In the beginning, I did not see but heard: news over the radio about the bombing of Gaza in 2014, triggered by a whole series of events—we say “triggered,” as if history itself were a weapon ready to be fired. Voices untranslated, the tone of panic rising, sometimes breaking into anguished cries, the wail of air raid sirens, and the smooth voiceover of journalists, trying to tuck the adrenaline beneath the language, trying to strike a tone that seems fair and balanced.
As poets, we often assemble language to disassemble meaning—or we disassemble language to assemble meaning—and this is all an effort to translate the ordinary (a pair of socks, the name of that place, subway car, chair versus shadow, the front of a sparrow, something afloat like a naked rock) into an extraordinary textual or speech act. The result, we hope, is something new and transformative.
If a poem, as William Carlos Williams claimed, is a machine made out of words, the sonnet can be viewed as a particularly compressed, dynamic, and efficient little gizmo, one that poets have been tinkering with since the 12th century. These tinkerers, of course, have included some of the most foundational poets of Western literature—from Dante and Petrarch through Hopkins and Frost—all of whom have used one variation or another to perform what Phillis Levin classifies as “a mode of introspection, a crystallization of the process of thought.”
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:
After my mother died, I kept reaching for my phone. I’d talked to her almost daily during the last years of her illness, when she’d been mostly housebound, watching Hallmark movies and BBC mysteries alongside my patient father and an ever-present small plate of toast she couldn’t bring herself to eat. Because I couldn’t reach her now, I found myself instead playing the matching game I’d downloaded in case I needed to occupy my young son on the flight back to Denver for the funeral. For brief periods, the game let me put my grief in the background and focus on the simple task of matching little clusters of fruit or flowers to earn points toward restoring a cartoon estate garden that had fallen into disrepair. The game offered order and arrangement, a small sense of accomplishment when other tasks (or even former pleasures, like reading) seemed to demand too much concentration.