Mary Ruefle

MARY RUEFLE is a poet of visionary imagination, in love with the world and the power of art. She sees the strange in the ordinary and vice versa. She weaves them together by way of wild association, and then uses omission and conflation to blur the lines. Christened the “Poet Laureate of the City of Ideas” by the Harvard University Press, Mary Ruefle describes herself as a “wandering fool, searching and seeking, searching and seeking, with no end in sight.”

Born in Pittsburgh in 1952, Mary Ruefle grew up traveling throughout Europe and the U.S. with her military family. She graduated with a degree in literature from Bennington College, and has since gone on to publish ten poetry collections, including Trances of the Blast, Among the Musk Ox People, The Adamant, which was awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize, and Selected Poems, which won the 2011 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. She has also published The Most of It, a book of prose, a comic book Go Home and Go to Bed!, and Madness, Rack and Honey: Collected Lectures, which was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award. While they were in fact delivered as lectures, these pieces levitate and swoop, ponder and dive and careen, just as her poems do. She is also an erasure artist, whose treatments of nineteenth century texts have been exhibited in museums and galleries, and published in A Little White Shadow.

Since Ruefle is interested in the pliability of language as raw material, it is no surprise that she gravitated toward erasure, creating poems by erasing much of the surrounding text of an already existing work. Ruefle’s erasures are sketches of life and memory, showcasing how “presence is born of absence, and an absence made present.” In many ways, her own poems similarly inhabit the realm of negative capability, a term Keats first used to describe the desire to live in the uncertainty of human existence without relying on explanations and reason. She traces the boundaries between the subjective world and the world everyone else lives in, giving weight and wings to the unseen and the surreal. Ruefle is at ease with uncertainty. As she told The Volta, “The difference between myself and a student is that I am better at not knowing what I am doing.”

While her overarching themes are universal—loneliness, love, death—Ruefle interrogates the nature of the lyric itself, stitching together speech rhythms, sounds, visual flashes and ephemera with the thread of the overheard and the under the breath. Her “talky” speakers favor fragments, direct address, questions, misreadings, and conjectures. Ruefle writes, “The power of the human imagination is to invent ways that enable us to survive, perhaps survival is but an act of the human mind,” and she delights her readers with how the mind works when it’s working most pleasurably. To quote the poet David Rivard, “Even at her most outlandishly playful—and who is more outlandish than Ruefle?—she speaks with an unbelievably sly wisdom.”

Mary Ruefle has received various awards including an award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Whiting Award. She currently teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College and lives in Bennington, Vermont.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2015

Chilly Autumn Evenings

On chilly autumn evenings I build a bonfire
and think of the woodchuck, a waddling rodent
who can no longer fit in any of the tunnels
he’s built, their labyrinth a sorrow
to his forlorn highness who has one eye,
even it nearly buried in old hair.
What does place mean to him?
A chunk of land thrown out
with the rest. A bigger chunk
on which he sits and thinks.
How inaccurate of me, but moths
are too great a subject for one lifetime.
Winter passes, a powdery flounce.
The stars oscillate in their panic.
On brisk spring nights
I can hear the frogs singing in their disbelief.
What has happened to the woodchuck?
Summer goes about her work evenly, and soon
the cold will force a shaft from the moon
to the bonfire, an enormous eyebeam
from which, my friends,
we need to hide.

From SELECTED POEMS (Wave Books, 2010)


God have mercy on me. This is the diary of a lost soul
(I am also the author of No Bed of Roses). Apparently
I cannot live without parentheses. To live without
parentheses would be as scary as living without
parents, I mean, to have been born out of nothing.
When someone stands before you and puts their hands
on your hips they are acting like parentheses,
which is why a great many thinkers come from Paris,
where lovers embrace on the quays and intellectuals
watch them from windows, taking notes. I will buy anything
that comes from Paris, which is another reason God
should have mercy on me. I believe Paris is a place where
everyone is marvelously alive, each in their own way,
and the moon is different, too—it never disappears or goes
away, it never looks like a parenthesis, but grows continually
round till it breaks of its own weight and pieces of it fall
like fireworks (!) and the lovers watch and the intellectuals
take notes and everything is endlessly fascinating
in a spectacular way. I should be more Parisian. That is
my thesis. But I know from the movies Paris is nothing
like that, it is full of motorcycles and crooks and the clothing
is all too small because no one cares enough to replace it
and people continually grow out of it without even bothering
to notice. But I notice. From my little apartment in Massachusetts
I notice and I care. God have mercy on me!
I would lie down and put a dagger in my heart
if only I knew how and where and why.

From SELECTED POEMS (Wave Books, 2010)


I was going to ardently pursue this day
but you know how these things go.
I am a Hun and the sun is my chieftain
and chieftains are as they appear to their Huns…
So, sunless, I go from being a sleepy angel wearing god’s toga
to a woman in a bathrobe wandering around a well-appointed house.
The transformations are astonishing; like a birch in April
the blood rushes to my head, only it’s not April
and all the signs say don’t go too soon, don’t go too far,
don’t even pass. The birch stands still and these things
are of some consequence in the country. And a domineering
little bird has eaten all the seeds. I think one day
it will build its nest in my abandoned cranium.
I study nature so as not to do foolish things.
For instance, in the worst windstorms
only the most delicate things survive:
a vireo’s nest intact on the lawn next to the roots
of a monstrous tree. Life makes so much sense!
There goes the coach. The coach is of real gold
and the new queen is in it. I like trips, I book them all,
and I’m one of the lucky: my memories are actually finer
than those of those who go. I suspect the queen is going
to the despot’s private party where they shove sweetmeats
down your décolletage and have a goose so slowly roasted
the poor bird cries whenever you pull off a piece
and everyone shrieks with joy. What does the outer world
know of the inner? It’s like listening to wolves or loons…
Here comes the snow, that ought to make the children
happy as parrots flying over a gorge with a bamboo bridge
built like a xylophone and fruit bats hanging upside down
who look at the world and decide to go airy in ardent pursuit
of a plum. But what does the inner world know
of the outer? And will I find out soon? That word,
that word has kept me company all my life.

From SELECTED POEMS (Wave Books, 2010)