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Displeasures of the Table

Martha Ronk

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Martha Ronk
Displeasures of the Table
Series No.: 023
ISBN: 1-892295-44-X, Pages: 132
American Literature, Fiction

Poet Martha Ronk notes that it is not so much that she finds food displeasurable, but that she finds the sitting at the table unpleasant. Food, moreover, is associated with roles that many woman question. Accordingly, the very process of writing about it becomes a sort of dialogue between society and between eating and reading, "a wrestling with dough or syntax, being at the table or under it." Ronk's startlingly fresh and often comic wrestling with food is a remarkable tour de force as she takes the reader through lemons, frozen hotdogs, oranges, raw eggs, artichokes, basil, red pepper strips, snails, rice, tortillas, milktoast, cottage cheese, and many other products of the kitchen.

Author of State of Mind, Eyetrouble, Desert Geometries and other works, Ronk lives in Los Angeles, where she also teaches at Occidental College. Robert Haas has written of her work: "The impulse of a lot of contemporary experimental poetry, of the postmodernists, is to abrade language, to roughen it, to make you look twice rather than to look though it as if it were clear glass. It demands reading, and reminds me of what Toni Morrison is reported to have said when Oprah Winfrey asked her what she'd tell readers who complained that they had to go over her sentences three or four times. Morrison said: ‘I’d tell them it's called reading, honey.’ ...You will have your fractured, postmodern Renaissance summer moon [in this work], and it seems right for Southern California."

Book Review(s)

GASTRONOMICA (Winter 2006)

by Denise Roig

If it's true that how one feels about eating is how one feels about life, then it would seem that Martha Ronk has led a somewhat bare and brittle existence. The Los Angeles poet confesses on page one of her compact and quirky food memoir: "I don't sit well and what character I have is restless if not melancholy. I don't much like eating or cooking either for that matter."

But we're supposed to not quite trust Ronk's declaration of asceticism: it is so absolute. And then there are all those enticing titles in the table of contents—beautiful soup, a Dagwood sandwich, bread for dessert. Maybe she does like eating, maybe she does enjoy being alive. And to be fair, Ronk hits foodies where it hurts when she writes, "Lately food has taken on such self-importance and such imported self-importance that again I want to leave tucked elbows and tucked napkins behind and tear through the streets faster and faster, vanishing into thin air." The writer is a poet, after all, and in Displeasures of the Table, Ronk throws words and edibles—whatever's in the fridge—into the blender and turns up the power. She's after nothing less than the answer to the question, What is it we want to eat?

Along the way we meet goose liver paté ("too palpitating, too overwrought"), bread ("A good thing to serve because you don't have to bake it or sift it or measure it"), and baked potato ("I like it, a single mound on a plate, brown and wrinkled"). We begin to taste the Protestant starchiness of a middle-American childhood: "At my house no one spoke of politics, sex or food," Ronk tells us in "Spinach and Self-reliance." She's fond of spinach because "no one seems to have any stories about it."

Ronk's single-page stories aren't always easy to follow. In one called "Christmas cookies" she begins in Australia, cuts to baking cookies, does a little riff on adjectives, moves back to cookies ("clearly too rich and gooey"), and ends up with Hemingway. All in three hundred words.

Still, there is a satisfying progression in Displeasures of the Table. So distrustful of nostalgia at the outset, so suspicious of her own tenderness, Ronk moves gradually into deeper, more personal territory, and with images that reveal her gifts as a poet. In "Zucchini and Mint," one of the last pieces, she writes: "People turn transparent. I feel the dinner hour as if you can see directly into those sitting across the table. The guests are blown glass figurines for sale on Olvera Street, twisted and fragile: a dragon with wings, a horse, a ballerina on point." One eventually finds great pleasure at her table.

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