Pretend Spring

I dunno, guys. It’s pretty weird out there. Even Eileen Myles, my personal heroine of wedding/welding toughness, vulnerability and smarts, thinks it’s the end of the world. The latest Republican debate might give transcriptionists a seizure, or maybe anyone trying to follow it. We’re all lobbing election-related memes past each other on Facebook. That’s where I follow Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which lets me know almost daily about a kid the age of mine who has killed or been killed senselessly by an unsecured firearm. Plenty of people are talking about America like it’s jumped the shark. The constant stream of reports about police brutality and debt-driven incarceration mount to a din; my outrage and despair seem only numbed and paralyzed by the frequency. The number of migrants fleeing into southeastern Europe has tripled in the past 2 months, though it hasn’t been cracking the headlines. I’ve had to supplant my afternoon public radio news habit with loud music I can belt along to. There’s only so much one can take.


If only we all had such good attitudes about crashing.

It feels strange to walk outside and find crocuses thinking about being themselves, chart the diversifying birds daring their way up to the feeder, check the sap buckets, smell thawing earth. How can this be the same world? But it is this world I lean on to rescue me from the solipsism and anthropocentrism of our media diets. We belong to both of these fragile worlds. And each offers glimmers of beauty each day, beauty that is bound up with the struggle, not separate from it.

Read Something Beautiful

The absurd position of mothers in the only industrialized nation without mandated maternity leave is something that felt invisible to me when I became a mother only 7 short years ago. People are talking about it now, loudly, and that gives me hope:

Amy Westervelt wrote this great piece about how Having it All Kinda Sucks

Melinda Gates is talking about unpaid labor and how it affects women AND men in the global economy.

Lidia Yuknavitch writes lyrically and movingly about life’s complications, how “all the beginnings have endings in them.”

Make Something Amazing

If you have even one maple tree in your backyard, you can distill some fortifying sweetness. Practical magic like this is so worth attempting in even the smallest quantities—it always, always lifts me out of headline-induced nausea and back to a state of wonder.

Check back soon for a tutorial on making your own homemade small-batch syrup!



Syrup spokesmodel and fairy princess

Remembering Jim Tate

James Tate’s extraordinary poetry and person were life-altering forces for many people, myself included.

I came to UMass in 2000 to study with Jim (and with Dara Wier and Peter Gizzi) in the MFA program, a nervous, hopeful 20-something. Jim was a serious, devoted, wholly unflashy teacher, and later he became a friend, and we worked together on proofs for his books, testing the mettle of his copyeditors while surrounded by books and beautiful Amish quilts in his living room.

When my children were born, I slowed down and then stopped writing poems for awhile. Good thing poets don’t have the expiration dates of rock stars, I told myself and anyone who asked; I could start writing again at 40 and still have a 40-year career. That sounded pretty good for awhile, and at least succeeded in soothing my self-loathing about not making new work. This June, my 40th birthday arrived, and in July, Jim died. When J and I heard he was very ill and visited his wife Dara at his bedside, it still seemed somehow unfathomable that he would be gone soon. Jim had given a terrific reading at the Juniper festival only two weeks before. Just before he went into the hospital, a single advance copy of his new book of poems—his 17th!—arrived in the mail. His constancy, his primacy seemed unassailable to us, his students, friends, family, and readers, even though his health had been fragile for so long.

In the immediate aftermath, fellow poets flooded social media with favorite poems, anecdotes, recordings. Two friends got matching tattoos of the line “then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs,” which, repeated 23 times, constitutes Jim’s poem “Lewis and Clark Overheard in Conversation.” I think they’re looking for 21 more collaborators for this living art elegy. In a box of his late father’s things, J dug out the copy of Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee which Jim had signed to his dad. The inscription reads:

To Roger – congratulations on your new truck. Jim

We sat up drinking wine and thinking of them both, and reading some of our favorite Tate poems aloud. I thought about starting to write again, more freely than before. As Jim said in a 2010 interview, a real writer writes “because they absolutely must,” not for success or approval or acceptance. To me this also means that writers need writing not just to understand or decipher their world, but also to misunderstand and encipher it. Jim was a grandmaster of slippage, bringing his reader into a situation she thinks she understands, then whipping the rug out from underneath her, letting her fall into something entirely new, startling, disconcerting, hilarious—and always true.

A Sound Like Distant Thunder

I had fallen asleep on the couch with the
TV on. Every now and then I would open an eye
and see someone get stabbed or eaten by a monster.
Once, a beautiful woman was taking off her blouse.
And then the phone rang. I couldn’t tell if it
was a TV phone or my own. I sat up, half-asleep,
and reached for the phone. “Howie,” a woman’s
voice said, “Is that you? You sound like you were
asleep.” “I was,” I said. I wasn’t Howie, but
I was in the mood to talk to this woman. “Howie,
I miss you. I wish I were in bed with you right
now,” she said. “I miss you, too. I wish you
were here with me right now,” I said. I hated
not knowing her name, and I didn’t know if I could
call her “honey” or “sweetie” or any other endear-
ment. “Why don’t you come over right now,” I
said. “Oh you know I’m in Australia. And my
work here won’t be done for another month. It’s
just hell being away from you this long,” she said.
“I love you,” I said, and I think I meant it.
“You mean the world to me, Howie. I couldn’t get
through this without knowing you love me. I think
of you all the time. I look at your picture
every chance I get. It’s what gives me strength,
that and our brief phone calls. Now go back to
sleep and dream of me, dream of me kissing you
and holding you. I have to go now. I love you,
Howie,” she said and hung up. And though my state
may be described as a gladdened stupor, I felt
like a Howie, I really did, and I believed in my
heart that the nameless, faceless one indentured
in Australia really loved me, and that my great
love for her gave her strength. I cozied up on
the couch and fell into a sweet sleep. But then
I heard a lion roar, and I feared for both of our lives.
“Howie!” she cried. “Save me!” But I
couldn’t. I was busy elsewhere, tying my shoe.

James Tate, from Return to the City of White Donkeys

One aspect of Jim’s particular genius was to get people laughing, and then they were ready to follow him anywhere, often straight into strange or dark places. The central premise of many of his later poems seems to me that our pat routines are one flicker of possibility away from a plunge into the unknown. Not the the unknown need be abysmal or frightening—often it is populated with goats, sexcapades, and sudden joy. But that it was waiting right there, on the other side of the next word, to be discovered. A room where Jim was about to read his next poem was a room that crackled with anticipation, his audience still grinning from their last ambush and hungry for the next one. Roars of laughter would occasionally make him start to giggle too, and I can remember more than one of his readings leaving me with tears of laughter and aching cheeks.

To do this, each unlikely move in his poems had to be entirely believable. This is the chief lesson I remember from his workshops. I remember bringing in a poem and having him zero in on one simile. The only thing he said was, “I don’t trust this simile.” I sweated over this for a long time (Jim didn’t usually say a lot about a poem, so one tended to interpret the runes later, preferably with a beer and a friend.), but I think I finally got it—if you don’t trust the simile, it all falls apart. Start over. Jim taught me that you can go absolutely anywhere in a poem if you take your reader with you. That’s the delicate balancing act: generosity toward the reader on the one hand, and uncompromising fidelity to imagination, possibility, discovery on the the other. The reason to write a poem was always to find out something you didn’t know before, to think something you hadn’t thought already, to create a new possible world. But always, always to have company there in that new space.

Jim was a voracious and ecumenical reader, and he loved poems that “worked” in many different ways. He read more contemporary poetry than almost any of us, and had little patience for students who didn’t read enough. A list of “recommended titles” showed up without explanation in one’s MFA mailbox early in the first year of the program, with over 200 titles on it, from Catullus to Whitman and Dickinson to Barbara Guest, Lisa Jarnot, and Terrance Hayes. Though there was no formal requirement set out, everyone knew that Jim’s specialty was grilling MFA candidates during their oral defense, and we had figured out that every title on the list was up for grabs. Many of us crammed and quizzed one another with trepidation: “Well, what should a person say about Elizabeth Bishop?” Those who had been through it before recommended expressing appreciation for Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens in particular. I never heard of someone failing their defense because of their performance on Jim’s quiz, but it did serve to underscore the importance of knowing one’s poetry family tree.

In class, and in any discussion about poetry, Jim was a bulwark against bullshit. One sidelong withering glance from him and you knew you’d said something stupid. His impatience with categorical statements came from his tremendous integrity, and his belief in poetry’s integrity as an art form. Well, if you write “because you absolutely must,” and freedom to discover is one of poetry’s enduring promises, you don’t mess around with people who want to put limits on where you can go. Retreat into a school or system and you take away the existential tightrope walk that makes it all a thrill.

An essential openness and vulnerability defined his understanding of Keats’ negative capability. To “dwell in mysteries,” was only possible if one was open to it, and that meant not “reaching after fact and reason.” Jim’s generosity as a poet makes a space for his reader to set reason aside, and “dwell in possibility,” as Dickinson wrote. A big part of his legacy is in teaching us to see the world that way, and not only poetry. Hundreds of his students have gone on to publish many dozens of volumes, teach legions of students (and in many cases they sent the most promising ones straight back to Amherst to study with Jim). But even Jim would say that those successes are not the reason we write.

Those of us who may not have many published titles under our belts are still nourished and challenged by our time with Jim, by the way that poetry reached us, touched us, and taught us to see the world as place of possibility. I learned from Jim that the world, like his poems, is full of trap doors, ready to ambush us with joy or pain at any moment, and that when we share this knowledge, when we are brave enough to walk forward into it, we can be truly alive. And that being truly alive is like being in one of his poems—it’s a fantastic place to be. I’m so thankful to have known him and read him, and so grateful that his poems will continue to enliven generations of readers to come. We will press the poems into the hands of new readers, knowing their power.

Read or listen to some of James Tate’s poems here:

The Poetry Foundation

Academy of American Poets

Penn Sound

Charles Simic conducted a wonderful interview with Jim for the Paris Review

A marvelous tribute to his work appeared in Electric Literature

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.