October 5, 2014KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingWriting

Ruefle, Redux (Part One)

Mary Ruefle gave a reading at the University of Michigan last Thursday, which meant that I was able to spend an hour, along with about a hundred others, in her witty and rueful presence. But I’ve been spending time with her since midsummer, when I first picked up her collection of lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey. The book has already been celebrated on this blog (here and here); I’m a couple of years late. But I read the book with growing wonder and excitement, and now I’m reading it again, along with my poetry workshop students. The book makes me want to write (write poems, write essays, write notes on napkins), and it makes me want to read (read Keats, read Dickinson, read Kafka). It interrogates, in countless ways, the basic mystery of poetry: Where do poems come from? The muse? The pineal gland? In “Short Lecture on a Problem,” Ruefle writes, “Every great poem has a problem, the problem of itself, and how it got stuck in space—how it got wedged in this world—the problem of being-in-the-first-place. This is not a problem one wants to eradicate; this is a problem one wants to preserve and honor, even as it eternally frustrates one, unsolvable as it is.”

If you haven’t read the collection, that quote may give you at least some sense of the poet’s mind at play. It’s a kind of playfulness that comes through in her poems (more on those in a moment) and her blurbs. Here she is on Dean Young’s Skid: “Several serious mistakes have resulted from Dean Young’s absence during the events described in the first chapter of Genesis.”

(That’s now my favorite praise-blast of all-time, replacing the previous title-holder, Pablo Neruda’s huzzah to Julio Cortázar: “Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease, which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder . . . and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair.”)

Ruefle’s playfulness, her assault on the expected, extends to her public readings. At one point on Thursday she stepped away from the podium, picked up a fitted sheet, and carefully folded it. The procedure took at least a minute, which is a long time for a group of people to remain silent. “That was called ‘Fitted Sheet,’” she said, deadpan and staring, before laying the improbably folded linen down and returning to her poems. The interruption created this shiver of possibility within the auditorium: Mary Ruefle, quite simply, might do anything.

Her poems do anything and everything; they go in a dozen directions at once. “Provenance” begins with a memory of taking a papier-mâché horse to a girl on her deathbed; it continues into a world “of shattered moonlight and beasts and trees / where no one even curtsies anymore / or has an understudy.” It ends:

I hated childhood
I hate adulthood
And I love being alive.

Who could predict such a poem’s arc? And who could predict the arc of “Lullaby,” a prose piece that starts “high in the Swiss Alps” and that ends someplace entirely (and sort of head-spinningly) other? (And really, you should do yourself a two-minute favor and read “Lullaby” right now.) Ruefle toggled between poetry and prose at her U of M reading, never noting which was which. She said, early in the reading, that if she were doing her job right we would be able to tell the difference between the two. “And if I’m not doing my job right—nobody cares but my parents, and they’re both dead.”

I’d like to write more about Ruefle—about her negotiations with sentimentality, about her belief in metaphor as “an event,” as “an exchange of energy between two things”—in the coming weeks. I’ll try not to repeat what others have said before me. But if I do? Here’s Ruefle, from Thursday’s reading, on repetition:

Repetition’s the backbone of poetry. Some people don’t like repetition. It’s amazing they can get out of bed in the morning.