Remember sex in the early days—how you’d become obsessed with particulars and risk missing the big picture? You’d think overmuch about your body, or your movements and speed, or the noises your body made, but then you realized, unless sex just wasn’t your thing, that you needed to give in to a more organic understanding of the experience. It was the only way to get the full effect.
I first approached Mary Ruefle’s latest collection Trances of the Blast like a recent virgin, I guess—I read and reread each poem in order; I tried to make sense of them; I examined the technique and appreciated certain tricks of the line. Ruefle, though, is a consummate practitioner of her art, and you do best when you put yourself in her competent and creative hands and let the poetry wash over you. There is much to think about, but in the moment, if you dwell too much on the mechanics, you run the risk of missing the magic.
The book could not look more straightforward. It has an off-white cover with only the title and Ruefle’s name on the front. There are seventy-five poems inside, most of them presented in a chunk—no stanza breaks; there are no sections, and nothing more than a single epigraph to start a reader on her way.
And the poems fit the title perfectly. I don’t know how else to say it—here and there, Ruefle has tamped the gaps between words with C2, and when you relax your guard, it will blow a hole right through your brain. There are small but impactful surprises in every poem, like “Happy”:
I was happy out there
skating under the moon
with no one else around.
I felt so happy I started sewing
clothes for the moon.
Tiny things at first,
like christening gowns for caterpillars.
I really didn’t see the caterpillars coming. I don’t see anything coming in this book, yet … stuff keeps coming, like the quick imagistic language in “Literal”: “I like to smell stones. / There is a whiff of snow in them.” These two lines are a small astonishment because they’re true—rocks do sort of smell like snow. I hadn’t noticed before Ruefle showed me.
Ruefle certainly has control of the image, but I also like her surprising sentences, which are less like a straight stretch of interstate than they are like, oh, I don’t know, a path to the center of an anthill? A wee example from “White Buttons”: “I like to read in tree houses / whenever I can which is seldom / and sometimes never.”
Another example of sentences that keep streaming, streaming from the magician’s pocket like a bright silk hanky is found in “Are We Alone? Is It Safe to Speak?”, a poem that seems to be addressed to the reader and that begins “Dear Unknown Friend.”
Certainly I would never have stepped
into this nutmeg grater
and become a pile of fine woodsy particles.
It occurs to me we are walking
piles of dust, you and I,
and still it smells as sweet
as summer winds off the coast of Zanzibar
and the sails are up and off we dash
into the brine of our contentment.
I like how that second sentence unspools with its gentle astonishment. Every moment of reading Ruefle is a moment of asking, “Hm, where is she going with this?” And then she goes there, and it’s to a place the reader could not have predicted.
And that’s the key to appreciating Trances of the Blast. To really enjoy the collection, you have to relinquish control a bit—to ease up on the intellectual gas and let yourself coast down the windy mountain road. Though it’s tempting to back up and reread, to make sure you understand what Ruefle is getting at, within this metaphor, that’s the equivalent of tapping the brakes. It’s a fine strategy—you’ll arrive at your destination safely—but overthinking this poetry lessens the rush, reduces the thrill of the ride.
Much has been said about Ruefle’s mastery of the line. It is a subtle thing she does. Her enjambment builds in each poem like the purposeful weaving a spider does to make its web just so. In this book, the uneven lines serve to reiterate the notion of the blast. Maybe the poems began their lives as tidy sonnets, fourteen-line boxes tied neatly in an iambic bow, but something happened, some charge was laid and ignited, and now the uneven lines mark the radius of the explosion. My favorite use of a Ruefle line is to compound the element of surprise, as in this example from “A Penny for Your Thoughts”:
Talk for half an hour about the little churchyard
full of the graves of people who have died
Let’s be honest—those nachos were wholly unexpected, and a delight to encounter.
It’s possible to live too much in one’s head. Ruefle’s poems are meant to be experienced with the whole self. While they reward close inspection and contemplation, they are most satisfying when you move along with them—when you feel instead of analyze. Trust me when I say that you know intuitively how to enjoy this rare poetic voice.
Trances of the Blast, by Mary Ruefle. Seattle, Washington: Wave Books, September 2014. 136 pages. $18.00, paper.
Karen Craigo is the author of a forthcoming collection, No More Milk (Sundress Publications), as well as two chapbooks. She teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri.