Book Review

Martha Ronk’s Transfer of Qualities is an absorbing meditation on the physicality of objects and our intersubjectivity with them and other humans in the world. Ronk is obsessed with the textural presence of objects and the human as object, whether in photographs or in the dynamic spaces we share or once shared. “Nothing has an essence of its own, but is what it is only in relation to all that is around” she writes in “Talking to Things.” This merging is reflected in her form: the prose poems, often tightly woven with quotes from artists and philosophers, mine our uncanny encounters with the “other.”

Divided into three sections: “Objects,” “People,” and “Transferred Stories,” the book’s title is taken from the Henry James passage: “The liaison that betrays itself by the transfer of qualities…” While Ronk credits Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire, Francis Ponge and Virginia Woolf for influencing this work, Henry James’s ideas and style clearly inform Transfer of Qualities. The author of The Golden Bowl and The Sacred Font, James is the master of objets d’art in literature, and like his characters, Ronk’s speakers are avid collectors. Both writers seek to reveal the meaning of objects as well as their meaningful impact on people. Long Jamesian sentences predominate in the first section as Ronk attends to the “thing”: the coiled seashell, the unsent vintage postcard, the book—whether the liminal image in the making or the fictions we inhabit as we read. In “A Photographic Album,” the speaker meditates on a photograph missing from the album:

The photograph held a scene long gone, both now missing as is the experience of this tiny realm of experience, of turning the pages of a photographic album as the relatives in my family used to do through long winter afternoons as if there were no hurry at all, commenting on the old Buick, although not in recent years since most of them are dead or live so far away that, although they may still be doing such things, turning pages slowly as the couch sinks into collapsing springs, I no longer am witness. And the turning of any pages at all, they say, just a matter of time.

The object’s absence encompasses not just the missing experience, but experiences that we haven’t thought to miss. In this way, Ronk’s poems seek to instantiate our many losses just beyond the realm of our touch.

“A Concrete Crenellated Wall” (reminiscent of a scene from Kieslowski’s movie Blue) extends this existential dilemma as the speaker experiences the death of someone she loves and, in her grief, reaches for the wall as a tactile reminder of life:

Walking  next to it, I put my left hand on the ridges and watched the fingers ripple across the concrete as I made my way forward, “out of my mind” I would have said even then.  There was no way not to have reached out to whatever object the world presented to me at that moment.  Given my state, nothing circumscribed my being, nothing kept it from extending outward as if a dissolving melt.

A “dissolving melt” is an accurate description of Ronk’s successful weaving of quotes into her prose poems. In an interview, Ronk described her goal “to create a book in which prose poems, essays and non-fiction pieces transferred qualities with one another.” The poem “Photograms” is enriched with references to the photographic process in the 1800s, the artist Man Ray, quotes from the photographer Adam Fuss, and a concluding quote from Heidegger. The effect of such a collage is to bring everything to bear on the mysteriously beautiful photograms, and yet Ronk’s own lines may get lost:

The object links directly to the other object of one’s body that are objects in themselves and the glass itself is the glasses of the eyes, where when I looked into them after his accident were dull metal—so lacking in light I had to believe in the intangible soul that had, I couldn’t help but think, left the body an empty husk, the soul off on its purgatorial wanderings, so that damaged by contagion I could no longer look directly into anyone’s eyes.

These lines, and the reference to the eye-glassed accident victim who is not referred to again in the poem, convey the beauty of Ronk’s vision that both collages elements and is a collision in the strictest physical sense: each word is like a particle exerting force on all other parts.

The subject of intersubjectivity becomes more prominent in the last two sections. The trope of speakers being unable “to look directly” at others recurs in the longer prose pieces in “Transferred Fictions.” The people populating Ronk’s world are alienated from each other, and their motives and behaviors remain unclear to the speaker. In the final narrative “Posada,” the speaker investigates her own reasoning for taking up kung fu, then quitting suddenly after seventeen years. She comes to understand that through kung fu practice, “I came to know something about the importance and reassurance of the physical world. I think I came to see a bit more of how people stood not only how they said they stood.” Ultimately, how we stand, how we inhabit space and what we touch in this realm become Ronk’s preoccupations—with the final caveat that doing so is merely temporary.

About the Reviewer

Amy Pence authored the poetry collections Armor, Amour and The Decadent Lovely. She recently won the first annual Claire Keyes Poetry Award from Soundings East. She’s published interviews, reviews, and essays in The Conversant, The Rumpus, and The Writer’s Chronicle, among others. She teaches in Atlanta, Georgia.