I was introduced to Mary Ruefle on a road trip to Bend, Oregon when I had a fiancé, a comfortable existence—domestic and unchallenging. It was the four of us: my partner D, my brother, my good friend Matt, and me.
D was driving, and seated behind him was my brother deep in a Manga on an e-
reader. I was in the front passenger seat reading a book about depression. Then from behind my left shoulder the words “Madness,” “Rack,” “and” “Honey” in thick black type on an eggshell paperback floated into my periphery. Matt with his delicate professorial hands and poetic sensibilities said, “here, read this part.” I read a few paragraphs from the section “Lectures I Will Never Give” in Madness, Rack, and Honey, a book of Ruefle’s collected lectures. Months later, I bought a copy for myself. Months after that, in December, D and I broke off our engagement.
This story is not what it seems. Mary did not break up my relationship. Matt didn’t either. He doesn’t like girls like that. I couldn’t get married not because there was a lack of loving D, quite the opposite, even now. But because I had felt like the next 60 years of my life were laid out in a predictable algorithm. That my sense of awe would be relegated, or worse, snuffed-out by wifely obligations. That I was doomed for the same backyard barbeques and football games on big flat screen TVs with the same homies year-in and year-out. And no matter who was over
for dinner, that it would be the same variations of feeble pleasantries and conversations for the rest of my life.
Discovery and novelty = a sense of wonder, and for an artist, it’s like air to fire.
Mary reminded me that the creative life requires examination, of actively seeking and seeing. Sight that is both bewildered by- and insightful of- the world, because it behooves us to encounter this life in all its facets.
My favorite quote in the book is in the section “On Secrets” on page 98, “What beauty is is your ability to apprehend it. The ability to apprehend beauty is the human spirit and it is what all such moments are about, which is why such moments occur in places and at times that may strike another as unlikely or inconceivable, and it does not seem far-fetched to say that the larger the human spirit, the more it will apprehend beauty in increasingly unlikely and inconceivable situations, which is why there is such a great variety of art objects on earth. And there is something else we should say about the apprehension of beauty: it causes discomfort; and by discomfort I mean the state of being riled, which is a state of reverberation.”
On New Year’s Eve, at the turn of midnight as I was dealing with the ancillary grief of my failed eight-year relationship, it was Madness, Rack, and Honey that guided me into the New Year. That same evening, at midnight, I tried to find a hardcover of the book online for my quickly approaching thirtieth birthday. No dice. And exhausted, I inscribed my mussed paperback to myself, from myself.
In a review of Ruefle’s Collected Poems in the LA Review of Books Michael Klein wrote, “She is also one of the only living poets I know who makes magical thinking an actual strategy in the making of poems. Her intelligence and playfulness engage with a shared reality, but she also thinks hard enough about something out of range until it’s true. She brings the world to her, and not vice versa.”
On the heels of entering my third decade and dealing with the debris and the relics from the life I had known, the note to myself in Madness, Rack, and Honey was an attempt to conjure up the world of beauty at a time I needed it most. It was an invocation.
I am barely a person that fawns over celebrities or authors, but at the start of 2014 I kept referring to Mary as the “sage of my life.”
Ruefle is a published author of eleven poetry collections. She’s an essayist and a professor. Her website is minimal, with scattered collage work on a black background and yellow text. The site though clean and functional, feels like walking into an esoteric black-lit gallery named “Mary Ruefle.” The purpose of the site is purely for sharing her erasure work, but does not act like a portal in which to reach the artist, as most websites are. On her contact page it reads, “Surprise! I do not actually own a computer.” I suspect that she bars herself from random messages from people like me, because it would distract her from this life—she herself a receptor of beauty.
In March, two poet friends and I tried and failed to sneak into her talk at the 2014 AWP Annual Conference & Book Fair in Seattle. Finally in July, she came to Portland for the 12th annual Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop at Reed College. I attended her reading at Reed’s outdoor auditorium. By the time it was my turn in line to get my book signed, it was dark. I nervously told her that Madness, Rack, and Honey had gotten me through one of the toughest periods of my life. She barely acknowledged my effusive sentimentalities and asked, “What’s your name again?” She signed neatly right above my own inscription, and handed the book back. Then the person behind me stepped forth, and I moved on.
On page 50, Ruefle says, “Sentimentality is more than the object of our affection—it’s the object of our invention.” It’s clear that Ruefle will not become the “sage of my life,” but it was that bit of invention that got me through this past year in tact. It’s not that that life before was wrong, and I’m unsure if I’ll ever find love that unrelenting and generous again. But in the end, and now, and as I move forward, I prefer this life-lived of more questions than answers, of this riling, of reverberating.