Mary Ruefle is the kind of poet who can make Tupperware seem transcendent. Here’s the beginning of her ten-line rapture ‘Peridot’, which compares a rotting lime to a semi-precious gemstone:
I awoke in an ecstasy.
The sky was the colour of a cut lime
that had sat in the refrigerator
in a plastic container
for thirty-two days.
American poets have never tired of the wonders of refrigeration. Ever since William Carlos Williams pilfered plums from the icebox there have been songs in praise of fridges and their contents – and why shouldn’t there be? Ruefle’s poems make the most of such wonders. In ‘Love Story’ from The Book (Wave, £21), her new collection of prose pieces, the speaker describes a winter in which she made a daily pilgrimage to observe a ‘stick of frozen butter’ through the window of a shanty belonging to ice fishermen. The butter, never used, remains a mystery to both speaker and reader. Nothing else happens, and then spring arrives. ‘In a typical poem,’ Ruefle writes of her work in ‘Self-Criticism’ (2016), ‘a woman is sitting alone doing absolutely nothing. She notices a fly crawling across the table and strikes up a conversation with him. Something terribly dramatic happens, and the poem ends.’ This is fairly accurate, except that terribly dramatic things don’t often occur in Ruefle’s poetry – or not things we would usually consider dramatic. ‘I am a glorifier,’ Ruefle writes:
And I glorify everything I see,
everything I can think of. I want ordinary men and women,
brushing their teeth, to feel the ocean in their mouth.
I am going to glorify the sink with the toothpaste spat in it.
Ruefle was born in 1952 and had a peripatetic upbringing as the daughter of a military officer. These days, perhaps unsurprisingly, she prefers to stay home. ‘It is an unspeakable honour to have been invited and an unspeakable honour to be here,’ she said at a literary festival in Norway in 2020. ‘At the same time, I would rather be home alone in my writing room with the door closed. Does that make sense?’ She is the author of nineteen collections of poetry and prose, as well as more than a hundred ‘erasure’ books (in which she creates artworks out of old books through a combination of erasure and collage). Her prose pieces, which are generally short, are prose poems by another name. (‘It is even in/prose, I am a real poet,’ as Frank O’Hara put it.) The exception is her collected lectures, Madness, Rack and Honey (2012), which, she has observed, has been far more successful than any of her poetry collections.
Ruefle has been the poet laureate of Vermont since 2019. She brings to the role a mixture of mischief and seriousness – what the poet Alina Ștefănescu has called her ‘irreverent reverence’ – that is also characteristic of her writing. At the start of her tenure she applied to the Academy of American Poets for a grant to anonymously mail a thousand poems (not her own) to residents of Vermont chosen at random from the phonebook. The grant came through, but in the end Ruefle’s process wasn’t entirely random. She admitted in an interview that she was particularly drawn to people who lived at addresses with names such as ‘Inspiration Lane’ and ‘Bliss Road’. The project was covered by various media outlets, encouraging anyone who’d received a poem to come forward, but nobody did.
Like all Ruefle’s work, The Book is partly about reading and writing. (‘Am I vain to think of my head as a book?’ she asks in My Private Property. ‘Am I not transcribing the book of my head as I write?’) It expands on a theme that has long preoccupied her: the suspicion that literature, despite its pretensions, is largely a niche concern. In ‘Nope’, the speaker describes browsing the poetry titles in a ‘famous independent bookstore’: ‘There were so many! … but all these books just made me sad in the end – I knew nobody read them. I read them, but when I did I just started writing poems myself, creating an endless loop that depressed me.’ In ‘The Bark’, a dog stands at the edge of a lake and barks ‘at his own echo’: ‘Welcome to poetry, I said.’
Ruefle’s poetry isn’t depressing, though, and it’s refreshingly egoless. ‘I have a friend who has never read a single word I have ever written,’ she writes in ‘Dear Friends’. ‘I love being with her.’ Auden wrote that poetry exists ‘in a valley of its own making’, and Ruefle’s is no exception, but this is a valley in which you can see yourself setting up home. ‘It was as if they had spent the day exploring an island/only to be told afterwards it was the contours/of their own face.’ The poems delight in being, but if they sometimes have a Zen perspective, they aren’t puritanical about it. ‘It’s hard to say hello to every atom,’ Ruefle writes in Dunce (2019) – but that doesn’t stop her trying.
The presiding spirit of the poems is an amiable if world-weary explorer, curious about everything yet knowing that each answer begets another question. Ruefle’s writing is whimsical, in the sense that it often follows a flight of fancy to its furthest point, with little regard for anything but the process of discovery. The trajectory of any given piece might be compared to a drawing of the looping flight path of a bee. Often they have the effect of riddles or monologues delivered by oddball narrators. ‘My name is/Woodtangle,’ one declares. ‘Blackberries forever,’ pronounces another.
Much of Ruefle’s work is concerned with childhood (‘I thought of the blank pages separating the child from the writer,’ she writes in The Book). Which is not to say that her poems aren’t scholarly, or don’t deal with adult subjects. Cesare Pavese, Robert Walser, Emin Pasha, Anne Frank, Li Po, Keats and Cipriano de Rore are just a few of the historical characters who wander into her work. She often writes about ageing. ‘Pause’, her alarming and very funny piece about menopause (‘A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins’) strikes fear into the heart of any reader destined to become menopausal. But it’s the childlike sensibility that gives the poems their particular combination of delight and melancholy. ‘Someone once told me my inner child was an adult, and I thought that was spot on,’ she said in an interview in 2019. ‘It also implies that my outer adult is a child.’
The remark recalls her prose piece ‘Personalia’: ‘When I was young, a fortune-teller told me that an old woman who wanted to die had accidentally become lodged in my body … Now I am an old woman who wants to die and lodged inside me is a young woman dying to live; I work on her.’ In the world of Ruefle’s poems, the miniature looms large, dolls speak, everyday objects are sources of fascination and language is, above all, a plaything. ‘A silky cornel of red osier/makes good kinnikinnick,’ she states in one poem – a line that sounds like nonsense but isn’t (osier is a small willow, kinnikinnick a smoking mixture). Her speakers are not inclined to accept the customary hierarchies. ‘I wonder why, since people weep at monuments,’ she writes in ‘Narrow Road to the North’, ‘they don’t weep when they see ordinary stones.’
But Ruefle knows that being a child is just as hellish as being an adult. ‘I hated childhood,’ she writes in a stanza from Trances of the Blast (2013). ‘I hate adulthood/And I love being alive.’ These lines remind me of an untitled Alice Notley poem: ‘All my life,/since I was ten,/I’ve been waiting/to be in/this hell here/with you;/all I’ve ever/wanted, and/still do.’ In the nursery-rhyme-like ‘Tuna and a Play’ from Dunce, a young speaker gleefully announces: ‘Tonight we are having a tuna and a play.’ She then tells us: ‘I asked J if she was glad to be human –/J, are you glad to be a human?’ J is unable to comment: ‘I thought I saw her face turn grey/but it was no more than a moment/in a very nice day–/and tonight we are having tuna and a play.’
You can hear Ruefle recite this poem (twice) on a 2019 episode of the Bookworm podcast in which the host, Michael Silverblatt, describes her as his ‘heart’s darling’. Isn’t she everybody’s? The charm of her poems is perhaps their most palpable quality. She can nonchalantly finish a poem with the words ‘bye-bye’, as though that were the way all poems secretly end. She is a poet about whom fans say things like: ‘Somehow Mary Ruefle has nuzzled her way into my heart, soul, mind.’ And: ‘I love you. Where have you always been? Will you stay?’
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