Book Review

Martha Ronk’s A Myth of Ariadne examines our contemporary apathy toward war, casual violence, and one another by engaging with De Chirico’s proto-surreal painting series depicting the Cretan princess Ariadne. The poems provide a window into Ariadne’s inner life as she endures an endless, semi-conscious marble sleep. Her gauzy stone entrapment is our own. The poems are quietly evocative and strangely disjunctive, merging disparate stories and splicing timelines to show, in some way, that humans keep treading the same ground. Ronk unspools partial narratives and fragmented events that share themes and a certain melancholy tone, but she never reveals the entire picture in one place. By persisting through the sequence though, the reader gains an understanding of the fundamental truths that Ronk artfully probes—the truth that we knowingly turn away from atrocity and pain, even as we experience those realties ourselves and sometimes perpetuate them upon others; and the truth of the loneliness, aloneness, and shame that permeate the human condition.

In the book’s opening poem, “The Labyrinth,” Ronk writes, “she let the hero find his way with her thread / the ends of her knitting needles, her errancy. / Then she slept again in a deep blue color.” Much of Ariadne’s story is trapped between those first two lines. She lends Theseus her ball of thread and falls in love him; then he murders the Minotaur and retraces the maze, Ariadne’s lengths showing him the way. They flee before her father learns about what they’ve done, and by the third line in the first tercet, her abandonment is complete. The action—the finding, murdering, fleeing, and betraying are truncated into “her knitting needles, her errancy.” After her “deep blue” sleep, Ronk continues, “the locomotive noses into her open air bedroom / the sails of the ship flap off shore.” This poem isn’t named after one of De Chirico’s paintings, as numerous poems in the series are, but she writes him in by introducing a number of his main motifs: the impossible locomotive, the sails, and later, Ariadne’s “gauzy marble blouse.”

Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist, completed the Ariadne series in 1912 and 1913. In the paintings, he depicts Ariadne as a stone statue sleeping on a plinth in a piazza. The folds in her marble garment, her rounded uncovered breasts, and her horizontal, sleeping figure are contrasted by the geometry of the piazza and the exacting arches of the colonnade. Within and beyond the piazza, as Ronk writes in her preface, Ariadne is “threatened by intrusions of distant locomotives, ships, lengthening shadows, seeming conspirators.” The “conspirators” refer to the men in some of the paintings who meet in the distance, while Ariadne, immobile, defenseless, exposed, sleeps nearby. De Chirico’s paintings and their dualities—body versus machine, sleeping versus waking, light versus shadow, soft folds versus precise lines—infiltrate Ronk’s poems, along with a constant sense of menace.

Ronk’s adoption of De Chirico’s disjunctive techniques is exemplified in the poem,“The Lassitude of the Infinite c. 1913,” titled after one of his paintings. Ronk opens: “she used to think of the future but she’d slept so long / she could think only of the weight of her own knees,” and then “her sleep is like waking, she is listening to whatever is said.” Toward the end of that stanza Ronk continues “what is coming is always war, war against Thebes, / Afghanistan, and helicopters shot down over Hanoi.” Warping time, all these periods blend into one another and share a common thread: war. “At night she dreams the color of bruises, the sky she couldn’t look into / before the story made it what it was.” What Ariande hears seeps into her subconscious, just as the news and chaos of the world affects us in ways that we aren’t always aware of—sleeplessness, stress, diffused sadness. Ronk’s innovative, ekphrastic approach brings new relevance to Ariadne’s story and parallels her plight with our own.

The poems, at first glance, appear straightforward with numerous end-stopped lines, clear syntax, and regular punctuation. The complication and meaning-making are carried by her negotiation of image and deployment of repetition and symbol. Ronk repeats her key themes frequently within the series: shadows, arches that “suggest reason / until the documents are other than you suspect,” skin, time, sleep, light, dark, memory, newspapers “in the basement moldy and damp,” sails, thread, colors, and story. Ronk uses bodies in the poems to represent issues of safety and vulnerability, our animal-ness, and how we position ourselves in relation to one another and to ourselves, physically and emotionally. In “The idea of the body,” Ronk writes:

as they insist on the position of the body
in the corner, crouching and scratching.
She leans down and picks it up slowly, carefully,
and carries it into the room where they’ve gathered
and slips it between one person and another,
guiding it between them,
and she notices all the men have antlers
and she only manages to recover
by rearranging the idea of her body under the arcade
and in gathering up the edges of the shadow
as a cloak to cover her bare shoulders.

Ronk’s eerily compelling series suggests that “in general the hands of the clocks indicate a far less advanced hour / than the length of shadows would suggest.” We are less advanced than we believe, and perhaps the length of the shadows foretells some tragic, inevitable end to the human story due in part to our inability to see and to be present—something “so familiar to those of us engaged in mythology.” As a species we engage in mythology to live, an evolutionary coping mechanism. Conversely, the makers—the poets and painters—engage in mythology to lift the veil, however momentarily, between ourselves and reality, to show us what matters.

About the Reviewer

Tracy Zeman's first book, Empire, recently won the New Measure Poetry Prize from Free Verse Editions. Her poems and book reviews have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Kenyon Review, Denver Quarterly and others. She lives outside Detroit where she hikes and bird watches in all seasons.