The Poetry Project

Dunce by Mary Ruefle

Review by Zoë Bodzas

I put Mary Ruefle’s Dunce on hold at my local Brooklyn library branch in February 2020 and retrieved it twelve months later from a newly reopened satellite location. A semi-public object, this was one of the first things I’d borrowed since the start of the pandemic. How did the poems find me? Moulded into a much smaller life, filter-feeding from the internet and the tiniest daily imbroglios. The world of an old indoor cat or houseplant, my old worries now jarred and shelved, all my new existential fears a low-grade fever in the background, just there to provide a healthy flush. Life accumulates slowly, until it doesn’t.

Dunce wraps and seals my grooveless brain, following the most doughy-minded, underwater year of my life. Ruefle weaves mortality and the mundane, the blithely mystical on the razor edge of absurd. It’s all fair game because life itself, with its unknowable rules, is not a fair game: Dunce addresses the dead, the living, the web that is language, the hoopla of the bees, the shred of apple caught between your teeth. “The important things. / We all want them.”—and whomst am I to disagree?

Death is old news in Dunce, the gaze here candid and unflinching, but not without moments of fragility and tenderness. Adorned with no additional emotion, sandbagged by no additional weight, mortality is just another guest on these pages. Ruefle offers the mind as a simple platter, attentiveness with no ulterior scheme, no allegiance to all those usual hierarchies. The poems collect scenes of the world, full of pivots and associative twists, darkly funny and frank and tender.

In this reality, each moment lives on a precipice: “The past has trudged to this one spot / with a flashlight in its mouth / and falls into the stream.” There’s nothing precious, Ruefle promises, regarding death, hairpins, and radishes with the same blasé frankness, with flickers of an off-kilter cheer. The poems of Dunce offer a few sharp clues and a grin that feels wild in the shadows then winsome in the sunshine.

Where do poems come from? Where do lives go when they’re over? Can we reach the dead with words? Dunce collects our origins and departures. With glassy eyes, I absorb them like an alternative inventory for this year of death and worlds grown small.

In “Dark Corner,” the poem is born at once:

As I crimped my fingers 
to pick up the pin 
a poem came to me. 
That is, it appeared 
word for word in my mind. 
How did it get in the drawer? 
How long had it waited? 

The mind a platter, a drawer, a museum for any and everything. We cope and accumulate through collage and osmosis: “Some say the best thing you can do / is to carry a pair of little scissors, / snip small pieces of the world / and take them home with you.” Life accumulates slowly, and in Ruefle’s lists, connections, and flips, we unravel this accumulation with discreet pleasure, with quiet surprise.

Dunce peeps at various models of living, thinking, dying, reliving, emptying, recalling. We encounter “a lacuna of the living” which “keeps souls apart / in their own wicker cages.” Ruefle asks, “What is the age of the couple / of whom there is only one left?”

In “Vow of Extinction,” the channels between the here and not-here grow ever more blurry:

I shall write my poems
and try to reach those
who no longer exist

They are not in this poem or any other

The poem has no radar, no artificial intelligence. The poem’s capacity to search is mercifully human. Though we move through our lives, we’re often not cognizant of either the mechanics or mystery of it all. Ruefle is unafraid to call customer service: “O Lord Almighty, creator of / all things beautiful and sick, / who prefers another life on top of this, / who are you to judge?” Here in our second-choice life on this earthly plane, the speaker offers an attitude of second chances in “Crackerbell”:

and at once I felt
there are so many years to fail
that to fail them all, one by one,
would give me a double life,
and I took it.

From my own wicker cage, I wonder, where can I sign up for this sweet, bumbling double life of failures? A second life of worry and rest, ambition and revenge, generosity and heartbreak. From the precipice of the present, I like to look, much like the speaker of “The Cake”: “I saw the mist over the grass / Of all words, my mistakes carefully / Wrapped in a blanket and sung to.” Join me, if for nothing else but the views of life from here. It’s already ours, and always will be.

#264 — Spring 2021