Pushcart 2014: Mary Ruefle, “During a Break from Feeling” (Poetry) from Forklift, Ohio, Winter 2012

Someone will tell you the number of your story
When you are called be ready to act your story
Read the story again to see if you have everything on your list
Act so the other boys and girls will know which story is yours
Do not be disappointed if your story is not as good as the others
Happiness is not always good, it can lead to lacklusterness
Or what is worse, slovenliness
Which can be lovely, to be sure

This is me trying to pin a live butterfly to a display board.
This is me failing; but the flight is the fun part.

I started out very uncertain (let’s be honest, I feel that way about every poem); line by line, it’s very straightforward, but as a whole, sections go off in other directions and I wasn’t sure how the whole came together, or if it was even supposed to. Sometimes when a poem (or story) is opaque to me, I find it confusing, frustrating and annoying; here, I found it beautiful and enticing. Many thanks to Dennis and Sarah, my ModPo cohorts who helped me along; our conversation will be somewhat reproduced here.

It starts out in imperative voice; for me it called to mind a teacher addressing a class before some kind of assembly or play. Then it twists into something more like Sage Life Advice, before it starts “talking to itself” in word play:

The pause may be pregnant
The pause may be pregnant again
During a break from feeling, it may be apparent
None of our words actually become parents
Word is the only word true to itself

I loved that last line, but I struggled to figure out how it related to the rest of the poem. It’s not the sort of thing a teacher would say to a class; has there been a shift of persona? Individually everything made perfect sense, but I didn’t know how it related to the overall poem, if we’d switched narrators or if the narrator was talking to herself or I’d misunderstood entirely. Then the last two lines return, sort of, to the original “class instructions” sending the kids out to perform:

Giant glory of snow, go tell your story
Little flakes, know when to stop

I love that contradiction. I love contradictions.

And here’s where Dennis gave me the first nudge:

Maybe “Word is the only word true to itself” is a sort of assurance. If we imagine a teacher, as you put it, and she’s telling the kid, hey just tell your story, act it out for all to see. And one reading of this may have an absent (or absented) instruction don’t worry, anyway “Word is the only word true to itself”.
Taken that way, it seems to have a calming, coaxing effect. But it’s also saying that “your” story is not “yours” at all, not truly, for only the word “word” belongs to itself, represents itself as representation, thus most sincerely.
Reflecting on your notes regarding erasure poetry and they bring me to believe that there’s a good deal of meta going on here, it’s saying that acting as if it’s yours is all it takes, it’s your story even if you just picked up a number. The point seems to me that since all stories go through words (which are less true to themselves than “word” anyway) then all stories, no matter how authentic or heartfelt, it’s all actually just drawing lots, making things fit, acting words out to the point that they’re yours, and indisputably so.

This reminded me of Ken Goldsmith’s class assignment: his students must buy a term paper from an online paper mill and present it out loud as if it’s theirs, really sell it. I’ve never understood what he’s getting at there, but it seems close to picking your story by number and what difference does it make, since they’re all told through words and thus garbled. I started seeing the whole poem through the lens of words as characters.

What if the beginning is the speaker, a writer, addressing the words themselves as she writes? Go, words, and don’t worry if your part in the sentence isn’t important, you’re just an indefinite article, or that you aren’t telling The Iliad but something more compact: all words are pretty much the same in their non-importance, except for one: Word, which is what it is. In the beginning was the Word, so I got into some God imagery (is the speaker God, sending people, or words, out into the world?) and the pregnancy riff, kept drawing me into a childbirth/miscarriage thing (there’s an underlying sadness to the poem). I eventually morphed this into the creativity of writing, but initially I was distracted down the road of: Is this a writer who took a pause due to pregnancy and is trying to get back into things, having been distracted for a while? Is she mourning a miscarriage? Or two? Or looking forward to another attempt?

This is where I give up and say I can’t do poetry.
This is where I learn maybe this is what doing poetry looks like.

Then: Is pregnancy, is God, for that matter, a metaphor for creativity, for writing, which is just as painful and just as powerful?

Dennis to the rescue again:

… that God imagery (not to mention the pregnant pause)…yes, it’s there come to think of it, not only in “Giant glory” but most importantly in “Word” and maybe that’s what tangentially leads to pregnancy, after all “…the Word was made flesh…”
…Ah, but how about that title: “During a Break From Feeling”

Then Sarah chimed in and finally got me to focus on what was right there all along:

From the sections you have given us [the word] ‘story’ jumps out at me. I have had trouble with my relatives’ stories, I ask them about their lives, then I forget the stories and have to ask again. When I tell my story I get annoyed with it because I want it to turn out differently. I play with it sometimes and present it in calm or positive tones. That feels fake though.
What I like it reading someone’s story in written words. Even if they rewrote it again and again I wouldn’t mind. Poetry is a way others share their story.

And ridiculously late in the game, it all came together (or, at least, I started to feel more confident that for me, this is a poem about writing) when I discovered that the title is a reference to Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa:

Today, during a break from feeling, I reflected on the style of my prose. Exactly how do I write? I had, like many others, the perverted desire to adopt a system and a norm. It’s true that I wrote before having the norm and the system, but so did everyone else.
Analysing myself this afternoon, I’ve discovered that my stylistic system is based on two principles, and in the best tradition of the best classical writers I immediately uphold these two principles as general foundations of all good style: 1) to express what one feels exactly as it is felt – clearly, if it is clear; obscurely, if obscure; confusedly, if confused – and 2) to understand that grammar is an instrument and not a law.

~~Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

I’m going to guess at the story Ruefle was telling when she wrote this: the story of a writer working on a poem, trying to get the words to behave; then she takes a break from feeling – from writing – and plays with the words (“The Argonauts did not argue”: the argue-nots?) before lining them up and sending them out to perform. She loves these words equally – all of them, the “the” as much as the “glory”.

I love them now, too. I can see them lined up before the poem starts, waiting to go on, the “the” disappointed he isn’t a beautiful noun or an exciting verb, or at least a powerful adjective; but “the” is important, too. We matter, all the “the”s and “an”s and “a”s. We’re the line staff. Pessoa also said: “Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”

Though this poem isn’t online, its original publication site of Forklift, Ohio is a literary magazine worth a look; it’s in the form of a fifteen-course tasting menu.

Ruefle has a number of erasure poetry projects you can see at her website, “designed to allow readers to experience her erasure books, which can otherwise not be seen as they are old, friable, one-of-kind things” (the image to the left is from “Mansion”). Or, you can find a wider selection of them at gwarlingo. Of course, this sort of thing just thrills me, the way Erica Baum’s “Dog Ear” did: an intersection between visual art and poetry, between the business end of the pencil and the eraser end.

I’m interested in all kinds of intersections: Scissors and pen. Clarity and confusion. Giant glory and little flakes. This discovery – of Pessoa, of erasure poetry, of a meaning I’d thought was obscure and turns out to be in front of me if I’d just look – is the exciting part of this blogging these poems.

This can be what doing poetry looks like.


2 responses to “Pushcart 2014: Mary Ruefle, “During a Break from Feeling” (Poetry) from Forklift, Ohio, Winter 2012

  1. Pingback: Playing with words | adadeh

  2. Pingback: Pushcart 2014: The End | A Just Recompense

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