Carter Ratcliff, Arrivederci Modernismo
(New York: Libellum, 2007)

by Jim Feast

Carter Ratcliff’s medium-length poem Arrivederci Modernismo, the reissue of a piece published in 1974, is a playful, lyrical, moody tour de force, which all hangs on one brilliant conceit. Paradoxically, it is the very device whose existence the author is at pains to deny in the afterword.

Let’s look at that afterword first. The subject of the poem, judging by the title, is Italian Modernism, or so it would seem. But Ratcliff says in his concluding note, “What does all this [his poem] have to do with modernism the historical phenomenon? You tell me. All I can say is that no one has any warrant for assuming that historical modernism and the Modernismo are one and the same.” Such a statement poses a problem. It hypostatizes historical modernism as a fixed entity, which writers may grasp and so write authoritatively about or which they may glance off, ignorantly or consciously ignoring its essence. A more post-modern stance would say that there is no such thing as an essential historical modernism. Rather, there is modernism as it has been created and recreated by legions of critics, commentators and original participants, who have constantly fought over its attributes. Arrivederci Modernismo is one contribution, neither more nor less important than the others, to the construction of modernism.

As I’ve suggested, the funny thing about Ratcliff’s seeming denial of this thought in his note is that the whole wit, panache and exuberance of Arrivederci Modernismo is based on an understanding of the concept of a literary movement as a collective labor. The point of the poem is to “send up” solemn pronouncements on the “true” meaning and history of the art, none of which can be definitive, by taking them literally and acting as if modernism could be easily identified and personified. Ratcliff has decided to bid farewell to this modernismo fellow, who is something like an annoying ex or sponging relative or, better, a boisterous Falstaff, who has to be resolutely set aside when one takes up one’s proper station in life.

The great charm of the poem is how, woven into the description of modernismo’s flightiness and fecklessness, are allusions to what are taken to be the usual attributes of modernism, such as its orientation toward cities. Ratcliff writes, “the mirrors the cities have become – mirrors of you – are too cluttered by the uncertain future to have found a place in your circularity.” Later, he adds, as gracefully, “The city is far away, like the future – raggedly unlived.” Modernism is also often considered a product of infinite hours of discussion in coffee shops. Ratcliff suggests so in “Arrivederci, café where I could always find you.”

At the same time, with the move to center stage of a much less earth-shaking, modest post-modern art, it seems modernism has become old hat, like the now unpopular restaurant to which an old aunt takes you to help her remember her glory days. Ratcliff looks back to his first days with modernismo, “I was a young man in a hurry then, and I’d noticed that the history we were making had gotten into a funny habit of passing us by.”

The few lines I have quoted should have indicated the evocative power of Ratcliff’s language and also what a joy the book is to read. To be fair to the final notes, let me add that they do not go all one way. In a passage where he skillfully lays out his ideas on personification, ones he seems to deny later, he says eloquently, “Concepts, too, have feelings. I’m not saying that a concept … is literally capable of emotions. What I mean is that there is an emotional tone to the understanding of such things.” This is the tone he exploits so happily in the body of his text.