Friday, August 01, 2008

 

There is an exactness, both of vision and execution, in Martha Ronk’s Vertigo that literally alters your sense of perception, as if after months or years you’d put on new glasses through which the world instantly snapped into a newer, sharper focus. She is the kind of poet who is willing to risk perfection, often I think a foolish gamble but never once so here. There are moments in this book where she comes ridiculously close to achieving just that.

In a way, it’s doubly interesting to come on Vertigo right after reading Geoffrey G. O’Brien, since Ronk also reflects some influence on the part of John Ashbery, but in her case the presence & impact is quite different – it’s as tho you’re getting to see where Ashbery’s patented logic might lead, say, a century hence. A good example might be this poem, from the first of the book’s three sections. Note that the quotation marks are part of the title itself:

“It seemed similar to choice, although in an adjacent register”


Ferns and jewelweed fanning the air too slowly for the coming shift
as if the package as yet unwrapped had already arrived
in another time zone, the desert hot and dry.
Anticipation veiled what could be seen from the window.
We remained seated for about a quarter of an hour
counting the number of trees in order to put off the inevitable,
in order to see the effect the change would have before it happened
giving up what perhaps needn’t have been given up,
selecting pain as one of the necessary elements,
not to lessen its effect, but to notice the precise moment of selection.

A poem like this is very careful in not naming whatever it might be about. The word it in fact is easily the most important term, yet only in its last – and possessive – occurrence can we even say exactly what it is. What we get instead, as with so many third-way poets – Vertigo was selected for the National Poetry Series by C.D. Wright & includes front-matter blurbs from Donald Revell & Cole Swensen – is what I sometimes think of as the new symbolism. At its best, and Vertigo certainly is that, such poetry plays on the reader’s emotions with extraordinary impact, scenes that reek of loss, ennui or despair, such as the way the desert landscape here is associated with a pain one might choose.

Yet exactly which pain is that? If I have any hesitation here, it’s the same one I have with most of the new symbolism, that it tends to occur almost entirely at the limit of naming and typically in the frame of a certain class. Where, for example, does the following poem take place?

“Whenever she speaks to him in that voice, an infrequent enough occurrence”


What’s the difference between trying to lift an arm and lifting an arm,
between desire and that other thing. I’m glad to hear you’re coming.
I am glad to hear you think you’re coming despite the fact
she does take up the entire conversation, expressive as her dress
coming off in colors near the edge of every year she’s ever been in.
Yet she talks during the entire playing of the cello piece
displacing it into what she wants us to hear and into the silence
written on her when she takes on your voice at dinner
when you’ll arrive and now she speaks out of her beautifully disjointed face,
out of her hair wet from the pond, never in the voice she came in with.
When he lost his hearing, he heard only the cello’s low notes
and what he heard changed his way of hearing the piece forever.

This poem is full of terrific small effects – the way the ear picks up the pun in coming, a word repeated three times, the ambiguous gender of you, or the far more mysterious presence of he in the final couplet, which teeters on the razor-thin border between profound & profoundly obvious.

Ronk is really good & I’m impressed by how many times in this slender book¹ she not only takes risks like that last one, but manages to pull them off. There are no false notes anywhere. She’s a poet I’ve been vaguely aware of for some time – she’s had seven earlier books, plus three chaps, over the past 18 years – but maybe I needed the nudge of C.D. Wright on this volume to get me to pay closer attention. I’ve learned over the past quarter century that C.D. is one of the smartest people in poetry, indeed one of the smartest people period. I’ve benefited from C.D.’s advice on who to read more than once, and I owe her again for making this book happen.

 

¹ It uses the blurbs as well as both notes & acknowledgements to puff it up above 70 pages.

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