Diagnosis: Seasonal-Affective Lyric

Tristimania by Mary Ruefle

(previously published in The Common Review, Spring 2005, appearing here briefly as a sample clip)

Readers curious about but estranged from contemporary poetry, who may be looking for a rewarding and fabular inroad, have plenty to choose from in a season of extraordinary vitality in American poetry, but where to begin? Fans of the chiaroscuro corners and wry humor of American and Eastern European lyric (including the likes of Charles Simic and Dean Young), and also those who enjoy the bracing New England weather of Emily Dickinson’s mind, can do no better than to spend some time with Mary Ruefle’s latest offering, Tristimania. Appreciable for their amazing technical grace and formal inquisitiveness, the poems also reward and startle with their intimacy, clarity, and striking imagery. Ruefle’s new poems are full of fireworks on the edge of American lyric, but they are still always communicative and generous toward the reader.

If Mary Ruefle’s imagination were diagnosed, it might be said to have tristimania. While the word is an arcane Victorian term for what we now call hypochondria, for Ruefle it also works from the root, to denote an unruly passion for sadness. But hypochondria connotes an overactive imagination, one that fools itself into its own pain and sadness, one that is not to be relied upon, as it insists on intruding into the world and making things happen. Those in charge of defining physical reality frown and shake their heads, and when the patient is nearly consumed by her own visions, the verdict comes with pity but little sympathy—after all, she brought it on herself.

These poems take the stock figures of the hysterical woman and the suffering artistic genius to task in ways we haven’t seen before. Ruefle’s work, for all its intensity, doesn’t use autobiography in any confessional sense. Rather, the poems embrace the possibility that the doctors and diagnosticians, the world’s enforcers, are limited in their vision. Ruefle rejects the idea that her vulnerability, her “over-reaction” to the world, is an unacceptable way to live, and she creates a convincing lyric argument for her condition. It turns out that being continuously overwhelmed by the world is a valid and human way to be, despite what the doctors say. If the psychoanalysts see “ordinary unhappiness” as the goal we must strive to achieve, Ruefle tosses that notion out in favor of flooded sensation and vibrant authenticity.

“Concerning Essential Existence” begins with a horse carefully mounting a mare, then becoming distracted from his task by the sudden clarity of his surroundings. The poem ends, “Nothing is forgot by lovers / except who they are.” A similar feeling marks the opening of the poem, “Why I am Not a Good Kisser”:

Because I open my mouth too wide
Trying to take in the curtains behind us
And everything outside the window

Ruefle seems permanently distracted by the wholeness of things. The lovers in these poems cannot respond to their mates as they’re supposed to. Their passion makes them hyperaware of beauty in the most surprising places, and their longing is to “take in” “everything.”

In some poems there’s the strong sense of an authority looking over her shoulder disapprovingly (though sometimes the authority is an aspect of herself), as in “By the Way”:

What did the person who was holding your head under water say?
The person who was holding my head under water said
Do you send Christmas cards?
I am going to teach you a lesson.
I want to stop now.
By the way, I love you.

The poems have the confidence, the surety of fabulously detailed dreams, yet they’re never dreamy. They accomplish in their best moments what poets like Wallace Stevens and James Tate can do—they let us see another world, right inside of this one. Ruefle pushes metaphor beyond allegorical thinking and straight to resonating lyric implications:

My soul is a dog
I know because I can see it barking

Barking & barking
Though its vocal chords have been removed

It was in the missile of the night         (“Altogether More Serene”)

The consequence of the strangulation in this poem is that “ever after” the soul is impoverished, since “It can only make pure, permanent / And empty sense.” Ruefle begins to convince us that the doctors are not seeing the whole world, full as it is of the unsayable, the unreachable. In search of wholeness, she must come to terms with the finite and fragmentary nature of the world; in this pursuit, she questions logic’s stranglehold on thought, and forges her own argument.

The voice of the collection has a burning quality which seems to consume as it invents, restlessly pushing forward to its next creation, its next assertion:

I am the queen of mosquitoes.
I am the queen of raw milk
and the stems of glasses.
I am the queen of batik
and new pine needles growing
out of the old. The queen of
phone cords and the roots of
river names . . .                                   (“Female Ruin”)

A symptom of tristimania, as it’s fleshed out in Ruefle’s book, is an anxious feeling that one is indeed broken, not quite right, does not belong in the world. And this separation from the world creates intense longing. Yet waiting in the wings of that anxiety, there is another: that one may be in danger of being lost to the world, which besets one on all sides. “The Great Loneliness” begins:

By March the hay bales were ripped open
exposed in the fields
like bloated gray mice
who died in December.
I came upon them at dusk
and their attar lifted my spine
until I felt like turning over an old leaf.
So I walked on, a walking pitchfork.

In just these first eight lines, Ruefle moves from a moody objective correlative which carefully refuses to correlate completely; to a religiously toned, heightened statement; to a line which deprecates that high tone with a cliche and almost jokey meter, which then further laughs at itself by taking the cliche at its word and extending the metaphor to almost surreal sublimity: “a walking pitchfork.”

With all of this bold invention, Ruefle is still able to create a winning intimacy that calms the sometimes frantic invention of the poems and pulls the reader into shared contemplative space. After the mania, a solitary, sometimes exhausted voice reaches us. Here is “Minor Ninth Chord” in its entirety:

Everything has an almost brownish clarity.

The loneliness of remote regions has a special tone,
such that one believes one ought to understand
and even see this special thing that slips away from thought.

It is as if the woman has just now
forever shed a painful conflict. It is a very
painful thing, having to part company
with what torments you.

And how mute the world is!

Paradoxically, the world is either “mute,” having jilted its would-be lover to make it through the long night alone, or the world is pushing almost blindingly in on a speaker who is painfully removed from it, unable to bear its brilliance or its weight. The latter case becomes clear in “Magnificat,” where the speaker roams an intensely vivid world, looking for her place in it, but “nowhere could I / so I kept until I could no more straight / then bent said I am down to make room for the more.” To make room for the more is an astonishing gesture of self-effacement, and lyrically delineates the impossible quest to burn without being consumed.

While navigating again and again the piercing sense of human estrangement, of longing alternately to be filled and to be emptied, the poems accomplish their movement with great variety in tone, form and stance. Tristimania is an accomplished work not only for its technical swerves and blindingly good writing, but perhaps even more for its brave, stark veracity. Ruefle confronts the poetic “illness” of tristimania and the accompanying pain by taking a rebellious joy in language. It turns out the doctors don’t know what they’re missing. In Tristimania, Ruefle wears her self-diagnosis as a badge of pride and of difference.