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. Read More