JUXTAPOSITIONS Mary Ruefle “Vapor Lake”

“In coming to what seems most intimately one’s own, one comes across what is not self-owned. Seeking to own oneself, the owning of this selving darkens down into a cave that is not its own. The selving claiming exemplarity singularity is undergrounded by nothing but an opening into nothing. It is an abyss, it is a gap—the gap is a chaos in the etymological sense. The singular selving is split, double, redoubling within itself, in an opening of space that it cannot claim for itself alone. I would say that it is in this gap that “the porosity” is to be rediscovered anew and in this is to be recovered the sources of truer creativity. Moreover, the sources are not our own, they cannot be owned. Rather they endow us.”

William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 74.

Herewith two luminous texts. I think them through against the background of the imploding American order. That is, I write these “Juxtaposition” pieces in the wee hours after listening to news and interviews from MSNBC yesterday. My sense of my subject grows in clarity.

It is not uncommon for a poem by Mary Ruefle to weather such a storm of anxiety and doubt. Her light comedic touch has a gravity equal to Beckett’s. Her metier—the lyric— expresses her profound sense of proportion and reserve.

The Desmond text is difficult—compact, abstract yet narrative. His unit of study—the metaxical Between — goes back to Platonic myth. The emergence of the conscious self from a “cave” into the light of creative awareness of others, human and mythological, is among the oldest narratives. It’s the double story of descent and transcendence by which the human self is thrown beyond itself. Because the ultimate subject is not the human self but transcendent being, the subject is traditionally referred to as “it.”

Historians of the lyric have documented the key role of pronouns. The lyric narrative moves from anonymous immanent givens through the dimensions of subconscious, conscience, and self-conscious awareness. Rueful’s opening could not be more direct. The language of determinate temporal order is both comforting and parodic. The “speaker” is deeply embedded in scientistic, reductive modes. But readers of lyric, from Catullus to, er, Mary Ruefle (is that really her name?), are forewarned.

The flat documentation gives way to gawky—and gaudy—metaphor. “Love had dropped its honeydew” brilliantly exploits the equivocity of the word. Dropping a ripe honeydew does indeed “splatter.” The narrative thickens. “My mind was splattered/when suddenly I heard Edith Piaf/singing in the next room/and remembered…”

And so the closed, hysterical self gets a hold of itself. Piaf’s voice opens the horizon on resolute selving in the universal impermanence. How perfect is Ruefle’s choice of Piaf’s voice as the other to self-dispersion in flux, we hear “Je ne regrette rien ” as only Piaf can sing it.

The final stage of the narrative — as Plato’s myth has it, after seeing the light of the divine Other we can come and go as we please— is capped with Horatian simplicity: “at that word/it came back alive.” True, as in Horace lyric clarity is saturated in myth. It takes long practice to perform “Vapor Lake” mindfully. As myth, it retains much in its reserve. The tone of the title still gives me goose bumps.

Desmond’s philosophical myth of the porosity, indebted as it is to another myth of Plato (the myth of the birth of Eros as told by Socrates’s feminine mentor Diotima), lacks the immediacy of Ruefle’s lyric, but in the polyvocal Between, Truth is symphonic. My preoccupation with lyric truth is more than equal to the chaos of the times. One draws strength however one may.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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