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Bookstories 15: William Ramsey’s “Drinking the Wine”

libraryofbabelEvery book tells its story, but what of the other story, the story behind the book? Bookstories offers an opportunity to tell that story. If you have a story about a book or poem you would like to share, contact us and we’ll help you make it happen. Thanks for letting us know the rest of the story!


My two haiku books This Wine (Deep North Press, 2002) and More Wine (Red Moon Press, 2012) grew out of a strong need to tap into my spiritual core, something that a work career had long stifled with endlessly entangling, unhealthful ego attachments and overwork. Behind the making of both books was a group of devoted magazine and book editors that nurtured my learning of the haiku form—while collectively tutoring a fortunate generation of North Americans into how to write in an imported tradition.

Surprisingly, my experience in receiving rejection slips was hugely positive. Here was a corps of magazine editors that built me up with kindly explanations rather than exclude me with boilerplate rejection slips. Robert Spiess, editor of Modern Haiku magazine, over a period of years was so constructive in this that without having met him I dedicated to his memory This Wine. He practically weaned that book with magnificently insightful scribbling in the margins of my hastily composed, returned submissions. Back then it was quite usual to receive haiku rejections with substantive attention to craft matters that clearly I needed to know. The following haiku, from This Wine, benefited from such help by an editor who focused on only a single letter in the final word:

slave cemetery—
i scrape the moss to find
no name

It first appeared in 1995 in South by Southeast 27.1-2, then edited by Jim Kacian. As originally submitted, the haiku was different—it ended with the phrase “no names.” Why had I cast that final word in the plural? The slave cemetery that my wife and I visited had multiple gravestones that were roughly made with limited tools and resources (yet clearly made in respect for beloved individuals). Stained with mold or weathered into dullness, only a few had full names crudely chiseled on them; many had chipped-in initials or nothing at all. It was a tacit lesson in historical social oppression and the humanity of those wanting to remember loved ones. Accepting this poem, Jim wanted the terminal s to be dropped—a simple conversion of names to name. In so doing, he was getting the haiku to function dramatically as one “aha! moment,” not a half hour of field observations. Thus the revised haiku brings the reader face to face with one person, one lost name—the erasure of this marginalized person from collective memory. That is haiku’s power—sharply concentrated specificity directed to an exact, poignant moment.

Incidentally, the wine in my book titles refers to a central symbol in the Sufi Muslim tradition of mystical ecstatic verse. Rumi and Hafiz were the two early masters, and wine symbolized the God-lover’s intoxication from drinking in a love that shatters mere reason as it floods intuitive perception. In fact, Hafiz’s vision has been termed the doctrine of unreason.

That is what I was focusing on after the death of my infant son in 1987, which drove me to haiku writing in the 1990s. On the night of the day he died in surgery, my wife and I were reading in bed at 1 a.m., sleepless with unbelievable blasts of shock and grief. Trying to sleep, I was partly out when my wife nudged me into clarity around 1:12 a.m. Our baby’s swing, with its wind-up coiled spring, was clicking in his nursery. We went to his room astounded, but the swing had halted. When I tested the coil for any tension, there was none. It was so fully slack it could not have started the swing into motion for those seven clear clicks back and forth. Little in the laws of physics applied here. Although distinctly analytical, I was now considering that a loving soul might pause with us on its way to the Eternal. To this day, I am not one of those who doubt a loving deity for allowing bad things to happen to good people. I simply wonder.

Writing haiku became my way of attending to this realm of perception, this hunger for the meaningful moment. I found a classic moment in Basho’s frog pond haiku. Into what watery world is that frog diving? Basho was an intently focused Buddhist. His frog leaps out of our customary realm of transient illusion into a reality that always has been there, silently unseen behind appearances. In a perceptual shift, we awaken through a resonant water sound to the depth of the eternity previously overlooked.

In the haiku I wrote to end More Wine, wine is the symbol of such intuition:

each wave
cresting and vanishing—
more wine

Each wave, like my ephemeral ego existence, arises from the one, great sea to crest and then be reabsorbed in the source. How would I have started this haiku years earlier? I might have opened with a slack observation of “all the waves.” But that would ignore the one moment, a singular individual spirit as it experiences the existential brevity of physical life. In the haiku I did write, individual consciousness falls back into the divine ocean, from which it never has been separate and of which it always has been a part.

—William M. Ramsey

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. William,

    Thanks for your turn toward wonder and book story–and the reminder of an old friend we share in Rumi. I write early in the morning, in my office, and when what I am reading does not hasten me to a clear place in the soul, one of the books I reach for is More Wine.

    Thank you.
    Dan Schwerin

    1. Thanks, Dan. I have enjoyed your haiku as well.

      I no longer write haiku, having shifted to spiritual verse. But haiku’s potential for spiritual expression, as Basho and Issa especially showed me, had me in its grip for nearly 20 years. The haiku life can be a very good life, and it can follow one through life’s developmental stages.

      Your kind remarks I appreciate.

  2. Dear William,

    Thank you, and I am sorry to hear of the loss of your infant son in 1987. I am reading Barbara Crooker’s new book of poetry, SMALL RAIN (2014, purple flag press). In her poem, “February Second,” she writes about the loss of a child at birth, when “Time stopped forty years ago . . .” There is no such thing as “closure,” though time passes and life goes on. Her poems are honest and also beautiful. The way life is. Spring arrives again, the beauty of nature, good food, the people who love us. Faith and Mystery.

    * * *

    Barbara Crooker’s website is She writes longer poems, as you may know. She has also written about her mother and her grown son, who has autism.

    * * *

    Blessings, Ellen

    1. Thanks, Ellen.

      My wife and I found that only those who had suffered an equivalent loss knew fully what we were processing because they too gave voice to what it is, just as it really is.

      Both my wife and I felt no loss of faith by our disaster. The two are entwined.

  3. William,

    Thank you for this. Wine. The first book moved me so much and dovetailed with my own spiritual explorations around loss. I wrote a haibun, “What You Call Air,” with that narrative in heart.

    And I’ll second that notion of gratitude for rejections. I look carefully at every one, look for leads to (personal or literary and both) distillations. Distillation.



    1. PS Just now remembering that my deity was not so loving then; I believe the haibun is more bitter than its inspiration. A process for sure.

    2. Wow, I can’t believe someone has read THIS WINE, my first haiku book.

      Good luck with your Lyme disease, if you still have it. I have it too.

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