Book Review

The poems of Mary Ruefle have often felt like delightful puzzles: slippery, full of surprise, and rich in irony, much of it self-directed. In her most recent book, Dunce (2020), she pokes fun at her own authority as a writer. “Vow of Extinction” finds her listing all that she now refuses to put into her poems. She begins with plants (“From this day forward all plants / except the lemon tree / will be banished from my poems”) and goes on to include clouds, animals, people, and (a curiously minor category) candles. “Vow” is a parody of artistic manifestos that objects to their impracticality. Granted, Ruefle is free to never write another line about a candle, or a squirrel, or a flower; but there is no coherent rationale for such rules, and little reason to think a poet could feasibly uphold these principles over the course of a lifetime.

Skeptical of authorial control, Ruefle looks at her own poems with a sense of bewilderment. Writing, as she describes it, is not an outpouring of spontaneous emotion, but nor is it a craft based on skill or practice. Instead, it is an impersonal process that leaves her estranged from her own creations. In “Dark Corner,” she happens across an old draft of a poem and is immediately struck by its unfamiliarity: “How did it get in the drawer? / How long had it waited? / Had I put it there, / in holding?” The words are so alien to her that they might as well have been composed by an insect: “Did it belong to the fly?”

By contrast, Ruefle puts far more stock in the reader’s authority to determine the meaning of a poem. As she writes in “Unbeknownst”: “Words you may find as you / read you may find as you read / you deepen them…” It is the reader who deepens the words on the page by piecing together an interpretation that will accord with their mind and sensibility. This is not to say that Ruefle deems language empty or detached from the reality it seeks to describe. Idioms in her poetry have a habit of turning literal, and quite serious. In “Solomon”: “And then he was off the hook, / a very large hook of the kind / they hang sides of beef from / in a refrigerated room.” Ordinary language may be a springboard for intellectual play, yet we cannot assume that it has no ties to, or bearing on, the real world.

The title, Dunce, evokes those figures in literature who are mocked for their slow-wittedness. But Ruefle has a different attitude to knowledge than the title might lead us to expect. Perhaps the most important idea in this book is that recognizing you do not know something is itself a form of knowledge. Several poems thus culminate not with a revelation, but acceptance of what lies beyond the poet’s understanding. “Apple in Water” ends with the speaker:

not knowing whether I heard
a night of love
or a love of night,
such was the knowledge gained
during that long languid swim.

Despite the simple flip in structure, “a night of love” and “a love of night” are different in kind. Still, the poet asserts that not knowing, and realizing she does not know, is a special kind of wisdom and should be respected as such.

This principle helps explain Ruefle’s interest in childhood: a period in one’s life where little is known, but much intuited. Several poems adopt a child’s perspective through imagery. The reader is apt to encounter magical creatures, like the “elves” that crop up in “Happy Birthday,” or read about delightfully absurd scenarios, like the “knight sticking his sword / in a snail” in “Earthly Failure.” Melancholy inevitably haunts these scenes. When a gnome appears in “Midnight Express,” it is “one of the older ones, / smoking a pipe filled with / bewilderment and regret.” Instead of framing these moments as grown-up views on lost innocence, Ruefle repeatedly asserts that childhood is as much the province of pain as adulthood. She writes in “Bath Time” that “even a small child / knows the affliction / of language.”

Over the course of the book, Ruefle’s reflections on childhood acquire a personal resonance. Dunce is, among other things, an elegy for her mother, who appears with increasing frequency as the volume draws to a close. Typically for Ruefle, tragedy collides with absurdity, as in “Halloween,” where the cartoonish festivities of late October grate against the pain of real death:

and at the thought of my mother
there was a corpse in me,
it sat up and stretched out its arms
rolled those eyeballs back
turned its head all the way around
then said something stupid
like old long since mum.

Passages such as these are genuinely shocking because they do not deploy any easy tricks, although they address how cheapening it can feel to discuss private grief in public.

Even as she laments her own loss, Ruefle widens her gaze to acknowledge other people’s grief. “Interlude for a Solitary Flute” finds the poet listening to cries from the couple’s house next door, wondering who the ambulance has come for and who has been left mourning: “Such a high, solitary, / silver note . . .” In “Patience,” she observes a woman in the street and, perceiving that she has suffered greatly, ponders: “I can only imagine what / she’s been through, / reeking like that / of gardenia.” In “Lightly, Very Lightly,” she imagines a lady putting away “the alarm clock in a drawer / where she cannot see it,” preferring silence to the cacophony of her children’s voices. The poet’s empathy is founded on the recognition that other people’s pain, which may seem at a safe distance one moment, can suddenly become our own. For Ruefle, we are all the befuddled visitors in “Are You Talking About a Funeral?”:

it was as if they had spent the day exploring an island
only to be told afterwards it was the contours
of their own face . . .

About the Reviewer

Florian Gargaillo is assistant professor of English at Austin Peay State University. His work has appeared in such venues as Modern Language Quarterly, Essays in Criticism, Modernism/Modernity, Journal of Modern Literature, and Twentieth-Century Literature. He is currently at work on a book about postwar poetry and political clichés.