New Poetry Collections by Kathryn Cowles & Mary Ruefle

Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World by Kathryn Cowles. Milkweed Editions, 79 pp., $16 (paper).

            Beneath—or rather inside— the dry, somewhat arch tone of these landscapes and still-life poems, lies a wealth of vitality and wit. Kathryn Cowles does not linger over stories or explicit emotions; she trusts that with carefully chosen (often very basic) wording and judicious line breaks, she can render both the world in front of her and that within her. In “Three Poems Called ‘The Basil,’” she writes: “It is amazing the basil / how the water was sucked dry / its wilt and fall / how it took to the new water / and how back to normal.” The word “amazing” carries the same weight here as it does in the first line of John Ashbery’s “Some Trees” (“These are amazing”). Like Ashbery, Cowles reclaims the original energy of a tired adjective so that the plight of the basil and its worried owner turns into a garden mini-drama. In the following stanza, she hints at the thinking behind her method: “I cannot write about my dead dog / he is dead / the basil I can write is big and alive.”

            Far from the garish colors and hectic inanities that bombard us in everyday life, Cowles provides an islet of quirky calm. Sometimes, however, her voice can be understood as that of a victim calling for help within an onslaught of deadening modernity; this is most apparent in “I Am on a Plane” in which Cowles captures her state on a long jetliner journey. “Nothing” happens but sleeping, waking, and seeing: “The lady dispensing / the coffee is / halfway down the plane / and I am at the end. / Sometimes they start / at the end / but this is not / one of those times. / I go to sleep.”

Dunce by Mary Ruefle. Wave Books, 99 pp., $25.

            The world of Dunce is a strange one: it is approachable but aloof, austere but elaborate, cheeky and yet dead serious. Dunce, moreover, contains poems that do not need to be, and probably shouldn’t be, studied in any particular order. There is unity here in the sense that all the pieces are short and fanciful, with almost all written in the first person. But, beyond that, each poem exists as its own little gem and deserves to be appreciated the way a painting is, without undue regard to what came before and what is to come later. “Muguet des Bois,” for example, begins: “I was an unopened / action figure / hidden inside / an egg inside / an ovary. / The next thing / I knew I was / on the couch / reading / Madame Bovary.” The title (named after a perfume), the funny rhyme of ovary and Bovary, the short lines and deft line breaks—all these play together to deliver a rich, heady and most peculiar atmosphere, which is then completed by the lines “And when I finished / I could not move.” The poem continues with Anna Karenina and, having invoked “action figures” who die by suicide, ends with tragic paralysis.

            In “Happy Birthday,” Ruefle takes the most special but ordinary of occurrences, the birthday, and proceeds to embroider in the humorous and dark style that is her trademark. This style is mannered and literary but also soaked with real-life wisdom and an extraordinary consciousness:  “This day / wherein we love one another more than ever / but lose the desire to prove it // This day / once upon a time and maybe / nowadays who knows // This day / knows exactly where we are / and how much time is left.”

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