TRANCES OF THE BLAST
-Book Reviewed by Kendra Bartell–
The world was designed and built
to overwhelm and astonish.
Which makes it hard to like.
It’s striking that Mary Ruefle would name her new collection Trances of the Blast, given the definition of trance: “a half-conscious state characterized by an absence of response to external stimuli, typically as induced by hypnosis or entered by a medium.” Here, the medium is of course, words. The words in each poem, like the world, are designed and built to overwhelm and astonish readers. Ruefle makes each blast entrancing, for that one moment of reading it on the page and beyond. These poems will stick.
In the first poem, “Saga,” Ruefle opens with what becomes a central motif for the entire collection: the time given to each of us as a life. Central questions with which Ruefle grapples is what is the difference between time? What happens to us, and “a life?” This opening poem sets the stage for her inquiry:
Everything that ever happened to me
is just hanging–crushed
and sparkling–in the air,
waiting to happen to you.
The poem begins with a pessimistic definition of what a life is, but through the cyclical nature of Ruefle’s linguistic connections, it turns out that it’s not quite as depressing as we thought. These “rifts and sagas” of life are “filled with /music and the smell of berries and apples,” even though there is also “shouting when a gun goes off/and crying in closed rooms.” Ruefle is honest about the ups and downs of life, the crests and troughs of these waves.
Visually, Ruefle’s poems are intriguing. Many are presented in single stanzas, often times taking up an entire page. This marks a shift in Ruefle’s poetic aesthetic from some of her earlier works. Oftentimes, in previous poems, Ruefle would signal readers when the big moment or revelation was coming: either stanza breaks or a colon would emphasize the significance of her diction. In Trances of a Blast, however, the longer stanzas force readers to balance each line or sentence on its own merits against the others and ponder the poem as a whole. Ruefle’s intention is to make readers spend more time with these poems and for them to decide on their own what is important.
That being said, some of the more visually unusual poems are also the most sonically or thematically playful as well. One of the most memorable poems in the collection is“Le Livre de ma vie” or, “the book of my life.” This poem uses short stanzas (the majority are couplets, following an opening tercet), that allow for huge paratactic leaps and bounds. For example:
I love you.
But who is the I
and who is the you?
Mr. Potato Head
Mr. Potato Head
Help me behave,
Weeping in the dark earth.
The jumps occurring between stanzas allow readers to ponder the statement. Mr. Potato Head figures as the malleable self that changes through the experience of one’s life, but he is also a figure for a higher power that can serve as a guide through this same experience. It’s a feat to pull off an exclamatory plea to a children’s toy, but if anyone can accomplish this, it is Mary Ruefle.
Trances of the Blast is an enchanting and mesmerizing ride along with one of our most gifted poets through “Middle School,” “College,” childhood, and middle age. The Blast becomes a figure for each of our lives, and the trances we slip in and out of while experiencing these moments. The poems count backwards, entrancing readers and also provide the gong to wake them up. In the collections final poem “Picking up Pinecones,” the speaker poses the question “I’ve spent my life in a forest./Picking up new things,/will it never end?” This is the last gong of the book–a call to arms to sit up and take notice of the forest around you–will your trance never end?
Trances of a Blast
Wave Books, 2013 (Seattle & New York)