“the unattainable…rising on the tips of forks:” Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems

By Matthew Kilbane

Portrait of the poet Mary Ruefle, photographed by Matt ValentineMary Ruefle writes delectable poems. In celebration of her Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2010), grab a clean plate and stroll this buffet of poetic nourishment. Because you may not know it yet, but you’re most certainly hungry.

Item #1: Rhetoric

Ruefle has a rhetorical streak. Her speakers love the utterance, and her poems embrace direct address, conjecture, questions and general “talkiness.” True, this could be said for other poets. But Ruefle is refreshingly unique in her willingness to undercut this conversational bent, both by allowing images to argue back, and by pressing and interrogating language throughout.

Consider Williams’ dictum: no ideas but in things. Ruefle works with “things,” certainly, but she doesn’t throw away the baby. Instead of totally dispensing with “ideas,” she works them over until they look like “things.” In “Patient Without an Acre,” we’re reminded:

Love, there’s no mistaking the word

for it: once you’ve driven the

wild breath in, you’ll have

a little glass hammer,

perfectly useless.

Compared to experience, mere words are “little glass hammers.” Meanwhile, there’s “another word for work,” Ruefle writes, “another word for love / a language with one word for both” and “a country with no words at all. As Ruefle’s readers, we love to revel in the tension between all our “glass hammers” swinging and this wordless country—between language and the ineffable.

Item #2: Desire

Ruefle’s poems thread together, by means of wild association, all kinds of things. They perform an energized democracy of image and utterance. Yet, they never feel overly stuffed, or too loud. We often say the best leaps feel inevitable and necessary, and these certainly do. But I’ll posit that it’s less need at work here, than want. The associative itineraries in these poems seem inevitable because they are, in effect, searching fixedly; they are desirous in nature.

Indeed, “Desire is a principle of selection,” writes Ruefle in “Naked Ladies.” In “Cul-de-Sac,” the speaker reveals, “I have been unable to attain a balance / between important and unimportant things.” And in “Transpontine: “I can’t distinguish my finest memory / from among my worthless.” Thus, as the prospect of A to B meaning is precluded from the get-go, these speakers can only associate in their search for whatever it is they’re searching for. But genuine desire for meaning fuels the whole thing, is the “principle of selection.” Hence the wildness (don’t we want so many different things?!) and the surety of these leaps, their sense of inevitability.

Item #3: Mimesis

In “Topophilia,” Ruefle twice asks, “What does the outer world / know if the inner?…It’s like listening to wolves or loons.” But she answers, in deflection or ignorance, “that word has kept me company all my life.” Such a response implies that it is, in fact, “a word,” or language, that the outer world knows of the inner. Here Ruefle hits us over the head with it, with what we’ve been shown throughout. These poems are interested in language as raw material, its pliability and contingency, but undeniably invested in this language is the stuff of internal experience. Ruefle’s brand of energetic, democratic association negotiates what sometime seem the estranged twins of contemporary American poetry—language as language and language as meaning. In the Ploughshares review of this book, Ruefle is situated as representative of a “third way” in our little world of poetry. However true that is, we’re most certainly talking about the same thing.

Item #4: Intimacy

And we feel close to these poems. Bound up in this discussion of Ruefle’s rhetorical and associative maneuvers is the notion of intimacy. In “Trust Me,” the poet begins rhetorically, “What can be discussed in words / I beg to state in brief,” before launching into a few choice death metaphors and transitioning to wildly figurative descriptions of what’s in “your new perfume:”

The hills of Africa are in it,

and the cormorants with their mouths full of fish,

a bed of carnations, a swannery in Switzerland,

the citrine sun baking Napa

and a rhino whining at the moon.

An after-dinner argument is in it

and the ever-stronger doses of claptrap

we are forced to take while still alive.

A whole aeroplane, wings and all,

and the lush spaghetti siphoned into lips

poised for a kiss.

Finish it, finish it.

Setting aside the sense-level intimacy and romantic imagery for a moment, as readers of “Trust Me” we’re indeed called upon to “trust” the speaker, as we are led from image to wild image. Opening yourself to these intimate relationships with Ruefle’s speakers—and buckling in tight for the ride—is one of the chief pleasures of this collection. And the poems derive strength from this intimacy. As in “Trust Me,” the rhetorical proximity of speaker to reader permits and charges feeling, which in turn validates the leaps and fancies. And really, it’s an honor to know Ruefle will get you back to earth when the ride’s over.

Item #5: Little Things

In this book’s Coldfront review, Jennifer Fortin writes intelligently on “observation” in Ruefle’s work:

“In these poems…[Ruefle’s] speakers notice (how many times this word appears!); they care, and are constitutionally altered as a result. Nothing is small enough to escape location and examination. Ruefle’s speakers cast their gazes toward the most difficult to reach distances and breadths…What may have been easy to overlook becomes hard to overlook. And it is hard, without a doubt, to exist as an extreme observer. Naturally, embarrassment surfaces and resurfaces in the book, because it’s awkward, it’s confusing to take so much of the world in an to presume one’s relationship as observer has any value.”

The superlative of poet as keenest observer is certainly ubiquitous. But in this case, Fortin is absolutely right. While Ruefle has a well-toned rhetorical muscle, the image still reigns as the primary mechanism of poetry-making. But these aren’t your mother’s images, unless of course your mother’s a fantastically sensual surrealist. Here’s the briefest sampling: “Things shining like braided bread.” “My blood was like a plaything.” “this nipple exposed beneath the rag / puce with lava-milk.”

Other Delights

So by way primarily of personal rhetoric and associative flights of the expertly observed image Ruefle succeeds at both abstracting language and expressing through that language. This is the how. We haven’t much talked the what. And I apologize for that. Other delights I could have included here: truth, happiness, religion, love, and—for dessert—the poet’s livewire humor. But I’ll let these lie, as enticements. Ruefle’s is a remarkable body of work, and her Selected is a judicious and delicious sample. Come and get it.

Selected Poems

Wave Books

176 pp.

ISBN #9781933517568
$16, Paper