It has been some time since I have thought of the time I sat next to Joe Coleman on the red velvet couch in his crowded Brooklyn apartment while he excitedly opened a plain wooden box to show me what was inside: three shrunken heads with their mouths sewn shut. But that strange evening, and all the other things he showed me, surfaced when I read: “It is sad, is it not, that no one displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads.” The author of that remarkable sentence is Mary Ruefle and it and a lot else can be found in her book, My Private Property (Wave Books, 2016).
The book is a shade over 100 pages long and it contains forty pieces in prose, some less than a page. I say “pieces” and not personal essays or prose poems because, unlike a shrunken head, which is always just that, whatever else it may be, I don’t want to give a name to what Ruefle does. There are a number of pieces titled for a color: blue, gray, red, green, pink, purple, orange, black, yellow, white, and brown. In each piece, Ruefle opens by pairing the color with the word “sadness,” as in: “Gray sadness is the sadness of paperclips and rubber bands, of rain and squirrels and chewing gum, ointments and unguents and movie theaters.”
In these set pieces, Ruefle begins with an association or definition, which seems like it cannot go anywhere once she reaches the end of the sentence, but it does by going in an unexpected direction. That is why this is a book you want to read slowly, to savor both for what it says and how she says it. And even more remarkable is the way she lures you, the reader, in, and gets you to suspend your disbelief. I do not know of another book like My Private Property. If you were to put it on a shelf with similar books, it might be the only one there. The Italian writer and artist Monica Sarsini’s Eruptions (Italica Press, 1999), translated from the Italian by Maryann de Julio, would be nearby, as would Robert Creeley’s Presences: A Text for Marisol (Scribners, 1976), and a few others.
Some of the pieces feel autobiographical, and though Ruefle recounts an event, she always does something unexpected. She attends her first concert of classical music when she is eighteen, in a small chapel in the Swiss Alps and within a few minutes falls asleep. Within three pages, she brings in Giacometti and Henry Miller as artists who either calm her (Giacometti) or put her to sleep (Miller) because “there is absolutely nothing, but the stars looking down on you, even when you think you are looking up.” And, instead of stopping there, as one might expect, she writes one more sentence that left this reader captivated.
One of the inimitable things about Frank O’Hara’s poetry is that the “I” seems to live an exciting, alert, enthusiastic life. Everything seems to be interesting. That’s what I find in Ruefle’s writing. She is alert to so much stuff in the world, even as she writes: “I live in a fog, a daze, and the drowsy fumes of daylight make me want to sleep.” When she says she is “tired of the world,” you don’t feel sorry for her. You feel hyperconscious of how you pass your time. The ordinary, Ruefle knows in her bones, is not so ordinary after all, even if it is.