Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Emily Carr on Mary Ruefle

My husband and I were arguing about a bench we wanted to buy and put in part of our backyard, a part which is actually a meadow of sorts, a half-acre with tall grasses and weeds and the occasional wildflower because we do not mow it but leave it scrubby and unkempt. This bench would hardly ever be used and in the summer when the grasses were high would remain partially hidden from view. We both knew we wanted the bench to be made of teak so that it would last a long time in the harsh weather and so that we would never have to paint it. Teak weathers to a soft silver that might, in November or March, disappear into the gray hills that are the backdrop of our lives. My husband wanted a four foot bench and I wanted a five foot bench. This is what we argued about.

from "The Bench" Mary Ruefle
As I enter the third decade of my life, I find myself increasingly concerned with margins, both literal and abstract: margins of the page, margins of the body, margins of experience, margins of memory, margins of canon, margins of genre, margins of expressive possibility. Which is not to say that I want to speak from the margins or that I think margins are particularly essential to the articulation of female experience. Rather, I am learning, from innovative poets like Rosmarie Waldrop, Joan Retallack, and Juliana Spahr, to think more critically about myself as a woman, to worry about how the female subject is constructed as feminist, and to wonder how the label applies to my life as well as to my work as a poet. I am trying to decide if I want to participate in the project of moving the margins inward, or if I think it is more hopeful and generative to consider difference from 'within' as well as 'from' a mainstream that is becoming increasingly harder to locate.

I am also, particularly with the recent publication of Cole Swenson and David St. John’s American Hybrid, intrigued by the idea of the hybrid: those poetries that cultivate the fertile middle ground between, around, and despite the increasingly hopeless division of carefully crafted, conventional poems that “make sense” and formally experimental, avant garde ones that don’t. As a woman struggling to define her particular vision of the social role of poet, I am most interested not, however, in Swenson’s and St. John’s theory of the hybrid, but rather in the poets whose work they see as exemplifying “the avant–garde mandate to renew the forms and expand the boundaries of poetry… while also remaining committed to the emotional spectra of lived experience” (Swenson xxi).

I am, for example, particularly and pleasantly surprised to find Mary Ruefle, whose poetry inspired much of my work in my late teens and early twenties, included in the anthology. Ruefle is, for me, a pleasant childhood memory: I associate her work with a thoroughly “normal” period in my life, during which identity, experience, and memory were all stable, immutable, given, and I had no notion of what it might mean to be feminist and, likewise, no desire to engage in subversive acts of language. I was particularly drawn to Ruefle's “The Bench,” a prose poem that revolves on the axis of the lyric I/eye of an elderly—or middle-aged at least—wife who disseminates her marital strife into tidy, carefully wrapped packets of meaning, thus making the real world not merely possible but, more importantly, understandable. As a prose poem, “The Bench” is conventionally narrative, relating the story of a man and a woman who want to buy a bench to put in the part of their backyard that is a meadow of sorts. He wants a practical bench while she argues that the true function of the bench is imaginary, and thus any practical function—such as how many people might sit on it—is irrelevant. On her five-foot bench, “which was always empty, nothing had come to an end because nothing had begun, no one had sat down, though the bench was always there waiting” (31). He, in contrast, sees a four-foot bench “always with two people sitting on it, two happy or tired people… happy to have reached the end of some argument, tired from having had it” (30). After speculating as to a third, non-existent bench, she reluctantly agrees that while “the four foot bench reminded me of rough notes towards a real bench… a five foot bench was like a fragment of an even longer bench and I admitted it was at times hard to tell the difference” (31).

Though the bench symbolizes—not surprisingly—the inherent and perhaps unresolvable differences between her point of view and his, the couple, finally, reach a compromise that is, literally, utopic: they come to imagine a fourth bench, only a foot long, “a miniature bench, a bench we could build ourselves, though of course we did not.” This bench, which is the same as the third bench, meets both of their expectations and thus replaces the actual bench that they had intended to buy. As a young woman, I was grateful to this conclusion for its simplicity and accessibility, its sense of a definite and proper ending. At the time, my parents' relationship was suddenly and quickly deteriorating, and the poem offered a glimpse into a less chaotic world, a kind of mirror world onto which the real world might be transposed, its swerves re-articulated into meaningful patterns. Nearly a decade later, when, now a wife and a burgeoning feminist, I return to Ruefle it is with a sense of nostalgia, of a lost and better past. I expect to be comforted by her work. I expect a respite from the difficult, yet exhilarating ellipses, parataxis, and palimpsest I am reading in Rosmarie Waldrop’s The Reproduction of Profiles. Unlike more experimental women writers I have been reading and admiring from a distance for the last five years, I do not think that Ruefle will help me to think through, over, around, and beyond my struggle to decide what kinds of public conversations I want my work to generate. I think of Ruefle’s work as a pause, a breath, a bathtub text I will read at the end of the day, after I have spent too much time thinking about too many unanswerable questions, and it is a comfort to lapse into narrative conventions: a man, a woman, a bench.

So it happens that I am surprised by Mary: surprised to see her amongst the poets collected in American Hybrid, surprised that her 2008 publication, The Most of It, is neither lyric nor narrative in the conventional sense. While some of the poems (“The Bench,” for example, is reprinted) bear the trace of the lyric I/eye whose genius is the ability to articulate the movement of the mind from uncertainty to transcendence, the majority of these prose poems resist closure, celebrate multiplicity, speak at a skewed angle from the familiar, and address language's failures to ever fully grasp all of it. “If All the World Were Paper,” for example, addresses the increasingly relevant questions: why read and why write? What makes reading and writing matter? The poem juxtaposes pretending to read and write against actually reading and writing, comparing the former to a landscape “unrolling as featureless as a plain and… you are the antelope, scared to have been born under such dismal skies,” and the latter to the feeling of birth, when “I am seized by a feeling of frightening abundance.. as if the sun had strayed too close, or one among us drifted too far...” I can only wonder if it was a drift or a swerve or a plunge that brought Ruefle from the coherent voice and formal clarity of “The Bench” to the non-linearity and open-ness of “If All the World Were Paper.” Regardless, I am, once again, grateful. It is a privilege to grow with, rather than out of, a poet I adored as a younger, more innocent woman. It is heartening, moreover, to see that the margins are not where you thought they were, that radical acts in language are in fact possible from within as well as from without.

Works Cited
Ruefle, Mary. The Most of It. Seattle: Wave Books, 2008.
Swenson, Cole and David St. John. ed. American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry. New York: Norton, 2009.
Emily Carr is writing a book of poetry, to loot to hew & Eden, that explores happiness from ecocritical and feminist perspectives. “the story will fix you it is there outside your &,” a lyric sequence from this manuscript, will be published in Toadlily’s Quartet series this fall. Emily also has chapbooks forthcoming from Furniture Press and above/ ground press. Her critical work appears in HOW2 and Jacket.


mark wallace said...

"the fertile middle ground between, around, and despite the increasingly hopeless division of carefully crafted, conventional poems that “make sense” and formally experimental, avant garde ones that don’t."

There are certainly a lot of differences and divisions in contemporary poetry, but I'm not sure the above quote is a very good description of them. The idea that "avant garde" poems don't make sense seems a blatant mischaracterization, whether a willful one or one that comes from not understanding.

Chien Bâtard said...

Hi Mark,
I'm not sure Carr is suggesting that avant garde poems don't necessarily make sense is she? Though I'm wondering if there is an effective way of describing the impact of coming to terms with complex and colliding influences on both the personal and the poetics level.

mark wallace said...

I would certainly be interested in hearing you say more about it, because it does seem to me that she is indeed saying that. Is there a contextual marker or an irony that I'm missing?

Chien Bâtard said...

Just read the paragraph again and I see yes it seems a very simple equation and perhaps Carr will respond here.

There is a lot being written about these questions of late, it's true, and several anthologies and blogs are taking up the discussion in new ways--yours for one. Have you done a review of the anthology in question? I have not seen it yet.

Brennen Wysong said...

Is that Carr's equation or Swenson and St. John's from their introduction to the anthology? In the blurb through the link it says:

"As Cole Swensen argues in the introduction to this comprehensive new anthology, the long-acknowledged "fundamental division" between experimental and traditional is disappearing in American poetry in favor of hybrid approaches that blend trends from accessible lyricism to linguistic exploration."

Just not sure how "experimental" and "traditional," "accessible lyricism" and "linguistic exploration" are further defined by the editors ...

Regardless, good stuff here.

mark wallace said...

Cole Swenson has worked with and among many "avant garde" poets for years, so I doubt very much that she would say that such poems don't mean anything.

I haven't seen the Hybrid anthology yet either, LH. I'd probably write about it if someone sent me one, but having to pay a good bit of money for an anthology that I'm likely to feel lukewarm about doesn't seem the best use of my poetry-buying dollar.

Chien Bâtard said...

It is an interesting moment in poetry...all this conflation and some would argue, dilution, this anthology and Shepherd's, which I have also not seen. I'm still formulating thoughts on all of it, though, like you, I come to the table with some hesitation... I enjoyed your list of statements on hybrid poetry.

Emily said...


perhaps this discussion might be clarified by a simple mark of punctuation... i intentionally put "makes sense" in scare quotes to indicate the limitations of the term; when i say "don't" i mean it in the same way. i call the division "hopeless" because i, like the editors of the anthology, believe it is inadequate and obfuscating. the editors of the hybrid anthology certainly aren't making a judgment nor is this phrasing a sign of preference. it might have been more accurate to talk about accessibility or transparency, but these terms are themselves equally unfortunate. regardless of the terms you use, however, the point is that there are poetries that ask different tasks of the reader: certain poetries "make sense" in the conventional sense while others ask readers to choose to make sense in new ways. & i suppose that is the key, at least when I think about contemporary poetry: while some poetries immediately, regardless of the reader's desire or intent, seem to "make sense," other poetries clearly invite the reader to choose if and how to "make sense." so there is a "burden" of desire/ intent put upon the reader. i certainly don't intend to privilege one over the other; i personally find such arguments to be of little use & to distract conversation from the poetry itself. i interpret the hybrid anthology (which is not what my posting is really about, of course) to be useful in its attempt to redirect conversation away from binaries & the imperfect hierarchies/ relatings they presume to impose.

Barry Napier said...

Great commentary. Reufle's Indeed I Was Pleased With the World inspired me to "rediscover" my poetic side and I have since had several published. She remains one of my favorite poets.