by Mary Ruefle
Carnegie Mellon University Press 2007
Reviewed by Matt Hart
The cover of Mary Ruefle’s 10th book of poems, Indeed I Was Pleased with the World, shows a detail from artist Zoe Leonard’s installation piece Strange Fruit—a work composed of the torn skins of various kinds of fruit, which are sloppily but beautifully sewn back together with needle and thread, then scattered about the space like so many damaged (if badly/weirdly, wonderfully) scarred survivors of gravity’s end-stop. As a result, the work achieves a beaten up, desperate, and tragic presence, which somehow simultaneously gives off a vibe of deep and impossible monster marvelousness. One might conclude that it draws its inspiration equally from Billy Holiday, Frankenstein, and The Sex Pistols. All in all, the work is a vivid depiction of damaged goods in all their great sadness and fiery goodness. As such, it is easily (though interestingly) interpretable in terms of various aspects and avenues of our contemporary world (the casualties of war, plastic surgery disasters, reality television), as well as in terms of human life and existence generally (see GRAVITY above).
The detail in question on the cover of Ruefle’s book is of a single orange skin with one long vertical cut, which has been loosely sewn together with a single stitch. The top of the orange has been completely capped (think of removing the top portion of someone’s skull for a brain surgery) and then sewn back in place in a dizzying off-center circle. In addition, stitches also creep out from beneath the orange, alluding to other damage underneath and perhaps also around its back. As a result of all its trauma and lack of substance—this is after all merely an orange’s skin, there’s no orange to be found—the orange is misshapen and lonely looking, though it does retain something of its lovely red-orange color as a reminder of its past natural beauty. Finally, the juxtaposition of the skin (how quickly things become ambiguous!) with the white thread and the still attached hanging needle gives the image an immediate, if in between, sort of glow—the image of a thing mended/on the mend—something fallen and put back together again—but only in terms of its surface; darkness peeking out from a depth-charged emptiness.
Looking at the image, I can’t help here but to be reminded of the fractured Humpty Dumpty and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men trying without success to put him back together… How frustrating. Standing back and looking at the fragments of something—something one knows used to be whole, and functional, and astonishingly alive, but is now just so many pieces of a once was…
Enter Mary Ruefle and her magnificent book of poems in the face of what once was—as a skewed extension of it, or better, as an antidote to it! Indeed I Was Pleased with the World suggests that there was a/the world (however pleasing it may have been), and now in its aftermath (which began the moment right after its math, “In the beginning…” etc.) there is its poetry—Ruefle’s poetry, which is often times both a resigned-to-it re-imagining or re-versioning of things as they were and also a high-stakes commentary on the everything-around-us state of creation this minute next week. Take, for instance, these lines from her poem “Refrigerator”:
There is the sound of the refrigerator being on.
There is the sound of god beating inside my heart,
which is a strange sound since he does not exist.
There is the sound of a stone sent years ago
which was never answered.
There is the sound of handwriting on a human forehead.
There is the sound of forty-three ducks flying through glass.
There is the sound of a feather duster.
There is the sound of dust heard over the telephone.
There is the sound of a piano with a faint heart
coming from below, a hell where people are happy.
From the refrigerator to the outer limits to a hell of happy people, Ruefle’s poems relentlessly call into question what we know and what we expect, leaving in their wake a glimpse of the extraordinary impossible “without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” Indeed, if there’s a poet writing today who has Negative Capability, its Ruefle, whose poems are elastic, fearless and open-ended. But unlike that empty strange fruit—that globe of an orange skin that bedecks the cover of her book—Ruefle’s poems have a substance beyond the beyond and depths to match their surfaces. As she writes in “Darke Body of Clowds,” “Sitting in this chair/ with sardines under my nails/ I could very well cloud my whole life/ and never untragic,/ a darke body of clowds/ hanging in the room, obscuring, my lunch…” Here the sardines and clouds-of-self swirl with an/other metaphysical-ish 17th Century “darke body of clowds”—the speaker’s unspecified trajectory (tragic-story)—bringing the past present and future, as well as the personal and historical, into play all at once. The poem is a sort of lyrical diary entry, which for all its “darke”ness moves with a weirdly wonderful lightness. The end of the poem reads:
Darke body of clowds of fishes
Darke body of clowds of birds
Pity the poor proofreader
who thinks this darke body of clowds
was my life
The title “darke body of clowds” comes from a 1644 diary entry by the English gardener and diarist John Evelyn. Thus, this “darke body of clowds” isn’t strictly speaking Ruefle’s. But (strictly speaking) neither was it Evelyn’s. Rather, it was part of a description of a landscape he entered into willingly—not something hanging over him, but a sort of allegorical passageway to Heaven. Of course, the best play here is with the proofreader, a.k.a. the critic—the technician—who’s looking for “fatal” mistakes and finds so many “misspelled” words (not to mention inconsistent punctuation) in a poem of 23 lines. To attribute these “problems” to the writer—which in this case is at least two people—would be both misguided and ridiculous, as it’s this occasion for misunderstanding (and mis-attribution) that makes the poem a delight to read. In many ways “Darke Body of Clowds” is a poem that on multiple reads keeps shifting the weight of its meaning—cloud to clowd to fishes to birds to you—dear proofreader.
To me one of the thing’s that’s so compelling about Ruefle’s poems in general is that they don’t exist in light of the facts, but in spite of them. Her process seems to be one of discovery and nerve, ever and over diving headlong into new possible worlds: the Meadow AND the Void, the Everything AND the Nothing. And this is precisely why her poems feel so full of capital-T Truth. That is, they exist out on that edge of experience where there’s enough of a presence of the shadow of the Vast that the facts are the afterthought of meaning rather than its substance. For example, in her poem “How I Became Impossible”—a sort of monologue wherein (among other things) the speaker remarks that she has always imagined polar bears and penguins “grew up together playing side by side”—but then encounters “facts” that fly in the face of her imagination:
One day I read in a scientific journal:
there are no penguins at one pole, no bears
on the other. These two, who were so long intimates
in my mind, began to drift apart, each on his own floe,
far out into the glacial seas. I realized I was becoming
impossible, more and more impossible,
and that one day it really would be true.
Rather than allowing the facts to re-adjust her vision to fit the world, the speaker imagines harder and with even more resolve to make the world fit her vision. The result, then, isn’t the conformity of the individual to the world but the world to the individual’s imaginative will. This suggests perhaps that the only thing more incredible than leaping from pole to pole via ice floes is leaping from pole to poetry via the ice floes of the imagination, the self recast as both unfathomably adrift and transformatively visionary. The last line’s knowledge that “one day it really would be true” runs contrary to all (and any) fact or reason, and yet nevertheless it’s convincing. More so because “it” is ambiguous—polar bears and penguins side by side, the self imagining its impossible other.
And speaking of impossible, here’s my Mary Ruefle anecdote. In the Fall of 1999(?), I took a Greyhound bus from Cincinnati to Chicago to attend a reading by Kenneth Koch and Dean Young. I arrived at the reading early—about 30 minutes before it was to begin (and as you know, those things never start on time), but the large ballroom was already packed with people talking and drinking. It was a festive, even momentous occasion. Koch was reading from New Addresses, which was just about to be published, and Young was as always reading never-before-seen new poems. I was in my mid-twenties and knew no one, so milled around nervously looking at everyone and trying not to make eye contact. Just the summer before I had met Dean Young briefly, and in the few minutes we talked he had recommended some books—among them Mary Ruefle’s Cold Pluto—which I immediately got hold of and loved for many of the same reasons I’ve discussed with regard to Indeed I Was Pleased with the World… Anyway, looking around the room I suddenly noticed a tall woman with brilliantly deep red hair talking animatedly to a young couple, and it hit me suddenly that this was Mary Ruefle. I recognized her from the author photo on the back of her book. Immediately, I started trying to work up the courage to go over and say something (no doubt ridiculously awkward) about how much I appreciated her poems. (Note: I realize that this may make me sound a wee bit neurotic and perhaps even a little strange. I am the former, though not the latter. What can I say? To me, the poets I admire are rock stars, and I hope this is something I’ll never get over. Nuff said, I hope. Anyway, hang in there—this anecdote’s about Mary Ruefle, not me.) Tick-tock, tick-tock… and Mary Ruefle dashes out of the ballroom down the stairs and out the door onto the street—I don’t know why—but there she went. I followed about 20 seconds later, and she was nowhere to be seen. I looked up and down the block, but she had vanished into thin air—probably down the street and around the corner—I didn’t go and look—just stood in the doorway alone, astonished and strangely happy. To me, in that moment, it was as if she had de-materialized, gone to Borneo, or had been merely an apparition/hallucination—perhaps heat-lightning or a swan made of steam… I never saw Mary Ruefle again that night (though I have been told by mutual friends that she was there), nor have I seen her since. Still, somehow I was thunderstruck by not meeting her—or rather seeing only the electric animated version of her from afar. In retrospect, this seems perfect. Our paths have not crossed until right here in this review of Indeed I Was Pleased with the World. Oh yes, this is still a review.
I lifted my long terrible arm
and turned on the water.
(from “Lines Written on a Blank Space”)
Welcome to the Critic’s Corner. To my mind Ruefle’s work is masterful, but I can imagine some people criticizing its emotional exuberance, as well as its deep on the sleeve melancholy (“I am going to make you a toy./When you play with it,/ in my heart I open my sad eyes/ and stare.”—from “Permanent Loan”) which at times gives the work an antique-y charm—largely Romantic in nature, but occasionally Baroque or Victorian, in its air—its “Darke Body of Clowds” notwithstanding.
There are also moments here where one feels that poems have been rather brutally truncated—chopped to their foundations at the expense of not having achieved a real sufficiency. For example, here’s the poem “Me Too” in its entirety:
I will raise my right hand
and swear to tell the truth:
lovest thou me? Lovest thou me?
Jesus said it seven times:
Such poems can come off seeming slight or un/dis-crafted in light of the other work in the book. And there are many other poems here that just END—in the sense that they seem to suddenly fall over a cliff never to be heard from again. However, I might argue that such poems (and there are more than a handful here) are a lot like that orange on the cover of Ruefle’s book in that they point to a poem that was or could be—a shadow that Ruefle often does get right to, but which sometimes can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t always, be gotten to. Sometimes it’s enough to know it’s there. Sometimes to end significantly, one has to do it abruptly. One has to (to borrow a phrase from Greil Marcus) “grind one’s teeth down to points” and fly in the face of expected good manners and decorum.
Indeed I am pleased with the world of Indeed I Was Pleased with the World. Word to word, line to line, poem to poem—Ruefle’s work is consistently here (if at times dangerously) non-conformist, mysterious, romantic and bold. When it comes to abiding by what’s given, no poet’s work that I know is more full of creative refusals and visionary re-invention in the face of what’s given. Working her magic (and it really is at times like a sort of sorcery—a non-linear, leaping confluence of will and idea with wildness and faith), Ruefle sees things no one else sees and knows things no one else knows—by which I mean her poems are mysterious and grand, and written just for all of us. This is generous work, and nowhere is it more clearly so than in “Kiss of the Sun,” where Ruefle writes: “…at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry/ (and wheat and evil and insects and love) […]/ I will be standing at the edge/ of that fathomless crowd with an orange for you…” And thus, I leave this off where it all started—though on a rather different note—in light of the orange in all its shining glory:
I hope you will take it, and remember on earth
I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw,
and if by chance there is no edge to the crowd
or anything else so that I am of it,
I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can.