Transfer of Qualities by Martha Ronk
Omnidawn, 2013; 79 pp
Reviewed by Karissa Morton
If Martha Ronk’s Transfer of Qualities was an object, it’d be one with arms, palms, maybe even fingernails. It’d have the kinds of appendages a reader blindly trusts to lead her into an unfamiliar world—one where liminality is king, where people, places, and things are constantly engaged in exchanges both playful and vicious. The central thesis of Ronk’s hybrid-genre text is that the boundaries between person and person, person and object, object and object are constantly in flux, each having a profound impact on one another. In this world of transference, it makes perfect sense that Ronk’s investigtation refuses to rely on the conventions of only one genre, instead drawing from the realms of poetry, prose, and the first-person essay, and folding them all together into one remarkably cohesive and emotionally-jarring book.
“How firm the wooden top of the table, / how tined the fork, and how vaporous human drama seems next / to these material objects, despite its ability to alter one’s relation to / such objects entirely,” she writes in “The Unfamiliar,” prompting the reader to consider if the material trumps the non-material in terms of “realness.” Do our abstract feelings of desire and grief pale in comparison to the concrete existences of a glass bowl, a seashell, a paper crown? Or should we consider what it may mean to be impacted by the glass bowl: empty, the seashell: nostalgic, the paper crown: glorious?
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes of the intimacy of the house, calling it full of “the real beginnings of images,” the things that teach us a lesson in “the non-I that protects the I.” He wonders if all “inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home,” and here, Ronk asks similar questions—do our forks and knives forever hold traces of exes who’ve used them? When we desperately appeal to a photo or a shot glass, are the essences of those things somehow changed by our interactions with them?
We define bowls and plates, pitches and vases as “fragile,” but aren’t we fragile, too? Doesn’t our skin, our hair, our clothing, drape over bones like a muslin cloth over an old sofa? “You hate yourself when the object that defines you, or at least you / think it does, is lost or broken. It makes perfect sense: you are the / one who is lost and it’s your own fault,” Ronk explains. In swiftly imbuing everything with a soul and all the agency that goes along with it, Transfer of Qualities never casts the reader out of its wise embrace: yes, you are special, it says, but so is everything else.