Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It

A Wall (“Big City Nightmare”)


Here in the rinse
my moony ensuing deceit
puffs up the post-
muscatel longueurs, herding sheepish
regrets forth, waylaying any
chill a forthright lie’d
depart. —Yeah, yeah. Profoundly
ô Nymphe, mes larmes,
mes lames,
the pure
and fatal bear whelps
of the day’s uncountenanc’d
delivery, its uncheck’d brute
tumble deceiving. —What perfect
drivel. The involuntary hour
of pitting ratios of
sense against the lines
and tackling of our
most common frippery, word-
smithing up a pretty
embouchure like a destiny
to blow. Or blow
down all ambiguity’s exits,
and make cottoning to
a rebuff against madness
or its mashy indwelling,
gaseous conjecture. —The scrap
heap. My own sad
beauty’s got nothing, is
how the perfidious stammerers
put it, without putting
out. Or putting it
out, or down in
defiance of the usual
lineaments of discourse, making
a rude array:
                              To the cowboys
                              with a thousand
      diligent reaches.

Skeptical unraveling or pointillist recovery? Eschewing the burdens of explication or statement. A visual memory of words, what makes, oddly, for tactility. Rebuff’d.

Of Note

Brandon Shimoda of Wave Books mail’d me a sampling of newish books recently, including—because I’d ask’d—Mary Ruefle’s 2008 book of prose pieces, The Most of It. I recall how terrific I figured Ruefle’s early books—Memling’s Veil and Life Without Speaking—I’d ask’d for, and print’d, work in Chiaroscuro in the ’eighties, and kept a “sidelong pickerel” look out for things in the intervening, though with my enthusiasm coming rather unbundled. So: tiny attempt to see if I can see a difference (or is it my own changing literary “needs”) between work early and late. Here’s a thing I always loved, out of Life Without Speaking (University of Alabama Press, 1987):
Gigantic Brazen Head

To think deeply right now
would terrify me.

            —E. S. Connell

All day singing the plum-tree tune!
Watching the florist and wanting to be
the ringmaker’s orchid, pinned to her
breast by the shoemaker’s hand, a master
of the female half-length, imagine!

If there are other lives
(never an insect, lord)
let me be five-thirty light
on the wall: a confectioner’s
bride trying to pinpoint her
threshold, lambent and thrilling
down to my slipper.

I once was the perfect square
of my own blue tile, and
later became that blue.
But you couldn’t confine me:
all of my memories I put
out to pasture.

Bluespike nearer the house,
Snakeroot in the garden,
Bergamot by the lake.
Bluebells last a long time on
The stem, and grow in clumps.
A bee on my lips!
My decision I’m certain will
always be excellent:
I merely question my ability
to carry them out.

And at some time, please: a plum.
The luxe of it! But let it be blue
like a grape. What was it before?
The child of a priest, perhaps.
Falling from grace like an art.

Never a little sardine tin lying
open at noon near a hot window.

Little by little a latent image
is beginning to appear as the
cardboard or canvas it was.

A terrible clawing in me.
It’s the day past,
trying to tell me
it is not half so worthless
as I had imagined.
Consider my astonishment
without it!

if only I were free
to be a tugboat.
Woebegone, the word,
if I were only the word—

All day listening to a radio sermon
with the life span of a sea slug:
things need not even exist to affect us.

Caged in the late rain
at the harbor.
Oh hope: downfall,
blue dun on the bay tide.
There are no tolerable dimensions.
But I’m reduced to them.

I can’t help lingering,
but there’s no reason why
anyone should know I’m still here.

Dew season now:
large and solitary flowers grow
wherever they think unfit.
The series thread’d through with blues, with “difference” (“unfit”), with a solitary kind of tethering sadness, with wry humor (“never an insect, lord”), and seemingly toss-off precision (“Caged in the late rain”). The lyrical outbursts—“Consider my astonishment / without it!”—rhetorically pure, meaning, aptly put in the empty chamber of the piece. In The Most of It (Wave Books, 2008), there’s a somewhat similarly composed piece, though longer, its early sections (mostly) fired by narrative coals:
A Half-Sketched Head

this is why
It was of no use, trying to discern whether the anchorite was happy or unhappy; in the first days of her visit Mary assumed this was why she had come, but the longer she stayed the more she felt at home, and the more she felt at home, the more she felt free to be miserable, and finally Mary saw that the question was useless.

The anchorite was in the habit of keeping lists. Among them Mary noticed a continuing list of regrets, under that heading, and though many of them were crossed off or blackened out, new ones were added as well. Mary asked him if a kind of balance were kept, to which he replied: “If only! As a matter of fact, your question is an item I have been tempted to add to the list.”

childhood memories
There was a long silence during which he seemed to be struggling. Suddenly he looked up at her. “I wish to tell you as quickly as possible that when I was a boy it was my sole responsibility to feed the baby goats from a bottle containing their mother’s milk. On one such occasion I managed to spill the goat’s milk down my shirtfront—over which I should have been wearing a smock in the first place. And though I can’t tell you why, I was wearing my best shirt: perhaps for the like of that alone I deserved to be punished. I went immediately to the washroom and began to rinse out the milk spots, using a large bar of my mother’s soap, which was always in plentiful supply since she made it herself. And as I stood there it struck me—my mother’s soap was goat’s milk soap, with goat’s milk I was trying desperately to erase goat’s milk. That something could be its own remedy—though I did not then think in those terms—struck me as a rather serious joke. It was my first occasion of panic.”

moments of delight
Once Mary found his shopping list—it was written on a pink slip from one of those rainbow pads: trout, staplegun, cherries, hammer, ribbon, wire. “Ah, that summer,” he said, “that summer. I sought perfection in all things. When a few groceries were needed I would spend hours devising—then revising—the list. Then in the store I carried it crunched in my hand, filled with an excruciating fear: the fear that others would discover, perhaps in the checkout line, that my list was less perfect that theirs.”

On the second occasion of Mary’s finding a shopping list—this one pinned under the weight of an extra-large egg snug in its styrofoam socket—the anchorite chanced to see her with it. Peering over her shoulder he read rhubarb, roses, crab legs, gray socks, then turned to her and said “Isn’t that the fate, Madam, of one destined to think in scraps?” What follows are a few of those craps, thrown to Mary while she did what few chores needed to be done while tending to the anchorite, who was ailing at that time.

Whatever habit one is most faithful to—whatever one does most, loves best, is their religion. A simple matter of precedence.

Penance is the heart of the matter. Why do any of us live the way we do? It is why I live here in the middle of nowhere. Precisely, it is the penance for never having sinned.

Can we conceive of a religion without prayer? And what, exactly, is prayer? If I am in prayer I seem to be concentrated. But I seem to be concentrating now and I am certainly not in prayer. What then is peculiar to one’s concentration in prayer? It seems, simply, that one must concentrate on something that doesn’t exist, as in prayer to our Lord, or prayers for the future—prayers for a turn of events, against all odds. What counts is that is does not exist. In which case, algebra seem a very good way to get to heaven.

Which is how the thing begins, the initial three pages of eighteen or so. And, typing it out, one begins to think of the “sketch” in “half-sketched” pertaining to the “comedy sketch.” Isn’t there every move of both the intently-observed foibles of human behavior ramp’d up just a touch (I am thinking of some of Ellen DeGeneres’s “material”) and the pointedly odd juxtaposing of details (“trout, staplegun”)—staples of contemporary improv spot? A couple of other lines:

on sex
Just as one lover can be better than another it seems possible that one celibate might be . . . more accomplished . . . than the next. In this vein, I consider myself the greatest of all celibates.

. . .

In the same newspaper he saw an ad for The Complete Penguin Shakespeare and he thought it very odd that penguins would bother to read Shakespeare at all.

Which I greet with a hearty Gertrude Stein belly-laugh only to turn tail and aver and warn: “Jokes are not literature.” (Insert commonplace-rich drubbing of mass-markets, the commodity-made spoilage of the “era”’s talents, how, art, formerly a perceiving-machine’s become just another convenient packaging of mirrors for publick consumption, fulfilling the human beast’s implacable need for seeing himself, foible’d or not . . .) Here’s another:
A Romantic Poet and His Destiny

      Born into a family, H enjoyed an abundance of comforts and was provided a sound education, thanks to his uncle. Upon entering the world of commerce, H did not like banking, he did not like retailing, and he did not like practicing the law. What H liked were daughters. They liked H too, but not as much as they liked the phrase auf wiedersehen. Failure and rejection fertilized H. He wandered here and there, across hills and through valleys, composing songs. As time passed little H became big. People tried to find him. He gravitated toward mountains and promoted their fallen charms. This shift in his writing style did not really change the world. Secret French money kept him alive—albeit he was surrounded by German spies. Living a tricky life was tiresome, so every seven months for seven years he cleared the skies with an illiterate girl. She convinced him to turn forty-four, but sadly he was confined to bed thereafter, by what the Germans called the French malady and the French called the German disease. He married the dear girl, often eating crackers in bed and writing on napkins. After he died, his whole estate went to his widow on the condition she would marry again so there would be at least one man to regret his passing.

Heinrich Heine by Forrest Gump. Ruefle provides a curious note regarding “A Romantic Poet and His Destiny,” insisting that the piece is “slightly altered from a text I found on a paper placemat in a diner off Interstate 91 . . . I was served a hamburger on top of this, and had to ask the waitress for a clean “copy” of the mat. I have no idea who wrote it, but I admired its succinctness, for I happened to be reading a five-hundred-page biography of Heine.” Rue’d dumbing down irrupts in self-mockery, one of the hazards of, if not the “age,” its bleak chorus of sycophants, its unween’d public. Heed Bernadette Mayer: “Work your ass off to change the language & don’t ever get famous.”

Mary Ruefle