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What We’re Reading: Trances of the Blast

2013 October 17

What We're Reading

Ruefle_Trances of the BlastTrances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle (Wave Books; 2013)

The word stanza comes from Italian and means, loosely, “little room,” which is an apt way of looking at a stanza. In Mary Ruefle’s work there is another unit of poetic measurement present, often smaller than a stanza, though arguably more energetic, which could be called a “blast.” These moments of clarity, insight, instruction, and radiance have been a feature of Ruefle’s writing for the length of her career (see 2010’s Selected Poems also from Wave Books), but, as evidenced in Trances of the Blast, have become more subtle and opaque over the years, though no less intense.

In Ruefle’s early work, blasts often came at the end of the poem, signaled by a stanza break (often the only stanza break in the poem) or by a colon. That is to say, she pointed to the insight, forced the reader to think about it. As she has matured, Ruefle has become more willing to place these gems of thought elsewhere in her poems. “Fireworks,” one of the first poems in Trances of the Blast, begins, “The world was designed and built / to overwhelm and astonish.” This delightful couplet stops the reader almost immediately with its truth and surprise. Ruefle stops the reader again by following these lines with another surprise: “Which makes it hard to like.” Later in the poem she tells us, “My happiness is marred only / by my failure to attain it. / Otherwise it would astonish and overwhelm.”

Other poems have blasts that are more difficult to parse, though no less satisfying. They delight in syntactic upsets and “weird responsibility,” as in “Spikenard”

Sentence, you always

spoiled my evening.

This is the journal

of my journal.


Like pale writing

they lie there on the floor.

I spend more time with my journal

than I spend with myself.

The end.

It’s the surprise of writing what you didn’t know you were going to write that Ruefle longs for; epiphanies that are genuinely born of the process of composition. The sentence, the complete thing, known before you’ve begun is less interesting. Indeed, the known can spoil an evening.

These “blasts” aren’t just moments of lucidity or discovery, they also work to compress or expand time. The phrase “Little Eternities,” the title of another poem in the collection, could be used to identify blasts involving time: “Childhood! It was in one of the houses nearby.” Here, time becomes a place; especially a place to live in. “Ars Poetica” begins,

You go through the past

and there is a wall, and some steps

down; you come into a lane and go

until there is no more lane, but only

a path, and then you come to a field

that must have been a garden once

with a house or something.

Past is physical, real, and navigable. Is this Ruefle’s own memory? a memory of our own? Is it no memory, simply a thing by which we can examine memory? No matter, we walk through the past with its wall, steps and gardens, throughout the collection.

“I hated childhood. / I hate adulthood. / And I love being alive.” So ends “Provenance.” Set apart as its own stanza, this tercet is both “blast” and “little room.” It is a life condensed into the end of a poem, and distilled down to extremes. Ruefle is at her best when working thus, and Trances of the Blast is Ruefle at her nuanced finest.

What other poets have continued to delight, “overwhelm and astonish” as they have matured?


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