Photo by Marcel Shain

By Martha Ronk

On the other hand, take a book, and you will find it offering, opening itself. It is this openness of the book which I find so moving. A book is not shut in by its contours, is not walled up as in a fortress. It asks nothing better than to exist outside itself, or to let you exist in it. In short, the extraordinary fact in the case of a book is the falling away of the barriers between you and it. You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside. – George Poulet, Criticism and the Experience of Interiority

The word in the sentence has been smudged, the ink blotted, the paper overfolded, the meaning derailed; the sentence now pale, missing its force and import, languishing as the characters in La Boheme, sickly as music without its words. The others, the ones intact, try to make up for the missing word and proliferate a range of meanings consistent with the vocabulary and syntax, yet still it is the realm of guesses, guesses as to the missing, as to the alteration in meaning, as to the endless possibilities contained in what would otherwise have been a quite mundane sentence leading to the next in the paragraph, but which now has taken over completely given the aggressive force of the uninvited guest.

For a writer, the intimacy of the image is in submitting completely to what one has imagined and put on the page, to oneself one might say and yet not oneself, an onanism without guilt, the subsuming embrace of an image abstract enough as not to flush the skin, yet vivid enough to cause a collapse into the lilies as if trying to remember the names of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, although one never can, just the overwhelming smell of them at the side of the greenhouse door—so much white odor, dusty stamens, the moment of her modest rapture as she saw him appear in the archway with the single flower, the ceiling a complex mosaic of blue and stars, ave gratia plena dominus tecum.

Intimacy in its purest form seems most often encountered in writing, and yet one must recognize the ways in which one is necessarily pulled from the actual possibilities for intimacy, the eyes that catch yours, the peculiar angle of a hip, the trading of quips as if one could never get enough salt under the tongue, into an secondary form of intimacy on the page that nonetheless during the time of involvement seems to be more profound than any other encounter. Such profundity is undercut, however, often and repeatedly, during the time spent in this linguistic solitude by a random pass by a mirror as, unable to concentrate, one paces the room first to this side and then that, catching a glimpse of a person one would never want to have on intimate terms.

The book lies open and prone as it disappears even as the snow in the alps I’ll never see but in the film of the monks of the Grande Chartreuse. It keeps closing as a fan if the body beneath shifts position from side to side. Its pages are without obvious texture yet the feel of them is just enough to remind one where one is. The paper is there; the fingers are there. Yet immersion in one of these things is not an encounter with the thing resting on one’s lap. It is a tyranny of sorts, a take-over, a haunting into the next hours as a character whom one has never met comes closer, not inhabiting exactly, not taking over thoughts and gestures, but warmer than a fictional character ought to be, walking in an internal landscape where it seems to be snowing a kind of snow closer to paper confetti than rain and far more familiar.

What one is seeking is the loss of oneself, not in the sense of terror or anxious concern, but in the sense of being seized out of oneself and therefore fully oneself as one sees or hears most profoundly with obliterated eyes and ears, and it is often by the juxtaposition in writing of the abstract with the specific that such seizure occurs. No matter if the image seems exactly fitting or to come astonishingly out of nowhere, it wrests one; and for one split second, it is what is, and the trajectory forward is halted. It runs athwart time, not in actuality, of course, but in the structure of the piece itself and one locates one’s absence with erotic relief.

It is useful to sit on if you’re small; the side to side squirm on top of a large-sized book slides into one’s adult mind. Someone says to put a dictionary under foot while working at the computer. It is useless for looking up words—the print is miniscule, the on-line OED more efficient. Oversized have a special roped off section in the library stacks; they are heavy to lift, to take home, to use. Often beautiful, with drawings of orioles and beetles, camellias and vein lines, these oversized are also awkward to hold. Their spread requires the expanse of a library table. The power of uselessness spreads itself across this surface into the feathers of the Audubon wingspread into the moldy but preternaturally extended afternoon—it seems to go on and on—reminiscent of a far earlier era.

(“The book” appears here today with permission from the poet.)

Martha Ronk has published 8 books of poetry, most recently Vertigo, a National Poetry Series selection 2008. Her forthcoming book Partially Kept is forthcoming from Night Boat books; she also has published a selection of fiction: Glass Grapes and other stories from BOA Editions 2008. She teaches Shakespeare and creative writing at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Editor’s Note: Part contemplation, part meditation, part manifesto, today’s poem considers the world of the word, the sentence, and the book. Here we have a body constructed upon the bone structure of Language poetry, shrouded in prose form and driven by syntax, sharing its spine like a Siamese twin with the idea of the book. Dense with ideas and littered with intimacy, eroticism, and nature in all her reproductive glory, journey through the mind of the poet with today’s exploration of “The book.”

A Note About the Omnidawn Series: Recently I attended a reading of Omnidawn-published poets at New York’s Poets House. The evening was filled with incredible talent and a palpable dedication to the craft of poetry that I wanted to share with you. I am honored that Omnidawn was willing to partner with me for this series, and am thankful to the poets who have agreed to share their work here so that I may help spread the word both about Omnidawn Publishing and about the talented writers they support.

Want to see more by and about Martha Ronk?
Buy In a landscape of having to repeat from Omnidawn Publishing
Poetry Daily
“In a landscape of having to repeat” via the Poetry Foundation


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