“What is the code for happiness?” Mary Ruefle asks in “Trances of the Blast,” a poem that comes midway through her book of the same title, but is as good a place as any to begin:
What is the code for happiness?
At one time
Now it is another time
Whether “Blackberries forever” is the code for happiness or not, it’s unquestionably evocative of a poetic history, priming readers to recall Whitman’s blackberry adorning “the parlors of heaven,” or Plath’s “Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,” or Robert Hass “saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry,” or maybe all three, among infinite others. Ruefle constructs sentences—or, in this case, paired questions and answers—that shift direction midway through like schools of fish. The seeking of happiness in her hands becomes a matter of poetic history, which is dismissed—“Now it is another time”—almost as soon as it is called forth, leaving echoes of that history to reverberate as the rest of the poem charges ahead.
Ruefle operates similarly at the phrase level; consider, for example, the opening lines from “Mimosa”: “Pink dandruff of some tree / afloat on the swimming pool.” The “pink dandruff” deglamorizes flower petals as an image, while the generalized “some tree” makes the move feel almost offhand, until the second line refocuses on a specific place, visually pairing the pink with the presumably artificial blue of pool water, while locating the tree by the pool.
Trances of the Blast features 75 new poems, and follows Ruefle’s 2010 Selected Poems and her 2012 essay collection, Madness, Rack and Honey. All three were published by Wave Books, and it would seem remiss not to mention the careful typography and clean aesthetic of this book in particular and the press’s titles in general: Wave makes beautiful books that feel classic and modern at the same time.
But beyond its pretty packaging, Trances of the Blast is full of good poems. Ruefle’s unmistakable voice connects them enough that no structural conceit is necessary. And yet the arrangement isn’t haphazard; the poems comment on each other in order, as when “Sawdust,” “Broken Spoke,” “Fall Leaf Studies,” “Platonic,” and “Woodtangle” collectively disassemble a tree into its parts.
From the very beginning, the poems work to suspend time, and then dismantle the world within that suspension. The book opens with the lovely “Saga,” which begins,
Everything that ever happened to me
is just hanging—crushed
and sparkling—in the air,
waiting to happen to you.
The poems move between narrative and non-narrative modes, pairing big abstractions with minute, specific things in surprising ways; dolls and schoolhouses and Mickey Mouse and Basho and squirrels and henna and malarkey are all at home here, and to great effect. However, there are occasional off-notes, when Ruefle perhaps pushes the lawless diction too far. In “Mimosa,” for example, the speaker says, “I’ll xanax myself to sleep,” and although downplaying the proper noun as a lowercase verb prevents it from sticking out on the page visually, the Xanax reference pins specific ideas of social class and adulthood a little too clearly on a speaker who otherwise appears to hang near-perfectly between childhood and adulthood, innocence and worldliness.
This suspension is part of what gives Ruefle’s work such power—the poems are paradoxically both evasive and intimate at the same time, and a deeply felt sincerity pulses through lines that seem on the surface to be toying with words. The linguistic tricks at work in phrases like “trances of the blast” are balanced by an emotional tension that makes the poems memorable beyond their inventive language. Loneliness and a particularly bereft mode of yearning to understand the incomprehensible crop up repeatedly, beginning with the very first page of the book. “Everything that ever happened to me / happened to somebody else first,” Ruefle tells us in “Saga.” “I would give you an example / But they are all invisible.”