I wrote about Mary Ruefle’s erasure book A Little White Shadow in the history section of Newspaper Blackout, but I didn’t truly fall in love with her work until I read her collected lectures in Madness, Rack, and Honey in 2013.
“I never set out to write this book,” Ruefle says in the introduction. In 1994, she had to deliver lectures to graduate students, and rather than trying to wing it, she wrote them out first, because “writing is my natural act, more natural than speaking.”
She notes that the book becomes more “increasingly fragmentary” as it goes, and David Kirby picked up on this in his NYTimes review:
In many ways, “Madness, Rack, and Honey” reads like a steroid-boosted version of a commonplace book, those thinking persons’ scrapbooks that became popular in early modern Europe and contained quotations from the classics, scraps of conversation, poem fragments, recipes, proverbs and lists of every sort. With all of Ruefle’s borrowings and rephrasings, it’s difficult sometimes to tell exactly who’s talking, which may be the idea. One authority burrows into another, as when the painter Cy Twombly is cited as quoting the poet John Crowe Ransom’s assertion that “the image cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness which ideas can never claim.” I believe the rappers call this “sampling.”
I like her idea for a class called “Footnotes”:
In it, the students would read a footnoted edition of a definitive text—I thought it might as well be The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—and proceed diligently to read every book mentioned in the footnotes (or the books by those authors mentioned) an in turn all those mentioned in the footnotes of the footnoted books, and so on and so on, stopping only when one was led back, by a footnote, to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.”
And her connection between drawing and writing:
The greatest lesson in writing I ever had was given to me in an art class. The drawing instructor took a sheet of paper and held up a pencil. She very lightly put the pencil on the piece of paper and applied a little pressure; by bringing her hand a little ways in one direction, she left a mark upon the paper. “That’s all there is to it,” she said, “but it’s a miracle. Once there was nothing, and now there’s a mark.”
Some sentences I underlined in 2013. It is fun to realize how many of these ideas I have internalized — particularly the parts about “breaking bread with the dead”:
- “if you have any idea for a poem, an exact grid of intent, you are on the wrong path”
- “dread has the word read inside of it, telling us to read carefully and find the dead, who are also there”
- “fear is overcome by procedure”
- “In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time.”
- “I began writing because I had made friends with the dead: they had written to me, in their books, about life on earth and I wanted to write back…”
- “I do not care if I am writing a poem or a letter—it is just making marks on a sheet of paper that delights and envelops me.”
- “Poets are dead people talking about being alive.”
- “Insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.’ That’s writing poetry, but hey, it’s also getting out of bed every morning.”
- “For me, there is no difference between writing and drawing.”
- “When I make contact with a piece of paper without looking up I am happy.”
I tend to love essays written by poets — it’s interesting to me that Ruefle is hesitant about writing prose essays, because they are the thing that led me to her poetry, not the other way around.
As I said, I have since become a huge fan of her work — I love her sense of wonder, her way with images, and her sense of humor. (And her erasures, of course, which she’s as crazy about as I am.) Her last two books, My Private Property and Dunce, were at the top of my 2020 reading list.
Her writing gave me much comfort at the beginning of lockdown and she became my quarantine queen, in a sense — I figured with her penchant for solitude and self-entertainment, if anybody could make it through this it would be her.
I was not disappointed when I googled her name the other day and found out she had spent a good portion of the pandemic mailing poems to Vermonters whose names she found in the phone book.
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