≡ Menu


“The artist is a receptacle of emotions come from no matter where: from the sky, the earth, a piece of paper, a passing figure, a cobweb. This is why one must not discriminate between things. There is no rank among them. One must take one’s good where one finds it.” Picasso wrote this well before Mary Ruefle started publishing books, but if his words could be an egg, Ruefle’s Selected Poems would hatch right out of it. Her speakers—obsessed both with beauty and with their inability to “attain a balance/ between important and unimportant things”— over and over fuse the world’s grandest abstractions and minutest details in efforts to find meaning somewhere in the middle.

Naturally, with so many things to include, Ruefle’s poems jump around a lot from one place/time/feeling/speaker to another. In “Timberland,” we go from “Paul’s Fish Fry in Bennington, Vermont” to “the delta/ of the Pearl River” to “Actually none of this has happened yet”—I think in this poem we’re simultaneously in the past, present, and future—but this movement, however quick, never feels random just for the sake of randomness. In each of Ruefle’s lines we find the perfect amount of surprise: enough to disorient and delight and keep our synapses firing, but not so much we get frustrated with nonsense or lack of a larger poetic context. This tightrope act of simultaneously balancing and sorting—and of course, the sheer beauty and originality of these poems—invites us to fully take part in Ruefle’s attempts to make sense of the world (and feel enchanted enough to want to keep doing so).

Because the entirety of the world Ruefle wants to encompass is so overwhelming, it is often the little details that give her speakers something they can use to ground themselves. In “Thistle,” for example, a “we” travels around the world, unexpectedly finding thistles in every location, which grants the thistle the critical roles of creating meaning and connecting the world, kind of like the horn symbol in The Crying of Lot 49.

But Ruefle’s search feels much less unidimensional than Pynchon’s. Her conclusions—while sometimes arbitrary—don’t just lead you on a wild goose chase. At the end of “Thistle,” you’re fully aware the thistle is a kind of random stand-in for meaning, but the ending still feels thrilling and complete:

O ruthless thistle, match in the dark,
you can talk to anyone about the weather
but only to your closest friends
can you mention the light.

Ruefle’s speakers struggle with questions of balance and meaning in multiple forms: Embrace togetherness, or seek isolation? Accept the risk of loss in exchange for aliveness, or don’t? Stay in the imagination, or move into the real world? On one level, each poem chronicles a constant process of decision-making. But the poems aren’t just saying yes or no to a world, whether real or imagined. They’re exploring the price associated with each answer—and because everything in Ruefle’s world is ultimately connected, yes and no aren’t even separate answers. To make the process more complicated, Ruefle acknowledges that choosing an answer or ascribing meaning to something could be based on a fiction: We aren’t omniscient, and we may never know the price of our choice (or really, even what questions we’re answering). We just have to make peace with guessing and assigning meaning.

Ruefle doesn’t usually examine “no” as an option (because unless you’re going to kill yourself, it isn’t, and because her world is just too darn magical not to), but she does spend whole poems asking what if yes could be less troublesome, more embracing. Why does yes have to be so costly? Imagine what could be possible if it weren’t! “One wants so many things,” says the speaker in “The Intended.” And those things are both greater and smaller than any one person can have in any one life. Ruefle intimates this by constantly disorienting us—changing geographic location, scale, speaker, and who the speaker is referring to, as if trying to embrace it all and write it down before it disappears:

One wants simply, said the lady,
to sit on the bank and throw stones
while another wishes he were standing
in the Victoria and Albert Museum
looking at Hiroshige’s Waterfall:
one would like to be able to paint
like that, and Hiroshige wishes
he could create himself out of the
Yoro sea spray in Mino province where
a girl under the Yoro waterfall wants
to die, not quite sure who her person is

The omniscient speaker starts out talking directly to the reader (or maybe herself), with “One wants so many things …” and then quickly moves into narration about other people and their inner lives. In just a dozen lines, we hear the most intimate thoughts of no fewer than five people; move from an unnamed body of water to London and then to Japan; and engage with both the simplest human desires and some of the most complex. Notably, all these desires feel equally painful and urgent—Ruefle makes no value distinction between wanting to throw stones and wanting to die. These quick transitions portray a world in which not only does “one want so many things,” but all those things are interconnected and important. By not valuing one desire more than another—and by connecting them—Ruefle makes them feel universally difficult and totally human. (Even the structure says so; the whole poem is one long sentence.) Eventually the poem returns to “the lady” and ends on a single, concrete, graspable image, as many poems in this collection do. The implication is that even though the world is full of things and every day is “thrown in the sieve” to figure out which ones are important, one way to make the world real and survivable is to focus on a single thing and ascribe meaning to that thing:

one can barely see the cherry blossoms
pinned up in little buns like the white hair
of an old woman who was intended for this hour,
the hour intended to sit simply on the bank
at the end of a long life, throwing stones,
each one hitting the water with the tick of
a hairpin falling in front of a mirror.

That last image is so crisp and mundane, so earnest that “life goes on no matter what we do,” that in my Whitmanesque high I nearly missed the fact that just before it Ruefle slipped in that nagging word from the title: intended. Sure, the speaker put the day through a sieve and came up with lots of unfulfilled human desires, but this “intended” bit is the biggest desire of all—the desire for our desires to have meaning, to be part of some larger picture. We want access to all the possibilities, but we want them to mean something. We want our “yes” to count. Crucial to Ruefle’s poem-world, though, is that she didn’t end on the intendedness—she didn’t totally commit to it. The possibility of a larger picture, or even the desire for one, is just another desire to be weighed against all the others.

Ruefle is not reticent about her struggle between wanting the safety of certainty and accepting that life is uncertain (and that embracing life means embracing that uncertainty). In “Why I Am Not A Good Kisser,” she literally embraces the world too much to function well in it and then reacts by shutting it out altogether, in a yes-then-no move:

Because I open my mouth too wide
Trying to take in the curtains behind us
And everything outside the window
Except the little black dog
Who does not like me
So at the last moment I shut my mouth.

At first, the physical opening and shutting—certainties both—are the only possible responses to the situation, neither of which satisfy. But later in the poem, the speaker champions simultaneous certainty and uncertainty, both physically and spiritually:

… what quality goes to form
A Good Kisser, especially at this moment, & which you
Possess so enormously—I mean when a man is capable
Of being in uncertainties, Mysteries & doubts without me
I am dreadfully afraid he will slip away
While my kiss is trying to think what to do.

So perhaps rather than deciding something so stark as yes or no—between “letting go/ all the animals at once/ from his bosom, or welcoming/ them one by one/ into his arms” (“The Beginnings of Idleness in Assisi”)—these poems are explorations of what it means to accept the uncertainty of the world (the yes and no) as it really is. On one hand, the “dark risk” of rejecting the world “is not to grow” (“Patient Without an Acre”). On the other, embracing it could mean that “The porcupine went into a culvert and didn’t come out/ And that was the end of my happiness.” For Ruefle there is no definitive answer but to struggle against her own sensitive, perceptive nature, and in this way find beauty without grasping the world too tightly, as in “The Cart”:

Yet I admire its gloves. Hands are unbearably beautiful.
They hold on to things. They let things go.

What does a writer need? I think, first and last, a writer needs to write. I think this is an obvious idea that, because it is obvious, often goes overlooked. Compared to this need, good teachers, free time, the approval of one’s peers, beautiful mistresses, and noble prizes, are utterly beside the point. Many writers have disappeared under the weight of those other needs. Writers who are busy writing do not commit suicide because it’s very difficult to write when you’re dead, and they are writing. Flannery O’Connor spoke of maintaining a ” habit” of art. The words art and habit might seem an odd pairing, but that’s what art is: the glamor of drudgery, and the drudgery of glamor. Picasso continued to scribble. If Sylvia Plath had been on a writing streak, she would not have committed suicide when she did. Maybe later because, for all her talent, she lacked “self-esteem,” but, in the throes of writing the poems for Ariel, suicide was on the back burner. I believe writers ought to know that the most important thing they can do is write– with no immediate purpose in mind. When a writer tells me he or she is blocked, I always run a rubric through my head as to why:

1. They like the idea of being blocked because they are fucking drama queens, and there seems to be some sort of tragic dimension to being “blocked” that daily application of thoughts to paper lacks.
2. They are having an inner sit down strike because either they hate what they’ve written, or feel no one else likes it, and they shut down to the process the way a child might shut down to a parent who has failed to show.
3. Writing isn’t really their main priority. They have penciled it in among the other activities of their day, but they are more invested in being busy, than in being busy writing.
4. They think “writing” is some sort of concrete product. It never occurs to them that, if they can’t write a poem, they could try writing a review, or a song, or an epic novel about a 19th century white woman who falls in love with a another woman from an African tribe and is raped by her empire loving and racist husband (Get Meryl Streep on the phone!) They over determine what ought to be written.
5. They are Goldilocks and are determined to say the porridge is too hot or too cold before any porridge exists. They won’t admit it, but they have an erotic relationship to the word “no.” Refusal turns them on. They are hot for the word “no” to such a degree that “just right” never shows up.
6. They need to be forced to write. They don’t want to take responsibility for writing. It’s like a rape fantasy: no one wants to be raped, but, in the dream, one need not feel ashamed when someone ravishes.

I hate when one of my friends is blocked.This is not compassion on my part, but, rather a sense of past experience that tells me a blocked writer is liable to be annoying. it’s almost as annoying as when I get dumped by a lover. “I’m blocked, I’m blocked.” Spare me! You can’t write because you won’t write. The self disgust, the ego, the anti-depressant, the children and the wife and the husband, and the groceries are all in the way, but if you sit down and neglect three of those things, and write, then you are writing! Writers must be willing to neglect almost everything except writing. How come no one thinks they are blocked from doing dishes, or fucking thier lover (well, that one often happens)? We never hear a janitor say he is blocked (God bless the janitors). It’s a job. You do it to get paid. A writer writes, and the “pay” is, first, a piece of writing. So here’s some tips for writer’s block:

1. Write anyway. Do a dry fuck. Feel miserable. Luxuriate in the ether of your own self disgust. Become an enemy of writing who is forced to pretend you “love” writing.. Learn to write when you don’t feel like it. Stop expecting it to “fulfill” you or please you. I would rather have a wild lover over me right now, her hair whipping my face, her voice wailing in throes of passion at my tender ministrations, but it takes a lot more effort to get that than it does to write–at least for me. I mean, you have to look good. You have to smell nice. You have to be attractive. You have to have a reasonably clean car.In order to write, all you have to do is press keys down with your fingers, so I write. It does not depend on any sentient being other than myself. Thank God.

2. Copy a favorite poem or story or famous phrase, and warp it, substitute a passage or sentence. Be like a virus invading the body of the text. For example: “All true stories end in death: All true stories end in liverwurst.” It does not have to be profound. LEt’s go there:

“All true stories end in liverwurst, at least mine do. I know I should be eating healthier food, but, when depressed, and I am often depressed, only liverwurst, specifically liverwurst on Russian rye with a raw onion and hot mustard, consoles me. That is how I met, Jane, my wife of thirty years. She’s dead now, and I am writing this with the aid of a liverwurst sandwich.Perhaps I should correct myself: all true stories begin in liverwurst, at least mine do. This is a true story then, and liverwurst is its catalyst.”

Ok, so this is not great writing, which brings me to my third suggestion:

3. Don’t have any standards. Write. Don’t have any “ideas” for a story, and, if you do, avoid that idea like the plague until it overwhelms you and makes you submit to it. Begin with a line as far removed from your idea as possible. For example, you have an idea for writing about your lousy relationship with your mother. Forget it. Think of something as far removed from that idea as possible:

A. I dreamed last night that roses flew through my window and began smothering me.
B. I seem to recall reading once that pigs have thirty minute orgasms.
C. IN a kingdom of unmatched shoes, I wander aimlessly.
D. Once, this town had three good pizza parlors, but now it is devoid of anything except Pizza Hut.
E. Sinks back up if too much hair goes down them.

Any one of these non-ideas can then be connected or dsconnected from the lousy relationship. You are the minor god of your writing. Act like a god: create laws, trees, surgical equipment salesman. Decide if you need twleve lines or one before you go for the idea:

A. I dreamed last night that roses flew in through the window and began smothering me. My mother always said roses were her favorite flower, but she just said that because it sounded probable. I don’t think she thought of flowers much at all, unless it seemed appropriate to the occasion, and that’s how she loved me: whenever it seemed appropriate

B. I seem to recall that pigs have thirty minute orgasms. On the day I found out my mother and my ex fiancee were moving in together, the first thought that crossed my mind were those pigs.

C. In the kingdom of unmatched shoes, I wander aimlessly, wondering how I could have been so stupid as to have packed this hurriedly. “Careless” My mother said.”I’d rather have you evil than careless. Careless people do more damage.”

D. Once this town had three good pizza parlors, but now it is devoid of anything except pizza hut, and me and my 85 year old mother, sitting here, not even pretending the pizza or our relationship matters.

E. Sinks back up if too much hair goes down them, and, after a day with my mother, I often feel like a backed up sink.

Just for fun, take one of the above and finish it. Good luck.