Remembering Vern Rutsala

Jerry Harp
May 23, 2014
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Having spent his life producing a sizeable body of poetry, having received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation, having been a finalist for the National Book Award, and having spent more than forty years teaching at Lewis & Clark College, Vern Rutsala died this year at the age of eighty. At a recent gathering on the Lewis & Clark campus, several of Portland’s poets stood to read a piece or two by Vern, and speak in tribute to him, among them Henry Carlile, Jim Shugrue, Lisa Steinman, Peter Sears, and Lawson Inada. Vern’s widow, Joan, was there, to whom he dedicated all his books. His daughter, Kirsten, read an excerpt from one of his letters to her. He had a habit of writing up fictitious encounters with real celebrities; the one she read involved a subway ride in Moscow, Idaho, and Vern’s encounter with Sting, who was looking for the Kremlin, chagrined to learn that he was in the wrong Moscow.

Henry Carlile spoke of Vern as a poet of the domestic in the best possible sense of the word—he knew that one doesn’t have to reach far to find apt subject matter for poetry. As Carlile noted, the word “house” shows up often in the poems. Indeed, one might peruse the titles alone: “Some Houses,” “The New House,” “The House at Night,” “Living in Someone Else’s House,” “Building the House,” and “The Empty House”—not to mention titles alluding to household themes: “The Other Room,” “Riding the Porch,” “The Window,” “The Spare Room,” “Statement from an Apartment.” But these titles do not signal a turning away from the larger world, for “there is history coiled in the local,” as Rutsala wrote in “Living in Someone Else’s House.”

I arrived at the service early, my copy of the 1991 Selected Poems in hand, so that I could sit reading before things started, a kind of personal devotion to Vern. The poem I first lit on was “Sunday,” Rutsala’s response to Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning.” In Vern’s version of a contemplative Sunday at home, there are no “Complacencies of the peignoir,” but rather a speaker awake before everyone else, wandering the house, “pondering the eloquence / of vacant furniture, listening / to birdsong peeling / the cover off the day.” He in a way revels in his state of isolation: “I am the last / man and this is my / last day; I can’t think / of anything to do.” Finally, the poem breaks into an invocation:

O fat god of Sunday

and chocolate bars, watcher

over picnics and visits to the zoo,

will anyone wake up today?

The closing line raises a question of wakefulness in more senses than one; we might even refer to the question’s concern as a discipline of wakefulness, what it means to be a wakeful presence in the world. Such a concern arises often in Rutsala’s writing, as in his early “Playground,” where the speaker looks on as “patient children // are learning how / to break the rules / day by day”—the cheat’s “quick hands” prepare “for a future of short / change” and the “liar / practices his surgery // on the real.” The breakers of rules are bad enough, but the keepers of rules are hardly any picnic either; among these latter are “the informer” as well as the “self-righteous, / leaning into their / peculiar blindness.” The problem here is not so much keeping or breaking the rules, as it is living in relation to rules rather than in relation to persons as persons. In contrast to both the keepers and breakers of rules, he sees that “the good / are somehow learning / the punishing arts / of their losing game.” In this microcosm in which the young already learn the social scripts they will live by, the poem discloses that the game is fixed from the start. The fix is in because those who want to dominate can use or break the rules for the same purposes, so that whether one wins by cheating or by self-righteous adherence, one is still willing oneself into power. The good have other interests, and the poem sympathizes with the artfulness of their losing.

Vern’s poems also hold out for the artfulness of dreams. Much of what happens in those domestic spaces that Henry Carlile alluded to relates to the complex art of dreaming: “But they move // toward sleep letting dreams float / as in the tips of fingers” (“Nightfall”); “as warm / shadows moved above you, / comfort in their hands, / and walked into the premises / of your dreams” (“The Spare Room”); “But it’s like a dream” (“Living in Someone Else’s House”); “Everyone has gone away, buried / in dreams” (“The House at Night”); “I move back by shortcut / and dreaming” (“The World”); “Now I stay awake to dream” (“Something Like Spinks”); “What dreams / brought us here?” (“Lonely Roads); “Dream finds its ways and means, / winding up all its loose ends, tracing / arteries and veins in the body electric” (“The Jerrybuilt Dream”); “Even our dreams / swirl there in tight spirals” (“Some Houses”); “In your dream, desperate, with guests / at the threshold, suddenly / you remember the other room, pristine / and perfect, the one / we’ve never used” (“The Other Room”). In these poems the work of dreams intersects with the work of the poems themselves—exploring and making sense of everyday experience, staying in touch with oneself and the world, finding new possibilities of meaning. Dreaming and writing poems are two of the ways we make sense of who we are and where we are going. Vern Rutsala has left us with hints of dreams yet to come.

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