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Kent Shaw on Martha Ronk

Transfer of Qualities, by Martha Ronk
(Omnidawn, 2013)


Oh, Martha Ronk. Great euphemizer of absences. Deliberator of might be. Or should be. Or was be. The impressionator. The instigator of micro-calamity. What is a book of poems by Martha Ronk but an elaborately woven blanket that will never actually protect you from the cold. My first introduction to Ronk was in Why Why Not, which everyone who I knew that read poetry was reading that year. These were glimpses into the lives of people who were in the middle of a bad relationship, and could only keep that bad relationship going. Of course they would, the poems seemed to say. That’s what bad relationships naturally do. Why? Why not? As one of many possible punctuations of that title might go.

So what is happening in Ronk’s new book, Transfer of Qualities? Try having a conflicted relationship with the objects around you. The kinds of objects you’re sentimental about. And also, try being optimistic that you could probably be having a better relationship with these objects if only they were a little more earnest about being present for the relationship. If only they knew how to fill in the absence you have asked them to fill in your life. Can’t the chartreuse glass bowl that makes the look of that one obsessively arranged room understand it has a place? In the poem, “A Glass Bowl,” someone moved the chartreuse bowl, and now the whole room feels like it’s swimming. Or how about the poem “Clothes in the Closet,” where the clothes won’t admit they’re never coming back into style? They’ll just keep reminding the speaker of the time in her life when she thought brocade might be a part of her future. Kind speaker, that future isn’t coming. Such is the fate, however, of these poems: to keep the “might be” of life an active “is.”

If this book sounds like an extended study on the pathetic fallacy, don’t move so fast. Yes, Ronk’s book appeals to objects, elicits every molecule of presence the objects might offer, then instantiates the chosen objects with a fully volitional consciousness. But that’s just her opening move. These are really poems about absence, and, in this case, absence as the conditional balance between physical absence and the claims sentimental attachment can make on our conscious life. In other words, inanimate object as companion. Which is so commonsensical and accepted, and thus unassuming as a premise, so that the pleasure in these poems comes from Ronk peeling back the sentiment we take for granted. Is it inappropriate for me to claim I love a coffee cup? What if I’ve had the coffee cup and used it consistently for twenty years? Love is likely too strong a word, of course. But what is the appropriate word? What does such a common object actually make me feel?

What is the Transfer of Qualities passed from object to person? As in, what qualities? How transfer? Ronk opts to think of objects the way we think of memories, which would make sense as objects are often present when we call up our most important memories. But then the question: What is a memory? Is it fair to treat a memory like an object? These are important questions to ask. Though Ronk will only mildly ask them. In “Corroded Metal,” the speaker obliquely answers when she refers to a “seeming eternity that objects want and have no way of requesting.” This fact of an object’s existence, how it exists in the present, would then imply it will have the same existence into the future. In the spirit of the pathetic fallacy, objects in Ronk’s book would seem so presumptuous to think they need not even ask for eternal existence. Which would be how an object is similar to a memory? When was the last time a memory asked permission to be forever lodged in your brain? What memory hasn’t seemed full of its own volition when calling itself to mind?    

I keep asking questions, because Ronk’s book compels me to question first my relationship to the objects around me, then my relationship with my own memories. And if I’m questioning my memories, wouldn’t I necessarily be questioning what, then, I use to construct my identity. This is not to say Ronk’s book pushes me to a point of existential crisis. Instead, I am given access to question why I would be subject to certain memories. Why there are times when those personally important memories feel as though they’re absent. In her poem, “The Familiar,” Ronk seems to be looking back at the young woman she was, and how she would meet that person if she were given the opportunity.

She said: someone gets under your skin, a counterpart, someone so close as to seem the one at the center of a mirror and staring back. What gets to you is this unexpectedness, its lack of category—although perhaps such a person is like the childhood friend you shared everything with, told everything to, the one you played the piano duet with and whose fingers you crossed over, whose voice you heard under the notes.

Who is the she in this poem? Who is the someone who is so close she could be “at the center of a mirror and staring back”? The poem is going to leave the actual pronouns ambiguous, allowing for a play between all these characters having actual correspondents from the speaker’s childhood. Or maybe each pronoun represents a reflexive role where the speaker gets to observe her life and the voice that was inside her life and the feeling to have your self talk to you all the while you’re experiencing your childhood life. How reassuring that is. “I could understand what had happened only as something painted and framed” the speaker claims later in the poem, as though her childhood had been made into an object she was observing, but also remembering. 

Such is the nature of Martha Ronk’s poetry, where complication is a process and a prism and a paean to the great intellectual wealth that is Greater Complication Awaiting You! There are other layers at work in Transfer of Qualities. For instance, Ronk writes poems about the mediating layer between objects and our experience of their reality. When we look at a photograph of objects are we any less aware of their presence? When we look out the window, how are we not aware of the effect of a window framing our perspective. How far can Ronk extend her metaphor of object for memory or memory for object? I implore you to read this book and find out.


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