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Her subject/his subject Martha Ronk

When I raise my arm I do not usually try to raise it (Wenn ich meinen Arm hebe, versuche ich meistens nichts, ihn zu heben).


Her subject is people in landscapes of estrangement; his subject is the landscape. You are never looking out the window he says to her. Here you are driving through the most beautiful section of the California coast, and you are talking to me about a novel you are reading, the words on the pages, the characters’ clothes. I am in the scotch broom, he says, and he seems to be as far as I can tell, and he is right I am not. It is everywhere on the side of the hill wherever the redwoods take a break and one ought to smell its sweet smell but all I can smell is eucalyptus and that’s what grows by my bedroom window at home.

We drive for hours. He thinks about the fog blowing in off the ocean; it drifts over the fields and over the road. One moment we can’t see the road, the next it is clear. Sometimes he is talking about his subject and sometimes not, but it is always what’s there. When we stop at a rest stop and look out over the view he knows how the gullies were formed, what the weather patterns will be, which ridges connect north and south.

To me the foggy blur over the tops of trees is a mental affair. You hold in your mind another time and live there in that other imagined time while the present time, new and raw in some way, presses for attention. But the other time is held like a fragile glass, transparent but up close in front of one’s face. This is a practice from childhood. It serves no purpose except to counter the insistence of present time and to block it a bit. I can’t remember when I haven’t done this. Being in two places at one time. This is my definition of a person, I say, as if I were saying something definitive and true. He thinks I’m trying to be clever.

It began, no doubt, as a protective device. That seems to make sense. But when you try to think of when it was that the other time became important, you can’t. It ought to have been a sharp pain that wrenched one time from another, made you opt out for good reason, but you can’t think of one. You can think of a year when you fell from the rotted tree in the side yard and broke your arm but the pain is merely a word, not even as vivid as the small scar. And anyhow, what would it be to think of a sharp pain which is not something most of us can do. All I can think of is someone large leaning over my hunched shoulders telling me to try, try she said, to sit still. The racing part of my body was still racing out the backdoor, into the back yard, and out into the street where it had been just moments before and I was trying. The idea of trying is what puts one in two places at once since the idea of trying also contains the idea of failing. I want to try, I want to know how to say to her in that time so long ago, but I have no way to think about what I am thinking and so I don’t.

He doesn’t have to try to drive but I do. I guess he is paying attention all right, but he isn’t trying. When I drive I have to try hard to pay attention, to keep to the road, to follow directions, to fend off the fear of getting lost. Nothing seems so bad as that fear of turning the wrong way or finding oneself broken down on the country road with only a dim light from a distant farmhouse. I am surrounded by darkness. I try to keep calm. I try to remind myself way ahead of time to keep calm if anything should happen. I get tired of trying even when everything goes smoothly and I clutch the steering wheel. Here I am I say to myself trying to get myself to watch the view as if it were an unnatural act, even though, one would suppose, it is the most natural thing in the world. Look at all those people doing it, she says to herself; surely you too can look out the window at the view. You too can admire the scenery. His subject, the landscape. Try it.


But even the ringing in her ears takes her away and even the effort of sitting still in the car for so long, even the book she tries to forget. Her novel is a novel in which the narrator becomes someone else momentarily. She loses herself in imagining herself a child and she imagines this so strongly that she begins to blurt things out, slurp the milk out of her cereal bowl, race in circles among the trees stomping in pools of shallow water. She makes no attempt to conform to the rules, this child, but neither does she break them; she simply moves through the world and does what comes to mind. What comes to mind is rather sing-songy and windy, hooting softly, gazing out and running far. The child stands in the side yard by the rotted tree. She takes off her red sweater and makes a cape. She fixes the buckle on her red shoe. She stares for hours at the view. Although she doesn’t at that time live anywhere near what one might call a view, no vistas or California coastlines, it doesn’t matter to her. She stands at the side of the road and looks down it. She doesn’t move. She sees a rock and she sees it up close for a long time. Her mother calls for her but she doesn’t come, not because she is trying to disobey, but because it just doesn’t occur to her to come.

Years later she sees an elaborately constructed miniature garden planted into the cleft of a great stone, the tiniest rock garden she’s ever seen with lichen, alpine plants of various sorts, saxifrages, gentians, pinks, penstemons and what looks to be a fold with a red dot in the center. The novel isn’t a great novel, perhaps it hasn’t yet been written, but it is what she is thinking about when he says again, look at the view and there are waves crashing against the boulders and melting down into waterfalls and crashing again. It is almost larger than she can stand and she’s back at the restaurant looking through her water glass. Through the crash of the waves, she hears him asking something.