The Transitional Voice: Exploring Susan Blackwell Ramsey’s “Ode to Texting”

by: Claire Bateman

There are currently three kinds of human in the world: the non-digital; digital natives; and adapters who have learned to communicate digitally but still remember an analog society though they cannot fully access that prior consciousness, just as no adult can fully access their sense of self prior to their awareness of death and sex. Susan Blackwell Ramsey’s “Ode to Texting” speaks in the voice of the third kind of human, a member of this historically unique transitional species, embodying a before-and-after in our culture in which babies swipe insouciantly on screens almost before they can sit up on their own. Interestingly, rather than relegating texting to the status of object, Ramsey personifies it as a shapeshifting subject she addresses in order to explore the range and complexity of an adapter’s experience. Consider how she opens the poem:

needle so fine
you penetrate even
the defensive hide
of sons,
excite reply.

In yourself
language gnat,
but driving
distracted herds
over death cliffs.

The initial image clusters in the first two stanzas (“blowdart, / breath-message” and “language gnat, / midge, / mosquito”) evoke for me Italo Calvino’s prescient collection of lectures, Six Memos for the New Millennium, in which he extolled what he perceived to be the primary characteristics of the new spirit of the age, “lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity.” He described language as “a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud or better, perhaps, the finest dust or, better still, a field of magnetic impulses.” And he celebrated “[t]he polymorphic visions of the eyes and the spirit . . . contained in uniform lines of small or capital letters . . . packed as closely together as grains of sand, representing the many-colored spectacle of the world on a surface that is always the same and always different, like dunes shifted by the desert wind.” At the start of Ramsey’s poem, the air does teem with texts stinging and swarming (perhaps sinisterly) in their swifter-than-sight wingless flight between devices. Calvino might well have substituted “the approximation of simultaneity” for “quickness.” Despite or perhaps because of this smallness, texting is portrayed as at once mighty (in its effectiveness against the relational indifference of the young—“needle so fine / you penetrate even / the defensive hide / of sons, / excite reply”); deadly (“driving / distracted herds /over death cliffs); and “innocent.”

Rather than investigating these paradoxes, however, the speaker pauses only long enough to allow them to unsettle the reader, and then she immediately moves on, as though texting has pierced her own consciousness, infusing it with its swift-moving polymorphic spirit. Next, she portrays her painstaking awkwardness with the new medium even as she aligns herself with the young in mocking older forms of communication, the phone call and email, which were initially no less surprising and controversial. Social anxiety around the likelihood of being disparaged for preferring “antiquated” modes of communication has become something of a meme in literature—for instance, the moment in Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen, when one of the characters reads a brief break-up text and ponders how to respond: “An e-mail seemed elderly, a phone call desperate.” Ramsey’s speaker, too, is aware that a phone call constitutes an uncouth intrusion from another generation. She writes,

The phone call
is a drunk uncle
barging in,
to slump
on the sofa,
and even e-mail
is a volume
of Trollope
for an elevator ride,

while you
are a wife’s light hand
on the sleeve
two words
barely suspending
the conversation.

Indeed, it is a truth universally acknowledged that if you absolutely must call, you have to text first to ask permission. The email (which both Cunningham and Ramsey style in the old-fashioned way, with a hyphen) is “a volume / of Trollope / for an elevator ride,” as burdensome and stylistically excessive as Victorian prose. The possibility of a paper-and-ink letter is not even mentioned—who would go to all that trouble?—nor is the option of a visit, since the notion of showing up in person is either so obsolete or so transgressive, so taboo, one does not speak of it. Comparatively, texting is “the wife’s light hand,” hyper- effective, inconspicuously deft, restrained and restraining. And in Ramsey, the text is an oddly creative constriction of language—an almost instinctive gesture—that yet possesses noteworthy attention-commanding power.

Still, in the closing stanza, Ramsey reimagines texting as an annoyingly persistent little girl. Though in both these personifications, Ramsey has moved from images of swarming, stinging particulate entities to images of female agency (perhaps associating texting with something like yin energy), the speaker exhibits varying attitudes toward them—admiration for the wife and a combination of bemused yet protective tolerance/frustration for the child.

It is appropriate that the poem creates itself by refusing to settle on either a single image for texting or a single attitude toward it on the speaker’s part, since archetypally, texting falls under the purview of Hermes the messenger god, patron of borders and crossings borders, himself a shapeshifter, a trickster. Texting is dangerous and innocent; ubiquitous and infinitesimal; subtle and demanding/obtrusive; it simultaneously exacerbates and ameliorates the disjunctions between generations, and we all have a conflicted yet intimate relationship with it. Texting is located right on the boundary between public and private acts; everywhere you turn, you can see groups of people pulling out their phones to gaze down into those little palm-sized universes at the same time or in something like overlapping phase rhythms (perhaps this phenomenon has replaced that of lighting up cigarettes together), a minimalistic ritual that’s both personal and communal. (And doesn’t it make perfect sense that an external soul would require a hard and brittle carapace, something like that of a crustacean? Conversely, doesn’t it also make sense that you can purchase a phone cover that has the look and feel of human skin, with the option of tattooing?)

We complain about texting because we want to “be here now,” yet we text because we want to be everywhere at once. From moment to moment, texting can slip back and forth between spontaneity and a curious formality, a way to avoid the exigencies of engaging in an unedited, real-time conversation. Texting augments connection at the same time as it creates fragmentation. Solitude has become, to borrow a phrase from the writer Eden Robine, “an endangered state of mind,” as we now define absolute distance by how far from our phones we are willing to go, like the human characters in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series who can’t venture more than a few feet away from their daemons without physical pain. Indeed, deprived of our devices, marooned in meat space, we feel not only bulky and slow, but amputated, even castrated, and oddly shy as we are confronted by our own selves, familiar strangers. No wonder Ramsey closes on a note of heightened tonal ambiguity, highlighting the discrepancy between the impulse of the young to extend/augment connection and the preference of many in the second half of life for quiet solitude:

she sees me peaceful
in the garden,
calling to me
over and over
and over,
so excited
to be able
to connect with words,
I forgive you
because you are
so new,
so small.

These last lines serve as both an almost maternal murmur of endearment and an implied acknowledgement that one way or another, adapters will soon be extinct.

Claire Bateman is the author of nine poetry collections, most recently Wonders of the Invisible World (March, 2020), Scape, Coronology and Other Poems, and Locals. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

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