My Private Property – Mary Ruefle


I lead a very busy lifestyle, I work full time in quite a senior professional role, I run a yearly charity event that runs for two weeks to assist with the retention of female indigenous culture, an event I also participate in so it requires a massive amount of training, I have two young active boys (aged twelve and fourteen), in the evenings I’ve recently been studying poetry writing and as regular visitors here would know I read a lot. Occasionally there is a need to take a deep breath, reflect, slow the pace down. The words of poet Gabriella Klein ringing true for me (Taken from Wesleyan Magazine);

A poem by definition is a slow process. It requires a pace that is at odds with the modern scape. Most people go through the day at a velocity; we are acclimated to our high-speed connections. Poems ask you to slow down. And if you heed, they provide an instance of timelessness.

I have Gabriella Klein’s poetry collection “Land Sparing” (from Nightboat Books) on my “to be read” pile and it is one I will hopefully get to soon. However, I am not quoting her for a review of her own work, I am using her observations to reflect upon Mary Ruefle’s recently published essay collection “My Private Property”.

Mary Ruefle has received fellowships from the United States based “National Endowment for the Art and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as a Whiting Writers’ Award, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.” (Poetry Foundation), and in October her prose collection “My Private Property” was published by Wave Books. This collection appeared on the Book Riot listing “25 Great Essay Collections from 2016”  , a list that I used to read and review “Unbearable Splendour” by Sun Yung Shin  and “Shame And Wonder” by David Searcy

Before I even opened this small book, I was excited, beautifully presented, in slim hardback, exquisitely bound, containing a luscious thick mottled paper cover, I have started looking at other titles from Wave Poetry, books that would make fantastic additions to any collection.

Opening with an epigraph by Walker De La Mare’s “Memoirs of a Midget”;

The cumbersome bones, the curious distance from foot and fingertip to brain, too; and those quarts and quarts of blood. I shuddered. It was little short of a miracle that they escaped continual injury; and what an extended body in which to die.

The reader knows they are in for an existentialist journey. The collection contains thirty-one short prose pieces and ten reflections on colour (more on that later) over 103 pages and opens with ‘Little Golf Pencil’;

…in the beginning you understand the world but not yourself, and when you finally understand yourself you no longer understand the world.

These short sharp pieces poignantly, poetically capturing multitudes in a few short sentences. The piece “Please Read” opens with a Clarice Lispector quote “Once upon a time there was a bird, my God.” And in the opening sentence we are told that the character in this piece dies within an hour. Little scatterings of information like “She filled out a card stopping the mail” are enough to allow your imagination to run riot, this is a very moving piece musing on the simple joys of nature.

“Pause” an emotional and realist essay on menopause, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (a character who keeps popping up in works I read) gets a reimagination and a new relevancy as a teaching method in the piece “Take Frank”.

The ten pieces on colours, each feature a different colour and are attached to “Sadness”, here is “Red”;

Red sadness is the secret one. Red sadness never appears sad, it appears as Nijinsky bolting across the stage in mid-air, it appears in flashes of passion, anger, fear, inspiration, and courage, in dark unsellable visions; it is an upside-down penny concealed beneath a tea cozy, the even-tempered and steady-minded are not exempt from it, and a curator once attached this tag to it; Because of the fragile nature of the pouch no attempt has been made to extract the note.

Memory recollections, poignant and touching pieces that may not make logical sense but are all moving. At the end of the collection we are advised that we can replace the word sadness with happiness and nothing changes.

There are entertaining pieces, for example “Old Immortality” which tells of the Earl of Staffordshire writing a novel as a sequel to Sir Walter Scott’s “Old Mortality” and publishing it on 104 plates of the finest china, and inviting dinner guests to a read his work off of their plates between courses. An on-line version of this piece is available here.

The piece “They Were Wrong” another poetic emotional moving piece on death, opens with;

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I never believed them. They say all writing is an argument with the world, but I’ve never met them, and besides, I no longer live in this or any other world. Where do I live? you ask. I live in a fog, a haze, and the drowsy fumes of daylight make me want to sleep.

This is a beautiful, slow work that you need to read slowly, meditate upon and reflect. More poetic essays that are thoroughly enjoyable, crafted by a master of the written form, short and appearing simple on the surface they are complex pieces with many layers, many readings, many themes. Another fine work I have stumbled across and I can only hope to read more from Mary Ruefle and more books from Wave Poetry. Works that will force me to slow down, works that may be “at odds with the modern scape” but works that “provide an instance of timelessness”.


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