One Hundred Parties for Mary Ruefle

Michael Dickman

Winter 2018

I would like to throw her a party. Her. Mary Ruefle! One hundred parties.

Well, don’t overstay your welcome.

Mary Ruefle says, “Lectures, for me, are bad dreams.” Me too. Bad dreams littered with disappointed nuns and playground equipment. I couldn’t run fast enough away from any lecture you could name. I’m confused, in fact, that you’re still here. There are trees outside! It’s almost spring!

It’s more fun, I think, to have a party: some music in the leaves, perhaps some light refreshment. Gin. Raspberry sherbet. Chinese lanterns. A punch bowl. A swimming pool.

All lecture-parties should be BYOB.

Did you bring yours?

I brought mine.

The first Mary Ruefle poem I read was in Skid, a book of poems by Dean Young. The poem was called “A Poem by Dean Young.” Mary Ruefle doing drag? I love that about language. It can sneak up on you in someone else’s togs. It doesn’t even belong to whom you thought it did.

Of course I have written a poem by Dean Young!
More than once I have written a poem by Dean Young.

The relationship between the poet and the reader is always slippery, and Ruefle often seems to be in two places at once. Singing and listening. She is herself, in Dean Young’s clothes, clothes she let him borrow.

I, I mean you, I mean the shadow
of your shadow

Li Po said writing poetry was like being alive twice. Lightning Hopkins said playing the blues in the old days was like being black twice.

Bring your own beatifics. Mary Reufle always does. They include: pot holders, berries, apples, my cracked heart.

Mary Ruefle lived in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, for a short period of time a long time ago. I like to think we lived on the same block, but I don’t think that could have been true. But I want it to be true. Reading is such an intimate experience. Left alone with a hundred pages or so of Ruefle’s perfectly tuned and dazzlingly open poems, and suddenly it’s as if we know everything about each other.

More than once I have stuffed the eucalyptus leaves
in your mouth.

I’m realizing now that all the trees in Mary’s poems I had imagined to be in Portland, Oregon, most likely took place in Vermont, where she’s lived most of her life. If a tree can be said to take place. Here is a poem called “Fall Leaf Studies”:

I wake up, I count my money,
then I have lunch.
After lunch I go
to the window.
The leaves are no longer green.
When the leaves fall,
at the end of summer,
who knows if there are enough
to cover the ground?
Do they themselves
ever actually really know?
They come down slowly
and with many conjectures
after all that yak
and in that bronzed state
they pause.

They were right when they told us that money doesn’t grow on trees. But I’m struck by the money that is being counted next to this tree. And how the leaves, which are not money, fall and turn to bronze, which could be turned into money. And there we pause. To catch our breath, I think, and to look back at that word “yak.” Often the light thrown across the vocal surface of Ruefle’s poems gives you a false sense of calm that a kayak couldn’t navigate, because the current is real and will sweep you away.

If I had to guess, I’d put some money down on the idea that Mary Ruefle writes most of her poems in winter. Winter is a great season to write poems in. In Vermont it snows blank sheets of paper. Lines float down out of the sky at many angles. You could be walking through a drift of poetry by midmorning—if, that is, you can get out of bed to pull on your boots. I want to bet on winter because so many of her poems mention spring. Is Mary Ruefle a spring poet? Could be. Her lines push up through the world’s hardpan and too-often frozen consciousness like white, yellow, and purple crocuses. The crocus. Not a flower to fuck with.

Here is some spring in four Mary Ruefle poems:

Ah spring! The cedar waxwing with a plume
in his ass, pumping seeds from his mouth
like a pinball machine

spring, ripening to her ideal weight, has fallen
from the bough and into my lap.
For twenty minutes the world is perfect

That old spring prop, birdsong, wafts
through the trees, the trees with their leaves lit
like the underside of the sea.

It is spring. I am the peppermint king!

Spring is in the air even in poems that are not about spring but about autumn, poems which begins with bonfires and woodchucks, but quickly turn away from fall to pass over winter to get to:

On brisk spring nights
I can hear the frogs singing in their disbelief.

Now these are many different kinds of spring, though I think they may share one characteristic. Disbelief. Or a version of disbelief. By which I mean a kind of shocked surprise. My favorite spring is the first one in the list above, because it’s the first time that I’ve experienced spring in a poem that belongs in an S&M dungeon. I am surprised by this, in part because I know many people, some of them poets, who would go to great lengths to find a plume in their ass while they pump seed from their mouths like a pinball machine. And yet not every spring poem makes this desire so clear. I am in awe of this poem as well as in a pleasant state of disbelief, the disbelief of the aforementioned shock, of being shocked awake in fact, tuned up like a fork.

Don’t think I have not eaten
in the most beautiful Chinese restaurant
in the world

Worth a moment also are those spring lines where we followed birdsong out of the air through a tree and onto a leaf, a leaf lit like the underside of the sea. If I were pressed into teaching a class on cinematography and film editing, I might exchange anything Bresson ever wrote for those three lines. (Sorry, Bresson.) A crane shot moves from music in the atmosphere down through a tree and then close up to a leaf dissolving into the bottom of the sea and the music of the seafloor forever, in less than twenty-five words. This movement would take most poets more than a few lines, a few poems, a few books, a lifetime.

The person whom Lightning Hopkins was speaking to was named Peppermint Harris.

Maybe Mary Ruefle is not a spring poet after all but a poet of disbelief. If you have any money left over, you might lay your next bet down on disbelief.

Starfish, champagne, blood, innumerable birds.

Often enough at the end of a poetry reading, there is time for a Q&A, which stands for “questions and answers,” and not, as one might hope, “quaaludes and Ambien,” or even “quartets and Amadeus.” There is a very good chance that the following questions have been asked of Ms. Ruefle before, and in fact are asked over and over again at poetry readings. Still I am interested in them, even though, in this instance, the answers come from poems and not from a person.

Why do you write poetry?

Star Light, Star Bright,

First Star I see tonight . . .

When is a poem finished?

many of these things glint in the morning

sun, weirdly, why do you ask?

Where do your ideas come from?

Basho thought a good life was spent picking up

horse chestnuts from off the ground.

Is “Happiness” a thing?

My job is writing poems and reading them to a cloud.

What’s your email address?

I love you.

But who is the I

and who is the you?

            Beavers, roosters, Pluto, John Philip Sousa.

Michael Dickman was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. His latest book, Green Migraine, is out from Copper Canyon Press.

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