With an acute sensibility, the award-winning poet engages us in the intensity of her attention, with the imaginative flourishes of her being-in-the-world, which is always deep with mysteries, unexpected appearances, and abiding yearning. Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award.
In Dunce, her latest poetry collection, Ruefle confronts the extraordinary yet banal fact that all of us die. How do we reconcile the boringness of death-in-general with the shock of our own, specific death? ... Ruefle’s mother’s death haunts this collection — it feels as if her death itself is the ghost, the event and not the person ... The ostensible occasions of Ruefle’s poems are minor: not the funeral, but the bath. They record small moments with sweeping scope, moments in which the speed of thought seems to outpace real time ... Dunceis full of...linguistic reversals — the chiasmus may be the device that best represents life’s reversal of fortune, our built-in obsolescence. The comedian Steven Wright once joked that everyone dies instantly: 'It’s the only way you can die. You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive, then you’re dead.' Ruefle knows this too.
In her poetry, the ordinary becomes unsettling and magnetic. Ruefle shifts from one state of consciousness to another in less time than it takes to blink ... Ruefle makes unexpected connections and associations that might initially strike the reader as outrageous, but come to possess a certain stubborn, opaque logic ... She will then effortlessly pivot in another direction, which is one of the deep joys of reading Ruefle’s poems. You never know what she is going to do next. And yet, when she does it, it is bound to hold your attention ... Ruefle is aware that the only destination that awaits her is death, and that turning away from that awareness doesn’t alter the facts. She does not ask for pity or sympathy because death is democratic ... Ruefle will track the places her thinking takes her without pulling back or trying to turn it into a story, or imbue it with longing, or culminate in a revelation ... Ruefle understands fragility. She has a wonderfully odd sense of reality. She knows that 'At some age/the world begins to drift away,' and she doesn’t try to hold on. In her 'journey of shedding,' we are the lucky recipients of her indelible poems.
Many of these poems ruminate on failure and attention and the mysteries of both actions in concert with thinking. Perhaps the definition most clearly attached to the speaker of this book is not one who is incapable of learning, but one who does not learn ... Dunce is a tremendous meditation on what’s sudden in the mind. What is suddenly. The simultaneity of learning and thinking. And how quickly both, and everything, can (will) vanish. There is a sense that mortality is the nagging echo in the ear of the speaker of this book.