The work of poet Mary Ruefle is often compared to Emily Dickinson, but in her 11th collection, The Most Of It, readers unfamiliar with her may spot a kinship of sorts with a more recent fiction phenomenon: Miranda July. But while her pieces often invoke a similar wide-eyed deliberation, they reject the childlike theories of everything in favor of a bewitching uncertainty about the relation between the matter at hand and the world outside. Ruefle, whose impressive academy credentials include a Guggenheim fellowship and a visiting-faculty position at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, has created in The Most Of It a deceptively complicated collection of episodes easy to get into, and precisely captivating.
Each of Ruefle's minute prose poems work like photographs in which several things are happening at once, some of them just outside of frame. The argument the speaker in "The Bench" has with her husband over the pieces of furniture they each have in mind to build for the back yard captures exactly the tone of a marital disagreement whose terms come to life separately. While many of these pieces explore such everyday topics as birdfeeders and the post office, others apply the same microscope eye to scenes which incorporate elements of magical realism, like the miniature world depicted in "The University Of The Limitless Mouse," or the family trade in other people's secrets in "The Diary": "I would sit in the straw on the barn floor, the earliest light streaming in through cracks in the wall and some of the chaff from the barn floor floating in that light, particles of straw we used to cover the diaries and other stuff, all afloat in a never-ending stream of hope as I lay on the floor and read."
Ruefle describes these pieces as fables, but in practice, the moralizing is kept to a neat minimum. There are a few missteps in this row of tiny tableaux—"Hard Boiled Detective" marries a little Amelie and a little Andy Rooney, to the benefit of neither, in spite of the witty juxtaposition of its title and subject. But readers, poetry lovers or not, will be stirred to re-visit their favorite episodes. Even in the story, chronicling the letters of an eccentric aunt which become fodder for an entire neighborhood, a sense of wonder trumps anything as pedestrian as a lesson.