(WAVE Books, 2012)
“Rise up, Mrs. Oakley, you are not alone!” Mary Ruefle exclaims at the end of “County Fair,” a sad yet comic poem about a woman who loses in all seven categories of a baked goods competition. Mrs. Oakley’s muffins may not be standard, but neither is the mechanic from Düsseldorf who compares “great sex to Sacher Tortes.” Like Mrs. Oakley’s muffins, Mary Ruefle’s poems, albeit excellent, are neither standard nor “uniform in shape or color.” Nonetheless, a front-to-back reading of her Selected Poems reveals certain obsessions reiterated in the most surprising and inventive ways.
One of these obsessions involves how we locate possibilities for community in the face of estrangement and loneliness. If Mrs. Oakley is a persistent loser, she’s in good company with those whose voiced “thoughts / fall apart” when others think of them, which is arguably the case for most of us, a motley crew of failures frustrated by, among other things, our attempts to reach one another through gaps and slippages in language.
Throughout Selected Poems, Ruefle exploits those frustrations to ironic effect. “I need no mediator,” an unidentified persona states in “Transpontine,” for she is “drawn / toward a beaming uncertainty,” where “You are not yet dead, / I am already alone.” Perhaps some truths are too unbearable to share: “Don’t ask me that,” the persona repeats frequently in “Against the sky”; in “Thistle,” she admits, “you can talk to anyone about the weather / but only to your closest friends / can you mention the light.” One shouldn’t mistake such apprehension for being ungenerous. Rather, reticence seems a like a strategy for survival: in the final lines of “The Feast,” the persona says, “Let us burn and eat it all…Now there is nothing left, / and I will not share it with anyone.”
Thankfully, Ruefle shares her poems with the world. In an age where so many American poets sound interchangeable, Ruefle’s voice is distinctly her own. To describe it invites the strangest approximations: imagine Wislawa Szymborska dressed like John Ashberry; the humane yet deceptively sardonic vision of the former weaves seamlessly with the comic fragmentations of the latter to create textures that are as direct and heartfelt as they are maddeningly elusive. One reads Ruefle not only for the pleasures of the language but for what that language reveals through absence. Consider the marvelous ending to “Japanese Bloodgod”:
I buy blueberries for my sorrow
Like all things, it likes itself
It likes what it is made of
When I want to touch it
I fill the sink with hot water
and add a submarine.
In just six lines, three details are introduced, but the thing itself—the material essence of sorrow—remains unstated, in spite of a simile, which would, in an ordinary instance, concretize something unfamiliar through a comparison with something familiar. Here it estranges us further.
One could read Ruefle for the odd brilliance of her similes alone. In an early poem, “The Beautiful is Negative,” “Deer polish their antlers / on fruit trees, like a girl / polishing apples on her hair.” In “Perfect Reader,” a mid-period poem, the typically unidentified persona hugs a tree because the “papery / feel of its fucked-up beauty arouses me, lends my life / a certain gait, like the stout man walking to work / who sees a peony in his neighbor’s yard and thinks ah, / there is a subject of white interpolation.” The difference in these examples suggests the range of Ruefle’s artistry. One should not assume, however, that difference has much to do with dates of composition. Designations like “early” and “mid-period” mean less for a writer whose earliest poetry demonstrates full maturity. In fact, there often occur greater differences between the poems of one book and those of others. “Perfect Reader” begins: “I spend all day in my office, reading a poem / by Stevens, pretending I wrote it myself”; this echoes the opening of “Replica” from Ruefle’s first book: “You’ve wasted another evening / sitting with imaginary friends.”
As these examples demonstrate, imagination can be a sanctuary from loneliness, a theme that underpins “My Timid Eternity,” first published in 2007’s Indeed I was Pleased with the World. The poem begins with what appears to be a sincere declaration: “I am thinking how lonesome it will be in Heaven / with only George Washington and me there.” As the poem unfurls, the persona imagines the things she and Washington will do together, including the recitation of Beatitudes and the trying on of wigs. But in the final lines, she admits this is only a dream: “Heaven should not be full of worry / but if anyone knows more about it than this . . . you are more lonesome / than either the general or I.”
For Ruefle, one’s imaginative world, no matter how silly or comical it may seem when transcribed and observed by others, is clearly a serious business. Her poems are artful approximations of a mind hell-bent on play, not only for the sake of itself but for the beauty such wandering offers to the world.