October 2008

Kelsey Osgood

fiction

Glass Grapes: And Other Stories by Martha Ronk

Reviewing Glass Grapes has put this reviewer in quite the proverbial predicament. In this version of the infamous story, though, David is a young female reviewer lacking in prestige and experience, while Goliath is a distinguished, doe-eyed poet who won the 2005 PEN USA award for poetry. This showdown may have a less climactic outcome, though, in that David isn’t looking for a battle of Biblical proportions. David thinks Goliath is pretty great, actually. David is a big fan of Goliath’s beautiful and unsettling poetry. David just thinks Goliath’s style doesn’t translate too well to longer forms.

One of Ronk’s earlier volumes of poetry is titled Vertigo. Overall it is a brilliant example of her ability to move gently throughout time and space. The pieces within are the sad children of hopeless elegies and delusional incantations. The past is the focal point, and it is portrayed as fixed and unchangeable, weighted in its material details, yet the narrator cannot refrain from milling over Freud’s “unlaid ghosts” in an attempt to end their haunting. Her narrators in Glass Grapes (there are many) are concerned with these ephemeral relics of the past as well, and go about the process of wrestling with them in just this way: by grasping on to the object of interest and allowing it to guide a languid journey through memory and thought and then back to the object. Ronk’s poetic devices work on a micro-level; her imagery is still as arresting, but the gorgeous minutiae are so light and “airy,” as one reviewer called them, that when expanded, they become so weightless that it leaves the reader feeling as if he or she has floated too high up and developed a wicked head rush due to lack of oxygen.

Or perhaps the reader may feel more seasick, rocking back and forth between softly-voiced declarations, unsure as to who is manning the ship. Consider part one, which is said to have a “similar narrator, albeit in different times in her obsessive life.” The voice is distinguishable as one only because of this cover blurb; without that, David, perhaps not as astute as another, but still relatively insightful, would not have guessed this was the case. Part of the problem is the use of word “obsessive,” which lights up neon yellow, the partner of which is PATHOLOGY. This narrator, if it really is just one person (similar? Does that mean two female narrators who are alike? Then what of the singular “her”?), seems a bit too frail to possess the fortitude necessary for obsession, rather calm in her gloom despite the occasional fainting episode and bout with eczema. She also frequently steps outside of herself to report what is happening in third person. Ronk’s knowledge of the nature of obsession, at this point, feels lacking, for the obsessive mind, convinced of its personal tropes, is inherently self-involved, rarely, if ever, able to dissociate.

The overall structure of the book doesn’t aid in settling the reader’s stomach as its foundation is precarious. The title and the cover blurb and most all of the chapter titles imply that the book is based around the idea of the “object.” Indeed, Ronk prefaces the book with a Joseph Cornell quote that reads, “Something obsessive about l’objet much too deep for anything rational possible.” Now, the lack of rationality is not the problem; indeed, it is expected, welcomed almost. But to soothe the audience by assuring them that there will be at least one point of reference and then base chapters around subjects as vague and immaterial as myopia and blue/green? Now we’re really out to sea.

A straightforward chronology isn’t necessary, nor is a clearly packaged theme. Ronk need not give up her dreamy wandering in circles for a clear and palatable Dickensian plotline. The problem is that she doesn’t choose one way or the other, and thus the entire work feels a bit unsure, the stories too close in tone and subject to make the whole book function as a treatise on fragmentation, too far in every other way to form a coherent narrative. It is this that amounts to a book-length case of altitude sickness or, perhaps more appropriately, vertigo.

Of course, David writes this humbly.

Glass Grapes: And Other Stories by Martha Ronk
BOA Editions
ISBN: 1934414131
216 Pages