LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Mary Ruefle “Wintersault”

Snowflakes would be more gladsome / but when war ship isn’t there / they get mummed down to a hair / Mind you the nay-word has some mastery over us / I cried once when it stopped snowing / A flake looked at me so queer / The queer look of a flake is a sneer / It leaves things ice for a year / I be marvelous barbarous gladsome / when the nay-word be lyin’ in the wood / breathin’ regular and Christmas bells / far off, but here comes the cold morn / who wants a jagged piece of nay in my neck / when I want to be left floatin’ in a warm pool / in sum where I belong

from DUNCE (Wave Books, 2019)

FRAME OF REFERENCE “Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or utterance of feeling. But if we may allow the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener.” [John Stewart Mill, “What is Poetry” in Autobiography and Other Writings] In enabling us to overhear these struggles, the text of Philosophical Investigations offers us, dramatically, what Bouveresse has called a “narrow path that passes between predication and nonsense” [“‘The Darkness of This Time’: Wittgenstein and the Modern World”] in thinking all at once about human conceptual consciousness, self-conscious self-identity, spontaneity, expressive power, and value—the way of poesis.” Richard Eldridge, Leading a Human Life: Wittgenstein, Intentionality, and Romanticism. (The University of Chicago Press, 1997, p. 120)

You are forgiven if you stopped reading hours ago. This column can seem like glorified post-it notes. But that would be unfair to Mary Ruefle. Go back up and reread her poem Wintersault. I take it from her recent volume DUNCE. It’s perfect formally, by which I mean it follows the lyric itinerary, from out there to in here, from down there to up here. The second half of the chiasm is harder to see formally than the first. The way down is signaled by the dialect I be …
which follows that sneer— we are getting deep into the subjective, frustrated, perhaps terrified self now. Which is how we know we have found the narrow way. The alienation of the final lines presupposes the UP of the “ironic” in sum where I belong.

Go to the FRAME OF REFERENCE and the layered academic citations come alive (god willing). If you like this poem better than the citations, it’s OK. The poem is exceedingly clever in how it gives voice to some spontaneous coherence about human feelings in a divided time. The role of the nay-word, the dialectical answer to our seemingly undivided selfhood, does indeed have some mastery over us.

YET: Somehow the way of the poem—poesis— threads the needle in composing a clown’s kit by which we can recognize our humanity.

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 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 and other sites.

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