Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mary Ruefle: "Civil, undomesticable, and heartening"


Mary Ruefle is the winner of this year's William Carlos Williams Award for 2011 for her Selected Poems (Wave Books). The Poetry Society of America posted her poem "Glory" and Rodney Jones’ articulate summary of her work ("What a civil, undomesticable, and heartening poet is Mary Ruefle.") I've reposted the poem here. It's a fantastic and deceptive as a naked mole rat seen against a flesh-coloured sky. After the poem, I've written a little discussion of it.

Glory 

The autumn aster, those lavender ones,
and the dark-blooming sedum
are beginning to bloom in the rainy earth
with the remote intensity of a dream.  These things
take over.  I am a glorifier, not very high up
on the vocational chart, and I glorify everything I see,
everything I can think of.  I want ordinary men and women,
brushing their teeth, to feel the ocean in their mouth.
I am going to glorify the sink with toothpaste spat in it.
I am going to say it's a stretch of beach where the foam
rolls back and leaves little shells.  Ordinary people
with a fear of worldly things, illness, pain, accidents,
poverty, of dark, of being alone, of misfortune.
The fears of everyday life.  People who quietly and secretly
bear their dread, who do not speak freely of it to others.
People who have difficulty separating themselves
from the world around them, like a spider hanging
off the spike of a spider mum, in an inland autumn,
away from the sea, away from that most unfortunate nation
where people are butterballs dying of meat and drink.
I want to glorify the even tinier spiders in the belly of the spider
and in the closed knot of the mum's corolla, so this is likely
to go on into winter.  Didn't  I say we were speaking of autumn
with the remote intensity of a dream?  The deckle edge of a cloud:
blood seeping through a bandage.  Three bleached beech leaves
hanging on a twig.  A pair of ruined mushrooms.  The incumbent
snow.  The very air.  The imported light.  All autumn struggling
to be gay, as people do in the midst of their woe.
I met a psychic who told me my position in the universe
but could not find the candy she hid from her grandkids.
The ordinary fear of losing one's mind.  You rinse the sink,
walk out into the October sunshine, and look for it
by beginning to think.  That's when I saw the autumn aster,
the sedum blooming in a purple field.  The psychic said
I must see the word glory emblazoned on my chest.  Secretly
I was hoping for a better word.  I would have chosen for myself
an ordinary one like orchid or paw.
Something that would have no meaning in the astral realm.
One doesn't want to glorify everything.  What might I actually say
when confronted with the view from K2?  I'm not sure
I would say anything?  What's your opinion?
You're a man with a corona in your mouth,
a woman with a cottonball in her purse,
what's your conception of the world?


This is a great poem, gently turning one’s expectations of what it is doing – and of one’s perceptions – as it proceeds. It begins with details, and a sly wit (“I am a glorifier, not very high up/on the vocational chart.”) The narrator begins to glorify. OK. The world of nature. The comically but plainly human (glorifying a sink with toothpaste.) Then it turns to larger things, things often the domain of ‘poetry’ (poverty, pain, misfortune, “people who quiet and secretly/bear their dread.”) So far, so good. All very well said, thoughtful. But, the reader notes, we’re in a poem, so is this turning self-reflexive? But then, it begins to get more interesting.

People who have difficulty separating themselves
…away from that most unfortunate nation
where people are butterballs dying of meat and drink.

Now we have an edge. This isn’t the usual ‘glorifying.’ That’s quite sharp: “butterballs dying of meat and drink.” This isn’t what we thought we were getting into, up there with the autumn aster and the dark blooming sedum. And:  “The deckle edge of a cloud:/blood seeping through a bandage.” That’s nice, deckle, but also continues the seepage of increasing darkness.

Then we have the psychic, and the narrator secretly hopes to have been given “a better word,” a better role to play than simply, mono-dimensionally glorifying. Yes, let's recognize the wonder of the world, but let's also view things with perspective, complexity, and insight. We’d all like that. And does she mean in this poem?

And then she goes on to examine what it means to glorify, to poemize, to speak the world and one’s experience, to revel and numinize. She asks the reader questions. This isn’t the romantic poet with a special relation to the numinous and the glorious. This is a person with words, noticing things, saying a few things, and interacting with culture, the environment, and others.
One doesn't want to glorify everything.  What might I actually say
when confronted with the view from K2?  I'm not sure
I would say anything?  What's your opinion?
You're a man with a corona in your mouth,
a woman with a cottonball in her purse,
what's your conception of the world?

But wait. The author has beautifully, gloriously, artfully, and brilliantly played with our expectations of what is happening in this poem, what can happen in a poem. She’s employing a virtuoso, seemingly guileless, delicate, and inspiring gloriously deft art. Is she? What do you think? What's your conception of the world?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

that there are too many words

gary barwin said...

Interesting, Anonymous. I'm glad you brought up the 'wordiness' which I actually think is part of the effect of the poem, the poem loquaciously trying to find what are the right words, what is the best way to express, to poemize. And to not appear too stylized or neat.

Unless, of course, you meant that I used too many words. In which case, that's just due to sloppy writing on my part!