Self Composed

My Private Property BY Mary Ruefle. Wave Books. HARDCOVER. 21.

A few of the paradoxes that animate the texts in Mary Ruefle's My Private Property are embedded in the title itself. The proclamation that property is private is typically intended to ward off intruders, whether it appears on the cover of an adolescent's diary or is posted on a fence around an inviting lake. The contents or terrain within are to be kept unknown to outsiders. But for Ruefle the peremptory-sounding phrase functions instead as an invitation. The book is for sale and readily perused, and the tone—confessional yet dispassionately precise, elegantly ruminative—allows us to read the adjective private as an enticement to enter. And even a cursory acquaintance with its topics—loneliness, menopause, sadness, the act of writing—urges us to understand property as a quality of something rather than an actual thing or locale. The property that Ruefle deems private is the impalpable nature of the inner life we all share; it is at once ours and everyone's.

Ruefle has explored this vexed intersection of the intimate and public selves over the course of her multidecade career in several volumes of poetry, essays, and prose. In each genre, she practices a kind of undoing that destabilizes a number of borders—those between writer and reader as well as between genres. "My inability to express myself / is astounding" begins the final poem, "Lullaby," in Ruefle's Selected Poems. Even as that declaration is undermined by the poem's evident craft, the reader partakes of her closely held uncertainty while recognizing it to be commonplace, a universal feeling. Ruefle has shown a talent for elevating her acute observations and narrative inclination well above mere anecdote to create quietly disquieting moments—a literature of barbed ambiguity and unresolved disruption. This disquiet emerges almost unannounced: Her poems are often plainly discursive, stories told in the first person that traffic but sparsely in sense-breaking imagery or lineation. Yet Ruefle's voice can upend complacent reading, the effect frequently felt in a poem's first line: "I was born in a hospital. I stank. / They washed me. Five years later / my brain was a lightbulb that flickered on and off"; or "In a milk white mist in the middle of the wood / there are two dead vowels"; or "I lived like a god. / My thin back walking out the door, my heart of mayonnaise." What often follows these starter-pistol shots escalates, modulates, and investigates the initial jolt. Ruefle recounts scenes and incidents from a big-picture point of view ("I walk into the restaurant, a genetic legacy / …. I will rise from this table and read meaning into the sea"), while carefully assessing her distance and its effect; what she sees ranges far, but we remain securely inside the poet's perceptions, her assertions as well as doubts. The tension is a provocative one; a text that appears to struggle against itself is one that perhaps leads a writer to more plastic forms.

With My Private Property, Ruefle returns to a rarer form of expressive endeavor, the prose poem, one she took up in The Most of It (2008); the question of genre was raised on that volume's back jacket, which described it as "her first book of prose," although the ISBN designation just below said "poetry." The categorization isn't easily decided: If you compare the pieces in these two volumes to, say, the short fiction of Lydia Davis and Deb Olin Unferth, they are similar in their pointedness and concision. But set alongside, for instance, the prose poems of Anne Carson and Rosmarie Waldrop, Ruefle's dense imagery and diction indicate a different kinship, one defined by obliquity. And then there are efforts here indistinguishable from essays. The rubrics aren't entirely irrelevant—genre expectations guide our responses as readers. But a cue to how we might best think about the book overall can be found in the very first piece, "Little Golf Pencil": "At headquarters they asked me for something dry and understated. Mary, they said, it's called a statement." Perhaps Ruefle is suggesting a fresh level of open-endedness, a form that doesn't fit specific conventions. The piece—a kind of fantastical noir featuring "cops" who eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and "hoped to be promoted in the captain's heart"—is followed by a meditation on the feelings of a key, which is followed by a eulogy delivered by a yellow finch for the woman who kept a bird feeder. The variations in approach may render My Private Property unclassifiable. Ruefle is offering statements—words conjured and arranged not according to rules but solely by the force and direction of her thoughts.

This is surely the case in "Pause," a reflective, brooding account of the author's experience with menopause. She begins with memoiristic flourish by describing a "cryalog" she kept during April 1998, when she marked down a "C" for every time she cried. (A reproduction of the notebook page attests to the truth of what otherwise might seem like a bit of fictionalizing for effect.) The cryalog now strikes her as funny, but "when I kept it, I wanted to die. Literally, to kill myself—with an iron, a steaming-hot turned-on iron." Merging housework and torture (the iron is "steaming-hot"!), Ruefle's image is shocking in its implied violence, sociologically apt, and darkly comic. There are many ways to commit suicide, but this one's not only unfamiliar, it's downright impractical. Just how would it be accomplished? The movement from authenticated memoir to Anne Sexton–level immolation—with scholarly analysis ("If you take the time to peruse the annals of any nineteenth-century asylum, as I have, you will discover that the 'cause of admittance' for all women over forty is listed as cessation of menses") threaded through the transit—defines a mental atmosphere of intense alertness. In that rich air thoughts collide and mingle and juxtapose, and this is the very mode of poetic enterprise. Within the space of half a page Ruefle vaults from the true-enough observation that "when you go crazy, you don't have the slightest inclination to read anything Foucault ever wrote about culture and madness" to the decidedly more personal, more idiosyncratic speculation that "you have on some days the desire to fuck a tree, or a dog, whichever is closest." While "Pause" concludes with a reassuring assessment of "happy old age" as possessing grace unknown to "grim youth," the journey has been spiked with a terse candor ("You no longer exist") that sounds out dire regions.

A series of untitled prose poems (the eccentricity of the figurative imagery marks them as such) sketch out a taxonomy of sadness as indicated by colors; thus we learn that "black sadness is the ashling," "gray sadness is the sadness of paper clips and rubber bands," "red sadness is the secret one," and "yellow sadness is the surprise sadness." Without line breaks—a poet's ready tool to focus attention on the workings of syntax and the essence of particular words—Ruefle instead exploits the expository mood and gentle propulsion that prose sentences carry forward. Compiling her descriptive lists, she displays the quiet equanimity of an ornithologist spying out and detailing some rare plumage: "Purple sadness is the sadness of classical music and eggplant, the stroke of midnight, human organs, ports cut off for part of every year, words with too many meanings, incense, insomnia, and the crescent moon. It is the sadness of play money, and icebergs seen from a canoe." The conversational fluidity permits the ordinary and extraordinary to mix comfortably and thus lull the reader into erasing the difference: We enter the poet's peculiar understanding of the color only to recognize it as our own.

The longest and titular piece, "My Private Property," fuses the many styles—memoir, essay, fiction, and verse—to contemplate some of the history, meaning, and metaphoric implications of shrunken heads. Ruefle launches this excursion with what seems like a mock lament but perhaps is not. People walk around, "cross fields and enter forests, they run along the edges of oceans," but do not strike her as being properly attentive to shrunken heads. As distinct from the author, who recalls a pertinent passage ("page 62" of the "21st printing" purchased at a Goodwill) from Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki and her own, more vivid experience as a sixteen-year-old ("not much the other side of dolldom") in the Congo Museum near Brussels. An intensely close description of one of the heads there deepens a tone both erudite and evocatively poetic. We are informed that the hair and eyelashes do not shrink with the face, "so the shrunken often have the luxurious eyelashes of a child," and that the hair is "often cut, so great is the human impulse toward proportion." "His skin," she continues, "had the sheen of an eggplant—it must have been oiled—and all the purples of that fruit were in it. . . . I shall never forget his expression: he looked startled."

Now aware, as she wasn't then, that the museum was "built on rape and plunder and pillage," she muses on a colonial evil so unspeakable that "our heads cannot fathom it." The irony of deeming our living brains too small to accommodate the horror that brought this memento mori from Africa to a city in Belgium is lightly pressed but sharply felt. Ruefle then probes our need to retain something of the dead (most typically photographs), recalls her own mother's death, and describes her wish that she could have her own collection of "heads in an egg carton," each one belonging to someone who had affected her in "unforgettable ways." She imagines addressing them, asking the heads to comfort her, and maybe they would, because she "can almost hear [them] breathing." The image is at once tender, macabre, clinical, and, yes, startling, but delivered in Ruefle's measured sentences the scene registers with undoubted allure. The bodies of the dead should no less be objects of devotion than those of the living.

The heads, Ruefle asserts, would be her "personal private property," and this claim again touches the title's paradox: How can others, their lives, their physical selves, be anyone's property? We contend with that unfulfillable desire—to make private what isn't quite ours—though, as the poet concedes, "I am not even sure I own my own head." In all likelihood, we don't own our own heads, or our words, but they can be shared. And Ruefle's words should be shared as widely as possible.

Albert Mobilio's book of short fiction Games and Stunts will be published by Black Square Editions.