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(SPAM Cuts) ‘Apple in Water’ by Mary Ruefle


In this SPAM Cut, Maria Sledmere plunges into the ‘languid swim’ of Mary Ruefle’s poem ‘Apple in Water’ (Mal Journal, January 2019), coming up for air with wedges of theory and the bittersweet taste of something eerie…

> Recently, I was lucky enough to tune into the radio and catch the honeyed tones of Richard Scott reciting Mary Ruefle’s poem ‘Provenance’ on wholesome weekly r4 poetry show, Poetry Please. I found myself lingering over a particular stanza, listening back to the recording later:

And so I have had to deal with wild intractable people all my days and have been led astray in a world of shattered moonlight and beasts and trees where no one ever even curtsies anymore or has an understudy

Vividly, these ‘intractable people’ reel out like a startling till roll of personalities. It feels almost accidentally cinematic. Ruefle unravels her lines with minimal punctuation, and yet the care is exquisite: one internal rhyme or assonant slant sequins the next at just the glinting moment (days/astray, world/curtsies). She gathers you in with that and: ‘And so I have had to deal’, she implicates you as the patient listener. Here are the threads of a woven story, taut enough to hold these marvellous abstractions of broken moonlight, ‘beasts and trees’. The lament for an era of lost manners, the little details, things we dwell upon to end up thus in awe, a kind of canny twist of daily sublime: ‘I love being alive’.

> Hearing Ruefle on the radio, as it were, lured me back into that beautiful world of hers: a world of erasures, miniatures; the kind of eccentric collages we make before teenage hormones steal our attention to sweetness. Yet Ruefle’s approach can hardly be dismissed as twee: she makes ruthless, esteemed cuts of her source text; she’s content to let us hang between clauses, a narrative condensed in three words, ‘Now run along’. Her erasures are silences, revealing as much as they conceal in what is left behind.

> It was my pleasure to discover four new poems of Ruefle’s in Mal Journal’s latest issue. My favourite of the quartet is ‘Apple in Water’. Partly because of my love for ruddy cheeks, the sharp pre-adolescent bite of Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie; partly because of the lines like tiny leaves unfurling. Partly because clarity is a favourite word of mine, and it has that delicious assonance with apple. Partly because this is a communion between the speaker and water, between the speaker and the water and the apple, the shreds of the apple, between the speaker and the water and the shreds and, finally, the idea of the apple. I like poems with philosophical dialogues, folded inside them like fortunes in cookies.

> ‘Apple in Water’ is a poem which hedges. You can’t be entirely sure what’s happening, it’s got the laconic delivery of someone dangling before you a story whose banality invites intrigue. Very quickly we realise this isn’t just a poem about remembering a nostalgic swim ‘with the taste of apple / in my mouth’. The water and the tooth-stuck shred of the apple start to speak, warning Ruefle: ‘It doesn’t get any better than this’ and ‘These are troubled times’. My image of Ruefle’s speaker plunging into infinite Hockney-esque blue on a warm suburban afternoon is disrupted by this eerie dialogue. In The Weird and the Eerie (2016), Mark Fisher defines the eerie as ‘constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence’. In speaking, the apple becomes discursively ‘present’ when it should be absent, an inanimate object; in then disappearing (‘the apple / wasn’t really there’), the apple comprises a failure of presence. We can’t take for granted this particular fruit.

> Letting the apple speak is an act of anamnesis: it calls forth from memory the trace, the ‘shred’ of a scene that is filtered through reflective cynicism, the warning against rose-tinting history, ‘These are troubled times’. It’s unclear whether the shred is referring to the now of the poem or the now of the swim. In the poem, we experience a liquid time of between.  We confront the eeriness of poiesis itself. Proust’s madeleine scene is reincarnated as a memory-bi(y)te that speaks back, so maybe you could call this a sort of object-oriented poetics, wrapped up in lyric.


> Yet this particular apple, the apple of ‘Apple in Water’, is actually a very Derridean fruit: the trace of the ‘earlier’ apple, an apple which Ruefle describes as punctuation — ‘the pretty crimson dot’ marks an aporia upon the line. ‘Apple in Water’ makes me think about what a poem does in holding those truths of memory’s echo, the fade between inscriptions that happens when we try to summon The Event and end up with a kind of lossy compression, a resolution or taste that could never be as sharp as the first. There is always an apple falling out of the poem and into your mouth as you read, filling the space of your speech with black noise (which Graham Harman defines as ‘muffled objects hovering at the fringes of our attention’, something of ‘the clouds of qualities surrounding […] an object’). This black noise is the apple’s data, perhaps, its colour and scent: its tangential, aesthetic existence in time.

> And so against the babble of the apple and the water (‘the great slipping glimpser’, whose implied vision is also pretty eerie), what the speaker bears instead is a ‘silence / in my mouth’. This silence is the crispness and crackle and lyric chatter of what happens forever and ever in text when you enter it, the chiasmic loops of poetic memory: ‘not knowing if I heard / a night of love / or a love of night’.  The night is so full of black noise we can’t speak. The apple is the understudy for the apple, and neither are making a clear appearance.

> Of course, the apple is what ruined paradise: Eve’s bite of forbidden knowledge collapsed that Edenic scenery into the ‘intractable’ wilderness of human history. Beautifully, Ruefle’s poem bundles itself neatly with a wry recognition, yet lets things slip. The ‘knowledge gained / during that long languid swim’ is hardly a rational ‘enlightenment’, but instead the recognition of slippage, uncertainty as states of being. We might supplant the apple itself for a love: a love that relates metonymically to a person, a mood, a time of season; a love that just is the love of the love of the love of itself. And so the poem itself is a trace, the slender ‘shred’ of the original ‘long languid swim’, which itself eludes in the stripped, opening constative statement: ‘I was swimming’. We aren’t provided with luxurious images of water or the feel of a body buoyed within it; but we can still luxuriate in the undulating curls of Ruefle’s lines, in the absent-present taste of the apple, which is surely the taste of this poetry, whose sweetness is stolen by those coy, tart moments of withholding: eerie taste of a sourness left in the mouth, affecting speech.


Text: Maria Sledmere

Image: Kay Lenze


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