I've Always Wanted to Use Malarky in a Review: Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle

Cassie Duggan

Let me begin with the obvious: I adore Mary Ruefle, and couldn’t wait to get my hands on her newest collection of poems out from Wave Books. Trances of the Blast is guided by Ruefle’s fascination with the world and the ability of words to turn this world on its head. Her quirky intelligence always informs the poems, whether she is musing about hyper-sexual rabbits or grappling with the strangeness of childhood memories. These poems are linked through thematic repetition and curiosity of language, humanity, and nature. But most of all they are enjoyable, because they feed off an investigatory energy that I attribute uniquely to Ruefle’s writing.

Mary Ruefle is a master of familiar surprises. Just one of the beautiful techniques of her craft is her attention paid to words and their expected meanings; a couple of examples in this collection: using the verb “rotiserizing,” and saying “the broken gravy boat will sail no more.” But in particular poems, she calls attention to language as the main focus, notably in “Mimosa” and “Jaroslav.” Dedicated to the New York poet James Schulyer, "Mimosa" draws itself into the writer’s mind when she writes, “I’ve always wanted to use / malarkey and henna in a poem / and now I have." And all of the sudden the poem is about writing more than anything else, but in the next lines the poem dives deep into metaphor-land as Ruefle describes a century plant and Schuyler’s life. Satisfyingly, the poem comes back to language and the desire to use certain words in the last lines:

and you saw plenty of them,
spectacular and sad as
a head of hennaed
hair,
a lot of malarkey
if you ask anybody
other than us.

In “Jaroslav” we see familiar moves taking place, small but noticeable. Early in the poem we read, “it’s been a long time since I / said the word buttercup,” which seems out of nowhere. The poem mentions shadows, sheep, pillars, and the buttercup seems like the odd one out, but then again we are surprised and relieved when towards the end she writes:

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,
I remain.
Oh what a lonely head
would say such a thing
and then repeat it,
indefinitely.

The emotional punch in these last lines is intensified after we recognize this strange word from an earlier place in the poem. Like a puzzle, the poems suddenly fall into place, and the reader feels grounded. It is a powerful tool to use a single word to make the reader feel comfortable, and Ruefle does it incredibly well in these poems.

The most captivating emotional thread throughout this collection is Ruefle’s remembrance of her mother. Time and again the poems mention the narrator’s mother and throughout the book the reader builds an image of this mother and her relationship to her daughter. However, the poems build from memory and imagined memory muddling any possible certainty for the reader. The poem “Happy” begins:

After my mother died
I could hear her in the attic
playing with dolls.

These lines call back to an earlier poem, “Greetings My Dear Ghost,” which begins, “One thing life has taught me / is that even dolls have bad days." These are only small examples of this in the book. Happiness, dolls, and the mother character appear continuously throughout the collection. In the poem “Woodtangle” mother and father are mentioned together and in contrast:

My name is
Woodtangle. I remember my mother
when she wore yellow was beautiful
like a finch and then she died. I remember
thinking my father was mean but knowing he
was kind. I remember thinking my father was
kind but knowing he was mean

This is not to say that this collection is only an exploration of family though. Humor riddles Ruefle’s work and these poems are no different. People are grimly and amusingly portrayed in “The Bunny Gives Us A Lesson In Eternity.”

We are sad people, without hats.
The history of our nation is tragically benign.
We like to watch the rabbits screwing in the graveyard.

Each thought, given its own line, feels like the punch line of a joke.

Another clever poem is “Paris By Moonlight.” From its title alone it already seems to suggest a lighthearted approach to expected poetic romance. The first line rushes into the immediacy of this image with, “Oh my god, it’s Paris by moonlight,” and then pokes fun at the image with the lines, “What kind of trees are those? / Those are trees in Paris by moonlight." Of course, because what else could they be. The familiar image of Paris takes over the poem and becomes a character that overwhelms everything, even the narrator’s experience.

Trances of the Blast will leave the reader dazed, as if struck by a big hit to the head and heart. The beauty of this collection, and Ruefle's work as a whole, is that it will have you giggling as often as the poems tug on your heart. The world of these poems is strange but touching, too, and the closest I can come to understanding it is seeing it through Mary Ruefle’s eyes.


Trances of the Blast
By Mary Ruefle
Wave Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781933517735

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