‘Selected Poems’ by Mary Ruefle
Photo: Matt Valentine
The modest act of noticing has been made, in Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems, spirited and spiritual. In these poems, selected from nine of her books spanning 25 years, her 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. Three of the poem titles contain “little,” and the word pops up frequently as a descriptor: little wooden bridge, little buns like the white hair, little glass hammer, little sister, little acts of love, little way, little parcels—all of these in only the first twenty pages. Not to be missed is the voice’s tenderness when “little” is used as the diminutive, o dear little reader.
Size in Ruefle is not a matter of objective judgment, but relativity. In “Replica,” “Once you wanted to be . . . / an iris in April, / or only its pistil, just that, a prayer so small / it was only rumored.” In “Seven Postcards from Dover,” “The child broke the chalk. / The mother said be strong. / The child said when I die I want to be a dwarf.” And it’s a red dwarf—dizzyingly huge, yet in name so tiny—that “will finally consume us.” From darkness, Ruefle restores “the meat / from half of a walnut, a fly / on a purple grape, the grape / lit from within and the fly / bearing small black eggs” (“The Last Supper”). Attention alights sometimes on the straightforward fact of size, as in the former two quotations. At other times, as in the latter two instances, the size of the ostensible smallness is subverted: the red dwarf is capable of ending it all, and the grape’s light is strong enough to illuminate. “The Last Supper” closes with a small group of people whose small pairs of eyes provide “infinite light.”
This effect of big smallness is heightened by another of Ruefle’s tendencies, which is to isolate specific objects or instances. Our extreme observer wipes out others and remarks upon one. “Out of a Hundred” is an entire piece dedicated to the impossibility that moments of meaning occur and the miracle that they actually do. Ruefle concludes the poem with: “Even if you knew that, you might not know / there are moments seized with tenderness. / This was one of them.” A relationship between size, singularity and the deeply personal is persistent throughout the poems in this Selected: “One wants so many things . . . / One wants simply”; “Were you off by one?” and “What book will you be reading when you die? / If it’s a good one, you won’t finish it. / If it’s a bad one, what a shame”; one grandfather, one grandmother; “You know the answer, you suspect / you are the only one in the classroom”; and so on.
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 and to presume one’s relationship as observer has any value. From “Full Moon”: “It is embarrassing to be alive. / Sometimes you have to stand out on the street / and look upwards, and then you have to pretend / the stone at your feet / is not an object of observation, / when it is.”
One might guess that a person so keenly observant would vivify even within her imaginings. Ruefle’s tremendous specificity of description means the lives found in her imagination are complex and dimensional. One speaker thinks of a woodchuck “who can no longer fit in any of the tunnels / he’s built, their labyrinth a sorrow / to his forlorn highness who has one eye.” The compassionate imagination pushes harder and harder to take a lingering feel around. While in its potential for alienation this move could be hazardous to a poem, the extreme specificity chucking us into oblivion, Ruefle’s work is balanced by inclusive theys, someones, somewheres, sometimeses that welcome the reader into Ruefle’s personal space. The reader is continually shown a small space of observation and then drawn in by the poem’s conclusion.
Attesting to her depth of vision, adjectives and adverbs abound, especially of the –est variety. The first poem’s title is “Standing Furthest,” not “Standing Far.” Our maven makes regular use of bests, worsts, nevers, always, forevers. Thus she establishes ethos, earning the power to remain palpable even where the first person is omitted (“The Intended,” “From Memory,” “All the Activity There Is,” “Barbarians,” “Perpetually Attempting to Soar,” “The Brooch”). To get maximum torque from her poems, Ruefle constantly casts them in a charged environment. The emotional heft of her poems is more real in a place where things are either the best or the worst.
Ruefle’s empirical language, littered with superlatives, activates the imagination of the poems’ speakers. What’s noticed draws forth what’s absent (side note: the poet is also an accomplished erasure artist). The previously absent is now present, as real as any other reality. The world is enriched as a result of being looked at. Vivid actions, thoughts and feelings are animated in the speakers.
Two of the best examples here are “Mercy” and “Glory.” “Mercy,” a crystalline poem opening with a calm request, closes with the same request, now urgent exclamation. Sandwiched between is imagination wild with detail—then the end: “I notice and I care. God have mercy on me! / I would lie down and put a dagger in my heart / if I only knew how and where and why.” The speaker, her mind increasingly populated, is compelled to the brink of drastic action. “Glory” starts with the beginnings of bloom; it ends with a gigantic question: “What’s your opinion? / You’re a man with a corona in your mouth, / a woman with a cottonball in her purse, / what’s your conception of the world?” In between is the sacredness of minutia. If this isn’t a stunning behavior for a poem, I don’t know what is.
Apparently, yes, there is a little glow about most things.