Lectures With Nothing (Or Everything) To Say: On Mary Ruefle

Andrew David King
August 12, 2013
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[This post serves as the introduction for a soon-to-be-published interview with Ruefle.]

The function of the anecdote in criticism is double-edged: at once ailment and salve. But in considering Mary Ruefle’s work, I couldn’t help but resort to the first-person topography of just how I had come to know it. To speak only for myself, as much as I attempt to resist a certain kind of emotional suasion that a certain kind of emotional poem might seek to achieve, sometimes blatantly, I can’t exempt myself from moments where I find my very body—despite my protestations!—very much inhabited by the work at hand. My mind’s no longer left alone to decode the poem like a cold cipher: the pulse makes its interpretive prerogative known, then the breath, then a muscle in my stomach, closing like a fist. But there’s something else, too, something alien, like (and a simile, regrettably, is the best I can do) water thrashing into a room to fill it, something unknown flooding into every crevice. I want to leap up and cling to a chandelier as the furniture starts floating, but I can’t. I’m taken, I’m underwater. The poem itself becomes not the record of some thought-event, but the unfolding of such an event; the poem, which consists in part of frames that pass materially in one direction (the act of reading) and experientially in all directions (the act of thought, of memory, of correlation, of causation), insists that, despite my inclinations to the contrary, it is present now. And I am not merely witness to this happening, I am somehow—against my volition and maybe, even, against my desire—of it.

A page from Ruefle's erasure of The Mansion by Henry van Dyke, reminiscent of the work of Tom Phillips

A page from Ruefle’s erasure of The Mansion by Henry van Dyke, reminiscent of the work of Tom Phillips

So while it’s wholly unremarkable, in the third-person sense, that the first time I experienced Ruefle’s work was while driving home on my daily commute a year ago, in the first-person sense the logic is impeccable: Ruefle’s work—poetry, prose, and erasures alike—is not merely populated with the quotidian but suffused by it, so much so that each vindication of dailiness, each unvarnished notation on ordinary perception, takes on the sheen of a supplication. That I was listening to a recording of a reading she gave at UC Berkeley several years ago made no difference; even there, in the tiny darkness of my car as it hummed along the freeway, I could hear her poem “Monument” (printed in The Most of It, described on its back cover as “her first book of prose”—but there, just as with the rest of her corpus, the distinction between prose and poetry is dubious) as it carved a cave out from the audience’s silence. She made no prefatory comments but began reading, each word hewing some invisible stone and setting it inside. (I didn’t know this then, but later I’d learn how a linchpin word in that poem—“speculum”—came to be there, and that Ruefle often composes poems in her car.) Without the poem for reference, I tried to listen for a sense of the ending, tried to predict its footsteps. When it arrived, it seemed to come without warning, with very little notice; it had seemed to be coming for a long time, as if the poem were, from its first words, reaching toward it. But never prematurely, never pretentiously—it had wanted to say something first, and this desire to speak tempered with the doubt that one should ran the length of this poem, which I could not see but which I could hear, like an electric current runs the length of a wire. This sculptural, physical aspect of her writing comes through not only in her erasures but in her poems as well—even the title page of The Most of It features text set against a black backdrop, as though the words weren’t set upon the page but mined from it, pulled from its soil.

That this kinetic phenomenon seems to characterize my experience with most of Ruefle’s work motivates, if not justifies, me to include it here. The sensation of moving through a tunnel—or an open field, a river, a vastness—especially permeates her collection of lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey, though to describe the writings contained therein as “lectures” might be to grossly mislabel them. As Ruefle herself writes near the beginning of her compendium “Twenty-Two Short Lectures,” she “never believed, for a moment, that anyone ever learned a single thing about poetry from hearing a lecture.” Lectures, she says, teach us how to talk about poems; what they don’t, and can’t, teach us is how to write them, how to live with them. So if Ruefle’s poems and essays, besides offering radically new models for poetic pedagogy, are reaching toward something, but that “something” isn’t knowledge per se (about poetry or anything specifically), what is it? Let me hazard a rough hypothesis: movement itself, however pigeon-toed and awkward, and not just any movement, but a movement that takes “forward” to be all directions and risks the briar-patch of platitude, irrelevance, and quaintness for something revelatory. In Madness, she posits a problem that every great poem has, “the problem of itself, and how it got stuck in space—how it got wedged in this world—the problem of being-in-the-first-place.” Despite the apparent massiveness of this Heideggerian concern, despite her assessment of the problem as “unsolvable” and endlessly frustrating, she argues that it’s not a problem we should want to abolish or escape, but one we should “preserve and honor.”

Another excerpt from Ruefle's erasure of van Dyke

Another excerpt from Ruefle’s erasure of van Dyke

To keep having problems: this is, flippantly put, Ruefle’s epiphany. To keep re-arranging the squares of the Rubik’s cube, the vases on the sill, the books on the shelf, the subjects of one’s thoughts, the marks on a given page. The words “madness”, “rack”, and “honey” came to her in a dream, and the coincidence of their appearance is enough, it seems, to merit dedicating an essay to their excavation; they are, like the veritable eagle’s nest of quotations, letters, scraps of books, speech excerpts, and memories that constitute her collection of lecture-essays, just several of the infinite slots on Fortune’s wheel. All of which is to say that Ruefle’s writing vibrates with an epiphanic energy more than it seeks proper epiphanies, or anything remotely agitprop. Thankfully, this vibration is constant, never self-satisfied; though some elements approach camp, others staleness, they hardly ever enter it, lingering instead on the precipice that overlooks them. She is, in other words, saving the epiphanic from the hokey, commoditized fate it often finds at other hands (the lyric poem being, after all, a “little bit of masturbation”). This epiphany—from the Greek word for “reveal,” epiphainein—is not a singularly locatable reward, not a slice of cheese at the end of a maze of couplets, but a way of existing that, despite the connotations of its name, somehow manages to transcend the distinction between the religious and the secular for some other, out-there realm. As she writes in “Poetry and the Moon,”

…didn’t I say earlier that sorrow, the isolated sensuality of so much lyric poetry, seeks to separate itself from its surroundings? How then can it be absorbed into time? It seems that in the moment the final elaboration of oneself is made—when one finally asserts oneself—I am alive and I know it!—the moment expands to its full stature as eternity. Call it gibberish, this is what poetry is famous for.

“What form does a lecture take when one has nothing to say?” she asks; answering herself, she declares that it should “take the form of a letter, an epistle…” She seems troubled throughout by the lecture as a reified apparatus of knowledge transmission; the section “Short Lecture on Lectures,” from the larger piece “Twenty-Two Short Lectures,” begins by recounting something Ramakrishna purportedly said: “Given a choice between going to heaven and hearing a lecture on heaven, people would choose a lecture.” But if Ruefle begins by having “nothing to say,” she ends by giving voice to every possibility. These essays and poems are evidence of a vast private literature, including a substantial number of erasures Ruefle has done for herself. And as one piece in Madness proclaims—“Lectures I Will Never Give,” which then proceeds to violate its own proscription and give them—at the beginning, “I will tell you that if you think I know something or anything, I am just pretending to know as a way to pass the time. Personally I think we should all be in our rooms writing.” She gets tired of having to talk about literature, she says; there’s enough labor to be found in learning to live with “the language which we alone created,” contending with metaphor as “an exchange of energy between two things,” poetic theses as “both true and untrue,” and practitioners of poetry as “practitioners of madness, rack, and honey”, “mercy-givers who execute,” “executioners who show mercy.” Each of these is a force; each holds its own spark as a candle does a flame. Reading each poem, each lecture, is akin to watching a salvo of lit matches thrown down the side of a cliff: for a split second, each illuminates something massive. Each is, again, not so much the recollection of an event but a new event. As Auden’s perennially-quoted “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” reminds,

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Unfortunate, perhaps, that “a mouth” is so often clipped from citations of this passage—or that the passage is abbreviated to the much-less-supple maxim, “Poetry makes nothing happen; it’s a way happening.” The mouth speaks; the mouth spits; the mouth invokes the body; the mouth takes the first bite of the apple. And the mouth might both taste and give forth what Ruefle calls the “honey of poetry,” its transubstantiation: “the miracle of its transformation, which is that of creation: once there was a blank page—scary!—now there is something in its place that is attracting flies.” Like Somerset Maugham, said by Ruefle to have, in an old story, ripped pages from Proust when he finished reading them while traveling across the desert on a camel in order to lighten his pack, she sends her thoughts and good faith (and the thoughts and good faith of others) out into the world to blow where they will. To read Ruefle is to be the man who followed Maugham, picking up each page from À la recherche du temps perdu as it tumbles past, reading it as if it were a letter to him or no one in particular; it is to hear a list of answers to hidden questions read aloud, with proverbs and riddles and curses and provocations and observations sprinkled in for variety and because, well, these things can be answers too.

From Ruefle's erasure of Laura E. Richards's Marie

From Ruefle’s erasure of Laura E. Richards’s Marie

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