Introductions: Mary Ruefle
December 3, 2019
By Rebecca Hoogs, SAL Associate Director
Twenty-five years ago, I jumped into a pool in Switzerland and when I got out of the pool, I went about my business, i.e. my life for a while—maybe a half hour?—before I realized everything was blurry. I’d jumped in with my glasses on and when I went back, there they were at the bottom of the pool having their own experience, looking at the Alps, going about their own business of seeing without me. I had to jump back in to be reunited, and to see what would happen with the rest of my life.
Reading Mary Ruefle’s work reminded me of this small moment. In her new book, Dunce, published this fall by our very own Wave Books, there is literal swimming and literal Switzerland, but there is also the sense that objects, like my glasses, are off having their own life, one that the poet observes and sometimes enters, almost childhood shoebox diorama style. There is a sense that even our memories may be having their own life! That our past selves—our birth, our childhood, our parents, their deaths—and our future selves, our own death, are almost objects we could hold—we’ve certainly collected them, or they us.
In Ruefle’s writing, the poet and the subject are curious together, unknowing together on the journey of the poem! Through reading both interviews with Mary Ruefle, and the wonderful instant-classic, Madness, Rack and Honey, one gets the sense that process is more important than product to this poet.
“To find things out— / that is the great adventure!” she writes at the start of “Errand.” Certainly this is true of her erasures, a daily art-making practice in which she whites out existing texts—ideally “old, unknown, nineteenth-century morally instructive books for children.” To find out by writing out, to find out by whiting out—that is an errand I am happy to go on with Mary Ruefle as my companion.
Poetry, she said in an interview with Washington Square Review, may be defined as a series of “strange utterances capable of causing spooky behavior at a distance.” Distance means space and/or time. We are lucky, then, to have landed tonight in the same time and space as Mary Ruefle to hear firsthand the strange utterances, to experience the spooky behavior! And perhaps, like me, you find that when you jump into the water of her writing, you will have your sights just slightly and wonderfully adjusted.
Poet Mary Ruefle gave a sold-out reading at Broadway Performance Hall on November 21, 2019, as part of our 2019/20 Poetry Series; SAL Associate Director Rebecca Hoogs gave this introduction.