Everything Is Alive: Dunce by Mary Ruefle

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Mary Ruefle’s lyrical essay “I Remember, I Remember” reads like a slow, sweet missive, or like part of what the poet has described as the “lifelong sentence”—every word one’s ever uttered, invisibly strung together:

I remember Ben Belitt, Pablo Neruda’s friend and translator, bent down to pick up the New York Times from his doorstep one rainy morning… and the first thing he noticed was that the “newspaper had been crying,” as he put it, that the newsprint was smudged and ran together in watery lines down the page, just like mascara, and then he saw the announcement of Neruda’s death: Neruda had died the night before.

In “Early Failure,” a poem from Dunce, her newest poetry collection, she revisits the paper weeping, plain and unsentimental:

I told my friends the poem was
blurry because the copier wept
while reading it.

It is the paper that weeps, then the copier, though the text drips the same. Ruefle traffics in such belletristic reversals (“not knowing whether I heard/a night of love/or a love a night,” she writes in Dunce’s “Apple in Water”), and in life’s griefs, even its most distant.

Dunce is described as a return to form; Ruefle’s last release, 2016’s My Private Property, was a collection of prose—but her prose is always like poetry, and Dunce immersed me like a novel. Was it her intention to trace the cycle of life, from birth to its end? In “Long White Cloud,” she asks, “How did the bare-bummed child crawling / on the beach in a pink sun-bonnet / learn how to walk by watching seagulls?” and then “How did my mother decide to marry / my father by buffing her nails / then staring at her hands?” It’s rhetorical. Elsewhere, in “Lorraine”—the author’s middle name—she lives “with mice and bats where once / I had toy cars and paper airplanes.” Ruefle is forever the observer of life’s fragility and frivolities—what she refers to in “Little Travel Book” as the “insufferable details / without which life would be unbearable”—and of her own self (from “General Direction”: “Like a chandelier, I generally / stand apart from things / and with a cold eye”).

Of course, she stands apart from nothing in Dunce, a book over which death casts less of a shadow and more a funnily shaped cloud, hovering and darkening the bright spots (now you can gaze more clearly). Ruefle’s mother’s death, her own impending one, and ours, too, are omnipresent—in “The Cake,” she writes, “And the soul of my mother spake, saying / You should have spoken sooner”; in “The Unfurl,” “animals are born now / the skeletal covered by fur / and flesh and hair and leaves / in this way we go on / joining the dead.”

For the fact of death, Ruefle stands in kinship to everything, and everything is alive. Flames lick as they decimate (“When the barn burns / study a cat’s tongue / for the shape of the flames / for flames lick the air, / there is no end to their / convulsive tenderness”) and icebergs condole as they melt in warming temperatures (“Melting they told me / Everything is going to be fine”). In “Happy Birthday,” trees “meet perhaps / and rejoice” and the day is “wet on top and happy / like a cupcake.” The body is a strange splendor: “How can anyone forget eggs? / They drop down in the body, / little troopers, and voilá,” she writes in “General Direction,” which begins, “I keep walking in the general direction.” Toward the end? Maybe. Tears are for consumption in “I Cannot Be Quiet An Hour” (“Tears fall into my soup / And I drink them”) and in “The Good Fortune of Material Existence”:

All the rivers of the world
convene in me. They rush
over my hands, they enter
my mouth, they cover my face.
I am compelled to drink my own
tears, as you too will be
when you wake.

Ruefle’s memories are as alive as the bodies holding them. In “Bath Time,” she hears:

[…] and a light rain
falling on my mother’s grave
comes back to me,
how it seemed
on that sans-everything day
to be the very pins
she carried in her mouth
to unlink a knotted chain for me
or affix a foreboding note
for even a small child
knows the affliction
of language.

In an interview with The Adroit Journal, Ruefle says she noticed but “can’t explain” the motif of small pins in the book. If her tender observations, her puffs of the ordinary with magic, are inexplicable, one hesitates to assign to Dunce any deliberate themes that may have been swirling, unattended, in Ruefle’s head before they made it to paper—and it was certainly paper (Ruefle, I always remember, has never desired a computer). Death reoccurs, at least unwittingly, and prevails. For the couple in “Interlude for a Solitary Flute” (“The ambulance stopped at the wrong house, / losing time”), for great men and the rest of us, in “The Death of Atahualpa At The Hands of Pizarro’s Men” (“and they killed him then and there / making sure that he was dead / Perhaps every death / is as simple as that / A simple sad mistake”), for who-knows, in the plaintive “The Leaves” (“Dearly beloved, we are gathered / here together today to look into / the face of the river”).

The march in the general direction, lucky for us, is more beautiful for its brevity. In “Boutonniere,” she observes:

The people you really like
a lot will disappear
Over the course of a life
why have I nowhere commented
on what steps were easy?
      1) loving you—
      2) watching wild doings among the animals—
      3) standing with friends looking at the sky—

In the stillness of the evening, “night falls / and the empty intimacy of the whole world / fills my heart to frothing”; Ruefle’s face is “but a thumbtack on the earth,” but the earth speaks to her: “I begin / to talk to violets.” Reading Dunce, I felt, with no irony: how dare I not cherish—every day—the color of a flower? Such is the porousness of Ruefle’s written tableaux, along with her gratitude. In “Meditation on My Skull,” she writes of “the great lacuna,” a mystery, and of “a beautiful, sad / Japanese novel whose author killed himself / on my birthday. We could have met!” She muses:

The character for think also means
“be sad, yearn for, unable to forget.”
As, in English, “I think of you”
has the shade of summer moonlight.

Better, maybe, to think less; still, the thoughts, wistful and sure, arrive. Everything is worth thinking about, so Ruefle fills all the lacunae with weight, memorializes them. In “Nixie,” she writes: “I used to think everything had meaning—and it does.”

Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer in Miami, FL. Her work has appeared in BOMB, Artforum, Filmmaker Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. More from this author →