Book Review

In her 2007 book, The Silence of Songbirds, Bridget Stutchbury shares that caged canaries were taken to coal mines to test for the presence of carbon monoxide in the 1800s. If carbon monoxide was present, the canaries would pass out or potentially die long before the miners felt the effects of the gas. Stutchbury states that the loss of consciousness was due to the canaries’ greater sensitivity to the environment—their hearts beat nearly ten times as fast as ours and the canaries take in far more breaths than we do per minute—which provided us with a silent warning to an environmental hazard.

The silent absence of birds also warned us in the twentieth century of the toxic use of DDT. As Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.” Imagine: Marlowe’s, “Melodious birds sing Madrigals,” and then no longer.

The presence and silent absence of Carson’s “beauty of bird song,” among other silences, figures in Martha Ronk’s Silences—an ambitious poetic project that explores, observes and steadies itself in the understanding of silence found in paintings, photographs, ruins, ecological settings, and philosophical inquiry. It is a difficult project—as soon as some certainty seems within grasp, it flees, and the only firm truth is the certitude of endless questions remaining. As Ronk writes in “Of Tomorrow the Mind Does Not As-Yet Know”: “if we light a match in the forest it’s not to see / but to uncover how much more darkness is around.”

Ronk’s twelfth book of poetry nudges at the edges of silence, drawing out its paradoxes and definitions. It presents a tension as well for the reader: If silence is total absence, an obliteration, how is “nothingness” described? How does one chart the contours of something commonly associated in negative? How does one describe an entity—an entire space—with devices that inherently upset it in the process? And why does silence seem to beget more questions than answers it offers? Martha Ronk traces these questions along these very imbricated edges of silence—an effort that shows a skillful attention to the gaps, breaks, afterimages, and porous borders that define and obscure the concept.

Despite the apparent paradox, a poetic exploration of silence need not be a study in cognitive dissonance. In We Begin in Gladness, Craig Morgan Teicher explains the complementary roles of silence and poetry: “Poetry seeks to fill the silence to which most poets have a heightened sensitivity. A certain amount of loneliness—an awareness of the unsayable—is a precondition for poetry, or for much poetry.” He goes on to state, “The hidden subject of all poems is the silence that surrounds them. . . .” Within the book, Ronk is comfortable inhabiting this silence and employs these poems as a means to enter it.

To create this artistic space, she sets the terms of the project in “Afterimage”: “I use afterimage in preference to aporia as a governing term, / however, precisely because such holes are “filled”—not in kind / but in substance—with the vestiges afterimages reliably conjure.” Afterimages—the ghost-like traces that remain after the original visual has vanished, are an organic entities and not simply pure reflections of the original. This sense of afterimage becomes a way of marking silence for Ronk as seen in the second section, “Arcata California: Silence and Fog,” where she elaborates:

Silence isn’t an opposite. It’s a thing in itself on which blackbirds,
whining truck wheels, and undefined voices scrawl shapes like the profiles
coming up behind eyelids, an unfamiliar/familiar succession of faces from
oblique angles, one into another but never quite gone.

We are correctly positioned: this is not an opposite, but its own entity. It contains preceding traces, like afterimages, as she writes in “Of Tomorrow the Mind Does Not As-Yet Know”: “the silence after isn’t the same as the silence before, / it’s circumscribed by remnants of sound”

After aerating the potential paradox inherent within silence, Ronk explores it freely. To give silence structure, or make an attempt at it, she braces the collection with the first poem, “The Shape of Silence,” and concludes the book with, “Silences, Edges of.” These two poems provide the feel of the poet grappling with the subject of silence, and by the final poem, how that effort has changed her. In some ways, these poems are afterimages of each other, the final poem undergoing as “Afterimage,” describes “a transformation / of sorts, and yet it retains within it a trace (or several traces) / of its origins.”

In the first poem, Ronk initially traffics in certainties, providing the outlines of silence. It begins conclusively—”The shape of silence takes color from a long boat carved from one log”—but then drifts:

a color never encountered but close in its eddies to the various blues
of Caribbean waters in a country clearly named but impossible to
paddle days and nights to, slightly curved near the prow and bowsprit
yet from considerable distance a bend straightening towards a line
parallel to the horizon . . .

The “shape” described is entirely elusive, as the nearly-unpunctuated poem weaves and pivots from one potential meaning to another. The only certainty the reader is provided is the heft of the fourteen lines and the declaration of “communal certitude of silence.” which ends the poem with its only use of punctuation, a period implying closure.

Yet the concluding poem of the book, “Silence, Edges of,” seems to indicate a speaker who has been changed by the process and exploration of silence. The poem begins with a question: “Where’s the nervy edge of silence, where the slippery here, / an idea I had of failure’s plentitude and a room I had to be alone in / and there was no such thing.” It ends, not with a statement, but with another question: “what if it’s never said to someone else, / and if the book is closed is there no one?” This seems appropriate, to end in afterimage—from conclusivity to porous ambiguity, leaving the reader to navigate an open system found by the exploration of silence.

Ronk considers the silence of birdsong in several instances in the book, both as an understanding of say, the silent pause after a warbler’s call, but also as a Carson-esque question: What is the sound of that silence when the birds are driven into extinction, and perhaps, ourselves? Here is where Ronk ties in our present ecological crisis, in “Now Here, Now Not”: “its forests, marshes, lagoons shrinking to patches, / invasions of oil and plastic, chemical pile up, nerves shaking, / eerie silence where we may never hear paralytic songbirds in a field / and in Delhi no more trees I’ve never been to.”

Elsewhere there is some flexing of lyrical muscles not seen in the other poems, alliteration mimicking bird-call, until the poem pivots and asks a when-not-if question from “Property”:

billions offshore, percolated, pretended
the profitable poison of carbon dioxide, ozone, and methane,
as high-flown sounds fade and slip out and around us:
to whom do they belong these birds sounding their directional language
unknown, unlabeled, belonging to the as-yet unpropertied air.

Throughout the book, a contemplative mode of silence is teased out in ekphrastic poems concerning Rothko, Magritte, Van Gogh and de Chirico. Some of the most urgent ekphrasis, though, comes from observations in the stillness present in photography. Ronk describes, “in the far distance a rubber raft crammed low in the water, / two men drag themselves after days at sea,” which comes from “Photographs of Refugees,” descriptions of the photographs by conflict photographer, Giles Duley, who chronicled the plight of refugees landing on shore in 2015 after they fled war in Syria and Afghanistan. Ronk asks: “the photographer writes he’s only a witness to the surge, / Idomeni 2015— . . . what is witnessing, as if in and out / in and out of the sea, in a distant room unable to pull away.” In the silence between the art object and the description, there is a paralyzing inability to act, but also an inability to look away.

This sense of paralysis is also seen in “Photo of Mediterranean Refugees,” which describes another similar photo: “without a future, without a past, one of the two women / caught with a foot in the air, just walking away. . . .” Like Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,” the two subjects are locked in time. Though unlike the Keats example, where consolation is offered in perpetual love and fairness for the Lover, the refugees in the photograph are locked perpetually in no definite space, without a homeland as the, “foot in the air,” suggests.

Once we begin to carve our way into silence, its scale staggers. As Ronk bravely provides illumination of this concept through ekphrastic poetry and the sound and silence of birds, there is a realization that many inevitable questions are left unresolved.

Grappling with totality, some have said that the best way to appreciate a Rothko is to stand next to it, nearly nose-to-canvas, and then slowly walk away from the painting until the color field completely consumes one’s field of vision, as “Rothko’s streak of black paint crosses from left to right / halted by the frame on either side” from “Aftermath.” It’s not until one is surrounded by the immensity of the work that its scale and meditative properties reveal themselves.

Ronk’s Silences resists easy categorization, and the same sense of Rothko-esque scale applies. Silences is beautifully, maddeningly elusive and offers more questions to the reader than answers it could ever provide. Reading it though, like bathing in the color-field of a Rothko, yields a contemplative, transcendent experience that simultaneously challenges and nourishes. It is empty in its fullness, full in its emptiness, and in that totality, it finds its power.

About the Reviewer

Dan Varley's essays and reviews have appeared in Mockingbird and Colorado Review. He is developing a book of poems. He lives in Brooklyn and received his BA in English literature from Bowdoin College.