How does one even begin to write a review on a book of poems by thee Mary Ruefle? Do we start with how she captured the essence of reading as “our minds and the universe” in her book of prose, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures? Should we discuss her wisdom bespoken – “To be honest, the problem with poetry is its medium is language.” – when she was interviewed on WMFA? She goes on to elaborate that if we approach poetry, or even language, more like we approach music, with an invitation towards surprise, that is when we stop feeling dumb. This is a poet who made the word “fucking” bloom with layered meaning in her mega famous poem “Red.”This a poet who is certainly not a dunce. 

Yet, here are the final lines of “A Morning Person,” from Dunce:

I hear one coming on.

I hate my poems.

I am reminded of the eternal suffering of many famous novelists who hated what they wrote so much they admitted it in the work itself. (I wonder how many times Mary Ruefle has threatened, jokingly or not, to quit poetry?) I think it’s no coincidence that “A Morning Person” begins with the mother’s funeral, and the poem which follows – “Vow of Extinction” – claims to forbid…

1. “all plants except the lemon tree”

2. clouds and memory of clouds

3. limes (sneaky)

4. animals, including sky-animals

5. people, with or without shoes

6. candles, in particular

“Candles are forbidden” is a line that lies in its own space, lineated separate from its sibling-lines, and lies it does. This poem – Vow of Extinction – is about re-entry; it ends with a return to society after a painful death; the speaker marries the entire sky, enjoys little mammals whose names have been replaced, enjoys fruit. The poem claims to forbid but finds that grief is not powerful enough to truly erase the names of things. I am reminded of walls engraved with names, built where disasters have taken place. I am reminded that my mom’s surname was worn by family thousands of years ago, that diasporic grief did not forbid the name successfully even as it passed through a centuries-long kaleidoscope of cultures and languages. Yet, Mom did change her name, after the name ceased to be a forbidden thing… Here is how “Vow of Extinction” ends:

From this day forward

I eat lemons in my park

Their complete similarity to me

can now be distinguished

To speak of my promise,

my offering to the sky, 

puts a sprig in my mouth

Would this not then be my entry into society? 

But of course, there is no Mary Ruefle without foundational joy and humor, and even the announcements of shame and sorrow are filled with joy and humor. It is always important to wiggle. This is a poet at play, an excerpt from “How We Met,” a poem: 

I would be happiest if there were

a whole village of radish people, 

as many radish people

as there are buffet people

I hope for each radish person

a “sister person” in the room

I am half radish myself

This desire/craving/bodily need to interpret “sister person” through a Queer lens is non-negotiable. Speaking of radishes, let us remember that there are radishes which resemble watermelons…

By David Monniaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

…and that might be a tidy metaphor for the poems in Dunce. There is so much sugar in these poems, fruit-flesh, seeds that grow into gardens in your stomach, but there is also fiber, antioxidants, your fingers take on a coat of soil, you want to admire stems and roots. Ruefle, as always but also here in Dunce, has this way of going from butterflies to wind, from surreal humor to the bottom sea of the lungs. Here is a final excerpt, from “Apple In Water,” the first poem in Dunce:

I was swimming

with the taste of apple

in my mouth

a shred of appleskin

between my teeth I guess

It doesn’t get any better than this

said the water

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