The poems in Mary Ruefle’s latest book, Dunce (2019), are one or two pages long. Reading through them for the first time, I was struck by how often the words “tears,” “death,” and “dying” appeared.
Ruefle, however, doesn’t emphasize these words over others in her poems; they are part of their fabric — part of everyday consciousness when you reach a certain age.
After I finished my first reading of Dunce, but before I went back to the beginning and started all over again, I decided to reread an interview that Ruefle did with Caitlin Youngquist for the Paris Review (December 12, 2016) when her collection, My Private Property (2016) was published.
It is an unpretentious interview, which occurs only slightly more often than Halley’s Comet appears in the night sky. Among other topics, Ruefle talked about what it means to be a woman whose age makes her invisible. Being two years older than Ruefle, who was born in 1952, I was particularly touched by this passage:
Well, thematically, aging and death become one and the same for writers, and very often you lose young readership because you’re no longer interested in the things young people are interested in. The time for exuberance, energy, endless curiosity, endless activity within a body of work, that drops away and everything becomes bittersweet. But this becoming invisible—all women talk about it. There’s a period of transition that’s so disorienting that you’re confused and horrified by it, you can’t get a grip on it, but it does pass. You endure it, and you are patient, and it falls away. And then you come into a new kind of autonomy that you simply didn’t have when you were young. You didn’t have it when your parents were alive, you didn’t have it back when you were once a woman to be seen. It’s total autonomy and freedom, and you become a much stronger person. You’re not answerable to anyone anymore. For me, it was a journey of shedding the sense of needing to please someone—parents, children, partners.
In her poetry, the ordinary becomes unsettling and magnetic. Ruefle shifts from one state of consciousness to another in less time than it takes to blink:
Who won? I said.
The game’s tomorrow, he said.
And I became the snail I always was,
crossing the field in my helmet.
The shift that takes place between the second and third lines of this poem, “Super Bowl”, from standing and talking in a public arena like supermarket checkout line, to inhabiting an isolated, inward space, happens frequently in Dunce. Often, after making the shift, Ruefle comes back to that public space, hearing and seeing everything around her differently.
Ruefle makes unexpected connections and associations that might initially strike the reader as outrageous, but come to possess a certain stubborn, opaque logic (“Words have no thoughts/just as you have no/lice.”). She will then effortlessly pivot in another direction, which is one of the deep joys of reading Ruefle’s poems. You never know what she is going to do next. And yet, when she does it, it is bound to hold your attention.
Ruefle is swimming (“I was swimming/with the taste of apple/in my mouth”) and experiencing something unexpected. She goes for walks by herself and with a friend (“I am always up for a bog, said Mary./I too, am always up for one, said I.”). The repetition and odd diction animates the poem with delight. I am reminded of Matsuo Bashō’s insight: “The journey itself is the home.”
Ruefle is aware that the only destination that awaits her is death, and that turning away from that awareness doesn’t alter the facts. She does not ask for pity or sympathy because death is democratic. “I am going to die” begins one poem. She recognizes her small, passing presence (“My face a thumbtack/in the earth.”).
Recognizing that there is no permanent sanctuary from one’s impending chaos, she consciously keeps moving forward (“ I keep walking in the general direction.”). The quest is for knowledge, pleasure, feeling, insight. (“I also saw a leaf-blower/and all the dead leaves/looked like they were having fun/jumping around as if they were alive again.”). This feeling of inescapable isolation, of the attendant fears, surprises, and joys it brings, is at the heart of Dunce.
Ruefle writes list poems that make me gnash my teeth because I love them so much.
The poem “Little Stream” opens:
My heart was bright and shining
like a lobster in boiling water.
And then I was just a child
eating the leftover snow.
I’d lost my mittens and my belly button
was as good as gone, meaning
I couldn’t be born again, ever,
So I sat by my a little stream
with my eyes closed.
What follows is surprising, funny, captivating. The ordinary and mythic happen right next to each other. The lines move from objective witnessing (“I saw a woman carrying a child’s coffin/on her head.”) to fairytale whimsy (“I saw a rat so friendly/he shined my shoes with his tongue.”) and do not stop.
Death is everywhere in these poems because it is everywhere in life (“with both ears I hear/the dainty popping/of bath bubbles–/and a light rain/falling on my mother’s grave/comes back to me”). Ruefle will track the places her thinking takes her without pulling back or trying to turn it into a story, or imbue it with longing, or culminate in a revelation.
“A Morning Person” opens with “what a beautiful day for a wedding!” Less than 20 lines later it ends, “I hate my poems.” What happens in between, all the places Ruefle takes us – her willing readers – is unrelenting attentiveness to everyday occurrences and imaginative flights, and the porous border between them. We need both to live.
Ruefle understands fragility. She has a wonderfully odd sense of reality. She knows that “At some age/the world begins to drift away,” and she doesn’t try to hold on. In her “journey of shedding,” we are the lucky recipients of her indelible poems.
Dunce (2019) by Mary Ruefle is published by Wave Books.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.