Poetry @ Bennington: Mary Ruefle ‘74
Rachel Arone '20
This past Wednesday, October 5th, I was privileged to attend the Poetry @ Bennington series at Tishman and hear poet and essayist Mary Ruefle read her work. For this second installment of the series, I decided to sit in the very back of Tishman, and was rewarded by the entirely new perspective this change in seating lent me. I watched as everyone filed in––individually, or in pairs or groups, the steady stream of patrons soon amply filling the rows of benches in front of me. But perhaps the most striking sight was that of Mary Ruefle herself: staring out at the audience from the first row with her hair brightly haloing her face; she certainly seemed a powerful force, even before she read a single word to us.
The audience applauded as Michael Dumanis (stand-in for Mark Wunderlich, who is on sabbatical) announced the second installment of the Poetry @ Bennington series. Much like the last installment, this reading featured an alumna: Mary Ruefle was class of ‘74. Unlike the last installment, however, Dumanis did not give a formal introduction for Ruefle, as the poet had requested he dispatch with it. He did briefly enumerate her acclaimed volumes of poetry and prose: Trances of the Blast, her most recent volume of poetry, and Madness, Rack, and Honey, a collection of prose which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
When she took the stage, Ruefle did not give herself an introduction, either--she dove right into her first two pieces, which were untitled and part of a larger “fake journal” she had put together for one of her prose volumes. These pieces did, in fact, serve as apt introductions in and of themselves. The first untitled piece concerned names, and the deceptive nature of names, exploring the differences between the name one is given and an unknown name that perhaps lies within a person––that one has to discover or define for oneself. The second, as Ruefle explained, described her relationship with prose versus her relationship with poetry. In the piece, the speaker reads Proust, and becomes obsessive over Proust and his ideology. The poet is then relieved when, at the end, she encounters Whitman and is welcomed back into the world of poetry. The combination of these two pieces gave the audience insight into who Ruefle is, both as a person and a writer.
Nearly every piece Ruefle read this evening was characterized by an exhaustion with contemporary life. Her poem “Carpe Diem” begins by describing the sun as a “hopeless blind spot,” and throughout the poem are images of lost, wandering dogs and general disillusionment. Similar sentiments are echoed in “Damsel,” whose first line is “Being alive’s not what it’s cracked up to be,” and “The Heart of Princess Osra,” which expertly conveys day-to-day exhaustion in its description of the world as a “vast massage machine.”
But frequently infused in these dark perspectives is a relentless sense of morbid humor that makes these sentiments all the more striking. I couldn’t even count the number of times Ruefle made the audience break into laughter with her insertion of humor into poems that would otherwise be substantially depressing. The poem “Tuna and a Play” starts off with the image of two people “picking grasses” outdoors before having tuna and going to a play. The poem then presents a moment of dissonance to this light tone: when one person asks the other if she’s glad to be human, the other responds that she “couldn’t say” whether she was or not. The poem’s tone remains light, however, in spite of this jarringly dark reflection on the part of its characters--the narrator restates, as the last line, that they are going to have tuna and a play, with all the nonchalance this statement carried in the first line. Some combination of this casual and unconcerned tone, a recurring ay sound that lends a singsongy-ness to the poem’s reading, and Ruefle’s very steady and casual way of reading it, makes this piece and others like it surprisingly and refreshingly humorous.
Perhaps what makes us laugh most at Ruefle’s pieces is the fact that they so adeptly reveal aspects of our reality and mortality which we secretly fear. “Observations on the Ground,” a prose piece, starts off by defining simple terms, such as “tools” and “heavy equipment,” as if to a visitor from another planet. This is played to humorous effect, but this humor soon becomes darker as Ruefle, using this frame of describing Earth customs to someone who is ignorant of them, notes how both trash and the deceased are buried underneath the ground. This implication that a person, after death, goes to the same place of discarded material, is deeply unsettling. With this, the poem’s address of the audience as outsiders to the world and the things they are so familiar with, such as trash and burial rituals, additionally creates an atmosphere of discomfort and dissociation. But Ruefle’s casual tone while reading such morbid things is indeed very funny. And we, jarred by the image of our future corpses mingling with trash underground, gladly take her cue to laugh, seeking to relieve the anxiety surrounding our mortality.
Also refreshing was how Ruefle’s poetry described everyday sensations and truths in ways I had never even considered before, and in ways we can all understand and relate to. In a prose piece, “Milkshake,” she relates loneliness to being bored, and supports this by showing multiple times when, for her, attempts to escape loneliness were also attempts to escape boredom. Additionally, “The Gift” explores how we attempt to validate ourselves through aesthetics and materialism, as the speaker orders fancy apricots for herself and considers buying mosquito netting just for the mysterious air it would give to her apartment. These extravagant purchases and fancies are also attempts at escape--the speaker avoids writing her thoughts down in a journal for the “terror and boredom” this action entails. Ironically enough, listening to this essay and her other works helps us to escape from terror and boredom in our everyday lives. Through her pieces, Ruefle encourages us to face terror with humor, and boredom with cleverness and imagination.
Once again, I was thoroughly amazed with the literary skill of a visiting Bennington alumna at this Poetry @ Bennington reading. Ruefle’s work is beautiful, hilarious, startling--it is so many different and wonderfully complementing things. If I could one day write half as effectively as she does, I would be happy. And I would love to learn to read as well as she does, too--the way she speaks makes her work all the more impactful. We need poets like Ruefle, and she makes me all the more proud of our community of literary Bennington alumni.
One Wednesday a month, Bennington brings poets to read at Tishman Lecture Hall. The next poetry reading will be on October 26th at 7:00 PM, with Nick Flynn.