MARY RUEFLE’S careful, measured sentences sound as if they were written by a thousand-year-old person who is still genuinely curious about the world. All of it. Trees. Crumbs. Doors. The all-consuming darkness that will envelop us all. She sums up her speakers’ disposition perfectly in “Kiss of the Sun,” one of my favorite Ruefle poems: “On earth/I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw.”
She’s the queen of a certain kind of poetry that was relatively popular from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, in a league with James Tate, Dean Young, and the rest of the crew who combined imagistic techniques from surrealism with narrative modes to create surprising, high-velocity, and deeply affecting work. This aesthetic has spawned many imitators and variations, but her style is unmistakable.
Ruefle employs the same moves in her prose, too, including the commercially successful book of essays Madness, Rack, and Honey and the critically under-acclaimed The Most of It. Brittany Dennison, publicist of Seattle’s Wave Books, which has published all Ruefle’s recent work, recently said that Wave publishes “books of poems but also books written by poets.” Ruefle’s latest, My Private Property, fits in that latter category. The book reads like a literary diary that knows it reads like a literary diary. Just when we think we’re in “the real world,” or rather a subjective account of a real experience, Ruefle will pivot into the wilderness of imagination.
Many of the book’s most powerful pieces engage with the political even if they don’t use overtly political language. In “Little Golf Pencil,” the speaker sits in a courtyard and eats sandwich halves with some cops, who ask her to make a “statement.” She obliges with lines that lay out the speaker’s worldview while simultaneously getting at a core problem of policing: “In the beginning you understand the world but not yourself, and when you finally understand yourself you no longer understand the world. They seemed satisfied with that. Cops, they’re all so young.”
The cops seem satisfied with Ruefle’s proverb; they think they understand how the world works. But an officer’s over-certainty in this regard, as we’ve seen so often, has led to the killing of black people, Native Americans, and the mentally ill. Ruefle employs the poet’s prerogative to suggest an abstract root of the problem—the failure of imagination—rather than talking explicitly about white supremacy and mass incarceration.
The absolute best thing in My Private Property is an eight-page essay about menopause called “Pause,” which was first published in the June 2015 issue of Granta. Ruefle prefaces the poem with a facsimile of a “cryalog,” a record of the times she cried on a given day in April of 1998 when she was going through menopause. She says she now finds the list funny, though at the time she wanted to kill herself. What follows that confession is a poignant, hilarious, sorry-not-sorry essay about the liberation of feeling “invisible” after “the change”—a phrase Ruefle says is not a euphemism. It’s a paean to life as an older woman, which is especially welcome in a world obsessed with youthfulness.
Ruefle splits up her lyrical essays and essayistic lyrics with brief but cascading prose poems that assign certain colors to certain kinds of sadness, working a kind of synesthetic magic.The funny thing is that the “sad color” poems aren’t sad. They’re comforting. Associating certain kinds of melancholy with colors is a kind of naming, and to name something is to understand it, and understanding something helps you to get over it. The author’s note in the back of the book says that if you change the word “sadness” to “happiness,” nothing changes. I disagree. I think it makes the poems somehow sadder. Check out this line: “Sad to say, gray sadness is replaceable, it can be replaced daily, it is the sadness of a melting snowman in a snowstorm.” Now make the change. He’s happy he’s dying even though he shouldn’t be dying! I don’t know why such a self-actualized Buddha snowman leaves me grief stricken, but such is the power of language.
The best writing hangs the world with “fresh paint” signs. Ruefle’s color prayers do this, and so does the rest of My Private Property.
by Mary Ruefle