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Mary Ruefle’s Trances of the Blast & Interrogating the Lyric

By Harriet Staff

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B.K. Fischer reviews Mary Ruefle’s Trances of the Blast (Wave Books, 2013) for Boston Review, noting that “[i]t is easy to approach the work of this woman from Vermont as if she were a latter-day Emily Dickinson….” More:

Yet her work, far from a window on interiority, interrogates the nature of lyric itself. Trances of the Blast continues Ruefle’s career-long investigation into the speech rhythms, sources, and ephemera that comprise what we think of as lyric poetry, and into the processes by which theses snippets and stances are stitched together in the mind of the writer and reader to create the poem. Moving from eavesdropped phrase to parable to domestic topography to quotation and back, she continually shifts the epistemological terrain beneath our feet. Her shifts are swift. She pauses on an object only to undercut our expectation for correspondence: “An icy purple light / a poet would say belonged to a perfume stopper / belonging to his mother. // When it was her nipple.” She humorously upends expressions of self-identity: “From here I look like a front moving in.” She objects to the false dichotomy that would insist her poems are either confession or fabrication: “To you I must tell all or lie.” She does neither.

Criticism of contemporary poetry, under a variety of banners, is beset by a tendency to treat the lyric as ahistorical. We have fallen into habits of lyric reading that conflate the conventions informing those habits with their effects. Critics who favor the lyric as a vital form tend to make tautological assumptions: a lyric is lyrical (expressive, intimate, solitary, songlike, short, personal, emotional); modes that sound lyrical (praise, meditation, description, witness, memoir, koan, prayer) give rise to lyric poems. Critics who reject or are suspicious of lyric subjectivity often move in the same vacuum, dismissing the mode as if we all know, a priori, what lyric subjectivity is.

Virginia Jackson, in Dickinson’s Misery (2006), reminds us that we cannot understand the what of lyric without understanding the when. She traces the process by which, since the 19th century, “poetic and lyric have come to seem cognate.” These terms were not always equated and, increasingly, they are no longer. Jackson looks at Dickinson’s work in the context of letters, wide-circulation magazines, and other materials, and reminds us that the subsequent century saw the migration of the lyric from the popular press to the classroom. Jackson writes, “What has been left out of most thinking about the process of lyricization is that it is an uneven series of negotiations of many different forms of circulation and address.” This statement about lyricization, about the historical process by which habits of lyric reading emerge, could be an apt descriptor of Ruefle’s poetry—its tonal variety, its concern with processes of transmission and circulation, its adulterated modes of address. Her work is a good index of where we are with this ever-changing process, more than a century down the line.

Read more about Ruefle and the lyric at Boston Review.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, January 30th, 2014 by Harriet Staff.