Edward Ragg’s debut collection, A Force That Takes (2013), won the 2012 Cinnamon Press Poetry Award. His second volume, Holding Unfailing (2017), charted the transformations of a resurgent mainland China. Exploring Rights strikes new ground, exploratory and questioning of our roles and ethical choices, in a poetry that defiantly and playfully confronts ‘post-truth’ culture and the prospects of humankind’s survival.
The Price of Convenience
A crisp minus eight this Beijing morning,
changing lanes tattooed with skid marks
that paint an oily patina on subversive terrain.
Pavement fragments under girths
of idling concrete trucks. Everything
sits on the precipice of buckling
under its own pretext, steam billowing
from manholes that dot the lie of this
construction site’s unimaginable depths.
I touch the accelerator and the obedient
bonnet speeds off assuming car-shaped
jets of a unique vapour. As if I really was
the first aviator, falling in love with clouds.
Recalling all the air miles and flights
I’ve actually survived… And who is
funding this extravagance you,
rightly, ask? The giants of literature.
Pausing to reflect on a commuter’s life
and where the last fifteen years
irrevocably went behind the wheel.
Conceiving the life-toppling absurdity
of reciting this poem’s first steps sifted
from streets flecked with carbon-fibre and spit.
The price of convenience is detection,
the analyst said and is correct, since,
now we’ve gone and written down
the whole sorry story, a confessional
of unimaginable subterranean depths,
smarting at the latest linguistic shift
when the news anchors joined
the military by identifying assets
on the ground, aerial or maritime,
now I have returned to the correct exit,
aligning myself with precision and grace,
what is this, conveniently, if not a final word?
This is a complex and intently-reasoned collection which addresses historic and contemporary issues with unflinching attention. There is mordant wit, formidable energy, and a relish for analysis of various appetites. A prevailing and chilling concentration is sustained throughout. These poems witness the urgency of recording and understanding our past and present human darknesses.
Exploring Rights could not be more timely but is not only that: this book has the sustaining resonance of true works of art. This is formidably intelligent yet also tender and approachable poetry — a poetry of care, linguistic brio, philosophical range, sharp assessment, and occasionally savage indignation. Ragg modulates expertly between dispassionate attention and impassioned song. In Ragg — an Auden for our moment — delicate lyricism and discursive command co-exist. Exploring Rights registers our modernity and its human (and more-than-human) challenges, from Europe to China to the US to the Arctic. Ragg is a varied maker — a wizard of sampled documents, archival materials, legalese, spam, bots. Ranging from Catullus to Himmler to our era of surveillance, Ragg’s many-tongued verse shimmers with a complex intellectual and sensual music. Ragg tests his art on the most difficult yet urgent question: how and whether to pursue 'the luxury of the poem' in these days.
Maureen N. McLane