A weekly poem, accessibly annotated.
This week I’ve chosen “Talking to Strangers” by Mary Ruefle, originally published in the American Poetry Review.
Talking to Strangers
Do you see sun spots? A strong, terrible love where
there isn’t any? A demoiselle crane talking to a lama
duck? Very interesting, but there’s nothing in it.
Some people take electric roses and plant them in a field
to bring the field down to earth.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Put down your book.
Look at me when I talk to you. I’m the oxygen mask
that comes dangling down in a plane.
I’m here to help you be garrulous.
I’m not interested in your family—not your mother,
father, brother, sister, son, daughter, lover or
dog. In France, they used to kill themselves if
a dinner party went wrong. That’s a great idea.
Are you interested in orphan-types who turn out
to be kings, or kings who come to nothing?
What’s the difference between watching and looking?
Doff your garb. I’m sorry, but the loggerhead turtles
off the Carolina coast are leaving for Africa tonight.
Would you like an ice cold pear instead?
Walking into the store is like entering
the delicate refrain of a Christmas poem.
What more could you want? Siddhartha said
someone who brushes against you in the street
has shared an experience with you for five hundred lives.
Can bottles bobbing on the open sea
be said to move at all?
If these columns serve no other purpose, I hope they free someone from the need to “understand” poems. Poems are not recipes, not math problems; they are not for being understood. There’s nothing you’re supposed to “get”; there is no correct answer.
Instead: what is it like reading this poem? For me, the experience of “Talking to Strangers” is pleasant confusion.
A common analogy compares poems like this to abstract paintings. If you get hung up on deciphering subject matter or—even worse—significance/symbolism, you’re sunk. There is no “there” there. I beg you, instead, to embrace mystery, confusion, and whatever fleeting free-associations may arise.
“Talking to Strangers” is a sort of collage. The individual sentences are sensible, the transitions between them less so. The questions are like Christmas tree ornaments, dangling on their own.
I’d argue that the first three lines announce the commitment to nonsense. Nature and love, common poetic subjects, are mentioned and rejected: “there’s nothing in it.”
Ruefle is “here to help you be garrulous,” and it worked for me. By validating playfulness, poems like this cracked art open for me. When a poem makes sense immediately, it can stop moving. Because “Talking to Strangers” resists interpretation, it is always wriggling around.
I also recommend this newer Ruefle poem, which I would have an even harder time writing about. I thought I hated it at first; instead, I keep reading it, liking it more and more.
Poem republished in accordance with principles of fair use.
Photo via Flickr user Jan-Hendrik Caspers.
You, Too, Dislike It appears every Thursday.