Mary Ruefle - Selected Poems
I’ve been spending my reading time this summer mostly going back to books that have been around awhile. Reacquainting myself with my bookshelf. I’ve said this before, and I’ve heard others say it as well, that in our rush to the new, the past, especially the recent past, gets passed too quickly. So I spent time with The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest, and, of course, as I put up on the blog, Absences, by James Tate, and Houseboat Days, by John Ashbery. (Which reveals the sorts of things I go back to.)
And then comes Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems in the mail. I’m about halfway through it, and I’m having a great time. This is a must-have book. And a strong argument for Ruefle’s position at the forefront of contemporary poetry. In her poems, she's able to hover right at the very edge of the personal and the universal ("I was born in a hospital. I stank.") that is such a precarious place to hover, as the dangers of banality and generalities float out there on both sides constantly. She navigates the encounter with deftness and surety.
Here’s a poem of introduction, first published in Apparition Hill, which she wrote (or completed, as they say in the bibliography) in 1989, but which wasn’t published until 2002.
The Pedant’s Discourse
Ladies, life is no dream; Gentlemen,
it’s a brief folly: you wouldn’t know
death’s flashcard if you saw it.
First the factories close, then the mills,
then all the sooty towns shrivel up
and fall off from the navel.
And how should I know, just because my gramma
died in one? I was four hundred miles away,
shopping. I bought a pair of black breasts
with elastic straps that slip over the shoulder.
I’m always afraid I might die at any moment.
That night I heard a man in a movie say
I have no memories and presumably he meant it.
But surely it was an act. I remember my gramma’s
housedress was covered with roses. And she
remembered it too. How many times she turned
to her lap and saw the machines: the deep folds
of red shirts endlessly unfolding while they dried.
Whose flashcard is that? So, ladies and gentlemen,
the truth distorts the truth and we are in it up
to our eyebrows. I stand here before you tonight,
old and wise: cured of vain dreams, debauched,
wayward, and haggard. The mind’s a killjoy, if
I may say so myself, and the sun’s a star,
the red dwarf of which will finally consume us.