Of Transitoriness & the Trance
Making anything you have explored time.
— Mary Ruefle
Trances of the Blast, by Mary Ruefle.
Wave Books. $22.00.
On entering a poem — into the trance of it — what is supposed to happen in it? If to happen means “to come to pass,” to arrive if only to have passed. “The pageant of arrival had already passed,” writes Emerson in his journals.
Mary Ruefle’s alternately hypnotic and awakening, explosive and tender, orphic and ornery Trances of the Blast opens with a subtle allusion to Leo Tolstoy’s observation about happy families, but supplants “happiness” with what “happens”:
Everything that ever happened to meis just hanging — crushedand sparkling — in the air,waiting to happen to you.Everything that ever happened to mehappened to somebody else first.
By the time Ruefle arrives at the fifth line of “Saga,” we’re already transitioning from a Tolstoyan family saga to Emerson’s philosophy of human experience. Which goes a little something like: In order to be “borne forward” as an individual, we must experience anew each stage that mankind has previously experienced, each lesson that man has gleaned (by “tuition”) must be tested by our own “intuition.”
Ruefle’s collection, not surprisingly, passes through several literal and figurative schools — poems called “Middle School,” “College,” and “Fall Leaf Studies” punctuate the progression. In Ruefle’s poem “Platonic,” each being must re-perform the coming out of the Cave “ashamed, apart by themselves, transfigured” (as she writes in the title poem of the collection).
Like the etymology of the word saga itself, Ruefle’s poems integrate short “sayings,” pronouncements, spitfire sermons, and assertions (in other words, blasts) into an extended trance-like epic of her individual family and the human family. Though the collection follows a “more or less straight” progression from her mother’s pregnancy, to Ruefle’s education as a person and a poet, to her parents’ deaths and her own middle age (“You grow old. / You love everybody. / You forgive everyone.”), each poem in the collection tells its own inimitable time. And, like any trance, that time is participatory.
In the movie Casablanca, one of the German refugees is practicing his English-language skills when he asks, “What watch?” instead of “what time is it?” In Ruefle’s work, you can almost hear each poem ask “which watch,” bringing the machinery and instruments and constructs of time to the foreground of our consciousness.
One first becomes conscious of Ruefle’s temporal dexterity at the very unit-level of her poems: the line. Witness the curious spatialization of time that occurs in the following excerpts, how she locates an entire era in houses and narrows a nine-month gestation down to a single day of the week:
Childhood! It was in one of the houses nearby.— From Little EternitiesI think it was Saturday my mother waspregnant with me......................it was the Saturday before Christmasso she bought a meatpie some friesa carton of milk from a kioskand I became a person.— From Metaphysical BlightIt is as close to Julyas I will ever come.— From Midsummer at Jefferson Slough
Whereas many poets might find in such dazzling lines and voltaic surprises a sufficient firework, Ruefle deftly folds them into a pattern of blasts constituting different durations and lengths of revelation and inquiry — like a textual Fourth of July in which some fireworks cascade slow and willow-like down the darkness and others vanish at the instant of explosion. Ruefle’s authority stems from her capacity to recognize the limits and duration of authority itself; she seems to know precisely the length (and weight) that an observation or assertion will be trusted and received by the reader.
Just so, in the poem “Sawdust,” the speaker is trying to remove a nail from a wall, when she discovers that it won’t “stop coming” and subsequently screams, “how much more of you can there be?” (A line that incidentally resonates with the final tercet of the book: “I’ve spent my life in a forest. / Picking up new things, / will it never end?”) The line naturally inspires laughter: since, after all, a nail is always a clearly-designated length. But the question is of an utterly Rueflean earnestness in that the length of the nail is only known and experienced in the length of time it takes to remove it. And, metaphorically, Ruefle uses the happening-of-the-nail to explore the varying length and extent of our suffering.
The most reliable unit of time in Ruefle is the tercet, a structure that provides a visual and emphatic foundation in her work:
I hated childhoodI hate adulthoodAnd I love being alive.— From ProvenanceI spend more time with my journalthan I spend with myself.The end.— From SpikenardAnd the squirrelpaused, one of those little eternitiesnever mentioned again.— From Little Eternities
Rilke once observed that “there are no lakes until eternity,” but in almost every poem in this collection, Ruefle introduces her own little eternity. These interstitial tercets open their own accordion of time into the otherwise flow of the poem.
In general, she folds the tercets into the left-justified margins of her poems’ narrow roads. (Structurally, her poems are rather uniform vertiginous entities, “rifts” that run through every page, what she calls “a stream in the middle of me.”) In “Narrow Road to the North,” however, Ruefle centers and foregrounds a haiku by Bashō:
What a loss is here:Beneath the warrior’s splendid helmetA chirping cricket
Much like the haibun form, the temporality introduced by the haiku interrupts us on the road of the poem, compelling us to enter the idiosyncratic metronome of its cricket.
We tend to think of what is lost as something precisely not-here. But for Ruefle, “loss is here” if we attend to it. If we center it and pause around it, it is precisely what awakens us to our being in time.
In the course of a single short poem, Ruefle creates four different time zones around the punctum of Bashō: there is our own experience of the Bashō haiku (since she quotes it in its entirety for us to experience); there are two different moments in her own interpretive encounter with the haiku (at one point she writes of the warrior’s helmet, “I thought he meant the man’s brain,” and later we are returned to an even earlier interpretative moment, “When I first read the words / I thought he meant his sorrow”). And, of course, there is Bashō’s own time and “my pitiful life compared to his / as any duck in flight can see.”
The Bashō poem itself is here; it is not lost. But its being-here is a litmus of loss, “such are the changes of years,” as we (and Ruefle’s speaker) circle the warrior’s mind and can’t help but change our minds around it. Such is the inimitable education in time conferred by Mary Ruefle.
My favorite form of graduation from a Ruefle poem takes place towards the end of the collection in a poem called “Q & A.” In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay is determined “to reach Q.” We’re never told exactly what Q means (is it the lighthouse; is it the truth; is it the quest itself?), but in the end it hardly matters. I was reminded of Ramsay’s obsession when I first read “Q & A,” a poem that opens with an annoyingly reductive question (“We notice you use the word lonely / in many of your poems, why is that?”) and ends with a question posed by Ruefle herself, so that the actual title of the poem could be “Q & Q.”
In the midst of this quizzical parenthesis, we encounter the long riff of Ruefle’s answer:
Because Siegfried’s difficult way toBrunhild passes over eighty-nine pagesof rubble, of sticks, of stones, ofcrushed glass.
Her seemingly tangential response becomes undeniable in its weight and duration and conviction — so populated with matter and “blown apart” bits (“shotgun shells and / chewed-up pens” and a pell-mell of mammalian fossils and human litter) that her loneliness is no longer a question. Like Bashō, who wrote on his hat “I travel with a friend,” this long stream of cumulative consciousness becomes her companion.
In To the Lighthouse, Woolf asks, “But what had happened?” and answers, “Someone had blundered.” So too in Ruefle’s work, the blunder, the “stumbling on the great way” (as she writes) far from being obstacles to the human experience — are it. It is the detour that leads her to open the terrain to us, when at the seeming end of the poem, the question pivots in our direction:
and the inevitable single shoe withoutlaces, not to mention thousands of hooveswith the fur still on them and the animal bonesthat have been eroding here for yearsthough the path more or less runs straightand many of these things glint in the morningsun, weirdly, why do you ask?
The questions that we encounter in the little red Ruefle schoolhouse are not “questions left howling / because their owner has died” — we are made to own them, to pick up the message in the long relay. It is to us that the questions and the quest are put. We emerge from these poems, scathed and awakened. It is time for our own beginning: will it never end?
Christina Davis is the author of two collections of poetry: An Ethic (Nightboat Books, 2013) and Forth A Raven (Alice James Books, 2006). She currently serves as curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.