Critics Page

Martha Ronk

I’m committed to the ways in which private and public concerns intersect in poetry, the ways in which they become (even awkwardly) parallel. I am teaching a course that combines poetry and printing; students are creating poems about the birds and the landscape at Occidental college, combining efforts at close observation of the “beauties of nature” and simultaneously of drought, invasive species, student efforts at reclamation of native plants. Seeing double. The final book project will include both images and poems referencing the native sage. 

My own current writing is influenced by the reading for the class (Silence of the Songbirds, The Hidden Life of Trees, Refuge, a packet of ecopoems, etc.) and hence by questions of ownership power, climate change, pesticides, connections among species. More frequent fears of personal fragility seem vividly, if erroneously, analogous to the anxiety and fragility of so much around me. The distress of news has drawn me to Donne’s deeply anxious and bracing work, and contrarily to poetry (and art) as realms of silence. Writing is necessarily engaged in stretches of silence, and my recent poems address multiple ideas of silence as both a block to speaking out and as meditative. I began with a series on Wallace Stevens’s line, “the blackbird whistling or just after,” contemplating the subtle infusions back and forth between a sound and its aftermath, and between moments, even decades, of time. What has unexpectedly developed are other poems on breathing: my own periods of being unable to breathe well, the loss of breath in smoggy Los Angeles, childhood asthma, the ways in which pesticides destroy the neurological systems of birds. (As a side note, I also practice ceramics, a practice of clay and dust, the need for masks.) The strangeness of poetry offers not only a new language in which to think, but I believe, a carved out space for needed contemplation, a slowdown of rushing, a chance to follow where a poem leads, so different from an argument or plot, an intelligent movement that can rearrange who one is, open up alternatives, provide much needed awe—I know this is personal and partly shared. I could fabricate an answer to “Why Poetry Now,” but having thought about this recently and often in the past, I realize that any answer could sound assured. Poetry seems, rather, so often close to failure or the absent, omitted, proffered.

Does this make sense?

The poetry I have often returned to reading is a poetry of parataxis or collage (C.D. Wright Deepstep Come Shining and also Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water) its inclusiveness, its ability to suggest the inclusive complexity of the world, its multiple perspectives, even voices. As people and poets we are often limited by our locations, backgrounds, ages, politics; we tend to read to match these limits. Often I wish I could just rearrange. Los Angeles is spread out, traffic jammed, and with rather few venues for poetry readings. Thus I am glad for access to the range of poetry in various journals, on-line, at conferences (although more variation would be better), on blogs, in reviews, and by the recommendations of friends: new poetry by Ilya Kaminsky, Forrest Gander, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Duy Doan, Geoffrey O’Brien, the novels Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, Balcony in the Forest, Julien Gracq, The White Road (a history of porcelain) by Edmund de Waal. I look forward to them all.


Martha Ronk

MARTHA RONK is the author of eleven poetry books, most recently Ocular Proof (focused on photography), Transfer of Qualities, and Vertigo.