Billy Ramsell was born in Cork in 1977 and educated at the North Monastery and UCC.
He has published two collections with Dedalus Press, Complicated Pleasures in 2007 and The Architect’s Dream of Winter in 2013, which was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award and was recently published in Italian translation.
He was awarded the Chair of Ireland Bursary for 2013 and the Poetry Ireland Residency Bursary for 2015. He has been invited to read his work at many festivals and literary events around the world. He lives in Cork where he co-runs an educational publishing company.
Billy Ramsell was born in Cork in 1977 and educated at the North Monastery and UCC. He was awarded the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary for 2013 and has been shortlisted for several other prizes. He edits the Irish section of the Poetry International website and in 2013 judged the Strong Shine award for best first collection by an Irish poet. He has been invited to read his work at many festivals and literary events around the world. He has published two collections with Dedalus Press, Complicated Pleasures in 2007 and The Architect's Dream of Winter in 2013. He lives in Cork where he co-runs an educational publishing company.
Ramsell is of a younger generation which finds many of the established themes of Irish poetry thoroughly exhausted. Technically, Ramsell's long loose lines would be a comfortable fit with contemporary American mainstream poetic practice. In the Irish tradition, where ideas of what can constitute a technically good poem have been shaped by a hegemony of conservative academics for decades, Ramsell's forms are an affront to the decorum of a poetic old order.
Yet no matter how hard Ramsell may intend to stray from overt expressions of Irishness, a sense of Irish place often asserts itself in his work, organically, unforced. Encounters with nature in Ramsell's work such as in 'An Otter' are more likely to happen on an urban quayside than in the rural ditch or bog of tradition. The increased urbanisation of Ireland and the peculiar alienation that goes with it (rural life, especially in a depopulated countryside, produces an already well-documented form of alienation) is reflected in its new literature; it is an alienation often accompanied by material wealth and a poverty of the spirit as in Ramsell's poem 'Gated Community'.
The Architect's Dream of Winter was shortlisted for the 2014 Irish Times Poetry Now Award, a prize presented annually to the author of the best collection of poems in English published by an Irish poet in the previous year.
© Patrick Cotter
/ You ask for something beautiful
Now all the meridians have slackened
and the time-zones between us
put on centuries each hour?
Now they’ve melted down the statue
of the physicist in the square!
Now the lavender is burning in piles
with the poppies and those little blue flowers
no one every really knew the name of.
Now every atelier is shuttered
and every banjo skinned with dust
in the department of silences.
Now the database of wind
holds every optimistic kiss I settled on your belly
and Tarragona, our city of bonfires,
our city of casual drug-use and vinyl
has been consigned to the archive of snow?
/ Lament for Esbjörn Svensson
Play me something. Though you're not really here,
with the rain tat-tattooing the kitchen window like a snare
and the wind, the wind, the weary wind
droning like the bass on Tuesday Wonderland,
the heating creaking in the key of A, the fridge voicing
the same two notes in perpetuity (I'm improvising
here for accompaniment; give me a break).
I'll pour us both a finger of Knob Creek.
And though you're not really here play me something: a slow
progression on my flatmate's beat-up Casio
then your hands jerking like manic crabs across the key-
board. Or don't play. It's up to you. But play.
For there's no one but me here in the lamplight.
Or at least tell me what eternity is like:
if it's a never-closing-club called The Hereafter,
dead greats in the rhythm section, you tinkling like the laughter
of sixteen-year-olds on a beach in late July, table-serviced boozing.
Or 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.
Okay fine. Let's not talk of prematurity and jazz
but just listen to the silk rain fizz
upon the rain that waterfalls the steps, tests drains,
and strokes the bevelled slope of River Lane
as we name the too-late, unmade albums
(Fractal Birds, Jessica's Premises, E.S. Ah Um)
your fan-club now will only hear in overhearings or in dreams.
And I won't bullshit you, in the sweep of things
your trio-intricacies, your carefully-sequenced records will endure
no longer than the muttering gap between main set and encore,
no longer than it took the final chords to flow,
like a receding wave, back into the piano
when you played late and cranky in the Opera House,
unsoundchecked, your sampler or whatever on the fritz.
This stubby bottle's empty as your glass.
I wouldn't bring this matter up unless.
Though you're not really here it's time to go.
It's easing off, I think. I'm sorry. You know
I'm sorry but it's time. That's traffic and raw light
spills through the curtain-gaps. It's easing. Thank you. And goodnight.
/ And in that infinite humming
Come to me.
Come to me across the karst esplanade.
I give you permission,
safe conduct over and through
the wheat-quiet, the crocus trail,
past the watchman’s hut
to my blouse stitched from silences,
my sleeves manufactured from silences.
You have leave, you can enter,
scuff dust from your walking boots
at my threshold east of the fields.
Though you cannot leave
for my house through the mesh-work of machine noise
come to me. Though you must always be
stationed within earshot of the train-yard,
on streets built from humming and sirens, built without exit
from gear-crunch and traffic-drone, come to me
though you can never come.
I will breathe carefully onto your nape,
my breasts against your back, my copper form,
as the breeze seasons hibiscus in my chamber,
seasons the silences
with salt from the gravelly shore,
or just breathe like this
into your ear like this
so come to me.
Come. Come though you can’t
across the ragged karst,
the wheat that is buttery or dun.
My blouse is stitched with the quiet of the marram grass,
my sleeves with eight versions of silence.
Come to me come.
You were my one-hit-wonder of summertime.
I was your throwaway B-side.
I was the dreaded first week of September.
You were the seaside.
You danced an adagio to the apple trees’ confetti.
I watched from the terrace.
I filled and filed each declaration in triplicate.
You couldn’t care less.
For transport you bridled a shaft of runaway sunlight.
I was a slow bus to Carlow.
You wore the faces of Cleopatra and Marilyn.
I was Ken Barlow.
I felt a needed, obedient cog of the world.
You slipped its grid.
I made my body its input; its servant and its terminal.
You never did.
I stacked every shelf in the-pea-and-bean section,
made it a seven-deep banner of tins.
You spent seventeen winters on the teal coast of Baltimore
watching the teal waves come in.
For seventeen summers you rode on their surfaces,
from isle to invisible isle.
I directed grannies, trannies, the fat mothers, the prams
to the bread and the cereal aisle.
From spindrift you wove a mandolin of such choruses.
I twanged on a Jew’s harp.
They made stained-glass walls for the cottage you wintered in.
I was the dark.
Your glowing panes let me in, you were meadow I was bitumen,
I blackened the least of your paths.
You adventured, I hid. I endeavoured, you did. I remembered.
Your saddle had no room for the past.
You were bright feet slipping free of the jaw-trap.
I was the vice.
I know that’s you knocking on my 4am window
You know I’ll try anything twice.
This butterfly is stitched from information,
the bright one hovering about your hand.
Your skin that wears the green, green dress
as you lazily tilt the watering can
over the coarse-grained ferns and digitalis
is made from information too.
The butterfly flutters the digital language
that wove its double motif of blue.
Remember lover you are made from data
and unto bytes you shall return.
We’ll go into a city built from water when we die,
into flowing computerised terrain:
its droplet-towers, its terraces composed like clouds,
its temporary gushing boulevards
shaped from how many souls colliding, mating, separating,
when the frost of each body thaws,
its parishes manufactured from the branching electricity
that flows and makes you all you are.
You will become like rain, like summer water poured
and pouring through the summer air.
To render the ocean one needs a whole year
with Zoom in freezing fingers on a quarter-mile of coast.
Sound is the one true vocabulary of nature
and not the peacock-palette painters swear
he uses for his best stuff, for his daily disposable frescoes.
To render the ocean one needs a whole year
on the quay-side tracking the tide’s increasing stature,
its drones and climaxes, the diminuendo when it shows
sound is the one true vocabulary of nature.
Nature plays bass-clarinet in a Barcelona pop-up theatre.
In a polo-neck he solos the ocean. He tongues, he blows
to render the ocean. One needs a whole year
or centuries to capture even its least-most feature:
like the boat-cove’s lapping, backwashed contraflows.
Sound is the one true vocabulary of Nature,
who’s lost in his MacBook, applying filter after filter
to this day-long rock-pool’s jazz, its stadium of echoes.
To render its ocean once needs a whole year:
sound is the one true vocabulary of nature.
I’ve scarcely sent for my aperitif
-vermouth and lemon, a whisper of gin-
when there she is again. Nuría.
The janitor’s daughter, I think,
or the niece of the new tennis coach.
Unpractised in her skittering
jink amid the deckchairs,
she stumbles, skips, exhibits her beauty
with the novelty of costume;
something rented and nonsensical.
She steps, steps to the very lip
of the infinity pool, addresses
its soothed, smoothing parallelograms,
its burnt-orange flatness.
Such indolent poise! Such torsion!
I almost nudge my mother
-who’s drowsing on the wicker-backed
recliner beside my own-
to partake in my astonishment.
For Nuría’s tensile, awkward form
will arc in a copper parabola
through the heat-freighted air,
will splashlessly transition
past the palpitating interface
of water, will power and spear
for breath-held seconds
not only against the chlorine-scented
densities of water,
but through seasons, very decades.
Ah the scandal of it all, the tragedy
when she comes up metres, years away
with her sinews, her cheekbones lengthening,
with her taut and indolent torso entre nous
deferring to gravity already.
Oh how her thighs, her sun-lapped shoulders,
-with each slowing, more effortful
step toward the shallow end-
will loosen, loosen, loosen
coming undone about their scaffolds!
One can scarcely look or look away!
Until with speckled fingers
straining to grip, she’ll haul her thin bones,
her self-encumbrance up
the step-ladder’s breathless intervals….
The pool is an amber, agitated doorway.
Nuría’s still sixteen, still perched beside
that clenched and tensile stillness.
The waiter sets my spurious cocktail down.
So it’s the usual today then Mr Cenas.
/ On Not Being Gaudí
Cruelty, Cadalfach, to be at this hour
hatched into the too-late world.
Your new blue eyes look out
from your mother’s spent sleeping breast.
You protest. You complain to the silent nursery
in cooed incredulity
as if the news has already reached you.
He’s already here, already thirteen,
his pen already a prosthesis,
tracking narrative in lizard skin,
rhythm in nest-weave,
in runaway handfuls of honey and spawn.
He’s contemplating flock-flight
for decades when he’s lost for hours
where his brothers’ blows can’t find him,
tracing in the movement of starlings a billowy machine;
a sketchbook in every feathery arrowhead.
And yet you’ll believe.
You’ll credit the envious whispers,
in the lecture-hall, in the apprentice yard,
assigning you and he to the same dispensation.
You’ll believe the sycophants and spoofers
when your first commissions come in,
who attribute to your palaces and his
a comparable panache
and backhandedly praise your restraint.
And when every slut and cutpurse drinks to your facility,
in the dive bars of the China quarter
amid the accordions,
amid the absinthe and the harlequins,
you’ll believe them too,
heeding the opinionated whores who dub
your Casa Serra the finest in the city.
Though when he pulls off La Pedrera
you’ll shun cava and brandy,
jealousy’s clear stinging gin
enough to bust the capillairies
at your cheekbones and under your eyes.
You’ll continue to ogle floor-plans,
your mind twitching and inverting itself
to engender proportion,
to wince at the bromides and imbecilities of clients
when you take tea at their summerhouses,
to micromanage polishing
of balustrades and hinges.
Until you know your works for can-trips,
for doodles, mere bagatelles,
when his holy folly rises up in the New Town extension.
From under the awning of Bar del Codicia,
daily between noon and two
you’ll study that accumulating reef,
that foolhardy upsurge,
until, on an afternoon when starched winter sunlight
polishes the dust-mist
and damps the yammering construction sounds,
you feel the cathedral enter you.
Your two arms, unbidden, stretch and extend,
as a transept’s length passes through them
and you step forward, staggering,
all heedless of the trams,
of the children shunted away from your flailing topcoat
as you feel your own flesh coagulate,
boil and settle into impasto,
into curdling, agitated stone
while your backbone’s ratcheted, elongated upward
to let chameleon chapels evolve,
ripple and recombine,
reengineer your cartilage
into spines their skin will climb on.
And all the while you’re looked down on
by that terrible emergence
by its sapling-spires straining
for the light above the boulevard,
for the inviolate, for the world’s fresh attic,
their peaks, their swarming nativities
My brother, for all that he’s fourteen years dead,
refuses rest or sleep or sitting
but splutters as he gulps down cigarette
after cigarette, as he hesitates
on the landing over and over
between panelled and teak eternities.
Her slumber jumbled, quivering, meniscus-thin,
in the brocaded back bedroom
my mother snuffles, endures the re-enactment
of her foreshortened Girona childhood;
that nightly monochrome procession
of debutantes and servants and inter-war priests.
But they dream in a grammar of magenta,
my un-begotten children in the nursery.
They dream of birds and tortoises,
the boy I feared and longed for,
my daughter, all colours, all coltish humours
and berry-brown limbs that never existed!
I’ll spend another year here in my mother’s house.
I’ll watch from her Gracia balcony
as the wind disperses gobbets of potential:
piled-up bluffs of cumulus, scarps
that the moon-light glosses, that fracture,
stall, then in slow-motion reels disaggregate.
Such deliquescence! Such delicious entropy!
My mother, in the room above my own,
snuffles on the cusp of wakefulness.
My brother’s ignorant ghost keeps coughing.
I’m 37. All of my hours are crumbling, stratocumulus.
All of my dreams are anxiety dreams.
/ The Top 10 Luminous Mushrooms of Cerdanya Forest
Pony browns -double trunked- are a tonic for shoulder trouble, for all known insidious ailments of the upper back. Chop them roughly where they flourish in their vestibular thickets. Without delay sauté them in leaf-light; on a skillet hot as you can make it, adding a fist of parsley and a few barbequed slivers of willow bark.
Avoid on pain of banishment candy kisses. Neither pluck them nor enquire as to the ban on their disturbance. Feel at liberty, however, to relish the concert of their pinkish spines, their pastel antiseptic coral that marks the forest proper’s border and beginning.
Beware, too, of wren-settles. For the merest tongue-full of their salty chalk will abolish seven memories, scouring them –without vestige or residue- from the hippocampus’s most intimate folds.
Further in seek butter buds: tender polyps most delectable raw, their flaking flesh best savoured by a palette washed in brandy, best presented in ochre marmalade’s southern, sultry ooze.
Finch whistles look proverbial with their white-pocked red berets and are a happy mushroom, a party mushroom. One for a good time, two for a bender. Three to re-experience your favourite sexual encounter. Four and for a fortnight you'll dream only in magenta.
The mushrooms known as boar droppings found their poet in Salvador Espriu who designated them 'magnificent and bobble-headed sentries of the forest's deeper zones'. No stew in all the annals of Catalunya, he declared, had ever suffered by dint of their inclusion.
Mary-shells are delicate sub-aqua-seeming flaps and will soothe most minor complaints of women -cramps, sore feet, distemper- but must be ingested unbeknownst to her.
Black shamrock is much sought-after by a younger, more aggressive crowd with their faux-hawks, rags and nipple-rings. They gather in the deep forest clearings. They smoke it and are transported where the sweet wood burns at twilight near the well-head; where the men issue first from the crouched wattle dwellings, in masked single file, garbed as stags and foxes; where the ugliest marujas of the village offer kindling; where the girl-child closest to fifteen in age gives the first spark to the beacon.
Almond-headed pig-pies: so preposterous a confection, in such revolt against likelihood as to render further counsel academic.
A scattered shoal; luminous, ridiculous, their fidgety brilliance snaring the eye, switching on and off in what you know is more than happenstance, sea sprigs beckon you inward, invite you through briars, through soil-breath toward the forest's dimming and innermost precincts, blinking like fireflies, like tentative tapers down their curved and convoluted path as evening settles.
/ Two Boys
One finds oneself, despite oneself,
looking up from one’s acidic,
barely adequate Grenache,
from a half-finished text entitled ‘Histories’,
as they hold hands saying nothing,
coming back from the ripple-less sea
as they traverse the long and indolent
noon and afternoon
like supple frictionless sunlight
as if their calves, their carved torsos
were manufactured from sunlight,
from wave-lengths tanned and tangible
at how their motion stills the terraces
of The Lucky Dog, Bar Ostía,
gives pause to the grizzled habitués,
the daylong swash and backwash
of the mariners’ conversation.
And still the two boys lithely linger
as if they have known no ignorant byways,
no side-streets with stupefied
rancorous men, will enter
neither evidence nor pleading.
And as they amble man-hand
in amiable man-hand
in the direction of Admiral Cervera Street
one browned boy bobs his mouth down,
dips a slow and unexpected
kiss to the elbow,
to the strolling muscovado shoulder
of his companion,
takes a lip-full of salt from that easiness.
And the butterflies of rumour start absconding:
flakes of hearsay, membranes
barely-there but pulsing
in their cornflower thousands
from their colony of notches
on the great pocked wall behind St Michael’s
their pigments spelling the future,
telling nothing whatever
will ever be the same again
in all the precincts of Catalonia.
They hesitate, hover amid the Saturday traffic
then in their pullulating spiral climb the air.
They skim level above the esplanade
and the Museum of National History,
above the two boys
billowing out, out over indolent shallows,
beyond the sleek, gleaming
sloops and schooners
until they’re only a blue plume vanishing
until they’re lost in a haze of heat and spray
then further fluttering further
as they ride the leisurely thermals
as they’re spooled across the teal
and lavender immensities,
their tenuous wing-spans breaching
horizon after horizon
straining to reach and reaching
a schedule of quaysides:
and workshy, terracotta harbours,
beaches that await their butterfly insistency,
On what more distant, yet more shimmering somewheres
will their tidings, their indigo gospel,
have settled on by morning?
/ Things No Longer There
Poor deleted Tarragona, our city of bonfires. Our city of casual drug use and vinyl that’s been consigned to the archive of snow.
What what what’s missing, what’s conspicuous by its absence from the main square and its tributaries: the future perfect or future continuous?
I can’t find that beautiful thing you asked me for. I can’t find my memory of making it.
When that device was triggered in Placa del Pi at first no one noticed anything. But then the different parts of speech began to shrivel and petrify, to disappear completely; interjections, measure words gone within a fortnight.
We’d open our mouths to utter them but nothing.
Shortly after that came the battalions, marching in ebony lockstep across a border we’d misplaced, had long ago forgotten ever existed.
They just appeared one Sunday in their expressionless squadrons, they appeared like chimes solidifying in their obsidian fatigues.
They occupied Jew Hill, the barracks, the Generality.
By then all the hard-edged abstract words had rotted, had grown incontinent and squelching, as the canker advanced with terminal facility from diamantine epidermis to pulpy interior.
No plums any more.
When they come they come in the pre-dawn to confiscate recollection, targeting random apartments in the sour-milk light, each wears a xxxxxxxxxxxxxx helmet.
No sausages. No tangled twisters. None of those lavender-remembering pears I’d bring in baskets for you every October.
They’re unscrewing the street signs on Patrick Street and Denny Street.
Your clean, cedar-hinting scent, your scent of xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx I can’t find my memory of xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
I wonder why they won’xxxxxxxxt or maybe can’t respect my memory.