“If each household hired a writer-servant to sit and concentrate on the human troubles we each must bear, every household might be free from care,” Mary Ruefle declares in My Private Property, her newest collection. In this volume, she continues to do what she does best: take a microscopic look at the human condition and try to make some sense of it. Fundamentally, this is what all writers do—make sense of our stories—which may be why so many of us are prone to depression, anxiety, and even suicide. Ruefle’s sheer skill at bottling the essence of what it means to be alive is a rare gift, and one that, based on her quote above, quite possibly burdens her. The proposition that a happy home is a home clean of mental anguish—and that it would take a servant whose sole obligation is to focus on writing to accomplish it—harks back to Virginia Woolf’s assertion, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” But unlike Woolf, who was independently wealthy, and who took her own life at the age of fifty-nine, Ruefle has found a way to be both a slave to writing and a functioning, working human, which is no small feat.
Mary Ruefle’s books are slim things. They don’t receive the same of pomp and circumstance that heavyweight (usually male) novelists get when they come out with a book. But they should. Ruefle is perceptive and reflective, silly and laugh-out-loud funny. She is like a saint of language and her collections are like prayer books. I remember her pieces better than any of the sumo-sized novels I’ve read in the past year, and, like prayer books, I return to them again and again for nourishment.
The above quote is drawn from “Towards a Carefree World,” which is included in the forty-one pieces of short prose that make up My Private Property. These texts are not necessarily poems, nor are they essays; they are existential explanations—what is a thought, what is a dream, what do different colors mean, what is happiness—placed alongside more playful, material observations, like how shrunken heads are made, or Ruefle’s childhood discovery that milkshakes taste best with salt and pepper added. Lorin Stein's declaration in The Paris Review Daily is unerring: My Private Property very much has an “anthropological spirit” and a “stubborn emphasis on the facts as Ruefle has found them.”
In “Please Read,” Ruefle gives us an imagined window into a bird’s thoughts upon being confronted by the dying woman who fills its bird feeder with pre-cracked sunflower seeds: “From my branch I could see her do the things she liked to do—she picked up a towel from off the floor, she filled out a card stopping the mail, she boiled water, she stared into space.” When reading descriptions of women in Ruefle’s work, it is hard not to assume that they are direct descriptions of the writer herself. But it is safer to assume that the writing is simply so uncannily close to reality, and the way humans can be perceived from the outside—“she picked up a towel, she boiled water, she stared into space”—that we can be forgiven for making such a mistake.
Yet, it is safe to say that “Recollections of My Christmas Tree” is directly autobiographical, with Ruefle recalling the Christmases of her childhood, and reflecting that, “The only difference is I know a lot more about Christmas now than I did then. I knew practically nothing then.” “Recollections” is about perception, how things are viewed versus how they really are, like when Ruefle describes the electric candles her mother used to place in each window during the holidays: “At the end of each taper, near the bulb, fake drips of wax were molded; I loved the drips the most, it meant that the candles looked real to people inside the house, not just to people looking at them from the outside.” When Ruefle’s family moved to Southern California, their neighbors had the most beautifully decorated yard they had ever seen, with a frozen pond and life-sized figure skaters floating across the pond wearing muffs, but, “Everything was fake—the snow, the frozen pond, even the skaters were fake, and when they moved you could hear a slight whir under the ice—I guess it came from a motor.” It is so easy to be won over by Ruefle when she describes the sinister end of the conifer, and that it is perhaps better to buy a fake tree, which may not be “real” but looks it. The Christmas tree’s life cycle correlates to our own growth and change over time, which, we come to understand, is not always for the better:
I wouldn’t want to be a Christmas tree. It would be nice to be the center of attention, to be so decorated and lit that people stared at you in wonder, and made a fuss over you, and were mesmerized. That would be nice. But then you’d start dropping your needles and people would become bored with you and say you weren’t looking so good, and then they’d take off all your jewelry, and haul you off to the curb where you would be picked up and crushed and eventually burned. That’s the terrible part.
I first read My Private Property, expecting it to follow in the vein of her massive 2012 collection Madness, Rack, and Honey. This was a mistake. First of all, Madness, Rack, and Honey is not just a book of prose, it is a collection of lectures about poetry given to the graduate students at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where Ruefle teaches in the MFA program. Ruefle gave these lectures every six months for fifteen years, and they contain her musings on everything from the indestructibility of bird nests to William Shakespeare as a baby. In the introduction to that collection, Ruefle warns readers that the kind of writing she does is hard to explain. It is difficult to discuss poetry because of the nature of poetry itself: “It is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve—if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods.”
When I read My Private Property, I expected more of these essay-lectures, but what I got was much more nuanced, oblique, and even mischievous. Much of Ruefle’s writing is beyond explanation; like poetry, it is best compared to pure feeling. Like in “The Sublime,” where sensation and meaning compound, and we both recognize the action and also what the larger message could be: “The road was narrow and then narrower, turning this way and that as I climbed, hunched over the steering wheel. Could see from the corner of my eye that there was an incredible view, but couldn’t look.” In “Towards a Carefree World,” Ruefle wonders if Gustave Flaubert ever shoveled snow, admitting that someone probably did it for him. “It is interesting to imagine what his snow shoveling style would have been, given the varying styles in which he wrote.”
If we’re comparing, My Private Property is better paired with The Most of It, Ruefle’s 2008 collection of short prose, which is also not necessarily poetry, but also not necessarily not poetry. The most essay-like prose piece in My Private Property, and my personal favorite, is “Pause,” where Ruefle recounts April of 1998, a month when she cried nearly every day (she kept track with a “cryalog” that is reproduced on a page facing the piece’s start) and wanted to die, “Literally, to kill myself—with an iron, a steaming-hot turned-on iron.” She clarifies, “This was not depression, it was menopause.” The essay goes on to say that many women feel this, perhaps not the desire to die, but a definite dramatic change that happens, and it is much more than the experience of hot flashes (“I am not here to talk about hot flashes,” she writes.) No. Ruefle is here to tell us that our bodies will be out of our control: “Reading this, or any other thing ever written about menopause, will not help you in any way, for how you respond to menopause is not up to you, it is up to your body, and though you believe now that you can control your body (such is your strength after all that yoga) you cannot.” She goes on to describe menopause as “adolescence all over again, only you are an adult.” It is the change of life period that once admitted nineteenth-century women into the insane asylum under the diagnosis cessation of menses. “In other words,” Ruefle writes, “you go crazy.”
“Pause,” was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Granta, and then again, with Ruefle’s permission, in A Women’s Thing magazine, for which I am a contributing editor. Because she does not own a computer, Ruefle and I had a conversation via our typewriters, writing letters back and forth between New York City and Vermont. I described to her my understanding of “Pause”:
“The essay reads like a wise and honest letter from a mentor to her young, naïve mentee. Though you write that nothing can prepare a girl for how she will experience menopause, because every woman is different, there is still a preparatory warning in the telling, in speaking the truth about a subject when no one else does. It serves at least to give the girl knowledge that what she will go through is not what she thought. It will be both much worse and much better.”
I went on to ask Ruefle why more women don’t talk about menopause as openly as she has in her essay, and she immediately corrected me: “Oh, I think a great many women tell, but what I have done is written it, not for an ear to hear but for all to read.” Her other explanation as to why we might not hear more brutal accounts of menopause was that, “Many women go through some kind of ‘traumatic change’ in middle age, but never associate it with menopause. Menopause becomes just one more thing that is happening to them, as if it were part of a list, but I think menopause should perhaps be written in bold letters at the head of the list, as the cause of all that is listed beneath.”
In my last letter to Ruefle, writing with undeniable fear, I asked, “What will I do when I go crazy in my 40s and 50s as I am sure to do? What advice can you give me, beyond a warning? How can I hope to protect myself, or at least protect the people I love?” Mary’s response was a religious one, in that particular way of those who are more grounded in the conviction of their beliefs than in the conviction of any specific faith: “The blessing is this: Go crazy, let yourself go crazy, for you have no choice and you cannot protect yourself. You cannot protect yourself from life, from aging and changing and dying. So embrace it in so far as you can.”
Ruefle claims that the difference between her and others is that she writes things down, but the truth remains that in order to write something down, one needs to have noticed it in the first place. Ruefle is enlightened, she is awake in both the quotidian and the metaphysical sense, and she asks her readers to follow her lead: “How heavy-handed I feel writing this, how heavy my hand feels, how heavy my eyes, my very hair is dragging me down, but it is a truth and if you sleep through a truth you will but wake at the bitter end.”
It is true that I have resisted labeling My Private Property as a book of poetry, but if I must be honest I must say that this book is better understood as a culmination of Ruefle’s entire output thus far. As I have read it, she begins with books of poetic observation (Cold Pluto, 1996, A Little White Shadow, 2006, The Most of It, 2008), moves on towards insight and admonition (Madness, Rack, and Honey, 2012), and climaxes with a work that does both—this book:
I had a nice feeling of sharing, so when they asked me whether I had anything else to say I told them that in the beginning you understand the world but not yourself, and when you finally understand yourself you no longer understand the world. They seemed satisfied with that.
My Private Property might be the perfect entry point for readers who know nothing about Mary Ruefle, who, as the quote above suggests, introduces people to parts of themselves which they’ve never understood, and to a world they previously thought they knew. If you’ve read this far, you now have no excuse. So go, and be anointed by her words and boundless embrace. Read her words, and let her incandescent brilliance awaken you.
Rachel Hurn is a writer and critic. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Interview Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Yorker's web site, and other publications. She was born in Los Angeles and lives in New York.