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mary ruefle

Samantha Zighelboim: How did you become interested in the process of erasure?

Matthea Harvey: I first read about erasures in Heather McHugh’s wonderful book, Broken English. There’s an image from Tom Phillips’s A Humument  (which I adore) on the cover and her essay, “Broken, As in English” discusses, in her characteristically brilliant way (“All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages at every turn”) Phillips’ work as well as the fragments of Archilochus (“the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”), Heraclitus and Parmenides.

It’s interesting to think about what the eraser’s attitude towards their text is. Jen Bervin’s beautiful Nets is a respectful erasure—she allows her erased poems to talk to the original Shakespeare sonnets because the poems are printed in grey and her selections are in boldface (or shyface). Someone like Srikanth Reddy, in Voyages (an erasure of Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs) understandably has a different attitude towards the text, as does the artist Ariana Boussard-Reifel. She had a piece in the Museum of Arts and Design show, “Slashed, Under the Knife”—a book in which each word has been individually excised (it’s presented with those words in a pile next to it). Only when you read the wall text do you discover that the book was a white supremacist bible. I also love Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. As James Tate once said, “Poetry is everywhere. It just needs editing.”

Before you fortuitously found David Cecil’s book that fateful day, were you interested in Charles Lamb’s works? It’s interesting that he wrote that wonderful volume of Shakespeare (Stories from Shakespeare) interpretations for children, almost nursery rhyme-esque in essence.

To be honest, he hadn’t made a big impression on me, but once I’d erased his biography, I was hooked. Along with the Tales from Shakespeare, Charles and Mary did write a book of poems for children, but none about Mary and her little lamb, since the poem that inspired that nursery rhyme was written in 1830, many years after they published their book). His essays (The Essays of Elia)are marvelous. I love Anne Fadiman’s essay “The Unfuzzy Lamb,” Sarah Burton’s A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb and Charles and Mary’s letters. It was funny to find tidbits like this one, from a letter to Coleridge: “[Lamb here erases six lines] Is it not a pity so much fine writing should be erased?” Or this to another friend, Thomas Manning: “I have scratched out a great deal, as you will see. Generally what I have rejected was either false in feeling, or a violation of character—mostly of the first sort.” He was erasing himself quite frequently! Or this heartbreaking glimpse into the siblings’ lives in one of Mary’s letters: “You would laugh, or you would cry, perhaps both, to see us sit together looking at each other with long and rueful faces, & saying how do you do? & how do you do? & then we fall a crying and say we will be better on the morrow — he says we are like tooth ach & his friend gum bile, which though a kind of ease, is but an uneasy kind of ease, a comfort of rather an uncomfortable sort.”

Did you expect the poems or the narrative to take the darker twists and turns that they did?

Well, page one (in the original—we selected 100 pieces out of 108 and reordered them)was “Lamb lived in the background” and page two was “Lamb disliked the lark: that little orchestra. The world showed grey as something fallen from the mind,” so I think the somewhat gloomy sieve of my brain was at work from the beginning. It’s probably more of a surprise for the reader—especially given the bright colors of the paintings. That being said, I certainly didn’t expect them to fall in love and have sex!

How much did your own childhood experience (if any) with this particular nursery rhyme influenced the process?

Well, I’ve always been crazy about animals, so I do remember liking the story of Mary and the lamb that followed her to school, when I was little. Until the age of eight, I lived in Dorset, England, where there were plenty of sheep. Ultimately, my immense sympathies for the lamb in the book, probably owe more to my codependent relationship with my 17 year old cat, Wednesday.

Amy Jean Porter’s paintings add layers of complexity to the already palimpsestic process of erasure and composition. When did the idea to illustrate the poems come into play? What do you think that visual element added to the work?

At first, I was just erasing the book for fun. As a story emerged, the characters became very real to me. I had just done a children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake with Elizabeth Zechel, and I loved that process so much that I started wanting to do another book that blended text and image. I was already a fan of Amy Jean’s paintings—there’s no one who works with animals and text like her (right now she’s doing text messages on butterflies) and I liked the idea of handing over my text so that she could then transform (erase, expand, complicated) it with her images.

Do you think details (the love and madness and violence) of Charles Lamb’s life filtered into the poems?

Here’s another quote from Lamb—“You may extract honey from every thing; do not go a gathering after gall…” It’s good life advice, right? But I couldn’t extract only the honey—there’s so much sadness in their biography. Mary killed their mother in a fit of madness and Charles devoted his life to looking after her. When Mary smiled in a strange way, Charles would have to put a straitjacket on her, and the two of them would walk—weeping—back to the madhouse again. They lived with her madness every day (Charles himself spent a short while at a madhouse), so the word “madness” appeared relatively frequently in the biography, and worked its way into the text. I didn’t feel like I was guiding the poems(or that I was consciously blending the nursery rhyme with the siblings’ story) as I erased—more that I was excavating a story that was already there.

“The artist is a receptacle of emotions come from no matter where: from the sky, the earth, a piece of paper, a passing figure, a cobweb. This is why one must not discriminate between things. There is no rank among them. One must take one’s good where one finds it.” Picasso wrote this well before Mary Ruefle started publishing books, but if his words could be an egg, Ruefle’s Selected Poems would hatch right out of it. Her speakers—obsessed both with beauty and with their inability to “attain a balance/ between important and unimportant things”— over and over fuse the world’s grandest abstractions and minutest details in efforts to find meaning somewhere in the middle.

Naturally, with so many things to include, Ruefle’s poems jump around a lot from one place/time/feeling/speaker to another. In “Timberland,” we go from “Paul’s Fish Fry in Bennington, Vermont” to “the delta/ of the Pearl River” to “Actually none of this has happened yet”—I think in this poem we’re simultaneously in the past, present, and future—but this movement, however quick, never feels random just for the sake of randomness. In each of Ruefle’s lines we find the perfect amount of surprise: enough to disorient and delight and keep our synapses firing, but not so much we get frustrated with nonsense or lack of a larger poetic context. This tightrope act of simultaneously balancing and sorting—and of course, the sheer beauty and originality of these poems—invites us to fully take part in Ruefle’s attempts to make sense of the world (and feel enchanted enough to want to keep doing so).

Because the entirety of the world Ruefle wants to encompass is so overwhelming, it is often the little details that give her speakers something they can use to ground themselves. In “Thistle,” for example, a “we” travels around the world, unexpectedly finding thistles in every location, which grants the thistle the critical roles of creating meaning and connecting the world, kind of like the horn symbol in The Crying of Lot 49.

But Ruefle’s search feels much less unidimensional than Pynchon’s. Her conclusions—while sometimes arbitrary—don’t just lead you on a wild goose chase. At the end of “Thistle,” you’re fully aware the thistle is a kind of random stand-in for meaning, but the ending still feels thrilling and complete:

O ruthless thistle, match in the dark,
you can talk to anyone about the weather
but only to your closest friends
can you mention the light.

Ruefle’s speakers struggle with questions of balance and meaning in multiple forms: Embrace togetherness, or seek isolation? Accept the risk of loss in exchange for aliveness, or don’t? Stay in the imagination, or move into the real world? On one level, each poem chronicles a constant process of decision-making. But the poems aren’t just saying yes or no to a world, whether real or imagined. They’re exploring the price associated with each answer—and because everything in Ruefle’s world is ultimately connected, yes and no aren’t even separate answers. To make the process more complicated, Ruefle acknowledges that choosing an answer or ascribing meaning to something could be based on a fiction: We aren’t omniscient, and we may never know the price of our choice (or really, even what questions we’re answering). We just have to make peace with guessing and assigning meaning.

Ruefle doesn’t usually examine “no” as an option (because unless you’re going to kill yourself, it isn’t, and because her world is just too darn magical not to), but she does spend whole poems asking what if yes could be less troublesome, more embracing. Why does yes have to be so costly? Imagine what could be possible if it weren’t! “One wants so many things,” says the speaker in “The Intended.” And those things are both greater and smaller than any one person can have in any one life. Ruefle intimates this by constantly disorienting us—changing geographic location, scale, speaker, and who the speaker is referring to, as if trying to embrace it all and write it down before it disappears:

One wants simply, said the lady,
to sit on the bank and throw stones
while another wishes he were standing
in the Victoria and Albert Museum
looking at Hiroshige’s Waterfall:
one would like to be able to paint
like that, and Hiroshige wishes
he could create himself out of the
Yoro sea spray in Mino province where
a girl under the Yoro waterfall wants
to die, not quite sure who her person is

The omniscient speaker starts out talking directly to the reader (or maybe herself), with “One wants so many things …” and then quickly moves into narration about other people and their inner lives. In just a dozen lines, we hear the most intimate thoughts of no fewer than five people; move from an unnamed body of water to London and then to Japan; and engage with both the simplest human desires and some of the most complex. Notably, all these desires feel equally painful and urgent—Ruefle makes no value distinction between wanting to throw stones and wanting to die. These quick transitions portray a world in which not only does “one want so many things,” but all those things are interconnected and important. By not valuing one desire more than another—and by connecting them—Ruefle makes them feel universally difficult and totally human. (Even the structure says so; the whole poem is one long sentence.) Eventually the poem returns to “the lady” and ends on a single, concrete, graspable image, as many poems in this collection do. The implication is that even though the world is full of things and every day is “thrown in the sieve” to figure out which ones are important, one way to make the world real and survivable is to focus on a single thing and ascribe meaning to that thing:

one can barely see the cherry blossoms
pinned up in little buns like the white hair
of an old woman who was intended for this hour,
the hour intended to sit simply on the bank
at the end of a long life, throwing stones,
each one hitting the water with the tick of
a hairpin falling in front of a mirror.

That last image is so crisp and mundane, so earnest that “life goes on no matter what we do,” that in my Whitmanesque high I nearly missed the fact that just before it Ruefle slipped in that nagging word from the title: intended. Sure, the speaker put the day through a sieve and came up with lots of unfulfilled human desires, but this “intended” bit is the biggest desire of all—the desire for our desires to have meaning, to be part of some larger picture. We want access to all the possibilities, but we want them to mean something. We want our “yes” to count. Crucial to Ruefle’s poem-world, though, is that she didn’t end on the intendedness—she didn’t totally commit to it. The possibility of a larger picture, or even the desire for one, is just another desire to be weighed against all the others.

Ruefle is not reticent about her struggle between wanting the safety of certainty and accepting that life is uncertain (and that embracing life means embracing that uncertainty). In “Why I Am Not A Good Kisser,” she literally embraces the world too much to function well in it and then reacts by shutting it out altogether, in a yes-then-no move:

Because I open my mouth too wide
Trying to take in the curtains behind us
And everything outside the window
Except the little black dog
Who does not like me
So at the last moment I shut my mouth.

At first, the physical opening and shutting—certainties both—are the only possible responses to the situation, neither of which satisfy. But later in the poem, the speaker champions simultaneous certainty and uncertainty, both physically and spiritually:

… what quality goes to form
A Good Kisser, especially at this moment, & which you
Possess so enormously—I mean when a man is capable
Of being in uncertainties, Mysteries & doubts without me
I am dreadfully afraid he will slip away
While my kiss is trying to think what to do.

So perhaps rather than deciding something so stark as yes or no—between “letting go/ all the animals at once/ from his bosom, or welcoming/ them one by one/ into his arms” (“The Beginnings of Idleness in Assisi”)—these poems are explorations of what it means to accept the uncertainty of the world (the yes and no) as it really is. On one hand, the “dark risk” of rejecting the world “is not to grow” (“Patient Without an Acre”). On the other, embracing it could mean that “The porcupine went into a culvert and didn’t come out/ And that was the end of my happiness.” For Ruefle there is no definitive answer but to struggle against her own sensitive, perceptive nature, and in this way find beauty without grasping the world too tightly, as in “The Cart”:

Yet I admire its gloves. Hands are unbearably beautiful.
They hold on to things. They let things go.