I KNEW MARY RUEFLE was going to be a poet before I read a single line she’d ever written. We all knew. Bennington College, 1970-something — spring, it probably was. Mary and I were both undergraduates (she was ahead of me by a year or two) and part of a group of like minds who loved poetry but who were mostly too busy — some of us — with more earthly concerns like getting laid or figuring out if we were bisexual or gay. Mary, it seemed to me, had a shameless way of being in the world best exemplified by the fact that she simply said things nobody else thought about. “You’ve lengthened,” she exclaimed upon seeing me after a school break one year.
Of course, Mary had — though nobody would have known what to call it then — a literary presence, meaning she was serious in a way that had nothing to do with being in college. She may have been (and probably was) the most talented writer on campus; I also remember most of us secretly thinking we were all at Bennington for something other than an education because of how hard it was to be accepted there. Or, because of our allegiance to a particular tribe (the elite class, the artists, the nerds). Whatever it was, many of us were in the awkward position of having to actually learn more than we already knew.
In truth, I didn’t know Mary Ruefle very well, but I wanted her attention (I was a little too afraid of her to want to really know her). I didn’t know her well because even at a place like Bennington (with only around 400 full-time students in those days), there were circles of people that never joined the other circles of other people to make the circles larger. I admired Mary because of poetry, because she wanted to do something beautiful, because she was something special in an already special place. And even if I didn’t know my own heart completely as a poet or writer, I certainly saw it in someone else, which gave me pleasure and hope — the same way her Selected Poems has done for me all these many years later.
Though this book is somewhat of an event, Wave Books wrapped it the way Wave likes to wrap all of their books: in a generic eggshell colored cover only giving the title and its author. “Mary Ruefle” on one line, and “Selected Poems” under that — no image or typeface to suggest in any way what’s inside. They decided to run all the poems together from Ruefle’s books instead of breaking them up according to publication history (though they are still arranged by the years in which they were written). The order gives the sense — or rather, adds to the sense — of the force of the cumulative in Mary’s work, which is that whenever I read one of the poems, the narrative and the image gather meaning as they fall to the bottom of the page. They are poems that are sparkling with life and don’t stand still for very long; many of them are written in an idiosyncratic voice which is mysterious, sly, very funny, ambiguous and, at times, surprisingly pious.
The structure of a Ruefle poem varies, but settles most of the time into a single stanza of varying length, which gives the important impression that everything in the poem is happening at the same time and could be held that way in the psyche. “We live in the mind,” Wallace Stevens said — an idea Ruefle bears out with an exquisite stretch across art and geography in “The Intended”:
One wants so many things …
One wants simply, said the lady,
to sit on the bank and throw stones
while another wishes he were standing
in the Victoria and Albert Museum
looking at Hiroshige’s Waterfall:
one would be able to paint
like that, and Hiroshige wishes
he could create himself out of the
Yuro sea spray in Mino province where
a girl under the Yuro waterfall wants
to die, not quite sure who her person is,
but that the water falls like a sheet of tin
and another day’s thrown in the sieve;
one can barely see the cherry blossoms
pinned up in little buns like the white hair
of an old woman who was intended for this hour,
the hour intended to sit simply on the bank
at the end of a long life, throwing stones,
each one hitting the water with the tick of
a hairpin falling in front of a mirror.
Desire and painting, dying too soon, time examined, time slowed down and then that extraordinary moment at the end: cinematic evidence of “this hour” and its emotional meaning to locate the thing — shocking, almost — which supports it. The poem ends around an emblem of order, of order relinquished — a hairpin falling — and the word tick: falling into italics to give it its tick sound. So delicate that it becomes in a beat, momentous.
In her poem “Replica,” Ruefle paints another scene around being here by not being here that goes back, in part, to Keats and negative capability: that transcendent impulse to live in the uncertainty or mystery of being human without resorting to explain it, coupled with the power to inhabit things and ideas (an act of faith, but with more of the occult in it). Here’s the beginning of the poem:
You’ve wasted another evening
sitting with imaginary friends,
discussing the simplest possible
arrangement of an iris.
The sky, too, like a delicate dress
streaked with beach, has been thrown away.
Once you wanted to be someone else
or another thing altogether: an iris in April,
or its pistil, just that, a prayer so small
it was only rumored. What can it matter?
You know now your own life doesn’t belong to you,
the way a child defects into his childhood
to discover it isn’t his after all.
There are two Rilkean echoes here which recall his sense of requiem: “Once you wanted to be someone else” and “[…] into his childhood / to discover it isn’t his after all.” A variation on a James Wright variation on a line by Rilke echo, too: “You’ve wasted another evening” (Rilke’s famous “you must change your life” which James Wright turned into “I have wasted my life”). Everything that happens in “Replica” is an act of an undeterred imagination, and if one were to track the ideas in these kinds of poems, one would still not be able to arrive at any sense of motif. Too many things keep happening. As soon as you’ve landed somewhere, Ruefle is already on to something else. When Dickinson suggested “tell it slant,” she was also saying look somewhere else, and Ruefle is always looking somewhere else. What makes her so different from her contemporaries is how the central power of the poems comes from an encounter with the imagination and not so much with any a ha! moment about reality:
They were aesthetes, which means
I was forced to eat a hard peach,
commissioned to paint a twelve-foot abstraction
based on watching host cells collaborate
in bacterial infection, and at night
chewed the soles of their mukluks
till they were soft again.
If I ventured outside the igloo
and saw a celebrity,
I felt so inferior
I wanted to die.
To conceal my envy
I was given dark glasses.
(“Among the Musk Ox People”)
Mary Ruefle never left Bennington (she still lives in the town) and became, like Emily Dickinson, an artist of wild daring emerged from a place that remained constant. In Ruefle’s “My Emily Dickinson” essay from her completely remarkable and innovative book of lectures, Madness, Rack and Honey — a competitive tug, perhaps, on Susan Howe’s book of the same title — she calls on her Dickinson as someone who “possessed Language, and because of it – not for it, but because of it – she died, and did not simply decease.” Possessing language and possessed by language is the revelation that governs many of the Selected Poems, and the poet keeps taking that language as far out on the bridge of faith as it will go, even into a kind of afterlife:
I lived like a god.
My thin back walking out the door,
my heart of mayonnaise.
I put halos on heads
and they cursed me.
Even the posh deserve names.
It’s not the first mention of God in the Selected Poems; there is, actually, a kind of religion (would it be fair, though, to surmise that Ruefle has probably read the Bible as a supreme fiction?) that arises in the work (“A Picture of Christ.” “Heaven on Earth,” “Mercy,” “The Beginnings of Idleness in Assisi” are some of the titles). For a poet as innovative and iconoclastic as she is, Ruefle has a reverence for the world that can be surprisingly devout:
Here and there, between trees,
Cows lie down in the forest
In the midafternoon
As though sleep were an idea
for which they were willing
Death and its currents among the living is a vital subject for Ruefle — particularly in “The Passing of Time,” which parcels out the almost flat language of grief to more accurately intuit what it looks like in a scene of domesticity:
My mother has been dead six months
when my father remembers, as if for
the first time, that she is dead
and pads out across his deck
to lower the flag to half-mast.
Seeing that it already hangs midway
on the pole (snapping at the wind,
collapsed in damp heat, as if it were
her hair) he is startled and asks
Who died? I say Mother and after a while
he says Ah! Then let it fly a little longer.
The “pads out” jumps away (landing perfectly) from the narrative. But the poem is still made from one clear tone, even with the straight-ahead-ness of a story that simply tells what happens, with nothing more ornate than a flag attached to it. We get two surprises: the parenthetical “snapping at the wind, / collapsed in damp heat, as if it were / her hair,” and Ruefle (or somebody like her) in the room in the end (the land of the living), where she suddenly materializes, like Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane rolling his wheelchair out of the shadows into the sunlight. “Who died? I say Mother and after a while/he says Ah!” is a revelation not only for the father, but for us, too, because the question is answered, the way it is at the theater, in real time.
There’s a YouTube video of Mary Ruefle reading in Berkeley where she says she feels honored to be in the city of ideas, that she’s never been to the city of ideas, that she hopes she has written something suitable. But Ruefle is the Poet Laureate of the City of Ideas — surreal and lyrical and deeply moving at the same time. Perhaps, in some private joke, Ruefle felt redundant in that place, and couldn’t see where or who she was. But she is also, in the end, a maker of fables — a fabulist. I mean that as high praise if the fable is to mean the literary form that includes almost everything you can possibly think of — animals (real and imagined), the natural world, everything you’ve ever read, magic, found objects — and turns them into something connected and contained enough to thrive in one stanza.
Mary’s fables generally begin with a real thesis and an imagined one:
Late that night it rained so hard the world
Seemed flattened for good.
But the grocer knew the earth had a big gut
and could hold more than enough.
(“The Tragic Drama of Joy”)
This is the story of why my shoes
lie in a row at the bottom of my closet.
In the state of Virginia, on the North American
continent, there was a wasp.
(Can you hear Wallace Stevens and “I placed a jar in Tennessee, / And round it was upon a hill?”) It’s the consciousness of the poem itself that a Mary Ruefle poem defends, more than, say, any technical skill she exercises to bring that subject into focus. This is why the poems are almost immediately recognizable, not only as something she has written (as with any great poet, nobody sounds like her), but one out of which she has written herself through the use of the “I” — particularly when that “I” begins the poem. The “I” is almost always bigger than mere self, and not completely reliable. Consider the following, all first lines: “I walk into the restaurant, a genetic legacy” (“Tilapia”); “I’m sorry to say it, but fucking/is nothing […]” (“Merengue”); “I laid my happiness in a field” (“My Happiness”). Or the obvious “I was born in a hospital. I stank.” (“Nice Hands”) or probably not true: “I was a failure as a gingerbread maker” (“Critique of Little Errors”).
She is also one of the only living poets I know who makes magical thinking an actual strategy in the making of poems (Lynn Emanuel — another Bennington graduate — does this too, to some degree). Her intelligence and playfulness engage with a shared reality, but she also thinks hard enough about something out of range until it’s true. She brings the world to her, and not vice versa. The poems aren’t slight or in any way occasional even when they appear that way because of their strong documentary feel and a dialectic she stands on its head. Her argument is with the argument. Here’s the end of a poem called “The Cart”:
The world might be in agony, but I don’t think so.
Somewhere a woman is swathed in black veils
and smiling too. It might be the eve of her baptism,
the day after her son hit a pole.
How can she signal her acceptance of life?
What if a hummingbird enters her mouth? I hate
the thought, whizzing by in red clothes.
Yet I admire its gloves. Hands are unbearably beautiful.
They hold on to things. They let things go.
Like many poems, “The Cart” reads like a spell in a fable and like a prayer, too. Ruefle embraces both the idea of negative capability and duende — that knowledge that poems hold the meaning of both living and dying at the same time:
One day you wake up
and your life is over.
But it doesn’t mean
you have to die.
(“From Here to Eternity”)
In her introduction to Madness, Rack and Honey, Ruefle says: “I am a writer and writing is my natural act, more natural than speaking.” In the same Berkeley YouTube video, she says during a rare moment of looking up from the poems: “I apologize for not having much to say about these poems. They’re all based on things that happened to me.” It’s a kind of joke, I like to think, she is telling to herself. Everybody knows, we live in the mind.