The Ocean in Your Mouth: Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems

Hilary Plum

Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2010. 176 pages. $16.00.

Selected Poems“I spend all day in my office, reading a poem / by Stevens, pretending I wrote it myself,” begins the poem “Perfect Reader,” which appears roughly in the middle of Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems. The speaker then feints a backpedal, while really accelerating: “But I come to my senses, / and decide when Stevens wrote the poem he was thinking of me . . . ” Ultimately, Stevens is left entirely behind:

                                        I go home at the end and watch
the news about the homeless couple who met in the park,
and then the weather, to see how they will feel tomorrow.

Ruefle’s concern for the homeless couple, the playful note of compassion on which the poem ends, at first makes “Perfect Reader” seem to be about imagination as a means of connection. But as Ruefle pretends to bridge the gap between self and other—reader and writer, viewer and homeless couple—in fact she shows us the bridge’s collapse. The distance between her and Stevens can be narrowed only through an impossible, selfish logic. As much as she may wish to, she cannot know how the homeless couple will feel; to pretend to know is something between empathy and self-satisfied fantasy. In this way “Perfect Reader” serves to instruct us, Ruefle’s readers, that the impossible may be desired with such precision that it is almost (but heartbreakingly almost) called into being.

This is a lesson Ruefle offers again and again throughout her Selected. Her poems are in pursuit of the precise and the impossible, and often land both in one move. She attends to the subtlest movements and smallest scenes of our world, and in her vision these come to rich life. Her images nimbly jump dimensions, frequently pushing off of a single word; here, secretive comprises both secrete and secret: “inside our bodies / skeletons grow at an increasingly secretive rate, / though they never mention it, / even amongst themselves.” And in these lines, the mirroring of the word polish allows a shift in perspective that could be called a visual echo, or even a metamorphosis: “Deer polish their antlers / on fruit trees, like a girl / polishing apples on her hair.” Ruefle is interested above all in the consequences of words, the inescapable curse of language: “the universe is not that complicated: / eventually, words like torpor and muddle / came into being, and then torpid, muddled / accounts of the universe took over the populace.” Or worse, “when asked, if you say, ‘I do not dance,’ / the next day an infant is born without feet.”

If the reader hesitates at this last statement, it is only as an afterthought; its matter-of-factness convinces. The universe of Ruefle’s poems is governed by laws this ruthless, a fact that she can’t help but chronicle. These poems exhibit an intense awareness of the conspiracy between desire and suffering, of the self as an idea we can’t think our way out of, no matter how we might wish to. And what help is the gift of language? For even the smallest failure to connect, the smallest tragedy, Ruefle argues, any explanation becomes a game played with words, and one that neither heals nor exonerates.

The burden of the self weighs heavily here; even in the midst of Ruefle’s fantastic humor and deft flirtations with the absurd, we notice that the speaker is almost always acutely alone, that society seems alien to her and the simplest attempts to access it horrifying: “I bought a pair of black breasts / with elastic straps that slip over the shoulder.” The larger culture is apt to be written off as “that most unfortunate nation / where people are butterballs dying of meat and drink.” The speaker’s companions and interlocutors are a bar of soap, a bathrobe, a doll—everyday items or, especially, a book or painting or long-deceased artist.

Though that’s not quite true: the natural world is everywhere in this collection, from tales of geologic time to gloriously specific accounts of flowers, trees, birds, fruit, all kinds of food and drink. But the speaker is alienated from this world as well—by language, as the human is divided from the nonhuman: “[You] walk out into the October sunshine, and look for it / by beginning to think.” “What’s wrong with the world?” the poem “The Beautiful is Negative” asks, and answers: “Human hair hung from the lowest limb / will keep out the deer.” Ruefle is too skilled an observer not to notice that the world she sees so vividly is also inaccessible, that the human’s observations of the natural world are only human, and that the dangers of the pathetic fallacy can be held off for only so long.

Nevertheless, sometimes the poet’s speech is (modestly) celebrated, as in “Glory”:

. . . 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.

But then doubt creeps back in:

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?

Of all the impossibilities that Ruefle is on the hunt for, perhaps the most essential is the poem as a place where “I” and “you” may meet, may at least for a moment see the same thing. Her magnificent “Kiss of the Sun” begins, “If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something / among people”; throughout the abundant beauty and many modes of her decades of work, her Selected Poems displays the diverse forms this sign can take. Forms that are seemingly ordinary, so small they could be missed, and yet which have a defiant power—like an orange tossed skyward, to become not merely a “kiss of the sun” but, for a moment, the sun itself.

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