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: