New Poetry with Audio!
In Defense of Play
Apparition Hill by Mary Ruefle. CavanKerry, 2002. 70 pp., $14.
A jacket note points out that the manuscript for Apparition Hill, Mary Ruefle’s seventh published book, was completed in 1989, making it more accurately her fourth. The manuscript’s date is worth noting because her sixth book, Among the Musk Ox People, was also published in 2002 and shows a far more developed poet. Apparition Hill nonetheless stands on its own. Ruefle’s genius lies in good-natured distortion: she transforms the ordinary – cabbages, ducks, the suburbs – with extravagant description, and she grounds sweeping abstractions in humor.
Her poems move through willful misunderstanding and deliberately misplaced emphasis. “Do Not Affect A Breezy Manner,” a title taken from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, responds to the authors with a self-illustrating defense (quoted in its entirety):
With the implacable rigor of a raving fantasy
I decline, and the whole world declines
with me: Time, E.B. is windswept, and
this century cannot come to life again
nor those who ate and grew in it stifle
their yawn. The table is cleared.
The king’s cutlet was embossed!
That little piece of pork
had the wherewithal for frivolity
and is gone.
The poem makes huge statements about the world and history, and it makes an equally dramatic argument for the value of “frivolity” and the breezy manner. Its method, however, the cutlet-hero and the speaker’s offhand pronouncements, undercuts what might be tedious. “Do Not Affect A Breezy Manner” faces “The Pedant’s Discourse,” an ironic approach to the same argument, with a litany of grim realities belied only by the speaker’s mannerisms. The pedant worries, “I’m always afraid I might die at any moment,” and grumbles, “The mind’s a killjoy, if / I do say so myself, and the sun’s a star, / the red dwarf of which will finally consume us.” The pedant is a reasonable pessimist, one that most readers and Ruefle will recognize themselves in, but her stolid speech gives her away. One sides with the joke, in the end, not the speaker. If, as the pedant announces, “life is no dream” and “truth distorts the truth” then the appropriate response is a joyful cynicism – the poem’s frame – rather than the pedant’s lecture.
Too much seriousness distorts life, but mere living warps it, too. In “How It Is,” the speaker enjoys a pear outside in the springtime. A nice day. But she catches herself; she won’t remember the day. If she does remember, she’ll remember it cloudy or snowy, because “the height of insanity” tells her so. “Christ,” the poem ends, “I’ve had a happy life! But who am I to know?” The discontinuity between experience and thought becomes even more troubling when framed specifically as a problem the writer faces. “Diary of Action and Repose” begins with a nearly pastoral scene, a recording of the “action that explains [her] repose,” but then the repose begins to give way to thought, specifically thought that shapes, thought that might mark the beginning of a poem: “ah the impulse to hurt and destroy has arrived / and oh into pretty and endless strips it pares the place / round and round—[.]” A poem, in this poem, destroys at least as much as it creates, in that writing requires pulling back from the moment of inspiration, peeling the skin of meaning off the reality. Elsewhere Ruefle explains, “Poetry is a tourist. / It wears several cameras / around its neck / and takes nice pictures / of deadly things” (“Xingang Zhong Lu”). One can’t reflect without being an outsider.
Ruefle wants to do more than simply define her own aesthetic, though. Apparition Hill shows her experimenting with the shape and tone of her poetry, sometimes developing poems almost purely through the pleasure of description. Because Ruefle works so often through disjunction and the surreal, it is the relatively direct narratives, like “Timberland” or the odd travel anecdote “Idyll,” that are most unexpected. Other experiments in tone rely on rhyme or distinct dramatic personae. Some of these fall flat; the criticism of teenagers for their lack of spiritual understanding in the persona poem “Down Into Szechuan” seems particularly preachy. More successful is a sudden and appropriate reference to Old MacDonald and his farm: “I might as well be in China. Where I am. / With concrete here and concrete there, here / a block, there a block, everywhere a block / block” (“The Queen of Constriction”). Though by this point in the book, readers are probably used to Ruefle’s “breezy manner,” “The Queen of Constriction” takes it one step further by directly equating such a manner with the logic of childhood, with silliness. Other poems, including “Fountainhead of Esoteric Knowledge,” which lists the contents of a medicine cabinet in artfully effusive language, appear to be efforts in careful description. Placed alongside the intellect of poems like “The Pedant’s Discourse,” Ruefle’s descriptive poems read a bit like warm-up exercises – underdeveloped though clever – but they lend the book a remarkable breadth.
Given Ruefle’s defense of play, Apparition Hill’s reach is obviously deliberate. “Brother,” the speaker of “Cul-de-sac,” concludes, “I have been unable to attain a balance / between important and unimportant things.” This is a good thing, of course. The poems range from East to West, from objects to abstractions, from the serious to the frivolous. Ruefle’s method teeters between hilarity and sobriety, always refusing to tell things straight. In this book, being unbalanced is the only way to keep from falling and uncertainty marks the highest truths.
Cecily Iddings has also published criticism in Indiana Review.