Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems is best appreciated not for its message or its drama, but for its expert way at guiding a reader through the writer’s lively imagination.
Reading through Mary Ruefle’s new Selected Poems, published by Wave Books and culled from her ten books of poetry, I notice two threads run through all the work: one is an element of light-handed humor, and the other is the echo of Biblical language and subject matter. References to artifice and art also reappear throughout her poems, signaling that Ruefle wants the reader to stay aware of context and linguistic maneuvers.
Her language is simple and direct, even when the poem itself is not; one of the enjoyable paradoxes of reading Ruefle’s work is how easy it is to read, but how many possible meanings you can make. Though sometimes described as an experimental or “post-avant” poet, I have always found Ruefle’s work intelligently accessible, charming and reader-friendly. Her poems tend to absurdism – a poem titled “Barbarians” describes a field of lounging cows, while “My Happiness” follows a meandering porcupine.
Her work has something in common with John Ashbery’s, in that Ruefle’s signature move is to begin in one place, and then whimsically wander off to a completely different subject by poem’s end. But where Ashbery seeks to explore the world, Ruefle’s work is more interior, often examining childhood or her own (and the reader’s) narrative expectations. For instance, in one of my favorite poems, “Lapland,” though the speaker appears to be examining a photograph, there are echoes of the Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Snow Queen,” in which the young heroine must travel through Lapland with the aid of a reindeer to rescue a young boy. Ruefle’s interest shifts from “the little Lapp girl” to the actual geography of Lapland, the flora and fauna:
The little Lapp girl wanders around picking cloudberries
while the bluethroat sings one of his hundred songs.
There are tiny white flowers, too: angelica,
and the wild white rununculus.
The reindeer eat lichen and moss under the melting snow.
Some of the lichen are a thousand years old
and do not recognize the modern world.
This kind of progression is repeated throughout the selected work. In “Tilapia,” the speaker begins to describe her restaurant entrée, but the poem quickly digresses into the history of Costa Rican fishing and the Biblical story of Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes. It’s wonderful poetic slight of hand, and Ruefle manages to make it seem easy.
…I feel like eating a small fish fried to death
with a sprig of parsley over one eye.
You have to engage your dinner in its own mortality!
…From exposure you will gain success or die.
Christ did both and this is the fish (my waiter’s word)
that He multiplies and thrust upon the multitudes.
A miracle that it should lie before me!
One small quibble: I would have liked the publisher to indicate which poems came from which books in the table of contents, and include the punctuation of section breaks indicating where poems from one book start and poems from the next begin. This information is included at the end of the book. In my mind, the organization within a manuscript – and the relationship of each poem to the other poems – can change the meanings of the poems subtly, and would have lent something to the reading of the book. I’m a shameless lover of context, and I feel my reading would have been enhanced by knowing which poem belonged to which collection. The way it is currently structured, you often lose the feeling of a trajectory of this writer’s lifetime of work, the feeling for the way her poems have changed or developed over time.
If you’re a fan of Ruefle’s work, this is definitely a worthwhile addition to your library. If you’ve never read Ruefle before, this is a wonderful introduction. I’d suggest, for maximum enjoyment, to read a few poems randomly sampled at a time rather than trying to read the whole thing beginning to end, because the spark and wit of her work and language can become diluted, and the collection as a whole isn’t organized to reflect any kind of development. Ruefle’s work is best appreciated not for its message or its drama, but its expert way at guiding a reader through the writer’s lively imagination.