Explain Yourself or Vanish: Mary Ruefle’s Trances of the Blast

Mary Ruefle
Trances of the Blast
Wave Books, 2013
$22.00 or £13.50
136 pages
ISBN: 978-1933517735


In Madness, Rack, and Honey (2012), her idiosyncratic, wonderfully disjointed book of lectures, Mary Ruefle wrote, “The idea of a secret that will be revealed always results in one of two scenarios: death and destruction, or self-discovery and recovery beyond our wildest dreams of unification. And in the greatest of sagas, both at the same time.” The poems in Trances of the Blast, Ruefle’s eleventh collection, hover at the edge of the secret, on the cusp of either annihilation or fusion, steeped in both the hope and fear of realizing “both at the same time.” Fittingly, the new book opens with a poem entitled “Saga,” which collapses the individual and the archetypes within which that individual is located in the world:

Everything that ever happened to me
is just hanging—crushed
and sparkling—in the air,
waiting to happen to you.

While the saga unfolds on a grand scale, transcending human space and time, it begins with the smallest moments, the smallest secrets, of an individual life. The poems in this book are small sagas, “trances” in which the speaker observes and imaginatively transforms the “blast”—paradoxically “just hanging” outside the laws of the physical world—of the secret’s revelation. As in her previous collections, what is at stake in Trances of the Blast is nothing less than the survival of the self at the moment of poetic articulation. 

These poems also realize, however, that to articulate is to place oneself in metaphysical danger, to be exposed to the same waves of transformative energy that alter the greater world. “Jumping Ahead” chronicles a series of accumulating metamorphoses that, midway through the poem, approach the most basic—and most terrifying—of existential questions:

I ought to have been an otter, that’s obvious.
I ought to have been a dress
passed down through three generations
then ripped in strips and used to oil the harpsichord
and then the hinges of the medicine cabinet
before being tossed on a fire
where six kids on their knees
are roasting marshmallows.
I wish I were a graham cracker.
Whether I exist or not—I wish
I knew that.

The speaker shores up these fragments of an imagined life against the possibilities of both nonexistence and existence, unsure of which is preferable. Existence is a force of disintegration that ends not with a bang but with a graham cracker. The great sagas “passed down” through generations are subject to the same entropy as a hand-me-down dress, eventually used to fuel the next particular from which a new saga arises that, later in the poem, consists of “music and the smell of berries and apples / and shouting when a gun goes off / and crying in closed rooms.” Revelation is cyclical: within every renewal lies its end.

The speaker in these poems, who is responsible for reporting upon the destruction and reunification of the world, is almost always exquisitely alienated from an undefined Other. In “Are We Alone? Is it Safe to Speak?”, the speaker appeals to an “unknown friend”—the reader?—upon whom the very being of the speaker depends: “I know I am real to you, / and though you aren’t that real to me / without you I would not exist.” The next line reveals the potential visceral danger inherent in personal connection: “Certainly I would never have stepped / into this nutmeg grater / and become a pile of fine woodsy particles.” But this is not a true disintegration; at all times all beings are at once whole and fundamentally fragmented, at once familiar and inscrutable:

It occurs to me we are walking
piles of dust, you and I,
and still it smells as sweet
as summer winds off the coast of Zanzibar
and the sails are up and off we dash
into the brine of our contentment.

Throughout Trances of the Blast, Ruefle performs this feat of simultaneous destruction and recovery, all with such matter-of-fact linguistic deftness that the moment of the secret’s revelation does not register at first. When it does, however, the sense of the fundamental inadequacy of art to unify, even in the face of temporary recovery, is often magnified: this is, after all, only a poem, a construction in language that is “just hanging—crushed / and sparkling—in the air,” a placeholder for the fragility of imaginative connection.

It is no coincidence, then, that Trances of the Blast opens with a potent warning from The Book of Revelation:

Go, and take the little book which is open in the hand. Take it, and eat it up;
and it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey, but it shall make thy belly bitter.

The final lines of “Saga” make literal the bitterness not only of revelation, but of the impossibility of its human articulation:

My face is a jar of honey
you can look through,
you can see everything
is muted, so terribly muted,
who could ever speak of it,
sealed and held up for all?

While Ruefle quotes the Authorized Version of Revelation, the translation in the Revised Version has it the other way around, stating that “It shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.” Translations of a revelation, whether divine or human, are necessarily “muted”, terrible mutations of language that, however sweet, carry with them the bitterness of failed articulation. And yet, in the last poem in the book, Ruefle takes up the spirit of this second permutation, offering the only possible human response to the certainty of failure: “My secret heart wakes / inside its draped cage / and cracks a song.”