Paul Ruffin, Cleaning the Well: Poems Old and New

Publisher: Ellis Press
2008, 118 pages, paperback, $14.95

cleaning the well represents 30 years of Paul Ruffin’s poetry, combining new works with selections from his five previous books to form this inspired collection that reads like a guidebook to southern enlightenment.

Ruffin’s material is self-centered in the best meaning of the term — he pulls from his life like a preacher giving an impassioned sermon. The poems reflect the life of a wise southern man with an eye for the objective truths within his subjects. In this sense, the poet’s history is inseparable from the poems. From his youth in Mississippi to his migration to Texas, the poems represent the viewpoint of a man who has lived a distinctly southern life. They focus on everything from fishing to relationships to parenting, all the while displaying a vision that finds its wisdom in its history, as in “Crackerjacks”:

My daughter plunges
her hand into the box
of rich puffs and pulls back
a fist of sweetness.
She does not care where
the kernels came from,
how corn and cane grow
from the earth, are rendered
into these golden blooms.
What she knows is all
that shows in her eyes:
a clutch of sweetness,
a sailor in blue, and
somewhere deep within,
the prize.

Ruffin’s sense of the poetic conceit is unnervingly accurate at times. His most overwhelming poems take regional subjects and shine a light inside them, exposing truths and finding meaning where even the most patient observer would overlook. To place such a gifted poet in these types of circumstances is an experiment in language, as Ruffin shows time and again. In “Buddy Philosophizes After Cutting The Bull,” the poet recounts and ponders a setting that few people have ever witnessed:

“You locate the seam along the middle
of the sack,” Buddy says. He pinches the calf’s
scrotum for me to see. “And make a cut
just big enough for the nut on each side:
that way it don’t bleed much
and there ain’t that much to heal.”

He makes the first cut,
squeezes out a bullet-like testicle, slices
it off, and moves to the other side.
The calf lunges, but our ropes hold.
Buddy throws the second testicle over the fence,
sprays disinfectant on the cuts. He frees
the calf and accepts another beer.

While Buddy goes on to wax poetic, it becomes apparent that the narrator’s role in the poem is that of observer and cataloguer. Such is Ruffin’s role for his readers. The purity of his language cuts the poem down to a startling reality and gives a deep weight to the mind behind its conceit.

The entire collection holds a feeling of sight beyond sight, and as Ruffin moves between subjects his radar always seems to find the truth where it wasn’t before. These poems are about evaluating and relating to a world that masks itself under a veneer of detachment. The clarity and simplicity of Ruffin’s language lends itself to the book’s purpose — revealing a series of realizations that are necessarily human in their honesty and endearing in their personality. Ruffin asks his readers to analyze how they relate to their world even as he shows pieces of his, all the while bringing the two closer and closer together.

-Colin Pope