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Book Review: 'The Book,' Mary Ruefle


Published November 1, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Libby Lewis
  • Mary Ruefle

When Mary Ruefle of Bennington was chosen in 2019 as Vermont's ninth poet laureate, she followed the lead of many of her predecessors and devised a special project. Instead of vowing to give a reading at every library in the state, as Sydney Lea did, or coediting an anthology of Vermont poets, as Chard deNiord did, Ruefle pursued an even more old-fashioned aim. During her tenure, she has been mailing handwritten poems to Vermont residents, with a goal of delivering a thousand of these unexpected gifts.

In 2020, Ruefle told Seven Days that she was choosing her recipients from the names listed in telephone directories "using a proprietary dowsing method, a private game of conscious association and instinct." This combination of whimsy and earnest human solidarity is a reliable feature of Ruefle's own writings, which are both shrewd and generous.

Her new volume of prose poems is demurely entitled The Book. But the contents are bristling with surprises, as the poet orchestrates collisions between divergent topics and perspectives.

Ruefle's 22 previous volumes include Dunce, a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize that was also long-listed for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics' Circle Award; and Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. She has also published a comic book called Go Home and Go to Bed! and an illustrated, chapbook-length essay called On Imagination, now hard to find but delightful and worth tracking down.

Ruefle is also a visual artist who specializes in expressive "erasure," producing new pieces by erasing segments of existing work by other authors. Her erasures of 19th-century texts have been exhibited in galleries and published in the collection A Little White Shadow.

In The Book, Ruefle can be commonsensical and wily, mournful and comic, friendly and roguish — all within the same poem. Here's the entirety of "The Bark":

I took my dog to the lake, he stood at the water's edge and barked, the echo of his bark came back and he barked at it, again and again he barked at his own echo, thinking there was another dog on the other side of the lake. Welcome to poetry, I said.

In these latest works, Ruefle embraces the long, international tradition of prose poetry. Some readers may find the term paradoxical. Isn't a poem by definition made of lines? Why would a writer forgo the audible power of musical measures in verse?

The Book by Mary Ruefle, Wave Books, 112 pages. $25. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • The Book by Mary Ruefle, Wave Books, 112 pages. $25.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics describes prose poems as a "controversially hybrid and (aesthetically and even politically) revolutionary genre." The entry observes that "with its oxymoronic title and its form based on contradiction, the prose poem is suitable to an extraordinary range of perception and expression." Tracing the older sources of prose poetry to biblical versets and folk and fairy tales and its modern origins to mid-19th-century French innovators such as Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, the encyclopedia praises the form's "high patterning, rhythmic and figural repetition, sustained intensity, and compactness."

Ruefle has excelled in writing agile, syncopated free verse, but her prose poems are even more unusual. Her investigations in the genre have yielded a sound all her own. You hear in these new poems how poetic prose can absorb and parody the regular prose of daily life: articles, advertisements, letters to the editor, legal documents, business correspondence.

Ruefle is also terrific at incorporating dialogue. Here's the opening of "A Lesson in History," which has the impetus of an overheard outburst:

My student hated history. History is stupid, he said. Stuff that's already happened is boring. Maybe a history of parties might be slightly interesting, like on one page or something, but there's no history of parties because you go to parties to forget history — that's the point. You party. Only an idiot doesn't get it. If you remember anything, it wasn't a party. Jesus. Ok, take him. The only thing you need to know about Jesus is that he's famous for throwing a dinner party.

Throughout the book, Ruefle's narrator adopts various postures, sounding at times like a professor professing, a sketch comic spinning out scenarios, and a logician testing propositions about the nature of language and reality.

The plot and theme of these poems is thinking — thinking aloud. Ruefle believes, as she says in On Imagination, that reading is "a form of listening." Listen to the mind's voice in the opening to "The Color," where her vignette meanders and swerves, seeming to drift but then pouncing.

I was at my desk pretending to be writing. Actually I really was writing, but while writing I was really thinking about things that had nothing to do with what I was writing—and there were quite a few of them—and even now I must stop and think about that strange phrase quite a few, for how can there be quite a few, if there are few there are few, but wouldn't quite a few be a lot, quite a lot as a matter of fact?

While Ruefle's subjects are often ordinary, her way of seeing — and of watching herself seeing — is anything but banal. Her point of view is steadily, insistently odd. The effect is to accentuate how improbable everyday existence can be.

At the center of The Book is a longer piece, "Dear Friends," a 22-page rumination on friendship with a recurring refrain: "I have a friend who..." Ruefle has a knack for reenergizing words, for instance the well-worn "love":

I have a friend who has never read a single word I have ever written. I love being with her.

I have a friend who is not a person I could ever be, even if I tried, nor would I want to be, and I love being with her.

Many readers of this gentle, whip-smart and ingenious writer will "love being with her" — and will finish The Book feeling less alone. Strange as life is, we're in this together.

"The Translator"

Two insects exchanged information in the middle of the night. Perhaps they were frogs, I can't say, but the shrilling carried far; I woke in my bed and did not turn on the light, four times the information was relayed and came back verbatim, or maybe countered with questions, did I hear you correctly? are you absolutely certain? could you repeat it? And then they quit. A phone call after midnight means accident or death (I have received both) and though I know it may have been a creaturely announcement of love and ripeness (those too) it sounded like dire info to my ear. I lay there, wondering. Was it something that I, too, would like to know or needed unbeknownst to know, something that would affect me personally, if I only knew? What were they saying, out there in the night? To pay such close attention, to hear with every fiber of my being, and remain completely ignorant.

Excerpt from The Book, © 2023 by Mary Ruefle. Used with permission of the author and Wave Books.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Thinking Aloud | Book review: The Book, Mary Ruefle"



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