“There is a world which poets cannot seem to enter,” Mary Ruefle wrote in her 2003 essay, “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World.” “It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.” In her Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2010), Ruefle’s speakers are often engaged in the task of looking for that entry—or at least observing the distance between themselves and what’s beyond the barrier. Her poems inhabit a sort of negative space, the richness of which, even in its loneliness, is given form and depth by the constraint of that other, more populous world pressing against it.
Ruefle’s speakers have a fascination with unvisited countries, which offer the potential and promise of homecoming for the soul that feels itself in exile. In “Mercy,” for example, Ruefle writes, “I believe Paris is a place where / everyone is marvelously alive, each in their own way.” This belief is maintained even though the speaker tells us, later in the poem, that she knows from movies that such is not truly the case. In “Cuba,” too, the fact that the speaker has never been to Cuba only adds to the significance of that country to her inner life: “it remains a place / where I have never found it necessary / to alter my description of anything.” In “The Nutshell,” the speaker’s action of smashing a skull against a rock reminds her that she has “never been to Denmark”—an example of a kind of bookish logic that is often manifest in this collection, making associative leaps between action and imagination through literary reference.
What is undone or invisible is similarly significant, and what is nonexistent is given weight and substance in Ruefle’s poems. In “The Brooch,” a failed project of making, after Keats’s death, “a gold brooch in the shape of a lyre / with strands of John’s hair for the strings” is contrasted with the project of a Hawaiian king who wore a cape of feathers: “Ninety thousand birds were captured and killed…It took a century to complete, a century / for a man to become a bird.” The brooch, which was never crafted because there wasn’t a goldsmith in Rome “who could crimp the hair-strings in,” becomes a kind of negative image of the cape, something unachieved but given substance through its persistent nonexistence, its pressure against and contrast with the spectacular cape.
In “The Butcher’s Story,” the narrator tells of a young man who went missing in his village. With his father and uncle, the narrator went looking for him in the swamp. The missing young man is never mentioned again, but the poem tells of finding “three petrified trees” in the swamp, from which the narrator and his family “make beautiful cabinets, / polished like glass.” The little fable leaves the reader feeling a bit unsettled, in part because this is, after all, set up as a butcher’s story and not a cabinet maker’s. But the poem also doesn’t lead us to the easy resolution we might expect: the idea that somehow art, in the form of the beautiful cabinets, is a compensation for the loss of the young man, or even that it is a balm for that loss. Instead, the poem leaves us simply with the mystery of the disappearance and the solid fact of the cabinets, one thing having replaced the other and offering a kind of shadow or reflection of it, rather than an explanation.
In another meditation on the invisible, “Lines Written on a Blank Space,” the diminishment of a bar of soap over time is a metaphysical proposition. The soap grows more into itself as it becomes smaller, since that is “the way it was made to grow.” The poem then poses a question about the afterlife that is no less profound for being slyly humorous in its predication on the verbal contradiction of “growing smaller.” The speaker asks, if the soap grows by getting smaller, “how, / can I say it will not keep growing / after it goes away?”
It’s curious that, in poems so concerned with absence and the invisible, Ruefle is not a poet who makes use of a lot of white space on the page. In some ways I link Ruefle’s work with that of Jean Valentine, another great contemporary topographer of the subjective, interior life—but Valentine supports her poems’ interiority with indentations and typographical breaths that seem to visually represent the movement of thoughts and the fluidity of emotion. And of course Ruefle herself has explored physical space and absence on the page in another form: the minimal and delicate erasure poems of A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006). But with some important exceptions, the poems in her Selected are single, unbroken stanzas, and her typically longish lines tend to turn on concrete nouns, giving the poems a sense of presence and tangible weight. This contrast works to create an interesting energy and tension in the poems, just as the poems’ speakers assert themselves outwardly at the very same time that they move to sound inner quadrants. The difficulty and even absurdity of such a multidirectional stance also accounts for a great deal of the book’s humor.
Another example of negative space in Ruefle’s work is the beautiful poem “Perpetually Attempting to Soar.” Here a boy extends his hand from the window of a moving car to cup the wind, having “been assured / that is exactly how a woman’s breast feels when you put / your hand around it and apply a little pressure.” As an adult, he wants to weep one night because, holding his wife’s breast, “it was the wind he imagined now.” The image is resolved associatively, gorgeously, when, in the man’s final days, he sees “the shape of his face molded in the pillow.” Ruefle often allows her poems this kind of surreal logic, their turns relying on synesthesia or sense images other than the visual, and this is part of what gives the poems a quality of strangeness that feels, in proportion to its oddness, deeply warm and human.
In “From Here to Eternity” Ruefle traces still more clearly the boundary between the subjective world and “the world everybody else lives in”—but even as the poem delineates the two spaces it shows the interplay between them, with compassion for dwellers of both realms: “you have produced enough tears / to fill, to one-eighth inch / of the top, Lake Baikal, / and now someone would like to swim.” To somehow find a home for our subjective experience in the outer world seems not just a problem for poets, but for every sensitive person. Poets are given both the task and the pleasure of articulating that problem, and the deep, inviting tear-waters of Lake Baikal seem a good metaphor for the products of such efforts.
“One day you wake up / and your life is over,” “From Here to Eternity” begins. “But it doesn’t mean / you have to die.” Instead, the poem continues,
It means you are more interested
in the shadows of objects than objects
themselves, and if asked to draw anything
you would only need charcoal
to convince the world
it is waiting, in the shadows
of things, and you will wait back.
It is in this kind of afterlife, which in truth feels more like a heightened way of living than a death, that Mary Ruefle’s poems reside.