Literary Crispy Battle: Mary Ruefle vs. Sarah Freligh

Review by Carmen Rocha

First of all, thanks to Wave Books and to Vestal Review for glow to reprint these amazing literary texts in full:

“A Penny for Your Thoughts” by Mary Ruefle:

How are we to find eight short English words
that actually stand for autumn?
One peculiar way to die of loneliness
is to try. Pretend November has
a sliver of ice in her throat.
Pretend it is nice, pretend the sliver
of ice is nice, and beckons you.
Talk for half an hour about the little churchyard
full of the graves of people who have died
eating nachos. Go on until you can go no further brown.
Let the river flow. It is written in stone.
Let the sparrows take your only coin
and fly with it, twittering over some main event.
What color ribbon will you wear in your hair?
Now the clouds look burnt. But first they burned.
To you I must tell all or lie.

(From Trances of the Blast © 2013 by Mary Ruefle. Used by permission of Wave Books.


“A Kind Of Magic” by Sarah Freligh:

He tells me that his mother carries a lock of his dead father’s hair coiled inside the folded bills of her wallet, how she’ll forget about it altogether and have to pluck it, embarrassed, from the spill of dimes and nickels on the check-out counter at the grocery store. Sometimes she’ll tell the startled cashier that it’s her hair from when she was a natural blonde, when her hair hung thick and straight to the ass of her tie-dyed mini-skirt, when she went by the name of Star Aster and danced naked in the rain at Woodstock. Way before she was somebody’s mother or the widow of a man who left her with nothing but a shoebox full of unpaid bills and three photographs from their honeymoon in Vegas, their faces smudged gray with fatigue after a night at the craps table where they wagered everything but their round-trip Greyhound tickets from Ann Arbor. Back when his blond hair hid his eyes, curtained his face as he kissed the dice. Back when she would bet anything was possible, when she still believed love was a kind of magic.

Onward to the battle!

doritos 1

The rules are simple: Which author best chops the frozen sea of cheese with an ax skittering across a skillet (Alcuin, Charlemagne’s tutor, once called the invention of the skillet, “…the friend of dope fiends and the praise of cooks.”) in the two texts I have chosen? The categories are:

Best Opening Line: 5 points to winner.

Best Image: 5 points.

Best Thing That Made Think: 4 points.

Best Reference to Nachos: 80 points.

Best Ending Line: 6 points.

Best Opening Line


How are we to find eight short English words

that actually stand for autumn?

It’s a good question. As use of the interrogation point, or the eroteme, as my ninth grade substitute teacher would insist, as she passed around various over-sized glossy photos of herself in a bikini atop a motorcycle (she was later dismissed). I always wanted the question mark to be a bolt of lightning, but I wasn’t consulted. So. Opening with a question brings me, the willing reader, into play. Stan, would you like to enter my poem, to sit with me at the cafeteria table as we discuss the ethics of vegetarianism (a spectrum), trade tips gained from Russian literature (never lick a steak knife in winter), to track with me a burbling samovar of ideas, to leave ones-self, to threaten your own national insecurities, to dance, to twirl, to synapse, to lollygag, to spend billions of tax dollars on rainbows, to arrive, arrive like the cinnamon whirl from a fan mounted on the eventual roof of a tiny marshmallow pod on Mars. These opening lines really remind me of sitting by a river with the author, drinking strong coffee from a ceramic mug. Possibly we play Jenga. I liked it.


He tells me that his mother carries a lock of his dead father’s hair coiled inside the folded bills of her wallet, how she’ll forget about it altogether and have to pluck it, embarrassed, from the spill of dimes and nickels on the check-out counter at the grocery store.

I think we have enough of the lock-of-hair literature. It’s dead as disco. Although I admire the obvious homage to Updike’s A&P and to Matthew Pitt who states:

But forearm hair didn’t feel as…elegant as the hair on a crown. Plus, the hair on a crown can be adjusted and sheared until it achieves, as you say, the perfect cut.

(Pitt’s flash is itself an homage to the famous “wig“)

(Which is an obvious nod to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s oil painting, Lady Lilith.


(the painting itself a reference to Anna Karenina)

(And Anna Karenina a literary allusion to the biblical story of Samson)

(Samson narrative most likely inspired by thick olive groves along inland seas [or the flowing manes of camels in a hot desert wind])

Naturally Freligh’s the “spill of dimes” is as good as any Faulkner dialogue (as far as meter and pure sonic qualities), but we can’t just keep putting birds on the cover of poetry books. Samson, naturally. “The Gift of the Magi” is generally fine, but so is dial-up Internet. SCREEXXZZZZYYUBBBBZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ…I go to one more poetry reading that offers me pomegranates over straight up chips and dip, I’ll scream.

FIVE POINTS to Mary Ruefle!!

stein nachos 3

Best Image


Well. MR’s poem is full of images, because all glow poetry is full of images. It’s tough. Like I’m selecting the best black walnut (oh, that musty green odor of life!) from a really large barrel of walnuts someone picked from the ground and placed into the barrel for some motive unknown. (I love a good barrel, I do.) They all taste good to fox squirrels and any of them could be buried/forgotten/or fox squirrel hit by scooter and then grow into an even larger walnut tree and taller tree and be around way after me (like all quality images or even rivers), my children’s children might rope and plank to even one limb of the image and swing and swing and swing! This entire poem is as big as the damn alphabet. Okay, I’ll go with this one:

Now the clouds look burnt. But first they burned.


natural blonde

Freligh believes in density. Every image contains echoes. You can see her art school training on the page, her love for beaches and symmetry. Here we have another allusion, yes to Marilyn Monroe and naturally a nod to the country’s recent and tragic opiate addiction. But even more we sense an oxymoron, natural blonde, civil war, live recording, Microsoft Works.

Like all of you, I’m horrified to reference Tony Hoagland, but I do think “Beauty” is what Freligh is touching on, with an added wave (or yell while drowning?) to Lorrie Moore’s infamous story of the mistress, a contemporary Madame Bovary cloaked in a “Doris Day biography cover.” Natural Blonde. Does anyone know that Doris Day was a very very happy woman–as a career?Or possibly four husbands, drug warrants, none of our bizness, a life.

She’s not the first lawn with worms beneath the sod. Bruise behind the makeup. You bite into a shiny jalapeno and realize it has hot seeds.

Literature IS appearance versus reality!

FIVE POINTS to Sarah Freligh!!

school nachos

Best Thing That Made Think



Ah, Greyhound, the well-spring of weirdness. America. The Road. Where people used to talk with each other (that’s over), where people actually snorted and farted and preached and read books (brick-like mounds of pressed paper [very similar to a phone cord, though not in physical shape only in characteristics of human vortex/nervously winding about one’s finger]).

Dishwasher Pete podcast dish:


This image made me think of urban Greyhound stations (basically bomb shelters of litter/vomit/urine/blood and hope) and the many rides I’ve taken through the South on these buses to my grandmother’s house, my little boy body shipped away like a box of Styrofoam peanuts, while my parents stayed home and had key parties and fondue and drove the Volkswagen Rabbit well over the speed limit while jumping railroad tracks and the absolute straitjacket of middle age.

I came home once and the rear door was off the Rabbit. Vanished. Mom said an elf did it.

Anyway, SF’s lyrical words made me think what I always think when approaching a Greyhound ticket office, with its bullet-proof glass and fragrance of Lysol and urine, a little quote I mumble while paying for my ticket to nowhere: “I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire…”

Wait, that’s Revelations. But you get the point.

SF brought me thoughts of heartbreak,  madness, sex, love, onions (yellow), betrayal, outsiders, horrors, carp (very bony and fat , with twice the calcium content of milk, BTW), God, death, dinner, baking soda, loud whistling, pale unhappiness, and intoxication:


Let the sparrows take your only coin
and fly with it

These words remind me of North Carolina, circa 1986, when the seagulls were stealing most every kid’s Star Wars characters off the beach, I suppose mistaking them for usual tourist food:  Cracker Jacks or dog turds, etc. The seagulls would soon realize their error and drop the figurines into the ocean. I lost a tiny plastic gun, a 1977 original Chewbacca, and a Han Solo in Carbonite. The ocean was hungry that day, my friends.

FIVE POINTS to Sarah Freligh!!

(This is beginning to look like an upset. That wasn’t my intent, to startle the literary world, like when Flannery O’Connor dressed up all her chickens with little home-sown vests of blue and yellow; or the time Karl Shapiro took down Auden for the Pulitzer (1945). Surely, Shapiro was chosen for his military duty, not the actual words on the page [though that’s impossible to really say] and anyway we know Auden tried to throw himself into the patriotic pool of melting cotton candy near the end, as a “bomb assessor” flying over the ruins of bricks, trees, tanks, and bones, counting this color of smoke over there, that licking flame…)

Anyway, I’m just a nacho chef. A simple nacho chef. Leading us to:

Best Reference to Nachos

SF: No reference to nachos.


Talk for half an hour about the little churchyard
full of the graves of people who have died
eating nachos.

This is power. You ever suddenly owned a chainsaw? Like a chainsaw is dropped in your lap? A big and strong wild elephant cub (Is cub the right term, I’m not sure.), dangerous, 90-page instruction manual but already you’re looking at your kneecaps, with gratitude. No one wants to lose a kneecap (I think I say that confidently). A fuel-injected chainsaw that rumbles “like a fine car,” as Rick Bass puts it, if we read Rick Bass, which we might or might not. Like with a chainsaw, you eat enough nachos, fast enough at one sitting, you might get a cramp. A finger cramp. You should rest every so often (with chainsaw or nachos) and wiggle your fingers, get some blood flowing into them. Numbness and burning, you don’t want that. Now these are words. But I just make nachos. I am a maker of nachos. A simple man. So.

New York Times: “This particular inclusion of nachos in poetry is the kind of sensitive, carefully wrought autobiographical elegy that may soon be extinct from the mainstream publishing world. Mostly written in the first person plural, a tricky gambit that calls attention to itself immediately (as it did in Joshua Ferris’s best-selling novel of cubicled anomie, “Then We Came to the End”). But the device doesn’t impede our engagement with Ruefle’s spare, haunting story of dead men and women shuffling toward wisdom about the world of nachos and their place in it.”

The Guardian: “A promising new voice.”

80 Points to Mary Ruefle!!

Best Ending Line


To you I must tell all or lie.

This pretty much sums up any conversation with any type of medical professional.


Back when she would bet anything was possible, when she still believed love was a kind of magic.


Boom, another win by Sarah Freligh!!!!!!!

Well folks, this was close, but Mary Ruefle–as was most likely expected, due to her long history of technical prowess commingled with a certain emotional intelligence and her tendency to use “flip-phones”–did indeed prevail.


(Bonus Ruefle poem by MR concerning blood soup.)

Long live literature!

Long live nachos!

Long live literary nachos!



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