Indeed I Was Pleased with the World
By far my favorite book of the year is Mary Ruefle's tenth collection of poetry, Indeed I Was Pleased with the World. Ruefle's books appear without fanfare: slim, unadorned, they dare to let the poems inside speak for themselves. Indeed comes packaged in a simple white cover with only the author's name, the title of the book, and a picture of a wilted little orange something on the front, either an orange or ball or pincushion. There's a randomness, a what-the-hell quality to the chosen image and title that mark Ruefle's work as a poet and make her lovable. Ruefle shares Keats's aversion to the "egotistical sublime." Her poems don't announce themselves; they sidle up to you, whispering their little charms in your ear.
There are plenty of "good" books of poetry, but only a few that make you so fall in love with them that you want to tuck them in a shoebox and feed them spoonfuls of jam. Indeed I Was Pleased with the World is just such a book. The speaker of the poems shares the same cosmic charm as the Little Prince, the Fool in King Lear or Twain's Adam in The Diaries of Adam and Eve. The book opens with the mirthful, odd "The Day the Earth Stood Still":
I remember the day the official letter came announcing that on such and such a day. And on such and such a day I was ready. I toweled off and sat by the window.
I love that "I toweled off"; it is the kind of charming touch that gives Ruefle's poetry its magic. Indeed is full of such touches. Take the closing [End Page 174] passage of "Hope": "Bonnard. He's dead./Maybe because he's dead/you pronounce the final d/or maybe because he's dead/you don't." Or the beginning of "Something of a Tractate":
It was gone now, the boring summer, and those who survived it were stuffed with famous haiku. Now they were asked to eat bold and dangerous amounts of macaroni. They were taught to say "he died" instead of "he is dead" and given a couple of sweaters.
What is there to say in the face of such poetry? How does Ruefle move so swiftly from summer to haiku to macaroni to sweaters? Where does the reflection about the relation between death and the final "d" in "Bonnard" come from? Poetry of this kind of weirdness is always in danger of being dismissed as a "curiosity" by curmudgeonly canonmeisters. But these readers need to give Ruefle her due: her weirdness is world-class, like that of a Dali or Pessoa.
Sometimes Ruefle's weirdness is mainly a source of amusement, as in "My Timid Eternity," in which the speaker imagines a heaven occupied solely by her and the first president of the United States:
I am thinking how lonesome it will be in Heaven with only George Washington and me there. I suppose we will recite the Beatitudes and wonder when they are coming— the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who are pure in heart. Roasting marshmallows in the evening I will broach the subject of lies. He will hand me a wig and some leeches, which I will decline, still thinking about the others— if they went to the Babies Camp by mistake we could maybe get a letter out.
(I don't know what the weirdest detail here is, the marshmallows, the lies, the leeches or the Babies Camp.) But in the best poems of the book—"Peccadillo," "After a Rain" and "The Refrigerator"—Ruefle's weirdness takes her [End Page 175] into a zone of consciousness occupied solely by her and the greatest of poets. In "After a Rain," Ruefle appropriately makes the power of her own weird noticing the subject of her poem:
I noticed it was silly of me to notice so much but I noticed there is no stationery in heaven, I noticed an infant will grip your hand like there is no tomorrow, while the very aged will give you a weightless hand for the same reason
In passages like this, Ruefle's poems take on what Wallace Stevens would call a "holy hush": amusement gives way to spiritual yearning and wonder. The speaker confesses her helplessness before the things of the earth, which she feels compelled to write down because "there is no stationery/in heaven." In "The Refrigerator," the last poem in the book, Ruefle's obsessive noticing takes on a quietly transcendent power:
There is the sound of dust heard over the telephone. There is the sound of a piano with a faint heart coming from below, a hell where people are happy. There is the sound of someone standing on the grave of someone they do not know and do not care about. There is the sound the same person makes standing on their own grave. I love the sound of the iron on the ironing board turning on and off, waiting for someone to come.
How lonesome it must be in Heaven without Mary Ruefle.