Book Review

Flipping through a beautiful new collection of poetry to find that it is actually a collection of prose poems is a little daunting. I worry that it will require a kind of energy that I don’t usually tap into when reading verse poetry. But from the first, Mary Ruefle’s new collection, The Book, turns that prejudice on its head. Ruefle writes prose poems that open their own doors. Some are funny in subtle ways, some are ironic, but all are profound, and many of them include a volta to rival any sonnet worth its salt. Still I approached each with a thread of trepidation.

For example, the longest prose poem in The Book, “Dear Friends,” takes the shape of a catalogue of friendships stretching over twenty-two pages (and untold years) of beautifully realized stories. They range from the naive to the heartbreaking: a friend “who believes that birds have souls but humans do not,” a friend in the shape of a dog who lived downstairs with a woman in an abusive relationship, a Mormon friend who inadvertently enlightens the speaker about faith, so many friends and none of them rises above the others in emphasis—which is an apt metaphor for the book. When I finished reading this poem (which I want to call ambitious despite the fact that it most pointedly is not), I hadn’t learned about the speaker’s friends or about friendship in general but rather had felt something about what it is to be human. It was that rare experience of reading something interesting not knowing where it was going, getting there and not knowing exactly where I had gotten to, and having loved every second of it. For a reader who, as I have said, generally resists prose poems, that is saying something.

There are brief prose poems in this book as well, such as “Chilly Observation.” I include it here in its entirety:

Do you know the story of a woman who went to a taverna in Greece, her table was set on the beach, after a while the tide came in, the water covered her legs and the legs of the table and the waiter continued to serve her, going back and forth from the kitchen as if nothing were happening? People often wonder what it is like to be old, and a few actually ask.

The poem is two sentences: the dramatic situation of the water engulfing the diner and the waiter continuing to serve despite knowing what was happening, then the volta. Age engulfs us all, and on we go without discussion.

Mastery permeates these poems. A favorite of mine is the poem “Nope,” in which the speaker walked into a “famous independent bookstore” and after struggling to find the poetry section, stands in awe in the face of all the poets she has read, those she has forgotten, those she hasn’t heard of, and she falls sad because she realizes that “nobody read[s] them.” I felt this keenly as a person who hopes her poems will be read, but then she follows the observation up with “I read them, but when I did I just started writing poems myself, creating an endless loop.” On a single-poet level, this is a terrible indictment, we do write in a loop—largely for other poets. But once I caught my breath, I realized it is true on a larger level too. We are pleased to write poetry in a literary context, a conversation with our forebears, but even the most unique among us often only contributes another version of a common experience. Poetry lines up in slender volumes on the shelves in so many bookstores.  While we (and the speaker) sit on the floor in the bookstore in despair, a teenaged boy happens by and exclaims to his mother, “I found the poetry, dad is always telling me to look for the poetry . . . here it is.” But before we rejoice, the mother asks if he wants a book, to which he replies, “’Nope!’ and amble[s] away.” In yet another turn, the speaker responds to this heartbreaking situation by feeling an unexplained happiness and leaving “the store without buying a single book.” I questioned my vocation for a couple of days after reading this, but can any of us be stopped?

Many other elements of life are explored in this lovely book. They include house hunting, death, identity, an unfortunate birthday clown, a found poem drawn from a hotel guest book, a beautiful treatment of Haiku, and of course, the title poem of the book, “The Book.”

“The Book” returns to the literary to posit that books exist when read and are perhaps waiting to be read when idle. They experience anxiety about their disposition when their owner dies. They long to remain with their shelf mates in the owner’s afterlife. We are thrown into despair as we scan our shelves before the poem puts the orphaned books into the hands of a new reader who can do little but “ameliorate their sorrow” by reading them and saying to them, “Old Friend, you were written especially for me.”

Stunningly, this is how I felt about every poem in this book. I opened the book expecting a challenging experience because of the shape of the poems, but I was incorrect. Each poem I approached, even the twenty-two page “Dear Friends,” lifted me out of what I thought I knew about prose poems and into a temptation to try it myself though I dare not. I don’t believe I can carry anything as significant as these poems on my fingertips as well as Mary Ruefle does. The Book is a must-have collection and will be on my shelf, with its shelf mates, for as long as I can read poetry.

About the Reviewer

Melody Wilson’s recent work appears in Briar Cliff Review, The Shore, Whale Road Review, Timberline Review, Tar River Poetry, and Rat’s Ass Review. Upcoming poetry will be in Sugar House Review, Red Rock Review, and Re Dactions. She received the 2021 Kay Snow Award for poetry, Honorable Mention for the 2021 Oberon Poetry Award, and finalist in the 2021 Patricia Dobler Poetry Award.