“The Imagination Plays With You”: Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property and On Imagination

Nathan Goldman

My Private Property. Mary Ruefle. Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2016. 128 pages. $25.00.

On Imagination. Mary Ruefle. Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2017. 32 pages. $9.95.

In her book of aphorisms, 300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso writes, “Sometimes a single sentence can be enough to fill the imagination completely. And sometimes a book’s title is enough.” Mary Ruefle’s two recent books each have such imagination-filling titles. On Imagination, a book-length essay transformed from a beautifully bizarre lecture into a chapbook with striking facing-page illustrations, is titled in the manner of an Aristotelian treatise or a Montaignian essay. The title’s austere authority invites reflection. The title of My Private Property, Ruefle’s collection of mesmerizing and varied short prose pieces, is innocuous in its plainness: the simplicity of three small, common words arranged in a small, common phrase. Yet, transplanted from the sphere in which language merely marks into the otherworldly realm of the poetic, the phrase’s simplicity becomes obtrusive. What does a phrase as superficial, as banal as “my private property” have to do with Ruefle’s searching, meditative prose? Surprisingly, the title’s connotations—capitalism, individualism—seem worlds away from Ruefle’s expansive concerns.

The imagination—that which, in Manguso’s language, Ruefle’s titles fill—offers a clue to the meaning of My Private Property’s title. In On Imagination, Ruefle begins by thinking about unity. She opens with a recitation—and then a transformation—of a stanza from Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

A man and a woman are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird are one.
A man and a woman and a jug of maple syrup and an old tennis shoe and a Roman statue are one.
A woman and her imagination are one.

What does it mean to think about the relationship of a woman to her imagination as comparable to the relationship between a man, a woman, and three disparate objects? The lines hint at the possibility of a human-object relation that transcends the flattening of property ownership. Later in the essay, Ruefle writes that “it is the imagination that kicks in every morning when you wake and every night when you go to sleep and tells you that you are safe and all your loved ones are safe and all your belongings really do belong to you.” For Ruefle, the imagination mediates these relationships: between me and myself, me and my loved ones, me and my possessions. Could writing that proceeds from the writer’s imagination and addresses the reader’s re-mediate—and thus reimagine—the human-object relation? How would we then understand the imagination and its creative power?

My Private PropertyMy Private Property advances such a reimagining. The names of objects recur in the pieces’ titles: “A Little Golf Pencil,” “Keys,” “Recollections on My Christmas Tree,” “Milkshake,” “Like a Scarf.” In these pieces, the objects emerge not as pieces of property to be coveted, procured, protected, or used. Rather, they are occasions for reflection and sources of feeling.

One object looms largest in the collection. A shrunken head seated in a museum outside Brussels is the subject of the masterful title essay originally published in this journal. Ruefle’s interest in the object originates in a “face-to-face” encounter she had at the age of sixteen while playing hooky. The essay dwells in the intertwinement of Ruefle’s frank feeling about the encounter—“I fell in love with a shrunken head”—and her critical attitude toward her youthful naiveté. “Of course,” Ruefle writes:

I am filled with retrospective shame . . . for my sheer and utter ignorance; I can now say that my ignorance was not in any way caused by my absence from the classroom, I can assure you my school did not teach what I now know to be true—that the museum I wandered in was built on rape and plunder and pillage and oppression and murder, that everything in it was stolen, that the very wealth necessary for such acquisition was stolen, wealth acquired by force of so filthy and unspeakable an evil our heads cannot fathom it and have no single word for it.

Ruefle plumbs her participation in this history—as a child encountering the head, as a writer interpreting the encounter, and as a person who feels possessive of the object. “I don’t remember what it was we communed about,” she writes, “but he possessed me as I possessed him, and to possess the head of a beloved, no less than the head of an enemy, is the greatest sickness on earth.”

The belief that imagination can be transformative—destructively and redemptively—animates the essay’s attempt to think through its object. Human imagination and its material consequences enacted the violence that brought the head to Ruefle, and imagination charts a path toward a better world, away from commodities and capital and toward “the way of shrunken heads, and dolls, soft rubbery flesh and ivory-like porcelain, skin and bones, face and masks.” Ruefle’s view of the imagination’s power becomes explicit in On Imagination, in which she breaks from contemporary orthodoxies to argue that there is nothing simply good about the imagination: “What irks me: that artists of all kinds are always praising the imagination . . . they speak as if there were nothing pejorative or destructive about it. But the imagination is a full, rounded, complex thing, and, like any daimon, has more than one aspect.”

Both books bear witness to the imagination’s power over human beings. In On Imagination, Ruefle writes that “the imagination is not what you play with, the imagination plays with you.” In My Private Property, this plays out in the un-containability of emotion, which aids in Ruefle’s reimagination of the human-object relation. Consider the opening of “Little Golf Pencil”:

At headquarters they asked me for something dry and understated. Mary, they said, it’s called a statement. They took me out back to a courtyard where they always ate lunch and showed me a little tree that was, sadly, dying. Something with four legs had eaten it rather badly. Don’t over-emote, they said. I promised I wouldn’t but I was thinking to myself that the something-with-four-legs had certainly over-emoted and that the tree, in response, was over-emoting now, being in the strange little position of dying.

The narrator—tasked with emotionlessly transposing world into word—fails even to see the world without projecting affect. The placement of the word “sadly” blurs the line between the mere fact of the tree’s dying and the narrator’s evaluation of it. Though determined not to “over-emote” in her statement on the tree, the narrator can’t help but think about the animal that has eaten the tree and the tree’s “strange little position of dying” as each an instance of “over-emoting.” This observation, itself a form of “over-emoting” in its implicit anthropomorphization, expresses the impossibility of a human encounter with the world separate from human forms of experience. Happiness and sadness overflow in equal measure from human beings into all of being.

This also means the impossibility of cordoning off the individual from the world. The self over-emotes and thus overflows. Ruefle is also interested in the converse motion: the world’s overwhelming of the human. In “In the Forest,” the speaker, “afraid of getting lost” while “wander[ing] in the forest,” “lose[s] [herself] in the snow as it falls between branches.” The world overcomes the self.

There are other ways the world might overwhelm. In “Observations on the Ground,” the speaker writes that “the dead and the garbage are together in the ground where we cannot see them, for we do not relish the sight or smell of them. If we did not go about our burying, we would be in danger of being overcome.” This observation hints at the way in which the world will, inevitably, overwhelm us all: in death. This inevitable and ultimate overcoming of the self haunts My Private Property. In “Recollections of a Christmas Tree,” death’s overwhelming paradoxically saves us from the world’s: “I think we would all become confused, eventually, if we didn’t die.”

In a present wracked with loneliness and wrecked by the material conditions that have alienated us from each other, our labor, ourselves, Ruefle’s work doesn’t only rethink death as an escape from confusion. Her work also helps us to recover the pleasure of separate selves not as liberal subjects, but as imaginative souls. In My Private Property, “The Woman Who Couldn’t Describe a Thing if She Could” tenderly narrates:

You close your eyes, which have been open all day. You close your mouth, which has been open all day. You think about the day. You have the whole day all to yourself. Then you begin to see things inside your head which you did not put there. It is very dark outside your head and you cannot see much there, but you can see the “put” things inside your head.

This description of the onset of dream-life doubles as a gloss on the life of the imagination, which is, in On Imagination, the only thing that Ruefle claims holds her interest. She recounts how her “oldest friend” told her that other people are not interested in the things that Ruefle is. “So what is this thing I am interested in?” Ruefle asks. “My daimon, the imagination, of course.” In the essay’s final pages, she writes:

All I can tell you is that at long last I am myself and free, even if isolated, and I am happy when I want to be and sad when I feel like it, and about the only thing that troubles me is knowing how many people on earth do not have that privilege, some for external reasons and some for internal ones, and to these I bow and for these I pray.

In My Private Property and On Imagination, Ruefle—by carefully mapping her solitude, her freedom, her sublime unease in the open seas of imagination—helps us to chart ours. On Imagination is a call to reverence; My Private Property is the concrete practice of it. Here we see the fruitful possibilities of my-ness, of privacy, of property, that are leagues deeper than the frail ghosts of these concepts that currently carry currency. Ruefle’s work is a guide and a gift, a chance to find ourselves (and our selves) in a world in which the self is not an enclosure, but an opening.

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