Issue 114 |

Review: Selected Poems by Mary Ruefle


In his essay “Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness,” Tony Hoagland makes sense of current divisions among poets writing in the U.S. today by dividing them into camps that go to poetry either for some sort of perspective on experience—to feel a cathartic “gong of recognition”—or to untangle their sleepy mammal selves from the probable, humdrum, and therefore mundane (Hoagland calls this “the bong of disorientation”). Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems, just out from Wave Books, might suggest a third alternative.

Mary Ruefle is lauded mostly for her bizarre and often surrealistic images: “She brought the tombstone home / and stood at the kitchen sink, scrubbing it,” “Oh Myrtie” begins. Ruefle is also praised for her hyper-self-conscious, self-referential moves: “From my little apartment in Massachusetts / I notice and I care. God have mercy on me! / I would lie down and put a dagger in my heart / if I only knew how and where and why,” one of her speakers laments. Ruefle is also praised in certain circles for finding a hundred-thousand ways of accusing “the truth” of being “just this nipple exposed beneath the rag / puce with lava-milk” and “just this beef-stink in the studio, / the popped-out eyes of rotting salmon.” But Ruefle’s real knack, contribution, and perhaps even obsession is her penchant for making this accusation against truth (and the possibility of meaning and meaning-making in a vicious and futile world) so playful and whimsical and hilarious that a third or new kind of truth and meaning spreads out from the oeuvre like red wine on a white tablecloth.

Many of Ruefle’s poems are chunks of oratory addressed directly to the reader. This often startling breakdown of the fourth wall—“notice how I / talk to you just as if you were sitting in my lap / and not as if it were raining, not as if there were / a sheet of water between us or anything else”—locks her meditations into an immediacy of utterance that saves the poems from feeling too unstructured and fickle. Beyond the irony it produces, this use of a rhetorical frame frees Ruefle’s speakers to leap wildly, sometimes across great spans of space and time: “The baby’s screams were berserk, like a bird over / the ocean, but she grew strong and wed and left,” the speaker of “Argosy” announces. This surprising leap across the years is thrilling—it invigorates and energizes our sense of what is possible in the world. Also, in its outlandishness, it is oddly ferocious or headstrong and willful.

It would not be inaccurate, then, to call the speakers of Ruefle’s poems authorities, even when they’re muddled or uncertain, which they rarely are: Ruefle’s speakers muse in a very deliberate, declarative syntax in a lot of universalities, generalities, and absolutes, speaking often for all of us—“Ladies, life is no dream; Gentleman, it’s a brief folly” begins “The Pedant’s Discourse” and “I tell him the whole twentieth century / was basically a mistake” says the speaker of “Pontiac.” Such generalities create tones of great conviction, and these tones stabilize Ruefle’s poems even as she undermines them, which she does at every turn, as the imagination at work here is not only oppositional and contradictory-“so now I will / withdraw my interest in the whole external world / while I am in the noticing mode” one speaker says—but primarily opposing, contradictory, contrary-to-fact, and sometimes almost hysterically dialectical, uncovering “the volatile fact / of our hidden inertia” in one poem and “wheat and evil and insects and love” in another.

While the most obvious effect of being constantly in the midst of this kind of up-front contrariness and hyper-hypothetical thinking—“My mother died, / and in this fulfilled my lifelong wish to put bluebonnets / on a grave,” says the speaker of “Pressed for Details”—is to be invigorated and awakened by surprise, sometimes something more than just surprise happens when naked and tatted you look at the world and all the sad and slipshod people in it from the top bucket of a Ferris Wheel at twilight in some unnamed godforsaken country, as you do reading Ruefle’s Selected Poems.

That is, sometimes, a series of moves can add up to an utterance or articulation that can communicate emotionally—and maybe even wisely, as shocking as that idea might be—while disorienting and unsettling us, to return to Hoagland’s formulation. I think this is really what Pound meant when he said what he said about making it new. And I think it’s what most of us really want from poetry. Mary Ruefle’s Selected collects the best and brightest from her ten books. It is way worth checking out.