orbiting and blending / in that permanent digital heaven.” His desire to move toward a very real but imagined higher plane is tempered by the “She” who draws our attention to the natural world outside where “rabbits sample sevenths, diminisheds; / worry butterflies, sniff the jazzy, reverberating air.” Both “realities” have an unreal feeling; they are both constructed by the speakers and are both ultimately left to be digested by the reader. 

As is suggested by in ‘Still’, music (jazz music in particular) forms another central element to the book. In ‘Lament for Esbjӧrn Svensson’ the speaker asks the late musician to “Play me something. Though you’re not really here, / with the rain tat-tattooing the kitchen window like a snare”. The absence, like in so many other poems in the book, becomes a presence and the speaker’s seemingly unending desire finds itself “improvising // here for accompaniment”. The poem contains an embarrassment of riches in terms of its treatment of music, but death and heaven naturally hold centre stage. The poet wonders:


if dying translates us into the condition of music;


leaves us weightless, melodious, floating bars of thought

uploaded like data into the mind of God.




While the collection as a whole is hugely impressive, there are a couple of moments when one feels that the author doesn’t quite hit the notes that he was aiming for. The poet’s natural intelligence is his strong suit, but he goes a little unchecked in ‘Section 3: The Unseen Poem (100 Marks)’ which is the collection’s only real snag. It is a clever poem, and it is excellently written, but it’s just not as clever as it thinks it isthe “questions” at the end only serve to reinforce its problems. But, it is an experiment (and, to be fair, a humorous one at that) and it does read like Ramsell is feeling his way into it as he goes along. So the reader is ultimately left with no other option than to offer the poem a C+ for effort and natural charisma.


For all of the collection’s tech savvy and philosophical profundity it could be easy to forget that Ramsell is in fact an Irish poet. While his poetry is undoubtedly reaching out and above ‘the Irish tradition’ his feet remain firmly planted on his home soil, for all of his “forgetting” he can never really “let go of … / Aisling”. In ‘Cortex’ and ‘Jazz Weekend’ he paints beautiful pictures of his home-town of Cork and its people. And in ‘Colony’, to show he’s no mug, he offers Cork the psychoanalytical treatment that it oh-so desperately needs. ‘Lament for Christy Ring’ and ‘Reel’ address the cultural myth-making that has been central to Irish poetry, yet they both read like 21st century poems. And that’s Ramsell’s real achievement in The Architect’s Dream of Winter: where other young Irish poets make it their mission to drag Irish Poetry kicking and screaming into the 21st century, Ramsell doesn’the simply opens the door, invites it in and offers it a cup of tea, and Irish Poetry gratefully accepts his invitation. The Architect’s Dream of Winter quietly asserts Ramsell’s position at the very fore of contemporary Irish poetry: a staggering book and a game-changer. Superlatives cannot do it justice.



©2013 Cal Doyle



Author Links


Poems by Cal Doyle in Burning Bush 2

'An Evening Prayer': a poem in Penduline (Issue 9)

Doyle reviews Dave Lordan's début collection First Book of Frags






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