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Five Objects

“One dies at the thought that any object to which one is attached is lost, and in this mortal fear one also feels that this object is nothing, an interchangeable sign, an empty occasion.”


You enter the room in which each item has been carefully placed, not perfectly or according to any specific aesthetic rules, but by whim, one’s idiosyncratic sense that a certain item belongs here or exactly there, next to the other. It is not that they both are green, although many bowls and cups in the room are green, and not because they are a muddy black, but because of placement. The verbena sticks up just the way you thought it would out of that skinny copper vase set at the edge of a table you bought years ago when the main street was still a street of junk shops and panhandlers. It could be painted the German helper said as he carried it to my car. Someone has come in the room and moved the chartreuse glass vase, a vase so chartreuse as to seem ill and suddenly the room itself begins to swim. The vase floats in a wobbly arc into the foreground as the rest of the room dims and you feel intimate with its sickly surface, glazed over by this insignificant displacement that couldn’t really be called a displacement but by someone as peculiar as you are forced at the moment to see yourself to be. 


Looking at the folded muslin it seemed as if the cloth had reached across the distance to make contact with one’s skin; not so much, then, as if one’s own gaze had moved out into the world, but rather as if the visible had imposed itself, reached out uncannily and seized some part of where you yourself fold, an eyelid wrinkled shut, an elbow creasing. Unable then to make it into object “out there,” onto which shape and size and even meaning can be imposed, one loses the power to name. Such intimacy leaves one bereft of the language necessary to understand it, as it shapes itself to our bodies like the sheets of ghosts or lovers, as when the drape of a storm that has not yet arrived stills the air, puts a slight damp across the brow and under the arms, undoes even the little one knows of science and leaves one utterly invaded, as expunged as the object in the landscape. 


The seashell disintegrates into your hand, one now with the palm—slippery, whitened, powdery. With a needle and thread endless hours were spent collecting the spiral shells in a bucket, sitting with spindly legs folded under, head bent over, a necklace forming shell by tiny shell. In a 1949 film Olivia De Havilland sits at an embroidery screen poking it again and again with a needle. She seems to think of nothing else as the frantic knocking continues at the front door. Lost utterly in the summer heat, untold hours were given over to making these fragile necklaces, to scraping open the small holes that almost every other time cracked the shell into shards, bits of shell sticking to fingers and skin, falling into the sand and disappearing in the atomized whiteness, only to begin again, to recapture the sense of inarticulate shine that was the needle, the single shell, the blinding reflection off the sand and sea, the obliteration of time. 


The cup on the shelf above eyelevel, the reach to get it for the first morning glass of water, the running of the water now clear after the silty water yesterday, the large dragonfly drowning in the cup, now in the bottom of the sink, and the sudden understanding of the whirr that edged the cabin last night despite the absence of any large insects from the bulbs, the unlocatable whirr that stops and starts and finally falls still as the lights are put out and what is left is the neighborhood barking, unidentified sounds pushed to the edge of consciousness, the sudden storm in the middle somewhere, and the knowledge that there must be a reason for what is now silence but not silence as the muted clatter remains in its not being there, as the sudden morning appearance of venational wings, each the size of a thumb, folded inside the cup from the top shelf. 


One turns against oneself at the thought that the intimate object to which one is attached is lost. It makes perfect sense, it is oneself that is lost and it is one’s own doing, having left the object somewhere, put it in the stranger’s room, for where else but in the room of a stranger would one leave it, inadvertent, turning oneself into the enemy who has been so careless with that which one cares for so passionately. Self hatred thus ensues. But worse perhaps is the damage one carelessly inflicts on the intimate object, breaking it into a thousand bits, the portrait glass shattered on the floor, the beloved’s face without a protective cover, the photographic paper nicked by the shards, and it’s not only the having done it that one must live with—one’s own arm thrown too quickly and too near the table top—but the haunting and intimate presence now of the imperfect object.

Martha Ronk is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently a book on photographs, Ocular Proof. Her Transfer of Qualities was longlisted for the National Book Award and named an NPR notable book in 2013 (both Omnidawn). Vertigo (Coffee House), influenced by W. G. Sebald’s work of the same name, was selected for the 2007 National Poetry Series. Her forthcoming book from Omnidawn is Silences.