Trances of the BlastBy Mary Ruefle Wave Books, 2013
Reviewed by Benjamin Landry
I wasn’t readily prepared to give Mary Ruefle another shot after her foray into “prose” in The Most of It (Wave, 2008). That book relied so heavily on puns and seemed so caught up in minutae as to compromise the serious authorial intention that, in my opinion, must be present to occasion a book (even the humorous book must be after something cohesive). But my friend Kevin insisted I should check out Trances of the Blast (I believe he used the term “badass”), and I have him to thank for the subsequent experience.
“Badass,” indeed. The title signals that Ruefle has again gotten serious, as it evokes simultaneously the perilous stakes of forensics, the humming and oblivious electricity of living and—through the convention of the typo—our misguided attempts at making meaning out of the stuff we are given. The “blast” denotes, variously, productive and destructive moments of crisis, as dictated by the particulars of each poem. As I read, I was put in the mind of the Big Bang, the splitting of the atom, erotic coupling, even contemporary drone warfare.
Profusion is the order of the day with Ruefle, and she revels in even the broken and synthetic bits that crowd our consciousness. In “Q & A,” the speaker imagines responding to the question, “We notice you use the word lonely / in many of your poems, why is that?” (104) with:
Because Siegfried’s difficult way to
Brunhild passes over eighty-nine pages
of rubble, of sticks, of stones […]
of mortar, with empty shotgun shells and
chewed-up pens and barfed-up bits of dinner
and cigar butts and snack wrappers and
plastic bottles tossed from cars […]
This is a defense not of the destructive impulses that result in this hellscape, but of a narrative of devotion created from bric-a-brac. If the result is an expression of “loneliness” it seems so primarily to the audience. To the poet fashioning this world out of cast-offs, the materials themselves are, rather, charmed, in spite of what they signify.
Quite apart from their humorous currency, touches of the bizarre in Ruefle mask an undercurrent of disillusionment. This from the poet who declares, “how heavy is my happiness / that no sound on earth / can encompass it?” (“Müller and Me,” 14). In the face of disillusionment, Ruefle finds the act of creation a palliative. In “Mimosa,” for instance, she imagines introducing James Schuyler to his first century plant. It’s a strange and oddly affecting scene, entirely cleansed of the hubris with which another poet might treat a similar invented scenario. Creation is also an act of fidelity: the speaker of “Jaroslav” conjures a devotional scene to the title figure, declaring in the end,
I don’t know if we are ever really
finally torn from the spot,
but I remain on this earth
to grow at your feet, Jaroslav.
To be your buttercup […] (30)
Although a Ruefle poem often reads like a landscape done in neons, the notions behind it are usually familiar, even conventional, as typified by the romantic bridging of distances between the living and the departed in “Jaroslav.” The poem immediately following it, “Goodnight Irene,” includes such striking lines as “I think the clouds are very much turned on / Apparently birds are very much turned on” (32). The repetition of sexual cliché as applied to a quixotic series of subjects (tree, baby, Leadbelly, god, the question mark) flattens the power of sexual suggestiveness and points, ingeniously, to its opposite, mortality. Ruefle ends the poem with the question, “Why do you wish you were dead?” (33), hinting at the associations of la petite mort. Importantly, she implies that while we do not have a say in mortality, we do have profound control over how we live our lives. The body tries to cheat death through sex; what would our lives look like if that vitality were allowed expression in our most mundane pursuits?
Trances is by turns brilliant and arduous. At 110 pages, and with too many poems that register as light verse, the collection exhibits a lack of editorial discrimination (at one point, the speaker admits, “Right now I am writing / on the back of a bank statement” ; perhaps a degree of graphomania underlies Trances?). But there are miraculous poems in here, as well, including the tragicomic “Le Livre de Ma Vie,” the delightfully surreal “Donkey On” and the touching narrative “Eric with the Light Brown Hair.” Toward the end of Trances, we are given additional glimpses into the collection’s title. In the title poem, the speaker articulates a poet’s imperative to “explain yourself or vanish” (78). The speaker of “Sudden Additional Energy” notes, as she observes a certain promising star in a darkened sky,
Over the years several friends
have had their kitchens remodeled,
a big deal at the time, yet they
never mention it now. The more I
look at you, the more I see their
marble countertops, lying sleek
and mentionless and forlorn.
I wish you, little marble,
would be my countertop, and I would
never stop talking about you!
I’m not in any kind of trance
as I wish this, I’ve not stepped
out of time, nor am I one with it.
All that stuff was with the first
star […] (105)
It’ s a frivolous expression, but an indication, nonetheless, of the extent to which Ruefle is in love with the world (despite her protests), even the outmoded marbles, the stuff of jealousy and gossip. She speaks to us from that trance, and we listen at our delighted peril.
Trances of the Blast is Mary Ruefle's tenth collection of poetry. She is also the author of a collection of prose poems, The Most of It, and a collection of erasures, A Little White Shadow. She is the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and she teaches in the Vermont College MFA program.
Benjamin Landry is the author of Particle and Wave (Chicago, Feb. 2014). His reviews are forthcoming or have appeared in Agni, Boston Review, Coldfront, Lemon Hound and Pleiades, and his poetry has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, The Kenyon Review Online and elsewhere. He blogs about poetry and reviews at www.benjaminlandry.wordpress.com, and he lives in Ann Arbor with his wife and daughter.