Mary Ruefle's Indeed I Was Pleased with the World
Despite having read so many of her books & being so affected by so many of her poems I'm still not sure I can characterize how a Mary Ruefle poem works. And given that I'm never positive how or to what end I read her poems but I feel consistently & enrichingly puzzled by her poems. Just when I have her wild yet winter-still style pegged she goes in another direction. I found her new book Indeed I Was Pleased with the World a little disappointing at first, but now I can’t stop reading it. The opening third of “Speak, Zero” is pretty classically Ruefle-weird—the surrealism is overt & jumpy & then turns toward the rhetorical in would seem to be an ironic manner, but is not.
There was a morning bowl of cereal
and we sugared it
Then mother took the bowl away
Then mother took the bowl
Years of which I have no time
One by one they reached into the sea
and took the lightkeepers out of the lighthouses
Then they took the lighthouses out to sea
Thus the world falls back on its original plan
This is a kind of poem that enages the world through its leaps in attention & readership, but Ruefle also does a very different, less traditionally surreal poem that leaves me less dazzled but more moved. Take this poem, which was in Fence in '03:
The Great Loneliness
By March the hay bales were ripped open
exposed in the open fields
like bloated gray mice
who died in December.
I came upon them at dusk
and their attar lifted my spine
until I felt like turning over an old leaf.
So I walked on, a walking pitchfork.
From every maple hung a bucket or two
collecting blood to be distributed across America
so people could rise from their breakfast
healthy, hoping to make a go of it again.
Now this is a riddled explanation
but I am a historian of pagan means
and must walk five miles a day
to cover the period I will call
The Great Loneliness
and the name will stick so successfully
that for years afterwards children will complain
at meals and on sunny days and in the autumn and at Easter
that their parents are unnecessarily mute
and their parents will look harshly down
upon the plates and beach towels and leaves and bunnies
and say you don't know what you are talking about
you never lived through The Great Loneliness
and if you had you would never speak.
And the children will turn away
and consider the words, or lack of them,
and how one possible explanation
might be that inside our bodies
skeletons grow at an increasingly secretive rate,
though they never mention it,
even amongst themselves.
That pem is pretty damn affecting yet still involved in an overt play--the emotions might be "emotions" & the melodrama might be a way of speaking about not feeling. In the new book she's moved toward a kind of poem that is more gentle & deceptive in its activity, so simple yet through that simplicity it is even more extending. Check this one out:
You wake up. It seems you went out
for more popcorn during the night.
You can't have missed much,
but just to be sure you lean
to the person next to you and whisper
what happened? She tells you
a horse has just fallen
from the top of the cathedral.
Sorry to have missed it,
but at the same time relieved,
you go into the kitchen
and whip up some eggs.
You are a young man in love with your wife.
You were not made to be so terrible.
There's the surrealism of the opening stutter-starts, which leads to the intensely emotional end, that requires an engaged reader (like me) to wonder why this man is so terrible after all, extending the story into a kind of real world. That's a neat arc, a good arc, it makes a poem that I tend to like. But then a few hours later I begin to wonder why the horse was on top of that cathedral & why it fell. I start to doubt the simplicity of that scene—the scene becomes a diorama. The poem squirms, like a UHF station at the edge of its range. And it is the subtlety of this squirminess that brings me back to Ruefle again & again. But it is also this kind of reading that makes me unsure of what I think of her work—the first time I read one of her books I always think it's my least favorite of hers. And then a week later I think it's brilliant. And then I can’t wait to read her next book. She’s always the first page I turn to when she’s in a journal.