Mary Ruefle’s website claims that she doesn’t have an email address. For a writer with what one might assume to be an aversion to the feverish of the digital, her poems function as both an exorcism and curation of excessive information and imagination. She is a remarkably controlled poet, but is frenetic within this control, leaping from one pocket of image and allusion to another. Her poems, in effect, comment on excesses of information, and disallow any hope for moralistic or pedagogic resolution. What exists in Ruefle’s lines, then, is the aesthetic of a fable, the familiar tropes and vehicles that exist within the room of the “usual” parable: bringing the concept of reaching toward morality to a poem saturated with image and ideas.
Ruefle’s poems, often one-block stanzas, exist as solid pieces of an entire structure working toward the ideal of fable, but they never quite impart the experience or any lesson which is a defining trait of the classical morality tale—nor does Ruefle intend them to. If we were to call her poems fables, we would do so in positing that they are fables not broken by modernity but wary of singular direction or consequence because of it: they hinge on the strain of a surplus of image, ultimately receding into either a large and unknown or a small and obscure entity as they finish. Ruefle shuns the desire for an epiphanic conclusion, resisting our preconceptions informed by the fable archetype in order to avoid any glimmer of moralizing. We find this in the final lines of “The Beautiful is Negative,” for instance (“Or crickets scraping away / when words fail you”) and in “Depicted on a Screen” (“I know this world up and leaves / on a lacquered palanquin, / taking with it a splendour / I won’t see again.”), where Ruefle offers a portrait of something vital disappeared, changed beyond recognition.
This resistance to moralizing constitutes her poems’ successes, as we find in “Lullaby”:
My inability to express myself
is astounding. It is not curious or
even faintly interesting, but like
some fathomless sum, a number,
a number the sum of equally fathomless
numbers, each one the sole representative
of an ever-ripening infinity
that will never reach the weight
required by the sun to fall.
Reaching toward knowledge or epiphany—and falling short—is perhaps Ruefle’s comment on the inadequacy of morality forms in a modern context. In Aesop’s fables, promises and warnings are inevitable consequences of certain behaviors. With images stimulating seemingly endless thoughts and tangents for possible thought, Ruefle’s poetry faces us with an almost existential idea of the moral, an inevitability of behavior without prescribed consequence. What will happen will happen—often absurdly, whether we behave ourselves or not. Behavior itself—of animals, of humans, of relationships, of words—unravels in her poems toward something absurd or obscured, bleak and metaphysical. These poems are fables as replications of life—broad and three-dimensional, curated. They misbehave and carry forth with abandon.
To read Rachael Allen's entire essay, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .