This spring, I came across Martha Ronk’s In a Landscape of Having to Repeat. I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick up on her work, but there is something in this collection that speaks to what feels like the best instincts in contemporary experimental poetry. The poems themselves are—by and large—neatly contained tableaux infusing observations of quotidian materials with deep emotional current. Owing to the modesty of the world described in each poem, the dramatic conceit feels genuine. This sense of authenticity is underscored by the fact that the work approaches prose: most of the lines are end-stopped, and there are few formal stanza arrangements. The poems trade the creative tensions of the line break for the unidirectional momentum of mental list-making.
The trade-off seems like a big gamble—it might seem too big, except that there are so many other content surprises and formal variations. In particular, the disrupted syntax makes these tableaux read like overheard bits of consciousness, intermittent radio transmissions. Take “Photography Loves Banal Objects,” which begins with the sentence, “Being away being more vivid than not,” its subject implied. Elsewhere, Ronk deploys fragments and associative leaps to great effect, as in “The Approximate Form of Beauty.”
The approximate time is 11:42 and your time is up.
The relative motion of two objects moved.
Proximity is neither like nor not like.
A camellia in a glass bowl like the one yesterday.
In these poems, a bit of remembered conversation or trivia from yesterday or decades past could form a sturdy component of the present inquiry. In other words, for the poem to faithfully represent a thought process, to illuminate a problem, the poem must incorporate lapses, since a sequential approach promises information overload (not to mention—for the reader—deadly boredom). These creative disruptions are predicated on formal rupture. This may not be new information to the contemporary reader of poetry, but it is nice to be reminded of the continuing validity of the description of the surf provided by Tennyson that still reads like revelation for the construction of poetry: “Break, break, break.”