Selected Poems, by Mary Ruefle.
Wave Books. $24.00.
Over the past thirty years, Mary Ruefle has authored ten well-received books of poems and been awarded numerous fancy prizes. It seems past time for her to receive the blazon of approbation that a “selected” confers, and indeed past time for Ruefle to be more of a household name (by which I suppose I mean an awp name) than she is. Charles Bernstein, Anne Carson, Mark Doty, Rita Dove, Carolyn Forché, Jorie Graham, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Muldoon, Heather McHugh, and Ruefle were all born within three years of 1950. Am I correct in thinking that Ruefle’s is the lowest profile among these? If so, why might that be?
Ruefle’s own insistence on the dispensability of her efforts might be a clue. The first line of this book is “All day I have done nothing.” On page two, we learn Ruefle “can’t distinguish [her] finest memory / from among the worthless.” Page three: “You’ve wasted another evening.” A bit further on: “I know these things are fleshless and void, / as unimportant as a mouse.” “The Little I Saw of Cuba” indeed provides very little Cuban information: “Of course I have never been to Cuba.” My favorite example of Ruefle’s shruggishness opens “Topophilia”: “I was going to ardently pursue this day / but you know how these things go.” We are not exactly in the presence of a poet frantic to relate her discovery of the crucial truth humankind has heretofore tragically lacked. Ruefle always seems simply to be trying to get out of the world’s way so it can go about its terrible business (as in the poem about a funeral which forgoes mourning in favor of the “pies on the table waiting”), or, more often, the business of being beautiful:
I was a failure as a gingerbread baker,
I was a failure at drawing grasshoppers,
a failure as a tailor, a failure
as the official keeper of tariffs on all signet rings,
and I failed to put the cap back on the glue.
But it has been a beautiful day,
go down the street as far as you can go
and ask anybody.
—From “Critique of Little Errors”
Although nonplussed, even bored, by the notion of “having something to say,” Ruefle is reliably excited by all the things she doesn’t know and can’t do. Plenty of poets are eager to inform you that knowledge is impossible, identity is a construct, etc., but have you noticed how paradoxically self-assured these poets can be? Ruefle doesn’t posit her lack of authority; she adores it. Having no aspirations to “meaning in the astral realm” gives her license to get jazzed about whatever comes along, including the possibility that her readers’ thoughts hold no less potential than her own:
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.
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
when confronted with the view from k2? I’m not sure
I would say anything. What’s your opinion?
Straightforward in form, comic and companionable in tone, blessed with the Martian gift of seeing the strange in the ordinary and vice-versa, Ruefle is one of those poets—Kim Addonizio, Russell Edson, Albert Goldbarth, Charles Simic, James Tate, and Dean Young are perhaps a few others—more likely to be loved by readers than noted by critics and professors, in part, I think, because there’s simply less to say about poems fueled by ingenuousness and wit than there is to say about “projects” which “interrogate” or “theorize” this or that “question” or “problem.” There are of course places in poetry for projects and problems, for difficulty, and for formal innovation, but there must also be a place for a poem like “The Nutshell,” which offers little or no fodder for the seminar room, but copious draughts of delight:
I lay back like a canoe
and let my long hair
dredge the water.
The bluebird was really blue,
its breast an apricot in the sun.
I picked up a human skull
that had suffered long enough
and with my own two hands
smashed it against a rock.
As a member of the world’s most
intelligent audience it’s only natural
you ask questions, all of which
I answer with that’s it in a nutshell:
you can hold it in the palm of your hand,
for it is all that is made.
People sometimes ask me which recent books of poetry I enjoyed reading, and I reply, with embarrassment, that because reading poetry books is my job, I don’t often think of them in terms of how enjoyable they are; I think of them as “interesting” or “not interesting.” Pathetic, I know. But I not only found this book interesting, I enjoyed it. And I hope it wins Mary Ruefle the Pulitzer, especially if they give you some kind of statuette for that, because I think Ruefle would make a flower vase or spaceship out of it.
Effacement, by Elizabeth Arnold.
Flood Editions. $14.95.
Last summer in Boston Review, Stephen Burt claimed to have identified a “New Thing” afoot in American poetry: “Reference, brevity, self-restraint, attention outside the self, material objects as models, Williams and his heirs as predecessors, classical lyric and epigram as precedents: all these, together, constitute the New Thing.” I don’t know whether the New Thing is a bona fide zeitgeist or not, but Burt’s description of it does seem a useful rubric for a discussion of Elizabeth Arnold’s latest collection—perhaps not surprisingly, since Burt named Flood Editions as one of this alleged movement’s more important organs.
Essentially an essay of forty-seven sections, Effacement employs a number of referents to interrogate the problem named in its title, among them Philip Johnson’s Glass House (“trees erase it”); the disfigured landscapes of battlefields and the disfiguring injuries they produce; the sadly mixed results of early plastic surgeries developed to restore the faces of soldiers wounded in wwi; mountaintop removal mining; the distorted figures in the paintings of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and Georg Baselitz; Arnold’s radiation treatments for breast cancer, her mastectomy, and subsequent plastic surgery; the first incursions of “ordinary matter” into the pure light which immediately followed the Big Bang; James Joyce taking off his glasses at parties “as if he could then not be seen”; the smooth surface of silence in a Benedictine monastery; and a bioluminescent deep-sea squid which, when confronted by a predator, “bleeds black ink into its body” and effectively vanishes into the lightless water.
Arnold develops some of these examples of effacement more than others—the material concerning wwi injuries and treatments gets the most attention—but all are proffered to the reader with the same cool impartiality, a consistency I find unnerving. Doesn’t one of those referents I’ve cited strike a bit closer to home than the others? I can imagine, had I cancer, becoming highly motivated to find analogies and metaphors which might help me explain my predicament to myself. It’s harder for me to imagine becoming interested in an abstraction like effacement and including my own illness on an apparently unranked list of examples of it. In this respect, Arnold might be said to provide an extreme example of the New Thing’s emphasis on “self-restraint.” Let me make clear that I’m not trying to dictate how Arnold should or shouldn’t talk about her illness; I’m saying I’m flustered by how she does.
No one is more pleased than I if “attention outside the self” has indeed become fashionable in contemporary poetry. But Effacement makes me wonder if the transition from self-as-subject to self-as-object has gone too far. The closest Arnold comes to touching the third rail of drawing attention to herself as a human being is in section xxviii, where she worries that a potential lover won’t be able to see her for herself, that he’ll see only her “visibly significantly marred” body:
want to, to move
drowningly toward the other
for the time it takes to see he isn’t seeing what a body needs to
to desire. It’s just
that will always block that,
the visibly significantly marred ones
How much of a self is skin?
The poem ends with two questions. In the first, the speaker seeks assurance—from God? from the lover? from the reader? from herself?—that her body does not define or delimit her identity. It’s a poignant and serious moment, and you’d have to be one cold bastard to call it narcissistic. Yet it must have felt disconcertingly self-involved to Arnold. Why else quickly recast the same question in abstract terms, if not to assure her readers that the poem’s not about her, truly it’s not, it’s about identity theory, I promise!
Effacement’s austere tone, objective and for that matter objectivist (George Oppen, pointedly, provides one of the book’s epigraphs), can certainly make for passages of blunt force.
And inside that,
For eleven years.
One can adjust to this, they say, but not
That’s the entirety of section vi, and it strikes me as both stick-simple and genuinely moving, an effect I think depends upon the fact that I can hear a tone in these lines. A grim tone, but a tone. I admire Arnold’s rigorous, intelligent, and flexible explorations of her theme, but what I found lacking on most of Effacement’s pages was a sense of the speaker’s attitude or investment. Eventually, this self-effacing sequence came to seem an instance of an old thing called the imitative fallacy.
Strange Land, by Todd Hearon.
Southern Illinois University Press. $14.95.
First books of poems are sometimes, understandably, insecure, and cluck like starved pullets dying for love. There is no such wheedling in Todd Hearon’s Strange Land; it is as composed and confident a first book as I’ve read in some time. Indeed, I frequently had the sensation that Hearon was speaking not to me, but over my shoulder to the Norton Anthology on the shelf behind me, anticipating a collegial nod. A glance at Strange Land’s table of contents—its titles include “Dantescan Fragment,” “Ancestors,” “Sundial,” “What Is Man That Thou Art Mindful of Him,” “De Profundis,” “After the Flood,” “Psalm,” “Elegiac,” “History,” “Adam Unparadised,” and others of similar heft—makes clear that the path ahead is paved with solemn intentions.
And why not a little gravity in this age of irony? Hearon means the heck out of everything he says, and I can’t help but admire him for it. Here’s “World’s End,” about a trip to the beach with a lover:
So to return to that sun-drenched skeleton of land, my love, and find
nothing more evident, no less elusive than it was before: monotonous wind
pulled across ailing embers in a bumfuck ditch
the sea seeps in, a mess of clothes and feathers, bones and such
dunes. The dunes’ sparse winter grasses.
White sand striated by the stylus trace
of crab- or turtle claw, through which we move
again like tourists on the outmost groove
of a Zen garden discovered in the wilderness—
nothing to dwell on, nothing to express.
And still the high-flung hammering of gulls,
still the mollusk wrenched into its shivering pool,
pools among the rocks, rocks along a coast that cooled
an age ago, upon a different Earth: a world
of fire and frenzy, what a ball it was,
come down to coals the wind picks over. Us.
The poem possesses passages of undeniable fluency (“White sand striated by the stylus trace” is terrific; “And still the high-flung hammering of gulls” wouldn’t be out of place in a Hopkins sonnet), and I’m grateful for that one demotic moment of “bumfuck,” but it’s difficult to ignore the more puffed-up locutions and overly crenellated sentences. The poem’s most serious problem, though, and this book’s as a whole, lies not in the lines where Hearon is trying too hard, but in those where he hasn’t tried hard enough. Hearon presents himself as a tradition-minded technician and rhetorician hoping to be shelved near Hecht, Hollander, Wilbur, and the like. He writes in received forms and meters, liberally cites the western canon (Dante, Hopkins, Milton, Plato, Shakespeare, Shelley, and the Old Testament are all invoked, sometimes at length), and evinces a degree of self-assurance few contemporary poets would dare. With these choices come a number of challenges, among which unfashionability is the least important and the requirements to discover new warmth in hoary subjects and fresh expressions of stale forms are paramount. In other words, Hearon can write rondeaux about rainbows or clerihews about cemeteries for all I care, but he must not bore me, and too often he does. His sentiments are soppy-stern, his rhymes dull or forced, his modifiers predictable or bombastic. His rhetorical grandiosity clogs his lines and flattens his meter, and his habit of making bad jokes at or near highly dramatic moments (Harry Farr, before a firing squad comprised of fellow soldiers: “my brothers in a line / like ripening corn—all ears, all ears—” induces a queasy Fremdschämen).
Though the majority of Strange Land is not strange enough to stimulate much interest, it would be wrong of me to suggest that there are no successes here. It was a genuine pleasure to read Hearon’s lush account of Byron’s death in his “Sea Change” sequence, and some of his sonnets, such as “Atlantis,” strike me as both crisply written and capaciously imagined:
About that country there’s not much left to say.
Blue sun, far off, a watery vein
in the cloud belt. The solid earth itself
unremarkable: familiar ruins
littered with standing stones our people
had lost the ability to decipher.
How deeply had we slept? Beneath the jellyfish
umbels of evergreens, each one a dream,
and the effervescent stars, cold currents
tugged at our thoughts like tapestries
unraveling into war. All spring
the nightingale perched on the green volcano’s lip.
The rats had abandoned the temples.
My mind was a voyage hungering to happen.
Tocqueville, by Khaled Mattawa.
New Issues Poetry & Prose. $15.00.
Better to fail at something audacious than succeed at something safe! Such an easy cliche to drop on young writers, such a difficult practice—maybe even a stupid one—for a mature writer to maintain. This is Mattawa’s fourth collection, a career point which sees many poets shoring up the fortifications of their prior achievements rather than lighting out for new territories. Not Mattawa. Tocqueville is uneven, to put it kindly, but it’s also outrageously ambitious, and its successful passages rank with the most provocative poésie engagée I’ve read, bringing to mind, among other precedents, Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser. I don’t have praise higher than that.
Mattawa, born in Libya and a us resident since his teens, here reprises the role of Alexis de Tocqueville insofar as he too has come to America from elsewhere, and he too sets out to survey and evaluate his surroundings. But where Tocqueville, a child of the Enlightenment, presses every observed particular into the service of a general ideal, Mattawa, an anxious postmodern, is overwhelmed by particulars, drowned in data, and he continually questions his ability to synthesize, his capacity for objectivity, and his right to judge.
Mattawa’s first language was Arabic and he is a prolific translator of Arabic poetry, but he writes his own poems in English, performing a self-translation that further complicates his view of contemporary history. Watching what I think is an infrared film from a surveillance drone, Mattawa projects himself into the scene, then imaginatively flips the footage from documentary to fiction, and finally is beset by an incommensurable personal memory:
Ever tried to pinpoint yourself in one,
how they shimmer like nocturnal cityscapes viewed from the sea.
Or the way the satellite eye zooms down
on your house, and the out and out (like in the movies).
A scent grows in the mind then:
The fustiness, the ancient beard,
the house made from sun-baked bricks
and its salted sheepskins...
the breath of dried palm fronds in my grandfather’s house.
When images can be seen so many ways, and create such diverse associations and reactions, how can we ever say what it is we’re seeing, much less what it means? This is the drama of another poem, “On the Difficulty of Documentation,” where a photograph of Palestinian women carrying jugs on their heads induces in the poet an interpretive paralysis. “The village women carry the moon on their heads,” the poem begins, immediately imposing a metaphor on the fact of the photograph. It’s a beautiful image, and the speaker stops himself: “I recall: Such people have no time for beauty.” Mattawa calls in other poets—Wyatt to represent eroticism and wit; Brecht for historicism and praxis—for help in deciphering the scene, but eventually the poem seems simply to give up, unable to distinguish the aesthetic from the real:
Do not judge us for this strange fashion of forsaking (Wyatt) because
what beauty does is almost a crime (Brecht)
and what the photographer’s eyes take from them must be a kind of
But why do
they flee from me
that sometime did me seek (Wyatt)
into refugee tents, weighed down with thirst
toward children whose shaved heads gleam and men whose faces are
horoscopes of dejection?
And what of that look, and the all too human?
To be enthralled
and fain know what she hath deserved (Wyatt)
the squalor that makes the brow grow stern
the just anger that turns a voice harsh. (Brecht)
What else could she do, as she parts, but softly say,
Oh dear heart, how like you this? (Wyatt)
And I recall how
They flee from me, gentle, tame and meek
how they range
Busily seeking with continuous change. (Wyatt)
The idea that particulars won’t hold still to be documented and always look different depending on your point of view may not be revolutionary, but casting Wyatt’s fickle lover as an ambivalent angel of history strikes me as truly ingenious.
Tocqueville also has some deadly flaws. Almost every poem here contains a typo, misspelling, capitalization or punctuation mistake, dropped word, tense or mood shift, agreement error, or other Composition 101 blunder. Portions of blame fall to the volume’s typesetter, proofreader, and editor, each of whom should be ashamed. (No, I wasn’t reading galleys.) I’m sorry to sound like a schoolmarm, but the combination of these editorial failures and Mattawa’s own tendencies toward solecism, flabby prose, monotonous syntax, and other basic stylistic glitches renders some of Tocqueville’s passages almost unreadable.
Given Mattawa’s incisive contemplation of the ways in which language proves itself insufficient to the task of representation, Tocqueville’s screwups struck me as sadly ironic, even to the extent that I found myself wishing they’d been intentionally deployed as demonstrations of language’s frailty. “And hasn’t everybody’s dug a well and a pump to suck whatever/municipality water gets through the old pipes?” Sic, and that’s not the worst of it. Mattawa’s ideas are complex, timely, crucial, and—that book-review word I long ago forbade myself—compelling; with a better editor and closer attention, his book could have risen to their level.
Break the Glass, by Jean Valentine.
Copper Canyon Press. $22.00.
Being asked to review Jean Valentine’s poems is like being asked to review a glass of water. The subject seems at once self-explanatory and inexplicable; one feels a strong impulse to begin where Wittgenstein ended: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Valentine’s airy austerity can frustrate some readers. D.H. Tracy, reviewing Valentine’s selected poems in these pages, didn’t hide his consternation—“the poems on the page begin to seem like footprints of the poems in her head”—and I do sympathize with that view. Other readers, though, myself among them, hear in Valentine the alluring voice of a modern mystic, so fully humble it radiates authority. The debate is valid but unwinnable, and I hope I won’t be required to surrender my book critic credentials when I shrug and say that when it comes to Jean Valentine, you either dig it or you don’t. No amount of disparagement is going to talk Valentine’s admirers out of their reverence; no glowing notice is going to change an indifferent reader’s “eh” into a “yes.” Just this once, then, description may be more useful than evaluation.
Break the Glass will look, feel, and sound familiar to anyone acquainted with Valentine’s recent work. Alternating between elisions and pronouncements, confidence and doubt, oracular and conversational locutions, and tones tender and affectless, Valentine at her best speaks in an idiolect somehow both misty and earthy. It’s a delicate balance. She can get away with writing schmaltz like “Love what is ahead/by loving what has come before” because it’s not her idea; it’s what “the tab on the tea bag said.” And imagine how melodramatic the ending of “I thought It’s time” would be if the two phrases “on Eighth Street” and “of Eighth Street” were cut.
I thought It’s time to go into the forest with a bowl.
Maya said, It’s all one thing,
student, householder, forest.
The blue man said,
You are the forest and the bowl
—as he made a trail of tobacco, or cornmeal,
back to the foot of my chair.
You don’t need
a bowl. Putting his cupped hands together
in front of him on Eighth Street
—the trees walking toward us
hands cupped in the light of Eighth Street.
Break the Glassalso revisits many of Valentine’s familiar preoccupations: prisons and prisoners, wisps of childhood memory, spiritual figures, institutional indifference to human suffering, poets and artists, symbolic animals heralding epiphanies, friends present and departed. The most prevalent subject in these most recent poems, though, is that of time, or more specifically, time’s fungibility—“All the history of the world/happens at once”:
The freight train
I saw in the morning
still in the evening
inching across the flatlands
—From “Time is matter here”
And in “The whitewashed walls”:
The poems in our speckled notebooks
where we warmed our hands
over the quick fire
Long before the woodstove’s wood and coal
shifted and settled and warmed us.
The train moves endlessly into the future, but is always present; the poems we’ll write are already written. Break the Glass is full of transitions from one realm to the next, but also brimming with confidence that everything that happens has happened before and will happen again. Time’s cyclical nature is not always good news: “The world inside of that one/mass graves/like in this one.” But Valentine focuses most often on the promise of release and renewal that passages of time make possible, as this sampling of endings demonstrates:
In the end,
I laid them all down there at the leopard’s feet,
I was glad to lay them down.
—From “The Leopard”
If I clean up this house here long enough,
I can leave it.
But leave the eye next to where I
put my house, this way, that way—
—From “I was working”
cross me over—
—From “Ghost Elephants”
I put my hand on the ground
the membrane is gone
and nothing does hold
your place in the ground
is all of it
and it is breathing
—From “Red cloth”
Valentine’s meditations on the paradox of time, its inexorable forward motion and inevitable repetitions, culminate in a sequence of poems inspired by Lucy, the set of bones which were for many years the earliest known hominid remains. For Valentine, Lucy doesn’t represent the beginning of time so much as time’s circularity; she’s less mother than midwife, aiding our transitions from one moment or condition to the next:
when the dark bodies
dropped out of the towers
When Ruth died
and Helen Ruth
Lucy, when Jane in her last clothes
goes across with Chekhov
you are the ferryman, the monk
who throws your weight on the rope.
This is not the book I’d use to hook a friend unfamiliar with Valentine’s work. It’s more somber and attenuated, less approachable and playful than, for example, Home. Deep. Blue. or The River at Wolf. Readers already in Valentine’s thrall will be glad to hear her voice again, though also perhaps concerned by the growing sense of darkness in it.