Sieves of Consciousness
Mary Ruefle speaks plain American, which cats and dogs can read. The quip is Marianne Moore's, from her 1920 poem "England," and it speaks to the notion that a quintessentially American poetry is demotic, unpretentious, and wry, impossibly transparent, and wrought of a simplicity so clear it becomes a wild tongue. Ruefle's poetry traffics in this enigma: pedestrian detail ("Walt Whitman loves me") crosses paths with the dream of unmediated utterances, even as it collides with the obtuse and opaque.
Her most recent collection of poems, Trances of the Blast, reads as a compendium of plain American idioms, each wrenched out of context to show its strangeness: “hold that thought,” “you can’t have everything,” “picking up new things,” “more than I am willing to admit,” “what a drag,” “the half of it.” Strewn with filler phrases, colloquialisms, and adages, the poems point to the present tense of the poet’s receptivity: “it’s nowadays.” They also point to the poet herself: “Like, an American is someone / who thinks Jan Vermeer is from Vermont, / and a woman. I am a woman from Vermont.” Picking up the ubiquitous “like,” Ruefle transforms a sophomoric misreading into a coy poetic signature.
It is easy to approach the work of this woman from Vermont as if she were a latter-day Emily Dickinson, owing in no small part to her reputation as a semi-reclusive poet who is reachable only by post. In spite of vast differences in tone, texture, and street smarts, Ruefle has some of Dickinson’s coy mystique. Clicking the contact button on her Web site brings you to this message: “Surprise! I do not actually own a computer. The only way to contact me is by contacting my press, Wave Books, or by running into someone I know personally on the street.” Trances of the Blast, her eleventh collection, includes her own caricature: “I found in the night many like me, / lonely and weird, with brown shoes.” She is often read as a lyric poet par excellence: isolated, mysterious, private, deeply concerned with an interior imaginary. Tony Hoagland describes Ruefle as having the “spiritual desperation of Emily Dickinson” and Michael Klein says her devotional impulses are a testament to the ways “we live in the mind.”
Yet her work, far from a window on interiority, interrogates the nature of lyric itself. Trances of the Blast continues Ruefle’s career-long investigation into the speech rhythms, sources, and ephemera that comprise what we think of as lyric poetry, and into the processes by which theses snippets and stances are stitched together in the mind of the writer and reader to create the poem. Moving from eavesdropped phrase to parable to domestic topography to quotation and back, she continually shifts the epistemological terrain beneath our feet. Her shifts are swift. She pauses on an object only to undercut our expectation for correspondence: “An icy purple light / a poet would say belonged to a perfume stopper / belonging to his mother. // When it was her nipple.” She humorously upends expressions of self-identity: “From here I look like a front moving in.” She objects to the false dichotomy that would insist her poems are either confession or fabrication: “To you I must tell all or lie.” She does neither.
Criticism of contemporary poetry, under a variety of banners, is beset by a tendency to treat the lyric as ahistorical. We have fallen into habits of lyric reading that conflate the conventions informing those habits with their effects. Critics who favor the lyric as a vital form tend to make tautological assumptions: a lyric is lyrical (expressive, intimate, solitary, songlike, short, personal, emotional); modes that sound lyrical (praise, meditation, description, witness, memoir, koan, prayer) give rise to lyric poems. Critics who reject or are suspicious of lyric subjectivity often move in the same vacuum, dismissing the mode as if we all know, a priori, what lyric subjectivity is.
Ruefle draws her line out as if in emulation of the ways the body moves and thinks in space.
Virginia Jackson, in Dickinson’s Misery (2006), reminds us that we cannot understand the what of lyric without understanding the when. She traces the process by which, since the 19th century, “poetic and lyric have come to seem cognate.” These terms were not always equated and, increasingly, they are no longer. Jackson looks at Dickinson’s work in the context of letters, wide-circulation magazines, and other materials, and reminds us that the subsequent century saw the migration of the lyric from the popular press to the classroom. Jackson writes, “What has been left out of most thinking about the process of lyricization is that it is an uneven series of negotiations of many different forms of circulation and address.” This statement about lyricization, about the historical process by which habits of lyric reading emerge, could be an apt descriptor of Ruefle’s poetry—its tonal variety, its concern with processes of transmission and circulation, its adulterated modes of address. Her work is a good index of where we are with this ever-changing process, more than a century down the line.
Here is Ruefle assaying a stereotypical lyric attitude in two ways:
I dash outdoors so I will knowa little more about the day—I stride forth filled with the whiff.What’s to know is always a little to the left,deep in the vine-covered hole of a hedgehog downby the mossy stump. If something is impaled down thereI want to know. I don’t mind throwing myselfinto the cistern of the Middle Ages.
The poem starts off ordinarily enough, with a poet-speaker checking the weather and setting out for a walk. She might be Mary Ruefle, or Frost or Wordsworth. But that pastoral predictability is soon left behind. “What’s to know” tilts the plane of reality into philosophical inquiry; knowledge is defined by relative position. The stroll takes a menacing turn, a prurient or helpful curiosity asserts itself, and the historical frame of reference shifts. The speaker would hurl herself into “the” cistern of the entire medieval epoch, not into an artifact, as “a” would imply. She is suddenly “going medieval,” suspecting impalement, not retracing sylvan steps. Here is another lyric that goes off the epistemological rails:
PeridotI awoke in an ecstasy.The sky was the color of a cut limethat had sat in the refrigeratorin a plastic containerfor thirty-two days.Fact-checkers, check.I am happy.Notice I speak in complete sentences.Something I have not done since birth.And the sky responds.
A clichéd scene of lyric immediacy, an awakening to ecstasy, gives way to a comic comparison of the sky’s gem-like hue to moldering produce. Jackson cites Michael Warner’s description of lyric as an “image of absolute privacy,” self-contained and inviolate, and it would be hard to imagine a scene more freeze-framed than this one. But the “fact-checkers” throw us off the lyric scent. Self-expression reduced to its simplest emotional form—“I am happy”—becomes a syntactic joke: the injunction “Notice I speak in complete sentences” is immediately followed by a fragment, a dependent clause. Meanwhile, the fact-checkers propel the poem into the realm of public discourse, where they testify to the veracity of the speaker’s recollections about decomposing limes. It is an odd and seemingly trivial conversation, aware of the responses of the readership and the sky alike, with no discernible emotional end.
Ruefle is far more concerned with negotiating forms of address and their circulation, as Jackson is, than she is with expression: “After I had my crying, / I had to indent again.” An overflow of affect triggers a typographical act, a foregrounded gesture of the physicality of the poet’s method. Ruefle’s poems continually interrupt lyric expectations with awareness of craft. Critics often assume that poems drawing on the conventions of the lyric voice necessarily privilege content over form, or autobiography over structure. But Ruefle’s poetry reminds us that lyric methodologies, as formal methodologies, have not been fully explored.
To historicize the American lyric in the long view, more needs to be said about the lyric line after iambic pentameter, the line in the extended period when traditional English accentual-syllabic prosody was abandoned by a majority of American poets. What exactly do lyric poets do in lieu of counting syllables and stresses? Indent? Make it up as they go? To dismiss it all as “chopped up prose”—though there is certainly a lot of chopping going on—overlooks much innovation in formal method. A full account of lineation across a century when the line is up in the air, improvised and often ad hoc, would first track the ways the line was re-conceptualized early on by poets as different as William Carlos Williams, H.D., Charles Olson, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop and later by a panoply of others. Then it would look at compositional technologies and modes of circulation—the back of the envelope, the stationery sheet, the prescription pad, the carbon copy, the screen. Ruefle, heavy with her enjambments, reminds us of her tabs and hard returns.
We loathe the condition, the congealed abstraction, but we love the process, the act.
Ruefle draws her line out as if in emulation of the ways the body, often walking, moves and thinks in space. Christina Davis aptly describes Ruefle’s line as a “spatialization of time”; it highlights the aporias in perception and the ways perception is temporally layered. Ruefle moves language across and down the page to lineate the explosions of the book’s eponymous “blast,” and her lines manifest externalizations, not interiorizations, powered by centrifugal, not centripetal, force. As she disperses her materials step-wise in space, the most important tool in her formal toolbox, the device she uses to build her poems from one line to the next, turns out, somewhat paradoxically, to be erasure.
Ruefle uses erasure as both lexical and syntactic method. She has published a book of erasures, A Little White Shadow (2006), which whites out all but evocative bits of a 19th century found text, and her poems depend on this method as well. One poem omits the root of abstractions, leaving their place-holding shells: “and I love the ology of it / and the ism of his cry // I love the ology of clouds // and the ism of rain too.” In another poem, the displacements of travel erase the independent clauses that would move the speaker beyond the hotel ice machine:
When we tiptoe down the hall for iceWhen ice falls out of the shoot and into the bucketWhen a cube falls through the grate and is gone
Ruefle’s work relies not so much on non sequitur, as often appears, but on omission and conflation, a process of folding lines together so that new surfaces touch: “but now that the chestnuts are empty / I have not combed my hair in years.” In this way, she evades the causal momentum of normative syntax: “Sentence, you always / spoiled my evening.”
Similarly, Ruefle incorporates errors and misreadings, one verbal datum substituted for another to initiate a swerve: “I enter the internectarine world”—no longer “internecine,” destructive to both sides, but taking place among fruit. The title of the poem “Donkey On” may be an erasure of the “k” and “g” in Donkey Kong. The book’s title may have been inspired by a misreading of the phrase “traces of the blast” in some other text: “traces,” the residual debris from an explosion, becomes “trances,” hallucinatory mental states, and the explosion becomes apocalypse, as the book’s epigraph from chapter ten of Revelations attests. “The little book which is open in the hand” is one in which honey gives way to bitter terror, giving new meaning—punning on plain American idioms again—to “Having been blown away / by a book.”
Ruefle also employs interrogative syntax as a form of erasure—a refusal to hear a silencing or shuttering response. She is a master of questions as vehicles for anti-closure, drawing the reader into complicity with a poem’s uncertainty or fear. The opening of “Q&A” seems transcribed from a post–poetry reading exchange: “We notice you use the word lonely / in many of your poems, why is that?” The poem then takes off on a syntactic tumbling run, an evasive list that includes “shards and turds and carpet remnants” and itself ends with a question’s elevated pitch—“Why do you ask?” An open question functions as a placeholder for loss. Mention of a mother, in one of the book’s several submerged elegies, prompts the speaker to literalize her materials: “And I press this question into a photograph album / without a comma.” A question becomes a memento, a salvageable thing.
It is counterintuitive to describe this resolutely unplugged poet as a poet of media, but her method is one of watching, pausing, and recording—a poetics of the mute button. Surfing through media (print media, for sure, but also television and radio), she takes us to “the place where products go / to become 75 percent more minty.” She throws out a wide net: the Mongol Empire, Chopin, Mr. Potato Head, Jack Benny, Lincoln, Bob Dylan, and someone called Twist-Tie Man. Reduce, reuse, recycle: Ruefle’s collection includes ad copy (“Faster Love Is All There Is”), Middle English (“I am unlettyrd with broun hayre and have sympathie fantastique”), nursery rhymes (“life was but a Dream”), commercial display (“a mountain range / made of soft-serve”), dime store detail (“a pile of bobby pins on the side of the pool”). And there’s more: “I’ve always wanted to use / malarkey and henna in a poem / and now I have.” The effort is both generative (“for many odd things / are stowed under the overthinking”) and compulsive: “This is the junk of everyday life. / Let us flee from it. / I am old.”
I have said little about what this book is about, its central themes of memory and loss: “You go through the past / and there is a wall.” The collection addresses childhood and schooling, but we are warned from the outset that there will be no easy access to the past. This walk through Romantic ruin shifts into surrealism, a dreamscape where “our hair walked around the garden / and saw things growing / and was confused and sobbed,” and where butterflies become “memories with nothing to do.” Given no affixed point of view, only clues that are not clues, we see “everything / exploded into fuzz”—another blast of detail and discourse. In the poignant and elegiac “White Buttons,” where a mother is addressed, Ruefle again tallies up her methods: letters are both phonemic units and epistles; “mean” is both unkind and what words do when they signify; and sunlight can be both illuminating and sad. In sum, the speaker informs us, “I hated childhood / I hate adulthood / And I love being alive.” The book enacts this paradox: we loathe the condition, the congealed abstraction, and love the process, the perceptual act.
Ruefle never abjures the lyric mode: “I’m going to wash you off now / into the luminous depths / where even a recluse bird must fly.” But her lyric is one of processual parlay—an accretion of speech acts, sifted and stitched. Trances of the Blast does not read as a standout collection, but rather as part and parcel of Ruefle’s ongoing work in this mode, taking its place alongside her award-winning Selected Poems (2010), which runs poems in order of publication without indicating where each originating book collection begins and ends.
As a verbal hunter-gatherer, Ruefle is a barometer of our lyric listening. Her poems are sieves of consciousness, catching strangeness and mundanity, the overheard and the under the breath. There has come to be a sense that writing lyric poems is an ordinary, vaguely conformist thing to do, like driving a Volvo or ordering Thai in the suburbs. Ruefle reminds us how odd, synthetic, and arduous it is—the pursuit of this transmission of verbal fact and form. If you want to know how an early 21st-century lyric poem gets made, and how it is tethered to the rhetorics and resources of its time and place, start here.
Photograph: Kevin Dooley