I’m not entirely sure what constitutes ecopoetry and what doesn’t and, to be frank, I’m not sure proponents of ecopoetry are entirely in agreement either. However, Ruefle undoubtedly does a marvelous job contrasting the stark and naked qualities of nature with the subjective and ever-changing spectrum of human emotion.
One particularly evocative example of this contrast comes in her piece “Depicted on a Screen”
are tearing their sleeves, but
lightly, with the semiconfidence
of someone shrieking in a movie.
I eat popcorn like tiny pieces
of crumpled paper.
Here, the daffodils are compared to the lackluster acting in the speaker’s movie and Ruefle’s enjambment at “semiconfidence” functions as a structural transition from the scene of the plant to the present of the speaker watching the movie with a suburban causality, all contributing to this impending sense of apathy and boredom that permeates the poem.
However, nature isn’t always in harmony with Ruefle’s speakers. In “Toward the Correction of Youthful Ignorance,” the speaker contemplates her age and spends stanzas recalling her youth until moving outside into a snowy day brings them to the present
Now I saunter out in the lamblike snow
where the black squirrels leap from bough
to bough, gobbling everything.
The snowflakes are pretty in a way.
The young men know that and compact them into balls.
When they hit my windshield I begin to laugh.
I think they are right after all:
there’s no love in this world.
In a world where the speaker feels her age, the “black squirrels” contrast with the speaker’s perspective to reveal a youthful natural world (as well as human world) where everything is set in a greedy, forward, motion, the snow is “lamblike” while the squirrles are “gobbling everything” and the human boys take advantage of the snow’s beauty to use it as a weapon. This new world outpaces the poem’s speaker and leaves them with nothing to do but laugh with a kind of acceptance of the stronger, youthful, view “there’s no love in this world.”
In “The Wild Rose Bush” the speaker describes their father, a figure previously described as someone who never “…said or did anything of interest”(pg 60) with a rose bush introduced at the beginning of the piece:
He could not compete with it. He didn’t even try. He seemed
to reach a point where he realized the news would go on
without him, long after his little nap, and later his death.
When he reached that point his head lolled to one side,
the way a rose will if left unwatered.
This image encapsulates Ruefle’s brilliance at interweaving naturalistic imagery with the complexity of the human psyche, the mentally and/or emotionally under-stimulating life of the speaker’s father leaves him “unwatered” in a sense, complacent and malleable to the comings and goings of the larger world, without even a rose bushes’ thorns to provide some protection.
But the natural world offers plenty of protection and the animal instinct for survival and self-preservation also serves Ruefle as powerful device. In “After a Rain” she writes:
…I noticed the space between the waterfall and
the rock and I am safe there, resting in
the cradle of all there is, the way a sea horse
(when it is tired) will tie it’s tail to a seaweed
and rest, and there has not been, in my opinion
enough astonishment over this fact…
Here, this brief rest gives the speaker a moment to gather their thoughts and present an “opinion,” whereas, previously in the piece, they were caught in the chaos of “noticing,” jumping from one description or image to the next, to the next, in an almost listicle manner. But this moment of refuge, coming right before the poem’s close, allows the piece to slow down, even pause with the inclusion of the parenthetical afterthought, and ramp then to the conclusion:
…notice how I
talk to you just as if you were sitting in my lap
and not as if it were raining, not as if there were
a sheet of water between us or anything else.
Mary Ruefle is a master of imagery and, specifically, nature imagery. Her use of nature, in all it’s brutal, instinctual, beautiful, and peaceful aspects, informs her work and provides her readers with an anchor in the physical world before venturing into the depth of human emotions and motivations. Ruefle’s poetry reminds us that:
we should try to be more like animals
and less like them at the same time.
(from “Kettle” page 141)