A Death-Haunted Poetry Book Mulls Life’s Reversals of Fortune

By Mary Ruefle

“No one has yet to begin a life who will not end it,” Mary Ruefle writes in “On Beginnings,” the first piece in her collected lectures, “Madness, Rack, and Honey.” It’s more of a lecture on endings, actually: “Not every poem is finished,” but an abandoned poem is not fully a poem, much as a life is not complete until it’s over. In “Short Lecture on the Dead,” she writes, “People who are alive are not really people because they haven’t died.” We extant folks have not done all the people things yet, since dying is a requirement of personhood.

In “Dunce,” her latest poetry collection, Ruefle confronts the extraordinary yet banal fact that all of us die. How do we reconcile the boringness of death-in-general with the shock of our own, specific death? “I am walking in the general direction / of things,” she writes; “I was nothing / and shall be nothing again.” To live is to walk in death’s general direction. Death is our destiny, the Hollywood ending for each of us — what could be more predictable? And yet. (My favorite Issa haiku: “The world of dew / is the world of dew. / And yet, and yet—”)

Our own deaths, though certain, do not seem possible perhaps until our parents die — as though this were the true end of childhood, and so the end of youth. The presence of an older generation is a comfort, a weighted blanket, that makes us feel protected; its absence creates the inexorable sense that we’re next. Ruefle’s mother’s death haunts this collection — it feels as if her death itself is the ghost, the event and not the person. Take the poem “Bath Time”:

and a light rain

falling on my mother’s grave

comes back to me,

how it seemed

on that sans-everything day

to be the very pins

she carried in her mouth

We learn from “I Remember, I Remember,” Ruefle’s essay-lecture in the style of Joe Brainard, that she was 45 when her mother died, and “it poured the day we buried her.” All rain now is funeral rain. In the poem “Lightly, Very Lightly”: “It was raining. / I could hear the rain / taking the pins out of her mouth.” In “Little Travel Book,” a black car rolls backward out of a garage: “This is sad, like Stonehenge in the rain.” In “Halloween,” a fake corpse with a motion detector “sat up,” “its eyes rolled back to white,” and “turned its head around, / all the way around,” when you approached it. This, Ruefle writes, “reminded me of my mother / and at the thought of my mother / there was a corpse in me.” These references register as a pain in my chest (my own mother has begun to complain of chest pain).

The ostensible occasions of Ruefle’s poems are minor: not the funeral, but the bath. They record small moments with sweeping scope, moments in which the speed of thought seems to outpace real time. In the book’s title poem, an “I” and a “Mary” go bogging in rubber boots, among “orchids & mushrooms, mushrooms & orchids”:

There is in my house, she said, a stovelight

that never goes off. And in my car, I said,

there’s a dashlight that never goes off.

What warning has no end and ends without warning?

“Dunce” is full of these linguistic reversals — the chiasmus may be the device that best represents life’s reversal of fortune, our built-in obsolescence. The comedian Steven Wright once joked that everyone dies instantly: “It’s the only way you can die. You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive, then you’re dead.” Ruefle knows this too. “I tell everyone I was born,” she writes in “Suddenly,” “among the meadow people / who never speak a word / that has not been repeated / over and over and over again / but still takes me completely / and by surprise.” Not “completely by surprise” — completely and by surprise. Death is final and universal, but my death is unique.

ELISA GABBERT is the author, most recently, of “The Word Pretty.”

By Mary Ruefle
99 pp. Wave Books. $25.

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