Mary Ruefle's "Boutonniere"
Thoughts on what is easy.
Standing alone after the harvest and what is the point of dreams? At some age, the world begins to drift away The world is changed as you came here The people you really like a lot will disappear How many years of opacity have led (like a barnyard dance) to this transparent moment? Over the course of a life why have I nowhere commented on what steps were easy? 1) loving you— 2) watching wild doings with the animals— 3) standing with friends looking at sky— easier than making a boutonniere out of old sheets! easier than hanging a new shower curtain! easier than my sudden life-changing switcheroo! easier than being Brueghel's little brother... from Dunce (Wave Books, 2019)
Before I go any further, it must be said:
After some cursory research, I can say with amused bewilderment and absolute wonder that, yes, Pieter Brueghel the Elder probably had a brother? But the person who definitely had a brother was Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s son, Jan Brueghel the Elder, whose brother was Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who is also known as Hell Brueghel because people thought he was obsessed with painting fire, but people eventually figured out that the person who was really obsessed with painting fire was Pieter’s brother Jan. So I guess Jan Brueghel is also Hell Brueghel. Anyways, good morning.
I remembered this poem because I remembered, a couple days ago, those six lines toward the poem’s end:
Over the course of a life why have I nowhere commented on what steps were easy? 1) loving you— 2) watching wild doings with the animals— 3) standing with friends looking at sky—
It’s a perfect question. A real one. And it makes me smile. Because it’s an honest question that reminds both its speaker and us — its readers — that yes, some things are easy.
And so, to offer something a little different than usual, I just want to say three things.
3) standing with friends looking at sky—
I keep an album on my phone titled Good Clouds Good Light.
This is mostly because I spend an inordinate amount of time looking down at the ground to see the way in which light falls through a window, or looking up at the sky to see the way a cloud might be back or under-lit by the setting or rising sun. Every time I add a photo to it, I think about how, years ago, I stumbled late into a room to hear Marie Howe and Mary Ruefle talk. I was in grad school, and I had a bad habit of missing all the good things I should’ve seen, and I hadn’t read much poetry at the time — I was a fiction student before I was a poetry student — but I heard that I shouldn’t miss this talk. Even then, I still missed some of it.
I stumbled in late and stood in the back of the room, which was a small room. There were people sitting on the folded chairs and people sitting on the few steps that descended into the room and people leaning against walls. I remember that Mary Ruefle told a story. I forget if it was in response to a question, but if I remember correctly, she was talking about one of the saddest things she had ever seen.
She talked about a late afternoon train ride along the Hudson, maybe coming down from Poughkeepsie. The Metro North, Amtrak, one of those two. And she wasn’t sitting by the window; she was a seat away from it. But still, she could see the river. I remember standing there in the back of the room hearing her describe the river. The sun melting upon it. Everything lit up in light — the kind of light that mellows and gilds and shines all at once. I think of Mary Ruefle talking about the Hudson every time I’m on a train along the Hudson. I think of it so often.
She talked about looking past the person next to her to watch the light and the river do their little cosmic interplay, and then she noted that the person next to her was on their computer, and that they were shopping, and that for the entirety of this long stretch along the water, that person never once looked out the window, which Mary Ruefle knew because she could not stop looking out the window, such that she always could notice the person and their computer and the way that they didn’t look away from it. She talked about how sad this felt — to live in a world where light was not an ordinary and beautiful spectacle worth our attention. I think about this story so often. I think about how there have been times in my life when I might’ve dismissed such a story as trite, or as the cliched and generalized musings of someone who is out of touch with modern life. I think of times when I might’ve rejected this story as pure anecdote, nothing real or true. But I think about it all the time because I know it could be true, and I know it almost certainly is — in the way that we know what is true because we have seen such truth echoed in our own lives. And it is a sad story because it feels true, and the truth at the heart of it feels like a loss, like we are living in the ongoingness of loss.
I don’t like this loss. I like being with people, and looking at the sky. In all my life, there have been few nights better than one specific night almost ten years ago, when some of my best friends and I saw a gorgeous, red-yellow moon hiding behind the trees, and we spent an hour driving through the woods, looking up at the sky, calling the moon’s name, trying to find her. I don’t know if we did. The point is that we were united in attention.
2) watching wild doings with the animals—
Earlier this week, I was on my way back to my apartment from the grocery store, and I walked past a block in my neighborhood that is closed off permanently to traffic. It’s a little uphill street park of sorts — trees lining the sidewalk, benches beneath them. It’s a one block pause, bookended by the sometimes raging traffic on 2nd and 3rd Avenues.
And I saw there something I’ve seen more than a few times before. This man and his two massive, brown and white bulldogs. He walks with them off leash on the sidewalk, and they wiggle and walk their way beneath him and through his legs, sometimes hopping up quickly to get the attention of his gaze. In other words, they love him. It is obvious. And their tongues lope longingly out of their smushed faces — all wrinkled skin and dimples. And this guy carries with him, every single time I’ve seen him, a regulation-issue t-shirt cannon of sorts, one that he stuffs full of tennis balls. It is a massive thing, and he walks with it leaning upon his shoulder like a soldier of joy, like someone meant to be parading onto the field of a Saturday afternoon minor league baseball game somewhere in Hagerstown, ready to launch a dozen tightly wrapped tees into the stands.
And so I saw these dogs, and I saw this man, and I stopped for a minute to watch him do what he always does. He shoots tennis balls straight up this hill. They rocket out of his cannon and bounce up along the uneven road where no cars are, and the dogs, once at his feet, launch their gorgeous, spotted bodies in ferocious, speedy strides up the slope. And their tongues do obscene, wondrous things. They lap up and down and wave in the wind their bodies make. They throw saliva everywhere. And they topple over one another in search of the ball, and one chases whoever the winner is back to the man’s feet, and the man laughs at both of them and tallies up the score of what seems to be an ongoing contest that pits one pup against the other, and he loads up another ball into the cannon and zoinks it off at hyper speed again.
I watched them for so long the other day. I watched them longer than I ever had. I watched their little love language of joy — the calm ease of the man who knew how much he knew his pups, and the wild joy of the dogs. I watched wild doings with the animals, not knowing how easy it was at the time, not really thinking of ease at all, really. Just tired of the day and the work, and feeling the heaviness of my bag, which was loaded with the stuff of work but also with things I had bought at the store: cherry tomatoes, kale, a really sharp cheddar cheese. So, good things, yes, but also things I didn’t think of as good at the time, because they felt heavy. So I put the bag down and I didn’t think of ease. I thought of heaviness. I felt heavy. So I stood there, with the bag at my feet, and I leaned against the rail that keeps the block free of cars, and I watched the dogs be happy. And it was easy. I realize that now, as I write this. It was easy. But at the time, that word didn’t come into my mind. I had just stumbled upon joy, and I let myself watch it longer than I ever had, because I needed it.
1) loving you—
Right before I deactivated my twitter account, I remember seeing a viral question posed by someone. It was about what people missed the most about long-term relationships that they were no longer in —
The people you really like a lot will disappear
Many of the top responses said something about special words, secret phrases — little snippets of language shared that they cannot share or speak again.
And I think that’s my favorite thing about love, and my favorite thing about loving you. I love that love becomes a language. A language of pet names and silly turns of phrase, yes, but also a language that restructures the difficulty of the world and turns it — through intimacy and something shared — into something easier. It is not just a language of words. It’s a language of movement, big and large — how we allow our bodies to be around one another. I notice it now that I’m back at school. I notice how students change when they are around their best friends, how their bodies relax, how they are goofy and playful, sure, but also how it seems, quite literally, like the massive and anxious weight of being in the world has been plucked by a fine and invisible machine off the shoulders of their bodies, and how, only in that moment, am I witnessing someone allowed to be fully who they are.
It is easy to love you because it is easy to live within our language. And it is ours. It is no one else’s. It is easy not to have to think of the way to speak — of what should or could be said — because, within love, we remake the world together. There is no way to speak or way to be. There is only the way we speak and the way we are. Perhaps this is one of the easiest ways to be, do you think? To be un-self-conscious. To be invited. To be allowed. To be who you are. It’s like when you catch me smiling at you, or laughing to myself as I look at you. You ask me why. And I can’t explain it. I could try. It’s just — there are brief moments when I see you with your guard so fully down, you giving permission to yourself to be yourself — a small movement of your eyes, the way you sit on the couch. And I’m grateful. Because I know, too, that such a moment is part of our language, and I am allowed to share in it.
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