I have praise to offer that you can trust if you are looking for something good to read that spins your head in spare American prose that cannot be safely stashed in any genre. —Lawrence Sutin
As I am a friend of Mary Ruefle, I will not pretend to be an objective reviewer, if there is such a thing. But as I loved her writing before I ever knew her, I am no mere shill. I have praise to offer that you can trust if you are looking for something good to read that spins your head in spare American prose that cannot be safely stashed in any genre. Ruefle kneads imagination and thought together into a delicate yet chewy dough that rises into brilliant little lyric rolls and pastries. The kicker is that, after eating your fill with delight, you may find yourself unsettled. Nothing you think makes sense any more because Ruefle’s language has untamed your mind.
In the two longest pieces in the book, “Pause” and the eponymous “My Private Property,” Ruefle makes use of diametrically different forms. “Pause” is made up of multiple short sections that are sometimes only a single sentence. “My Private Property” is one long paragraph that goes on for fifteen pages. “Pause” is about menopause of which Ruefle writes in bile-filled warnings as one who has moved on to “happy old age” with its “grace and gentle words, and ways that grim youth has never known.” The essay thus encompasses the lifespan of woman, as viewed by Ruefle, with menopause serving as the liminal passage out of the past of human ties, procreative ties, that have inhibited one’s creative evolution—“there are no longer any persons on earth who can stop you from being yourself.” “My Private Property” is about shrunken heads in all senses, not only the fearful physical shrinkings but also the bejeweled, bedaubed and photographed miniatures favored by every human culture as a form of remembrance. Ruefle takes in colonialism at its worst, the sketchy consolations of her own psyche, and the tenderness of loss and death. Having seen the Congo Museum in Brussels as a teenaged student abroad, she recounts in vividly accurate prose the shock of waking up, as an adult, to the history behind the museum’s sanctimonious cultural acquisitions—“wealth acquired by force of so filthy an unspeakable an evil our heads cannot fathom it and have no single word for it, but must resort to endless corridors of words, each corridor turning into another corridor a thousand miles longer than the last in our hopeless search for some inner chamber of understanding that does not exist.”
The inadequacies, the pliabilities, the mutabilities of language are frequent points of exploration for Ruefle, who well knows the roles of both writer and reader in language games. In “Lullaby,” Ruefle sketches in a Daoistic manner the pleasures of succumbing to somnolence, an oft-overlooked effect of artistic receptivity, be it to music, the visual arts, or writing. The examples Ruefle employs are the classical composer Brahms (his Lullabies), the Swiss sculptor Giacometti (his supple elongated figures) and—the surprise choice—the American writer Henry Miller. Ruefle’s portrayal of her hypnagogic psyche taking in Miller is a model of how, languidly and hilariously, to disarm a male language harangue without disturbing one’s composure: “I often fall asleep while reading him. When he uses that hard word cunt again and again, it finally becomes something soft, so very soft, which is startling because a cunt really is soft, it’s a warm, soft, wet-while-young place, a spot really, given the size of the universe, the way a star is a spot, but there are so many of them—I mean cunts—who can keep track?”
Scattered throughout the book (untitled on the pages themselves, though single-word color labels—Blue; Purple; Black; and so forth—are given in the table of contents) are a sequence of eleven short takes on sadness keyed by color—the other shades being gray, red, green, pink, orange, yellow, white, brown. These allow Ruefle to display her gift for imagistic writing as emotionally compelling as Expressionist paintings. Ruefle does not stray into psychological judgments of the natures of her sadnesses. By using precise details that are not strictly tied to color scheme (so as to avoid becoming too matchy-matchy), she rivets the reader by revealing the prismatic secrets of her sadness spectrum. Take, for example, green sadness, which is, among other moments in Ruefle’s imagination, “the funeral silence of bones beneath the green carpet of evenly cut grass upon which the bride and groom walk in joy.” Because vivid, specific details inherently (given the nature of human consciousness) contain multiple emotional valences, Ruefle’s pieces take on a trans quality. Ruefle’s note at the back of the book is astonishingly accurate: “In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.”
To be fair, something does change. With the substitution, each piece remains subtle, vivid, and true. But the reader discovers that happiness and sadness happen in the same colors, which we can paint howsoever our minds allow. My one complaint about the design of the book is that I think the color-sadness pieces should have been given a sequential section of their own so as to foster their cumulative impact, rather than be scattered here and there between other writings.
My single favorite piece in My Private Property is a short work entitled “The Sublime.” In it Ruefle employs a trick often employed by poets though relatively seldom by prose writers. One chooses a title that serves, as it were, as the answer to the riddle of the ‘secret’ meaning of the piece. In this case, Ruefle describes a literally hair-raising drive over hair-pin mountain roads. The closing line: “Could see from the corner of my eye that there was an incredible view, but couldn’t look.” Again, as in the color-sadness pieces, Ruefle allows us to see that first-rate writing reveals more than we can possibly expect, which is why we read.
Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West. In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com. In 2014, he and his wife Mab Nulty founded See Double Press, devoted to unique interfusions of text and image. Its first two titles are Mary Ruefle’s An Incarnation of the Now and his own The Seeming Unreality of Entomology. An essay written and illustrated by Lia Purpura is coming out in Fall 2016. For more, check out seedouble.press. Sutin teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.