AT FIRST I planned to dig through Mary Ruefle’s newest book, My Private Property, sadness-detector in hand, painstakingly tagging and bagging each metaphor for sadness, buried like a nickel deposit in deep rocks. In fact, Ruefle had done the work for me: she arranged her metaphors for sadness by color. In this multifaceted collection of prose poems, Ruefle proceeds to take us through her private understanding of every color’s association with sadness, not by some order of the rainbow or color wheel, but in an order all her own. Each color section is labeled as such immediately: “Blue sadness is sweetness cut into strips with scissors and then into little pieces by a knife.” The body is ever-present, hovering among these sadnesses: “it is possible to dance to purple sadness, though slowly.”
These brief prose poems on sadness operate as a kind of ongoing refrain throughout a collection of pieces that vary widely in genre and voice. Initially I tried to keep track of Ruefle’s forms, her narrative techniques, the slipping in and out of viewpoints, but My Private Property neither gives itself over to nor requires easy categorization. In this slim book are stories short enough to warrant the name flash fiction; there are instances of biographical nonfiction, lyric essay, philosophy, and memoir. Like much of Ruefle’s work, however, My Private Property is best enjoyed simply as a sampling of moods and thoughts from the same intelligent, delving mind, the kind of pieces one reads for questions, not for answers. Ruefle’s much-praised facility for language, inescapably poetic even when technically considered prose, offers surprise and communion on each page — that exhilaration one finds when, amid a sea of foreign concepts, a thought or phrase appears so familiar to us that for a moment we wonder if it is reading our mind.
In these pages, one finds essays sliding into poems and poems masquerading as stories, a first-person meditation on menopause (featuring photographic evidence of the author’s “cryalog,” a calendar of how frequently she cried during a given time period), a contemplation of the ground as it might be explained to a just-landed alien, and — in the titular essay — a memoiristic examination of the author’s lifelong interest in shrunken heads, and her fantasy of housing 12 of them in an egg carton. It can be difficult to orient oneself within a work of such depth and variance, where the through lines are hard to locate. Ruefle exposes private obsessions, desires, and contradictory impulses, offering them to the reader in pursuit of a communion.
Consider, from the eponymous piece:
Men, women and children walk on streets, they cross fields and enter forests, they run along the edges of oceans, but none of them, to the best of my knowledge, are thinking about shrunken heads. I am thinking about shrunken heads, but keep the thought to myself, that is, inside my head, for if the subject is raised at all, it is met with horror, on account of the violence involved …
And therein lies the possibility, which unspools through the essay (and the entire collection) in intoxicating ways: the possibility that our deepest fears and obsessions, once shared, may be an avenue to connection. The writer David Shields has put it thus: “It’s by remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own experience and the vagaries of your own nature that you stand the greatest chance of conveying something universal.” True, these peculiarities, if brought out, may be met with horror. But perhaps — and this seems more likely — they will be met with relief.
Ruefle writes, in her 2012 essay collection Madness, Rack, and Honey:
I have always looked askance at writing on writing, but I’m intelligent enough to see that writing is writing. Still, my allegiance to poetry, to art, is greater than my allegiance to knowledge and intelligence, and that stance is harder and harder to maintain in today’s world, because knowledge and intelligence form the corporate umbrella (the academy) that shelters and protects poetry in a culture that cares about other things.
In My Private Property, all of life can be mined for meaning — the pieces concern themselves with the small and the large without making value distinctions between the two. Ruefle deals as frequently with mundane matters — a Christmas tree, feeding a finch, crumbs on a kitchen counter — as with those capital-letter concepts: God, Love, Death, Time, Memory. Any of these “other things” can undergo some transubstantiation and become poetry.
As becomes clearer with every page of My Private Property, a fundamental switching occurs: those tiny, trivial details contain (surprise!) all of life’s enormities — something like using an egg carton to hold 12 shrunken heads. She reminds us that it is possible to discuss, in graphic detail, the preparation of these heads next to a childhood account of shoplifting from Woolworths, and her poetry finds its teeth not only in the gruesome (“the flesh-head is boiled for two hours until the skin is dark and rubbery and one-third its original size”) but also in the mundane (“I stole a yellow lace mantilla to wear to Mass on Easter Sunday, though I never wore it to Mass; I wore it to confession the Saturday before, confessing to the priest that I had stolen the very thing I was wearing on my head”). Ordinary objects are imbued with heightened meaning; the completely foreign is presented alongside the eerily familiar.
In her introduction to Madness, Rack, and Honey, Ruefle suggests that poetry maintains its mystery by always being a few steps beyond us. She likens attempting to describe poetry to following a shy thrush into the woods as it recedes ever further, saying: “Fret not after knowledge, I have none.” Ruefle proposes that a reader might “preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive.”
Mary Ruefle has been compared to Emily Dickinson, a poet to whom she has a powerful, if guarded, personal connection (see Ruefle’s essay “My Emily Dickinson,” in which she circles around her debt to the poet without ever fully explaining it). One link between them is the awareness always of the possible. Dickinson says: “I dwell in Possibility – / a fairer House than Prose.” My Private Property dwells in that same house. It does not adhere to one voice or story or conceit; it is mutable, luxuriating in the space between things. In “Lullaby,” Ruefle’s narrator reflects, after falling asleep during a concert of Brahms’s Lullabies, that “perhaps [she] was the only one to have truly heard the music!” Then, immediately rethinking: “Of course I felt this to make myself feel better — feelings are strange that way. I slipped the programme into my bag, as a memento of a lovely nap, and left the chapel.” A possibility is raised and then quickly rethought, the thought itself is accounted for, and the inscrutability of feelings is acknowledged.
In the story “Milkshake,” Ruefle writes:
Today I am very bored, and very lonely. I can think of nothing better to do than grind salt and pepper into my milkshake, which I have been doing since I was thirteen.
This statement, prompts us to consider the vast and unnamable array of obstacles and experiences the narrator has no doubt encountered since the age of 13; and yet, she remains the same person, the woman who sprinkles salt and pepper into her milkshakes. We are given no way to know whether each first-person piece reflects the same identity. Can the girl of the salty milkshakes be the same as the one who later reflects: “The day the living room flooded I had not left the apartment in five days, everything was spotlessly clean, I had no work to do except writing my thoughts in a journal, the thought of which filled me with terror and boredom”? A single moment from a person’s life cannot define that person, and yet all a life is made of are these accumulated moments. Ruefle, in these first-person pieces, seems to be asking us to consider this unanswerable question: Are we ever, from one day to the next, the same “I”? How do our experiences shape our identities?
Of the pieces written in the third person, the characters seem to stand alone in the context of the book, neither introduced with specifics nor recalled in later segments. They might be facets of the narrator, or iterations from a past life. Or perhaps they just exist, no more related to the “I” of the milkshakes and shrunken heads as black sadness is related to yellow. The pieces written in the second person read with a simple didacticism that disorients at first, sounding as though they could be adapted from lesson plans for androids or aliens struggling to fit in here on earth: “A restaurant is a place that will cook for you. You give them money for the cooking. Or for the eating, I am unsure which.” With her forays into the second person, Ruefle is again decontextualizing the mundane, and urging us to consider the forgotten rules that govern our everyday experiences, the invisible lines we follow without asking why. Ruefle suggests that if we consider conformity and regulation from the right angle, even they can offer us a revelation, a mystery, or simply a bright shock of joy.
Joy, in a book so laced with sadness, is a necessarily complicated concept. But Ruefle gives us one way to understand it, in an author’s note at the end of the book: “In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.” The emotions are less important than the way they are embodied in objects. She reminds us that sadness and happiness are two sides of the same Möbius strip, turning endlessly into one another and back, with moments and objects merely harboring them briefly.
In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Ruefle plays with an oft-used fact — that there exists “one million three thousand two hundred ninety-five words used by the Eskimo for snow” — and offers, as a new dinner party topic to replace that old chestnut, another way to think about language:
Some languages are so constructed — English among them — that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words right before you step into the limousine, or in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand. Or, if you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows you and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end.
We can bend this thought outward to encompass writing, to view all of literature as a sentence — long, convoluted, massively (and crucially) contradictory. To this huge and unwieldy sentence, the addition of Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property is a slim but brimming gift.