Transfer of Qualities
Saturday, February 1st, 2014
I find myself wanting to tell you contradictory things about Martha Ronk’s Transfer of Qualities. Not because I am of mixed-mind about the book, but because, upon dwelling, contradictory forces show themselves to drive the work, unleashing its power. This might give you the impression that the work is chaotic, jagged, jutting out in disagreement with itself. Let me make clear that this is anything but the case. Transfer of Qualities is one of the most seamless books I have read in quite some time. Organized in three sections (“Objects,” “People,” “Transferred Stories”), this cross-genre book builds from the one-paragraph prose poem through longer forms of sequenced lyric meditations, and then, into 2-3-page personal narratives. Mirroring this arc of form, Ronk composes the first prose poem as a single, pronoun-less sentence that focuses on the most ordinary and simple of objects: the cup. She ends the book addressing the complex subject of the body as object, employing an I-based personal narrative that moves through the topics of time, practicing martial arts, and death. Throughout, the work maintains a continuity of voice, attention, and poetic prose form.
Thus: an arc from the simple to the complex. But, underneath, energizing the experience, the individual pieces of writing create and maintain their own recognizable motion of thought. The varieties of poetic prose—prose poem, lyric meditation, and short narrative—allow for distinct mental action even as sentences and paragraphs create an organic whole. And so here I am beginning to launch into contradiction as I try to develop a global view of the volume. It is a book that treats of the borders of things—objects, processes, people, and narratives—exploring the simultaneously bounded and unbounded condition of being. This is a beloved subject of poetry, but so rarely do we encounter the hard truths of this condition with the subtle tension created by Ronk’s blend of self-awareness and feeling-in to the gasp and draw of experience. Reading Transfer of Qualities lends us to experience, and so to understand, that although we are indeed permeable in the world and of the world—absorbing and transmitting the qualities around us—we are also, (and here is the hard truth), irrecoverably singular.
Even before entering the work, Ronk’s title and epigraph announce this ontological disposition. Henry James’s The Sacred Fount is the source of both the book’s title and her first epigraph: “The liaison that betrays itself by the transfer of qualities.” James’s novel considers the possibility of apprehending the intimate relationships of others by attending to shifts in physical and psychological traits between partners. As the novel opens an unnamed narrator muses over the fact that an acquaintance—a middle-aged woman—is almost unrecognizable because she suddenly appears much younger than her years while her husband, who is in fact quite young, now appears dreadfully old. From this and other such observations James’s narrator hypothesizes that secret liaisons can be detected by noticing shifts in acquaintances’ behaviors: a once-vivacious woman, now listless, must have lent her energy to her lover. Find the suddenly energetic man and you uncover their intimate secret. The novel, you should know, ends in deep ambivalence, inconclusive as to whether or not this theory carries any truth. We are left feeling that while the concept of such transfer of qualities may resonate as true to life, it is, however, highly unlikely that we can have knowledge of such transfer in the way James’s narrator proposes. Being, simply, is not that simple; the truths of others’ interior worlds not so known.
A charming blend of psychological analysis and detective work, the novel gets at the larger question of individual minds—a question that also catalyzes Ronk’s book and that is written out plainly, boldly, in William James’s The Principles of Psychology:
Each of these minds keeps its own thoughts to itself. There is no giving or bartering between them. No thought even comes into direct sight of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law. It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned. Neither contemporaneity, nor proximity in space, nor similarity of quality and content are able to fuse thoughts together which are sundered by this barrier of belonging to different personal minds. The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute breaches in nature (227).
Anyone who has paused here, in The Principles, compelled by this description as feeling true to experience, can attest to the loneliness of such “absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism.” The paused reader would not be to blame if she were sleepless with worry over whether or not we are locked into our own heads, whether or not empathy can be possible. Such a reader might then even understand the desire of The Sacred Fount’s narrator to see the internal worlds of his friends written on their bodies. And anyone who, after taking a deep breath, ventures on in The Principles may very well gasp again when they meet W. James’s assertion that even in one’s own stream of thought “no state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before” (230). Which means that not only is it impossible to pry into other minds, but it is not possible to keep company with an anchored version of one’s own.
Ronk’s Transfer, in conversation with this condition, accepts it as being’s necessity—but not as its limit. Plying around edges of self-and-object, self-and-self, self-and-other, Ronk shows us that while we cannot mind-read, we certainly and necessarily connect otherwise. As W. James ultimately saves us from isolation by the fact that sensation and physical encounter with the world are the source of thought, Ronk’s writing explores the way that “Each shift, each bend of one’s body, turns out to be related to the potency of objects” (“Talking to Things,” 47). Objects—which include both the concrete (bowls, jars, tiny seashells threaded on a sting), the abstract (lectures, absence, air) and the in-between (books, photographs, quotations)—anchor us to the world and transform us: “Nothing has an essence of its own, but is what it is only in relation to all that is around” (“Talking to Things,” 47).
Transfer of Qualities includes many such philosophically-tuned statements. Some are quotations from other texts (more Henry James as well as Baudelaire, Benjamin, Blanchot and others) and some are Ronk’s own meditative findings. The book begins, however, with a more elemental gesture, unfolding from the simplest of encounters:
The cup on the shelf above eyelevel, the reach to get it for the first morning glass of water, the running of the water now clear after the silty water yesterday, the large dragonfly drowning in the cup, now in the bottom of the sink, and the sudden understanding of the whirr that edged the room last night, the unlocatable whirr that stops and starts and finally falls still as the lights are put out and what is left is the neighborhood barking, unidentified sounds pushed to the edge of consciousness, the sudden storm in the middle somewhere, and the knowledge that there must be a reason for what is now silence, a reason lodged in the absent muted clatter, as in the sudden morning appearance of venational wings, each the size of a thumb, folded inside the cup from the top shelf.
The poem, descriptive, is not merely descriptive. Rather, it is a phenomenological articulation of the action of thought, of the mind, as it tracks its surroundings until it catches, eddies, and then flies off. All one sentence, the poem begins by listing the objects in the present field: the cup, the reach, the running of water, the dragonfly drowning. Ronk then moves us to the plane of thinking, of connection—a “sudden understanding”—linking the dragonfly in the bottom of the sink with the until-now-forgotten moment an “unlocatable whirr” “falls silent” in the night. The poem pauses here, eddying in the imagination of the world as it might be when one is at “the edge of consciousness,” then dives into metaphor (“the sudden storm in the middle somewhere”) and a quest for meaning, for “a reason for what is now silence.” Which is death (the drowned dragonfly) and the passing of time. All one paragraph, all once sentence, pronoun-less, deceptively simple, “The Cup” manages to map thought, to provide us with a model (a language-object) that bridges the gap between the mind of the reader and the mind of the author.
While neatly bound into a prose poem, “The Cup” creates motifs that are threaded—are transferred—throughout the remainder of the book. The first of two motifs that I’ll mention here is one of imagery, of hollowed-out vessels. Cups, bowls (celadon, cut-glass, chartreuse glass, glazed), tea bowls, Chinese jars, vases, seashells and canoes populate Transfer of Qualities as objects of contemplation and interaction. For example, in another poem several pages later, upon considering a glazed bowl Ronk tells us “it is no longer a prop for what went on in the awful heat wave that consumed the day we stood in the shop handing the small objects back and forth between us or the role it played at the diner when there were eight of us, glasses flung to the street to celebrate the New Year, a small piece of the theater on which the curtain is now drawn” (“The Glazed Bowl,” 17). In such passages—and by repeatedly handing us one type of hollow vessel after another—Ronk reveals presence’s absence as well as objects’ abilities to anchor flux, to catalyze memory while at the same time acting as tactile call to the singular present, replete with all of its differences to the past. Ronk’s objects remind us of what I can only say by calling again on William James: although the mind and the world is in flux, “What is got twice is the same OBJECT. We hear the same note over and over again; we see the same quality of green, or smell the same objective perfume, or experience the same species of pain” (231).
Ronk makes deft use of her passages of comparison,object against object, escalating the emotion of interacting with the anchor-object through the course of the book. In “The Glazed Bowl,” the emotion is nostalgic. By the time we arrive at “The Unfamiliar,” on page 59, Ronk has handed us many small objects. Now, she hands us the “object” of a former partner. She writes this 3-paged poem in the second person, and when she considers this encounter, first recognizing her former lover by “the back of his head several rows up, the tilt of his shoulder as he looks to the program,” I respond with the cold lump in my stomach that I have felt on my own similar occasions. Ronk then pushes further, showing why, exactly, such moments are not just awkward and regretful but also full of a deeper existential queasiness. It is not only a former lover that one encounters, or a former version of one’s life, but a former and now absent version of oneself:
When he phones you can’t recognize the voice in its then greeting, it spacing and turns of phrase. And then you realize it’s the voice you’ve overheard from the other room when you are the person slicing radishes in the kitchen and able to hand him a note reminding him to remind the person on the other end the exact date, whereas now you are the person on the other and have, in consequence, the same sort of unreality those others have always had for you […] (61).
The second motif that I locate in “The Cup,” so important throughout Transfer—is one of process. In this opening poem—and throughout the book, Ronk again and again reveals to her readers the process of physically engaging with the world, of charting the way thought arises from interactions with objects and people around us. As we have seen, the book begins with the simplest of conditions—a discrete prose-poem-sized moment of awareness. As the book progresses, Ronk builds to meditations on more complex objects such as the postcard, the photograph, the photogram and the book. In considering these objects—complex because they are both objects of representation and objects in and of themselves—Ronk extends the prose poem form into several-paged poems that unfold in meditative sequences. “Photograms,” for example, might be classed as a short lyric essay on ekphrasis. It spans 6 pages and allows for a study of individual photograms (paper clips, spoons, eyeglasses, shadows, petals) as well as meditative speculation on the nature of art: “Writing about the transfer of qualities between objects and people also works a kind of exchange as if the paper on which the words appear were like photographic paper, and as if the form of the prose poem dissolved more boundaries than between prose and poetry” (36).
By the end of Transfer the book turns to relationships between people and, so, employs a slightly more narrative form. Poems begin with phrases like “It was embarrassing; it was always embarrassing, the sense of having been there before” (“The Unfamiliar,” 59) and “I was listening to the radio interview with a woman who had written a book on her own autism” (“The Pressing Machine,” 74) and “For seventeen years I practiced kung fu” (“Posada,” 77)—and then launch into narratives that treat personal experience of topics such as love, loss, disability, and death. As with the poems in the beginning of the book, these later narratives work back and forth from physical objects of experience to mental objects of experience, showing us the action of mind that makes sense of the world by telling stories about encounters with the world. The themes of Ronk’s stories (which are the themes of all stories: love, loss), layer as we move from narrative to narrative. Although the details of Ronk’s stories cause them to feel singular and distinct, this layering allows for the qualities explored in previous narratives (for example, the former partner in “The Unfamiliar”) to transfer to encounters with others (in this particular case, to all encounters featuring a potentially romantic “he.”)
While the ideas and emotions that surface from Transfer of Qualities span a range of registers, this process of engagement and catalyst remains consistent, proposing that the way we make sense of simple physical objects threads through to the sense we make of the more complex. Not only does this motif create a tightly-woven book, it also argues for the fundamental importance of writing and reading. As Ronk’s encounter with a cup reveals the process of engaging life’s largest complexities, the way that we interact with the particular object we hold in our hands—her book—transfers into the way we encounter our lives.
James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt, 1890.
Have comments about this review? Send a Letter to the Editor