In high school, I attended a local musical theater production. It was an original work, entitled Erika’s Wall, about a woman who falls in love with objects. Though the musical was intended to be a drama, my brother and I couldn’t stop ourselves from laughing at the melodrama of a woman getting caught by her lover singing, ever-so romantically, to her archery bow.
I’m not saying that I laughed at the sincerity of Martha Ronk’s new book Transfer of Qualities as I did watching that one (and only) production of Erika’s Wall. Yet that’s not to say that parts of her book didn’t call to mind that experience, if only because there’s just something unnatural about sincere odes to objects. It signifies not only second-rate theater productions, but reality shows about people with OCD who can’t bear to throw anything away.
So I had this in mind when I read the first part of her book comprised of short prose poems about cups and bowls and other banal household objects. At their worst, these prose poems come off as general statements, something out of a college creative writing exercise. Oftentimes, alternating between first and second person points of view, the objects become vessels through which Ronk attempts to apply meaning. Clothes in the closet are “painful reminders that they won’t ever fit, not so much because of the body’s vagaries, but because even parody is impotent against the time that time has become” (21) and corroded metal somehow comes to evoke “this time of seeming eternity that objects want and have no way of requesting, just as we have no way of guaranteeing either for them or for ourselves” (22). In the opening section, Ronk misfires for me when she attempts to prescribe meaning to objects that might mean nothing to us. The problem with blatantly prescribing meaning is that it incites a defensive response—does Ronk’s morbid feelings about the clothes in the closet hold true for everyone? So what, one might ask, if the window is “both a thing in itself and a transparency that obliterates itself by being itself” (24)?
She does better when she makes it personal, inquisitive, not trying to place meaning onto things but letting meaning come from questioning, from not knowing, from personal observation. Consider this beautiful opening line from “Branches”: “Is intimacy held tight in the gesture, the gap in the sky where branches cross, the crossing of branches, the small unholy sticks?” (26).
One of the recurrent themes in the book is the notion of objects as markers for time—be it time lost or time remembered or time missed (yes, there is a Proust reference). The opening epigraph, from Henry James, states, “The liason that betrays itself by the transfer of qualities,” and throughout the book Ronk explores the multitude of ways we create connections with objects, construct people as objects, and derive meaning from objects. But mostly, there is a grave sense of loss running throughout the text, which speaks to the gaping disconnect that occurs when we attempt to create solid things and solid meaning from other people and finally, ourselves—for who else are we creating meaning with when we engage with an inanimate object?
In the next couple sections, Ronk sets out in a more formal essay style reminiscent of something used by Maggie Nelson in her book, Bluets. Yet I found myself wanting to skim through them—many felt cold, abstract, held up by high-order ideas and not specific experience.
Just when I wanted to put Ronk’s book down, I got to the section People. Suddenly, the book becomes vibrant with personal anecdote. The shifts in perspective now make sense, as if we as people have become jumbled up with objects, no longer attached to notions of “I” or “you” or the universal “one.” The sections give off a sense of floating in that blank space created when the boundaries between human and object, physical world and spiritual world dissolve. There’s a beautiful paragraph about not recognizing a phone call from a presumed lover, ending with “You still imagine yourself standing in the kitchen slicing radishes, but you’ve been pushed out into the distance and are instead the figure, abstract and dismissible, on the other end of the phone line, and thus unable to recognize the voice that is so very familiar to you” (61).
Thinking of others as objects, or placing meaning on them, are merely ways to categorize our own loss, to keep them like a stamp in our stamp collection, alive only in our own rendering of them. In doing so, Ronk suggests, perhaps we become foreign even to ourselves.
The book—whether purposely or not—speaks to our relationship with objects today. Vinyl is in, and I find myself yearning to hold a physical book in my hand in repudiation of e-readers. Physical objects are markers of a different time. Spike Jonze’s film Her, about a man who falls in love with an operating system, is frighteningly brilliant not because it makes us condemn technology, but because it makes falling in love with it plausible and acceptable. It is a film that manages to be about technology without being at all about technology (but, what else?—love), which gets to the core of what tech companies are after: the idea that technology is so much a part of us that we begin to forget it’s even a physical object in the first place. In one scene, the screen goes dark and all we hear are two voices, one human, the other computer, though at this point what’s the difference?
In Ronk’s book, this blank space between objects and humans is similarly explored—in the last section, “Transferred Fictions”, the speaker’s body becomes a sort of physical machine (or object) through Kung-Fu practice. Yet, at the close of the book, the speaker gives us hope in our digitally saturated, jumbled up world; for humans always have the ability to choose, to act: “The [Kung-Fu] class allowed me to imagine I could stop time and fend off fear; now it allowed me to understand, with effort and after many years, that I could not. It was time to stop and so I did” (79).
Transfer of Qualities is available from Omnidawn
Joe Eichner recently graduated from Tulane University. He now lives and writes in Chicago.