April 3, 2020KR Reviews

“I live in the museum of / everyday life”: On Mary Ruefle’s Dunce

Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2019. 104 pages. $25.00.

Anyone (which is most of us) who has read Mary Ruefle’s oeuvre of work would think that her masterful, associative poems exhibit a sharp intellect demonstrable of a mind of brilliant inventiveness—which does nothing but bristle against the antithetical term Dunce, the title of her newest collection of poems. In a class at the University of Cincinnati, where, as a visiting poet, she sat right next to me and exclaimed, “I called my next book Dunce because I am a dunce.” Even then, in her own words, we did not believe her.

In What is Called Thinking, Martin Heidegger says, “We come to know what it means to think when we ourselves try to think. If the attempt is to be successful, we must be ready to learn thinking.” In Dunce, Ruefle meditates on a vast array of subject matter including how a child learns to walk, Solomon, walking, the great lacuna, plum trees, Trakl, a bright orange newt, “the affliction of language,” the Super Bowl, jewelweed, Genesis, radishes, and “the way we go on joining the dead.” It is in the somewhat arbitrariness and spectrum of her subjects that her process is revealed: she is showing us, as Heidegger said, how to learn thinking. “I live in the museum of / everyday life,” she writes, though the museum is one of her own making, curated by her mind’s collision with the everyday, as it is measured, in both present- and past-tense increments.

The word dunce can be traced back to the sixteenth century where it was used as an epithet to describe the disciples of Scottish theologian John Duns Scotus. His followers were referred to as Dunses or Dunsmen, because when they argued against Renaissance humanism, a movement meant to revive cultural, literary, and moral legacy in the larger collective (rather than the small elite), they were viewed as incapable of scholarship. Dunces. The term has evolved to mean dumb, slow-witted; someone who is incapable of learning or one who wears a dunce cap. Many of these poems ruminate on failure and attention and the mysteries of both actions in concert with thinking. Perhaps the definition most clearly attached to the speaker of this book is not one who is incapable of learning, but one who does not learn. Not because of deficiency, but because that’s not their function. The speaker, perhaps, is the entity that is present to perceive, so that the reader may learn thinking.

In her lecture On Imagination, Mary Ruefle states, “It is impossible for me to write about the imagination; it is like asking a fish to describe the sea.” This is akin to asking Ruefle to describe her writing process, or to define what her poems do. She is the fish, her work is the sea.  In the same aforementioned class, a peer quoted a review of Ruefle’s work in which the reviewer claimed she was using her poetry “to interrogate the lyric.” Ruefle thought this was a senseless statement with little connection to the intentionality behind her own work. “So what is your intention,” we asked. “Who am I to say,” she answered. For this reason, I’m hesitant to assign a methodology to the construction or coherence of this collection. Instead, I’m inclined to describe what the poems in Dunce, teach me:

  1. A poem is a disruption of the present.
  2. Writing a poem causes the mind to experience a disruption of the present.
  3. A poet is one who disrupts.
  4. It is in this disruption that meaning can be revealed.

This becomes exceedingly clear in her poem, “Dark Corner,” which is not the title poem of the collection but could be called her Ars Poetica:

I was cleaning an empty drawer
I wanted to put things in.
Not much there—
a dead fly, a dark penny,
a straight pin, dust
in the back corners.
As I crimped my fingers
to pick up the pin
a poem came to me.
That is, it appeared
word for word in my mind.
How did it get in the drawer?
How long had it waited?
Had I put it there,
in holding?
Did it belong to the fly?
Did he drop it from some lonely height
onto this playground of refuse,
his own death
come out of nowhere?

This poem defies the logic of authorial intention. That the poet is the begetter of the poem. That it originates in us and not elsewhere in the world, waiting to be found. Ruefle’s work begets me to ask, where do poems come from? Hers, specifically, though also in general. I look to the first lines of Dunce for the answers:

A poem comes from sensation:

“I was swimming / with the taste of apple / in my mouth.”

A poem comes from memory:

“Once I had a plum tree.”

A poem comes from play:

“Playing horsey in the field / I galloped toward the tremendous / growth of the rhubarb.”

A poem comes from fear:

“Night falls / and the empty intimacy of the world / fills my heart to frothing”

A poem comes from embarrassment:

“Do you really want your holiday guests / looking at your current flooring?”

A poem comes from prayer:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered / here together today to look into / the face of the river.”

In other words, a poem comes from the materiality of our lives. But it must be thought into being. Ruefle constantly describes this enigmatic process of linguistic creation in this book, whether directly or through rhetorical and syntactical structures. Perhaps an antidote to Wittgenstein’s dictum, “The limits of my language mean the limits to my world,” in Ruefle’s work it’s the disruption of language that enhances her world for all of us. This can be seen in the poem “Happiness”:

Summer late evening

my friend the sunset

to surprise me

took the most interesting streets

Late he was

Longer than ever before

In another poem entitled “Unbeknownst,” an overlapping repetition creates disruption in the first few lines, creating an error in the reader’s mind. So the reader rereads the line, and thus, within the disruption, experiences “the deepening” Ruefle so simply suggests:

Words you may find as you
read you may find as you read
you deepen them,
until tomorrow you can describe
the esslessness,
growing and winding about
in wild entanglement
within the little head—

Dunce is a tremendous meditation on what’s sudden in the mind. What is suddenly. The simultaneity of learning and thinking. And how quickly both, and everything, can (will) vanish. There is a sense that mortality is the nagging echo in the ear of the speaker of this book. That death, itself, the fact that we all die, is the reason to enter and become a spectator in “the museum of everyday life.” With this book, Ruefle urges us to

Find all this out,
find everything out.
Even if your last day is
incomplete, even if something up there
thinks you are marzipan,
keep finding out—

And in order to do this, we must “learn thinking” while we still can. Because time and everything it encloses exists for us only as long as we do.