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Book Review Julie Doxsee

In a Landscape of Having to Repeat
Martha Ronk
Omnidawn Publishing, 2004 ($14.95)

As much as a photograph is a small, square façade encapsulating the time and space of an event, Martha Ronk’s sixth full-length book, In a Landscape of Having to Repeat, is a series of lyrical visions unfolding the everyday; a weave of approximations bringing to light the ethereal fixity of memory and language. In her effort to filter the history behind images generated by photography, film, and television, Ronk forms a gradual sensitivity to objects while at the same time enabling a sublime graduation from the modern memory’s screen-hypnotized habits. Ronk’s qualified awe for the TV schedule and for the film reminding her of a childhood haircut, though her relationship to these images grows in complexity with each repetition, includes an loose commentary about the effect of the passive gaze on memory, “…that deciding how the other must feel / and the image showing up directly on the screen.” In asking herself how memory would function without routine images, including the “picture” on the surface of the word itself, the poet creates a prosaic heightening of repetitive events that would otherwise be taken for granted or forgotten. The epigraph from Stanley Cavell is a fitting catalyst for Ronk’s amplification of “gone” routine: “The everyday is what we cannot but aspire to, since it appears to us as lost to us.”

Though less dense than Ronk’s earlier Eye Trouble (1998) and Why/Why Not (2003), the poems from the first section of In a Landscape of Having to Repeat navigate the presence of absence, insisting that rain is present even on a sunny day because at any moment we might access a mental image of grayness, wetness, weather. The buried memory of a childhood home is part of the future of self-perception because it exists, in the mental chasm, as experience. In the poem “In a Landscape of Having to Repeat” she writes,

The underlying cause is as absent as rain.
Yet one remembers rain even in its absence and an attendant quiet.
If illusion descends or the very word you’ve been looking for…
…When it is raining it is raining for all time and then it isn’t

Despite the danger of associating the everyday with boredom and forgetting, Ronk manages to dissolve these subjective extensions somewhere outside the world of the book; her trademark syntactic nuances create tonal diversity and force us to reconsider our own expectations in ways that are transgressive and often uncertain. While rejecting the way time and images tend to schedule daily experiences best left as approximations, Ronk rifles through art history and through her own history for useful ways of explaining how the quotidian varies with each repetition. For example, the poem “Trying” relies on a repetition of the signifier “trying,” yet is rhetorically imprecise; the “expanse of gray” allows for an inexact subject, as the word itself has multiple meanings.

Trying to find out what one thinks is approximate
at best, trying on one thing and then another
or trying to think of what to say
as in up the Oregon Coast or in a fine spray of mist.
Trying is not something anyone can do, he says
so we go for a walk in the fog as it happens
a coincidence not to do with trying.
The morning’s simply overcast for the third day in a row.
Anyone can add the blue of a distant sea.
Anyone can color in the sky.
But the expanse of gray extends beyond what else there is to say.

There is no exertion here; the poems are as day-dreamy and effortless as routine, while familiar words and images transcend ordinary terrain in favor of Ronk’s hypnotic sublimity. That is, the sublime, which for Ronk is a kind of urgent attention to beauty and the recognition of beauty via language, emerges as repetition and as a tenuous kind of attention to images – either linguistic or actual. Alongside the recognition of gray areas, precision itself becomes a repetition, a reminder of scheduled time. For example, in “The Approximate Form of Beauty” she writes:

You taste like grass, he said.
It was precisely 2:45
A quarter of an hour becomes an arc, a repeated habit, the fixity of
        fixed ideas.

And in “(Donne, Meditation IV),” grass returns to balance the lack of fixity within questioning:

…what bit of haze in the ear were you
looking for, eyes left and in a tis-true
sort of scatter, sunk so low,
apologetic to the universe writ large
who’d even devote a momentary cry when
even a dog knows his grass recovers him.

The “repeat” for Ronk becomes a way to preserve time, to locate lessons from the past in a poetic future more delicate, in many cases, than the dreams and screens from which they stem. In the first section, Ronk blurs beauty so that it haunts the space of memory, re-evaluating time before it haunts again. For the poet, beauty is an investment, both in life and in art. Using Eva Hesse as a culminating subject, Ronk seems to emphasize the tension between time and art and how each has an element, like beauty, that is consuming and, often, encompassing.

The second section of In a landscape of having to repeat, “In the Vicinity,” relocates the everyday as a series of dreams in the vicinity of objects. Films, childhood craft projects, dreams, and photos are records of perception and can be turned off and on with regularity while “[time is] brought down to size, framed and re-colored.” This series of prose poems, again, presents the everyday as a set of appearances recovered from an uncertain, but ironically fruitful, void. Her objective approximations approach familiar conceptual vicinities such as 7-Eleven, Honda, and PBS, yet each commercial signifier is soaked in surreal narrative “seeing” so that the signs become almost unrecognizable. In the poem “Near the Art Gallery” she writes,

Near the plate glass windows near the art gallery, I saw a man walking about aimlessly. He went hither and thither. He held his fingers in a rectangle in front of his eyes and thereby came to know what he knew.

In “Screen Memory,” Ronk quotes Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life; “The indifferent memories of childhood owe their existence to a process of displacement…” as way to support her assessment that “[t]he movie screen obliterates memory. We are lost in the eternal present.” For the poet, art replaces history in the sense that artifice may be regulated mechanically the same way memories are brought about by thinking, then are secluded again by less immediate forms of perception: “When you click on the remote the whole picture comes alive, disappears, comes back, and history is a present moment in which we float.”

The third and final section of the book, a long poem, was originally published as the chapbook Quotidian. To close the poetic landscape, Ronk conjures memory through archiving a list of segments about the intangible familiarity of time and distance.

Birds and coffee. What can indefinite mean.
He says ritual has taken over history.
It has altered anything we might think to say…

…I keep thinking it must be solid as if what I thought about
didn’t count.
Then I thought about how I had spent the day trying to
read about dissolution
and how it had taken the whole day.

The achievement of Ronk’s new book has to do with its rhetorical opaqueness in a world of memory indistinguishable from influential rituals. Reflexive approximations are recorded in the landscape of the book while the book itself is a record of time-free slippages as they appear in the realm of the daily. For Ronk, the risk of forgetting everyday beauty is as dangerous as the possible permanence in the notion of “gone.”