Mary Ruefle in 2011. (photo © Matt Valentine.)
When I spoke with Mary Ruefle on the phone recently, she’d just moved into a new house and had spent the morning putting screws into the back of a mirror. “I had my toolbox out and one of the screws was deficient,” she told me, “so I had to find another and it was just endless … You need two people for this sort of thing, but I did it myself.” It’s a statement akin to many in her new collection, My Private Property, a mélange of essays, stories, and prose poems, in which small objects often become vehicles for profound reflection. Ruefle, best known for her poetry, begins much of her work this way—she muses on ordinary things like keys or clouds, yellow scarves or golf pencils, until those descriptions unfurl and beget larger, existential meditations on sadness and boredom, on language and lullabies and autonomy in old age. Our conversation was like that, too, always unraveling toward some arresting observation.
To work with Ruefle is to enjoy the pleasures of another age; she rarely uses a computer. I mailed her the transcript of our interview, and she returned it with scrawls of red ink and typewriter marks. The last page had been touched by a lit cigarette, leaving a small orbicular burn in the right margin with a stale, nimbus-like ring around it—punctuating, with great finality, the end of our conversation.
In your poem “A Half-Sketched Head,” you wrote, “If we were thermometers, no one would want to be thirty; everyone would want to be seventy-eight.” My Private Property returns to this theme of getting older and embracing old age. Take “Pause,” your essay on menopause. You write about a feeling most women experience as they age, the feeling of becoming invisible, of becoming more and more like a ghost because we’re no longer noticed in the same way we once were. But you settle on this, that “being invisible is the biggest secret on earth, the most wondrous gift that anyone could ever have given you.” What do you mean?
Well, thematically, aging and death become one in the same for writers, and very often you lose young readership because you’re no longer interested in the things young people are interested in. The time for exuberance, energy, endless curiosity, endless activity within a body of work, that drops away and everything becomes bittersweet. But this becoming invisible—all women talk about it. There’s a period of transition that’s so disorienting that you’re confused and horrified by it, you can’t get a grip on it, but it does pass. You endure it, and you are patient, and it falls away. And then you come into a new kind of autonomy that you simply didn’t have when you were young. You didn’t have it when your parents were alive, you didn’t have it back when you were once a woman to be seen. It’s total autonomy and freedom, and you become a much stronger person. You’re not answerable to anyone anymore. For me, it was a journey of shedding the sense of needing to please someone—parents, children, partners.
Men don’t become invisible in the same way. There’s a difference in power between men and women, and I know I’m using an archaic formula but I do belong to another century. For the longest time, male power was posited in the accumulation of wealth or experience, and experience was something every man could have. And a woman’s power was always posited on physical attractiveness, the ability to have children. So as a man ages, he gains power, and as a woman ages, she loses it, or feels as though she does. If you go back to this paradox, which I understand people may find antiquated, you find there are still shards and shreds of it everywhere.
Has this “invisibility” affected your writing?
I think there’s always a certain amount of invisibility when you write. You’re alone in a room, no one is looking over your shoulder. When I was young, writing was the one invisible space I had, and it made me very happy because I could become invisible while writing. I still feel this way, except there’s much less of a difference between my inner, creative life and my outer life than when I was young. And that’s a joyful thing!
You’ve been a poet for more than thirty years. Have you been writing prose all this time, too?
Yes, I’ve always been writing these pieces, but they’d been edited out of books because they didn’t fit. Today no one would blink, but my first book of poems was published in 1982 and the prose just didn’t “work,” so I saved them. When my first collection of prose came out, The Most of It, in 2008, there were pieces in it that were written in 2005, 2006, 2007, but the earliest one is from 1975. It’s not a big book, so it’s not as if I was writing them furiously, but as they arose, they got put in the prose folder. One of the pieces in that book, “Beautiful Day,” I found in a folder on the floor. It was handwritten, because I handwrite everything initially, and I said, What’s this? When did I write this? How’d it get here? I had no memory of it. I started to read it and sort of liked it, so I typed it up. And if I couldn’t read my handwriting, I just put new sentences in. I remember it had made me very happy because I thought, This is fun, I don’t have to write anything. It’s here in a folder and it’s done!
My Private Property is only your second collection of prose. Do you find the writing process to be much different than writing poetry?
Well, it’s always different. I don’t have any ideas when I write a poem, and the poems don’t really have an intent—should I say such a thing? It would take me sixty pages to explain what I mean … But for the prose pieces, I have folders with subjects, ideas, and experiences that I want to write about. I don’t know where the piece will go, but they can be based on things. The prose pieces all have a different rhythm, and I envision them with a right-flush margin. It’s different because prose is a public language and poetry is a private language, and every person on the planet who is fortunate enough to be able to speak, speaks in sentences—fragments, too, but often full sentences. The standards for public discourse are very different from poetry.
Poems are my inner life, take it or leave it. I don’t particularly care what the reader thinks because I’m just not invested in other people’s responses to my inner life. With discourse, with prose, it’s much scarier. There’s something built into its very nature—it’s more open and external, and it’s in exchange with another. I’m a nervous wreck when I write prose, and I’m not in the least when I write poems. If I’m writing a poem, it never occurs to me that somebody is going to read it. It’s taken me an entire lifetime to get over the fact that there are people out there who read my poems. In the beginning I was like, How did you see it? Where did you read it? I was forgetting that it was in a magazine somewhere. It’s like it doesn’t exist anymore, once I’ve written it. It always shocks me that people read poetry, even though I read it and love it and it’s my life. But it doesn’t shock me that people read prose. So I have the expectation of a reader, of a listener, when writing prose that I simply don’t have when I write a poem. When I write a poem, I’m writing for myself, the dead, and God—none of whom exist!
We published two pieces from My Private Property in our Spring issue as poems—“Milk Shake” and “The Woman Who Couldn’t Describe a Thing if She Could.” But when we went over edits, you told me you didn’t think of them as poems.
Oh, I don’t care what people call them. In the new book, in my mind, there are essays, stories and prose poems. An example of an essay would be “My Private Property,” the title piece. An example of a prose poem would be “Lucky,” and an example of a story would be “The Gift.” But you know, who cares!
Some writers care quite a bit.
Oh, you’re absolutely right. People care desperately. Some take entire classes on What Is a Prose Poem? But honestly, I’m not interested. My interest in drawing lines between genres and coming up with very clear definitions for these things is very … well, if I’m being frank, I just don’t have enough time left on this earth to spend doing that. So for me, if I write something and it’s lineated, it’s poetry. If it’s not lineated, it’s prose. I read fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and I love them all. I can’t sluice them anymore than I can sluice my love of open fields and deep woods.
The title essay, “My Private Property,” is about a girl who skips school over and over to stand in front of a shrunken head at the Congo Museum, one she has admittedly fallen in love with. This girl is you?
Oh yes, every word is true! I fell in love with an object at a museum, this small head, and I went back again and again and again, and this was the object I wanted to stand in front of, the way someone might fall in love with a painting. My memories are so strong, but what amazes me is that I forgot about this one, I never wrote about it until now, and I don’t remember how it came back to me. It’s a source of never-ending wonder, how that moment in the Congo Museum when I was sixteen resurfaced at sixty-four, when I was writing. It took that long for the experience to incubate. I love that about writing, how past experiences can incubate for decades and then suddenly appear. It can be a memory, an image, an experience, an idea—they come back! This experience was so powerful that I should’ve known, I was too young to know, but I should’ve known it was going to come back. Anything that powerful will incubate and come back. And there are countless examples in poems, in things that were dormant but erupted later. The shrunken head is a perfect example of this, and it grew up into this essay.
Along with this little head, you’ve written, in My Private Property and elsewhere, about dolls, and you’ve written about Clarice Lispector’s story “The Smallest Woman in the World” and the epigraph to this book is taken from Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget. Is it fair to assume that you admire the miniature?
I love dolls—the idea of dolls, Rilke’s writing on dolls. They’re little, fake human beings. I’ve seen a picture of the earliest human form made of clay in the British Isles, but I’m thinking now of when they first began as something one gives to a child. They’re essential. They’re there when you’re learning how to relate to one another at a very young age. And when you’re playing, a profoundly important psychological interchange is going on. What’s important—and I write about this in Madness, Rack, and Honey—is not when the child first speaks to the doll but when the doll first speaks back. That’s an enormous leap, when the doll has a voice that answers, when it enters into conversation with the child, and they often do. That’s the great moment. So yes, I love the miniature. I’m not immune to the pleasures of small things and a shrunken world. Now, I’m in the process of moving into a new house, and I’m unpacking, and there are a lot of very, very big things I have to do. I have to put curtains up, I have to hang things, I have to construct shelves—I have to do all of that! And the whole time I’m doing it, what I really want to be doing is opening the boxes with all the tiny, tiny things, putting them out, and spending hours arranging them. That’s my dessert.
Many of these pieces begin rather simply, considering small things—like a string of Christmas-tree lights or the ground or crumbs—but they unspool into grander, existential meditations, and each one seems to knead at some ineffable truth. There’s a closeness I feel toward you, as I read this book, as if you’re telling me the secrets of the world, or at least of yours.
Well, that’s interesting because I don’t divulge secrets! But I do understand what you mean, now that I take a moment to think about it. I’m a deeply private person, otherwise I wouldn’t write poems. So maybe it’s the private person using the public language that you’re responding to. But you won’t find much of my personal life in my work. You won’t find it in the poems or the prose, but you will find my inner life. And that’s our deepest life, our secret life—our invisible life. And there we go, back to invisibility. When you become invisible, you become your inner life—that’s wonderful—because your outer, physical life is gone, and you’ve been waiting your whole life for that to happen. To be alive without a body—isn’t that the afterlife everyone dreams of?
I remember reading, when I was young, an account of the Goncourt brothers and how they talked, later in life, in cafés, of nothing but physical ailments, and I rolled my eyes. Now I understand. The body becomes the subject of subjects. The unspooling of the body leads to rather grand contemplations at the same time it leads to the quotidian, the daily aches. It is the most beautiful and heartbreaking of paradoxes. It’s life.
Caitlin Youngquist is an associate editor at The Paris Review.
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