“It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads,” begins Mary Ruefle’s title poem from My Private Property, a collection of deft prose poems that present both close and distant observations of the world, characters, and the self through Ruefle’s wit and originality. In the first poem, “Little Golf Pencil,” she writes: “In the beginning you understand the world but not yourself, and when you finally understand yourself you no longer understand the world.” This sentiment becomes a pendulum on which the collection sways.
In the poem, “Take Frank,” the character Frank is described as: “a bright boy, yet a lazy and stubborn high school student, one who holds in disdain all of his teachers, especially the dedicated, passionate ones.” The teachers press on Frank to read more literature, which, when he does read it, sees Frank’s “mind blown away.” But Frank does not want become passionate about literature, because, Frank observes, “passionate people…had above all else a sense of loss.”
A wily logic unscrews Ruefle’s words. Her language is simple but the analytical left brain is powered on for poker-faced observation. In her poem “Observations on the Ground”, there is a pamphlet-esque feel to the text, as if Ruefle wants to hand the poem to an extraterrestrial, and explain, in the simplest of language, how we (humans) make use of our land. She begins: “The planet seen from extremely close up is called the ground. The ground can be made loose by the human hand, or by using a small tool held in the human hand…”. She explains how trash becomes landfill, and then the recurring theme of death comes into play: “A burying box is an emblem of respect for the dead. We are the only species to so envelop our dead.” Note her use not of the word coffin, but burying box. She adds a verb in front of what the coffin simply is, a box. These choices create emotional distance. But, Ruefle’s unemotional tone becomes unlaced in the last lines:
Flowers are often planted where the dead are buried in boxes, but
these flowers are never cut. That would be horrible. Whoever did
such a thing would be considered a thief. Those flowers belong to the dead.
The Self plays an important role in My Private Property. Her most personal poem is “Pause”, an unfiltered reflection on menopause. On the page before “Pause”, there is a photograph of an open notebook with the title “April’s Cryalog”. On the notebook page, the poet has marked “C” on the days she cried, and “NC” on the days she did not cry in the month of April, 1998.
The saddest thing is, I now find the cryalog very funny, and laugh
when I look at it. But when I kept it, I wanted to die. Literally, to
kill myself—with an iron, a steaming-hot turned-on iron. This
was not depression, this was menopause.
And yet, for Ruefle, looking back at the ‘cryalog’ isn’t going far enough into her past to illuminate her present. Ruefle recalls youth, but adds a layer of complexity by rendering her youth through the forty-five-year-old mind experiencing menopause: “You are a thirteen-year-old with the experience and daily life of a forty-five-year old. You have on some days the desire to fuck a tree, or a dog, whichever is closest.” Later, she addresses her main audience, the girls, which makes “Pause” an almost sacred poem, one that holds the secrets of womanhood with a wisdom that can only be achieved through age:
If you are young and you are reading this, perhaps you will understand the gleam in the eye of any woman who is sixty, seventy, eighty, or ninety: she cannot take you seriously (sorry) for you are but a girl to her, despite your babies and shoes and lovemaking and all of that. You are just a girl playing at life.
The eleven “color pieces” that are seeded throughout the book are one of the most enigmatic and multidimensional elements of this collection. She notes in the acknowledgments, “In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.” Let’s try:
Yellow sadness is the surprise sadness. It is the sadness of naps and
eggs, swan’s down, sachet powder and moist toweletts. It is the
citrus of sadness, and all things round and whole and dying like
the sun possess this sadness…
Yellow happiness is the surprise happiness. It is the happiness of
naps and eggs, swan’s down, sachet powder and moist toweletts.
It is the citrus of happiness, and all things round and whole and
dying like the sun possess this happiness…
Ruefle shows a poetic intelligence in these color pieces in which emotion is rendered through objects and scenes. These color pieces are where the deftness in this collection is most apparent. These poems were where I took my time in My Private Property. There is a strange air inside them. If I were to rip the pages out from this book and place them on the floor in a 10 x10 grid, the color pieces would become the Bermuda Triangle of the collection. Some readers might not know what to make of these poems and get lost, while others who take their time sailing through this electric fog of words will appreciate them.
I cannot end this review without talking about the title poem, “My Private Property,” a 15-page poem-essay hybrid that traces the process of “the art so old it has no origin,” shrunken heads. Ruefle studies the history of Amazonian tribes, reflects on literature and art, and asks questions of the reader and of herself, questions which spark flashbacks to her youth and her mother’s death. What is fascinating about this piece is Ruefle’s innate interest and appreciation of the macabre ritual of shrunken heads:
But as an art and a conception, the tribes of the
Amazon displayed a genius that deserves our awe;
miniaturizing and preserving a human head is a glory
and wonder on the scale of the Great Pyramids.
Here, at the center of this collection, property for the self is questioned: “Don’t we carry photographs of the heads of those we love who have died?” Ruefle’s curiosity on this subject asks more questions than it answers, and an interrogation occurs in the title poem that wants to break free from the ritual we use today of burying our dead:
What prevents us from saving the heads of the dead
we bury, since we can make them the size of oranges
(or apples), and keeping them, out of the deepest
love and respect for our descendants, for whom the
heads will become ancestors, for what are ancestors
but the loved ones of our loved ones, since a single
act of love, down through the ages, has procured
what we call the future?
This piece asks: how can one stay close to loved ones after they’ve passed beyond life? Ruefle values the beauty of the anachronistic art of shrunken heads and, like them, this collection of poems will be preserved, loved, remembered.
This review by Sean Shearer appears in print in Meridian 38, Winter 2017
My Private Property is published by Wave Books