Mary Ruefle’s Poems and Prose

March 13, 2023

  This week I’d like to talk about Mary Ruefle’s poetry, and some excerpts from her prose.  Her work always shakes me awake, and makes me see the world in new ways.  Sparks fly.  Please feel free to add your own comments and favorites, and we’ll discuss it all at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).


One of the loveliest possibilities
is that the truth is made of glass
but shaped like a hammer
by using it you’ve broken it
think of it! & it lies broken
at your feet not in your hands
never can you hold it, lassie
it will not come back
but there it is, verily
no matter what matter is
wonderful quiet white clouds
in the night sky



It was one of those mornings the earth seemed
not to have had any rest at all, her face dour
and unrefreshed, no particular place– subway,
park– expressed sufficient interest in present circumstances
though flowers popped up and tokens
dropped down, deep in the turnstiles. And from
the dovecots nothing was released or killed.
No one seemed to mind, though everyone noticed.
If the alphabet died– even the o collapsing, the l
a lance in its groin– what of it? The question
‘krispies, flakes or loops?’– always an indicator of
attention– took a turn for the worse, though crumpets
could still be successfully toasted: machines worked,
the idiom death warmed over was in use. By noon,
postage stamps were half their width and worth
but no one stopped licking. Neutrinos passed,
undetected. Corpulent clouds formed in the sky.
Tea was served at four. When the wind blew off a shingle
or two, like hairs, and the scalp of the house began
to howl, not a roofer nailed it down. That was that.
When the moon came out and glowed like a night light
loose in its socket, no one was captious, cautious or wise,
though the toes of a few behaved strangely in bed–
they peeped out of the blankets like insects’ antennae,
then turned into periscopes scouting to see
if the daze that was morning had actually managed to doze.



Ann Galbraith
loves Barry Soyers.

Please pray for Lucius Fenn
who suffers greatly whilst shaking hands.

Bonny Polton
loves a pug named Cowl.

Please pray for Olina Korsk
who holds the record for missing fingers.

Leon Bendrix loves Odelia Jonson
who loves Kurt who loves Carlos who loves Paul.

Please pray for Cortland Filby
who handles a dead wasp, a conceit for his mother.

Harold loves looking at Londa’s hair under the microscope.
Londa loves plaiting the mane of her pony.

Please pray for Fancy Dancer
who is troubled by the vibrissa in his nostrils.

Nadine St. Clair loves Ogden Smythe
who loves blowing his nose on postage stamps.

Please pray for William Shakespeare
who does not know how much we love him, miss him and think of him.

Yukiko Pearl loves the little bits of toffee
that fall to the floor when Jeffrey is done with his snack.

Please pray for the florist Marieko
who wraps roses in a paper cone then punches the wrong code.

Muriel Frame loves retelling the incident
that happened on the afternoon of November third.

Please pray for our teacher Ursula Twombly
who does not know the half of it.

By the radiator in a wooden chair
wearing woolen stockings sits a little girl
in a dunce’s cap, a paper cone rolled to a point
and inverted on her hair; she’s got her hands
in her lap and her head bowed down, her chin
is trembling with having been singled out like this
and she is sincere in her fervent wish to die.

Take it away and give it to the Tartars
who roll gloriously into battle.



I am rejecting your request for a letter of rejection. One must reject everything in order to live. That may be true, but the rejected know another knowledge—that if they were not rejected, heaven would descend upon the earth in earthly dreams and an infinite flowering of all living forms would form a silveresque film over our sordid history, which has adventitiously progressed through violent upheavals in reaction to rejection; without rejection there would be no as-we-know-it Earth. What is our ball but a rejected stone flung from the mother lode? The rejected know that if they were nonrejected a clear cerulean blue would be the result, an endless love ever dissolving in more endless love. This is their secret, and none share it save them. They remain, therefore, the unbelieved, they remain the embodiment of heaven herself. Let others perpetuate life as we know it—that admixture, that amalgam, the happy, the sad, the profusion of all things under the sunny moon existing in a delicate balance, such as it is. Alone, the rejected walk a straight path, they enter a straight gate, they see in their dreams what no one else can see—an end to all confusion, an end to all suffering, an elysian mist of eternally good vapor. Forgive me if I have put your thoughts into words. It was the least I could do for such a comrade, whose orphaned sighs reach me in my squat hut.



The teacher asks a question.
You know the answer, you suspect
you are the only one in the classroom
who knows the answer, because the person
in question is yourself, and on that
you are the greatest living authority,
but you don’t raise your hand.
You raise the top of your desk
and take out an apple.
You look out the window.
You don’t raise your hand and there is
some essential beauty in your fingers,
which aren’t even drumming, but lie
flat and peaceful.
The teacher repeats the question.
Outside the window, on an overhanging branch,
a robin is ruffling its feathers
and spring is in the air.


Some excerpts from her essay collection Madness, Rack, and Honey

from “On Beginnings”:

You might say a poem is a semicolon, a living semicolon, what connects the first line to the last, the act of keeping together that whose nature is to fly apart.  Between the first and last lines there exists–a poem–and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other.

Would not speak to each other.  Because the lines of a poem are speaking to each other, not you to them or they to you.


But it is growing damp and I must go in.  Memory’s fog is rising.  Among Emily Dickinson’s last words (in a letter).  A woman whom everyone thought of as shut-in, homebound, cloistered, spoke as if she had been out, exploring the earth, her whole life, and it was finally time to go in.  And it was.


from “Secrets”:

The words secret and sacred are siblings.


The origins of poetry are clearly rooted in obscurity, in secretiveness, in incantation, in spells that must at once invoke and protect, tell the secret and keep it.


Poems are written in secret….


When the secret is exposed we turn away.  When the secret is hidden we try to see it.


We speak of secrets from the point of view of the teller or keeper, but what of the listener?  What about the one who hears the secret?  What happens to him?


from “Madness, Rack, and Honey”:

The great sculptor Giacometti once said, “I do not know whether I work in order to make something or in order to know why I cannot make what I would like to make.”


from “Someone Reading a Book”:

Kafka, in a letter: “Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us.  If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?  So that it can make us happy, as you put it?  Good god, we’d be happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves.  What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide.  A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.  That is what I believe.”


There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter.  It is the world everybody else lives in.  And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.

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  • Reply Fredric Koeppel March 14, 2023 at 7:54 am

    Wow, don’t know this poet. Just these selections knock me out. Must read more.

    • Reply Sharon March 14, 2023 at 8:03 am

      She’s a wonder. I love the way her mind works.

  • Reply Martha Zweig March 16, 2023 at 1:27 pm

    rereading the 3 books I have of her. Today’s favorite : The Jewel by Mary Ruefle

    Night, and the coffers are empty.

    An emerald in a truck rumbles away

    to the other side of the earth.

    A little girl with her pail and shovel packs up

    while corpses revolve in the sea,

    no more than a cavalry of undulation.

    Quite the bedtime story. Papa, what happens next?

    Nothing much. We go to sleep,

    the jewel comes back and all is well.

    The little girl gets sandy building herself a home.

    The corpses are clean as diamonds in a museum,

    the kind that turn when you press a button

    and an eerie green light shines down on them.

    And when I sleep you peep in on me?

    Yes, and you are safe as baggage in the hold

    beneath a bus, and not one passenger knows

    the lovely thing that shifts below

    or cares what happens next.

    • Reply Sharon March 16, 2023 at 1:30 pm

      Thanks! I really like this.

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