Transfer of Qualities

by Martha Ronk
Omnidawn Publishing, $17.95 (paper)

Part museum study, part lyric essay, Martha Ronk’s Transfer of Qualities is concerned with illusions of ownership and permanence, a useful inquiry in our age of comfortable material detritus. Ronk is a precise poet, and the collection opens with a series of prose poems dedicated to discrete objects handled so carefully that they seem to return our gaze. A gap in the sky between branches forms a “zigzag pattern across the ground, the one leafless twig glowing in the black half, the other darkly outlined in the white half, the way we are marked by our gestures.” While the poem ostensibly describes a meeting of lovers, it also suggests the bestowal of life in an impending divine touch. In the collection’s only lineated poem, ceramic containers are described as “handmade wrap-arounds for air.” These objects retain the marks of their creators; they pretend solidity yet bear witness to their own fragility. The collection temporarily falters in the didactic, prosy, and earnestly philosophical middle section, but it regains some of its virtuosity in a later series of portraits, including the stirring “Rauschenberg”: “The whole of the past may be longed for in its wholeness, but it only reappears in such fragments, reincarnated in the stoop of her shoulder as she leans over to talk to someone.” These poems remind us that Ronk is a gifted imagist and that her work is strongest when she allows those images to carry her thinking.