Nationality: American. Born: McCall, Idaho, 5 February 1934. Education: Reed College, Portland, Oregon, B.A. 1956; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1960. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1956–58. Family: Married Joan Colby in 1957; two sons and one daughter. Career: Since 1961 member of the English Department, currently professor, Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon. Visiting professor, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1968–69, Bowling Green State University, Ohio, 1970. Editor, December magazine, Western Springs, Illinois, 1959–62. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974, 1979; Northwest Poets prize, 1975; Guggenheim fellowship, 1982; Pushcart prize, 1985; Carolyn Kizer prize, 1988, 1997; Masters fellowship, Oregon Arts Commission, 1990; Oregon Book award, 1992; The Juniper prize, 1993; Duncan Lawrie prize, Arvon Foundation, 1994. Address: Department of English, Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, 97219, U.S.A.
The Window. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1964.
Small Songs: A Sequence of Poems. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1969.
The Harmful State. Lincoln, Nebraska, Best Cellar Press, 1971.
Laments. New York, New Rivers Press, 1975.
The Journey Begins. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1976.
Paragraphs. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1978.
The New Life. Portland, Oregon, Trask House, 1978.
Walking Home from the Icehouse. Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1981.
The Mystery of the Lost Shoes. Amherst, Massachusetts, Lynx House Press, 1984.
Backtracking. Santa Cruz, California, Story Line Press, 1985.
Ruined Cities. Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1987.
Selected Poems. Brownsville, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1991.
Little-Known Sports. Amherst, Massachusetts, University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.
Editor, British Poetry 1972. Phoenix, Arizona, Baleen Press, 1972.*
Bibliography: Vern Rutsala by Erik Muller, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University Press, 1998.
Critical Studies: By Norman Friedman, in Chicago Review, June 1967; "The Voice from over Our Shoulders: The Poetry of Vern Rutsala" by Carol Bangs, in Concerning Poetry (Bellingham, Washington), 13(2), 1980; "Vern Rutsala-en kort introduktion" by Lars Nordstrom, in Kulturtidskriften Horisont (Vasa, Finland), 34(4), 1987.
Vern Rutsala comments:
(1980) Many of the poems in The Window are centered in and around houses—often houses in some worn suburb—and are concerned with what might be seen in such an area. The central image of the window is appropriate then, and the poems reflect both what can be observed and what happens within. More recent work follows this pattern, though its focus is usually much more inward. Though the rhythms I use are relatively free, I often like to make use of regular stanza forms. My themes are not unusual, the common obsessions of poets: How does one live? Why is the world as it is? Paragraphs, a collection of prose poems, explores directions that differ a good deal from my earlier work. Laments and The Journey Begins have continued my concern with contemporary life, while also beginning to explore the past and our relationship to it. The New Life focuses rather directly on western America. It is part of a longer work called Walking Home from the Icehouse. Backtracking is a book-length poem concerned with time and memory, while Ruined Cities continues explorations of daily life and recent history.
(1995) A poem starts with something I call a kind of buzz or hum of potential. There is rarely any explicit idea. Usually it is just a feeling that I have got hold of the very tip of something, and the first lines are an effort to uncover what that thing may be. Obviously, it has to seem worth pursuing, and the pursuit results in a draft that is open to every possibility that bears on that triggering buzz. Form, sense, the niceties of language are not concerns at this point. What is important is the block of words that form the first draft, the kitchen sink draft. The draft is usually set aside for a time—out of the need to earn a living but increasingly by preference—and looked at later with a cold eye. If the buzz is still there, then the shaping begins, which may go on for hours, weeks, months. Though we all want them to come across quickly, each poem sets its own agenda. You know the poem may not work out, but you take the chance and hope the law of averages is with you. But, as Eliot said, you write with a wastebasket. And that is the only way—every writer lives with waste, almost extravagantly so—carefulness and caution strangle the creative impulse. Staying alert and not too anxious keeps it alive.* * *
Vern Rutsala has one the keenest poetic responses to contemporary middle-class society since Cummings, Auden, the earlier Karl Shapiro, and some of Louis Simpson. His special achievement in The Window is to have made the furniture of everyday bourgeois life in America available to the uses of serious poetry. He is thus somewhat like the better pop artists, such as Edward Kienholz, who makes assemblages out of found objects, the chassis of an old car, for example. With a few skillfully constructed figures, Rutsala can confront us with ourselves as we fumble erotically in the backseat with our dates in a doomed search for pleasure and joy ("Lovers in Summer").
But there is here not merely a familiar world of skate keys, wagons, bicycles ("Sunday"); there is also a commanding vision that governs the shaping of that world. Rutsala hears the glacier knocking in the cupboard and the rumble of violence and despair hidden within our domestic walls. He deals card after card, building up unbearably to a remorseless climax until not a corner is left for us to hide in; nothing is spared, not a toothbrush, family album, mantelpiece clock, visit from relatives, souvenir ashtray, flushing of the toilet, garden hose. Nothing escapes his illumination of things so ordinary that we have forgotten them, so close that we have not really seen them, revealing what we thought we already knew but never quite understood.
Each aspect of our lives, each object of our mundane environment, is a badge of the numb but terrible disparity between life's possibilities and the horror of diminishment we are all suffering from. A bathroom mirror is a symbol of the abyss, which is not so much the inevitable loss of childhood as the crushing emptiness of spirit characteristic of living in an imperialistic, commercial, and technological civilization ("Gilbert and Market"). In such a society even childhood is no Eden, and children are not spared ("Playground").
"Nightfall" is one of the most moving poems in The Window:
Night settles like a damp cloth
over the houses. The houses that are shut,
that show no wear. Lawns
are patrolled by plywood flamingoes
or shrubbery clipped from magazines.
The poem develops to reveal compulsive housecleaning, sports pages, basement workshops, skills for repairing things, dinner dishes in the kitchen sink, bills, two cars, committee meetings, unused telephone appointment pads—and desperate and suicidal children. Then, as the time for sleep comes, some people lie awake in the glow of a cigarette, obsessed by disappointment and heartbreak. The poem concludes perfectly:
Dawn lies coiled in clocks.
There are no conclusions here. The dark is there.
Cigarettes burn down and are ground out
in souvenir ashtrays from vacations by the sea.
The Window does, however, suffer from an overly even stylistic tone as well as from a certain distance between its persona and the world that is seen so clearly. But these flaws are on their way to being redeemed in Rutsala's subsequent work. Although Small Songs, a sequence of invitations by common household objects, is a rather minor effort and seems to lack development, Laments, his next full volume, marks an advance in depth and variety. Decorated with etchings by James Burgess of fruits, plants, and nuts that seem more like grotesque lobsters, this book, as its title indicates, is still fascinated by the party-is-over mood, by loss, by what to make of a diminished thing. Yet the speaker moves more into the foreground, thus providing that sense of involvement lacking in The Window, and the situations, imagery, and rhythms are more consciously diversified, thus mitigating the threat of monotony. Nevertheless, the feeling of exasperation, even exhaustion, remains much the same, and Rutsala's grasp of its significance, or even of other possible moods, awaits further insight.
The Journey Begins and Paragraphs signal a shift out of this impasse. In the former volume Rutsala proclaims as usual that "here we practice the cottage / industry of the banal; here we / probe the mysteries of the commonplace" ("Like the Poets of Ancient China"), but something else is beginning to happen: "we must nurse / the deadness from the air / so we may breathe" ("Unlocking the Door"). These mysteries are beginning to yield something significant ("Beginning"):
The past gone,
an instant, drained like stream
water full of clarity, light,
ice, the flavor of mountains
that gave you only one thing:
a wetness on your lips, taste.
Such unaccustomed freshness of taste enables Rutsala in Paragraphs at last to touch the springs of neurosis itself and to find the mirror, even the cause, of the desolation in society. In other words, his sense of the abyss becomes internalized. The pieces in this book are brief prose poems but are also related, as he says, "to the fable, the aphorism, the maxim, the character, and the joke." Many are effectively epigrammatic and eminently quotable, but I will limit myself to a single characteristic example, "Demon":
No matter how you shuffle your traits—making diligenceand order turn up regularly—he is always there, waiting. In fact, the harder you try to hide him the more often he breaks into your nights like a party-crashing drunk spilling drinks, upending tables, yelling obscenities at ancient maidens. The trick, you see, is to admit him calmly, see that he is really you—not a double, but you, not some actor or black sheep but simply you. He fits your skin; take him places, feed him smoked oysters and good bourbon, let him dance any time he wants to, let him sing. If you fail to do this he will kill himself.
Having found the demon, we must acknowledge him, enable him, or we are doomed to the impasse, and so we follow Rutsala on his tormented journey to the interior, where he extends his forms as he deepens his vision. In his next three full-length volumes he proceeds to explore memories of his early years and the experiences of his family. Walking Home from the Icehouse is centered largely on a Depression childhood in Idaho and Oregon. Immigrants from Finland, his family endured hard times, and the mood and atmosphere are cold and bleak. Written in a plain, free verse style, mainly in short lines, the poems prompt the speaker himself to admit that "there should be passion / That show of feeling / When feeling snaps / Across the page / With asterisks / But the words refuse …." ("Moving West").
Accordingly, Backtracking, true to its title, is more about the problem of writing during past years than about the past itself. The lines and poems are a bit longer, the tones less stark, and the mood more dreamlike and surreal than harsh and naturalistic. The Proustian theme is the felt need to write about the past in order not to lose it: "Oh how we / egg our memories on, egg them back to / sources within a dream, some pool, some thick / liquid darkness, the swamp where everything / began—the swamp behind the old lost / house" ("The Jerrybuilt Dream").
Finally, Ruined Cities contains lovely poems about the family, especially Rutsala's own children. Talking to one of them, he writes, "some long tension, some / crimped deep fiber in me / relaxed for good when you arrived" ("Lela and Others"). Yet there remains the baffled need for "the end of dreams," that forgotten something: "We've missed the boat somehow / and wait on standby for the next…" ("Forgotten Dreams"). That old Ahab-like need to strike through the mask "and find what lies coiled / and raging there" haunts him still.
Little-Known Sports contains fifty-four prose poems, most less than a page and some but a single line, divided into three nearly equal sections. The first, "The Art of Photography and Other Sorrows," has to do with snapshots—of the speaker, Madame Aupick, Herr Keuner, and Vitalie Rimbaud, among others—and proceeds to pieces about a man obsessed with time, choice, academic life, and so forth. Except for the first poem these are spoken, as are most poems throughout the book, in the present tense and in the second or third person; the tone is mostly wry, epigrammatic, and ironic. The second section, "Bestiary," contains comments about one of Rutsala's favorite topics, the inanimate objects found in every household, such as the fruit bowl, dust mop, or ironing board, which he sees as animate creatures. The third, "Little-Known Sports," sees ordinary activities—such as sleeping, answering the phone, smoking—as athletic events. The most interesting of these is "Homage," about "solitary sports," the best of which "was practiced by a doctor in New Jersey who danced naked by himself late at night" (compare William Carlos Williams's "Danse Russe"); "Lying," which claims that "in order to lie successfully you quite simply must know what the truth is"; and "Being Second-Rate," which I quote here entire:
There are people—and institutions—which quite clearly relish this activity. The pleasure is derived both from the warmth of many companions—as at the start of a marathon—and the avoidance of any pain which is—also as in a marathon—reserved for the leaders.
Although I do not find this volume as significant as the earlier Paragraphs, it does reveal Rutsala still busy at his craft, perhaps readying himself by means of these mordant pieces to move closer to letting his "Demon" sing and thereby to find himself at last.