Mary Ruefle, the Divine Mother
Mary Ruefle illustration by Izzy Mozer '20
Early last month, the poet, essayist, and erasure artist Mary Ruefle (Bennington class of ’74) returned to campus to give a reading in Tishman Lecture Hall and participate in an open Q&A moderated by literature faculty member Michael Dumanis. She was a featured guest of Poetry at Bennington, the series that brings distinguished American poets to campus for short-term residencies. Ruefle specified before her reading that she did not want a formal introduction, but rather insisted that we, “Just get on with it.” She read from her acclaimed book of lectures Madness, Rack and Honey (2012), her poetry collection Trances of the Blast (2013), and new book of short prose My Private Property (2016), in addition to two untitled poems from a new manuscript. Her steady Joan Cusack-esque voice (minus the rasp and manic energy), almost immediately established a warmth and earnestness that for many came as a surprise due to her reclusive reputation.
After reading her first ten pieces, without any anecdotal interruption, Ruefle stopped, looked up at the teeming lecture hall and said, “You know, I think after every poem I’ve ever written should be the words, ‘you should have been there.’” Everyone laughed, to which she replied, “I’m glad you like it, I think I’ll write it down…” Ruefle maintained this rapport with the audience for the remainder of her reading. Her on-stage energy and the poems themselves equally contributed to the ease with which she gently guided the audience through revelations. Beyond the stand-alone power of her poems, Ruefle’s presence felt calmly and mystically omniscient. Many arrived that evening believing they understood both Ruefle’s poems, and more elusively, the oracle herself, but found they were mistaken and mistaken again.
The following day, Ruefle arrived early to her Q&A in the dining hall’s green room to chat and eat lunch with students. During this time she ate a sandwich, a piece of a pancake cake with maple cream frosting and asked the room if the Q&A would be recorded. Everyone agreed that it most likely would be (it was) and Ruefle sighed, “Ugh… Everything in the world is either photographed or recorded.” She continued eating her pancake cake in silence. I turned to her and asked if the pancake cake was worth trying to which she replied, “I couldn’t really tell you. I got it for the icing. The icing is delicious.” She laughed at this before I could reply and said, “Isn’t pancake cake fun to say?”
Once the room filled and Michael Dumanis started the Q&A, Ruefle immediately jumped into a story about the dining hall while she was at Bennington, remarking that, “It’s the same, but different, like everything in life…I was a table wiper while I was here. I liked it very much... Each of the rooms had personalities then too, the purple room, the yellow room, the green room, except there were local women from the community who cooked homemade meals and worked with us… Every Friday they made grilled cheese with clam chowder and brownies and every Sunday was traditional Thanksgiving dinner…” Michael interrupted student mutters – likely about Aramark, the widely detested food service corporation currently contracted by the college to run its dining services – and read Ruefle a quote from Deane Young’s Art of Recklessness: “We are making birds not birdcages.” Michael then asked Ruefle how she felt about “the birdcage” in relation to form and/or shape of thought. “Parts of a poem talk to each other… that is form.” Ruefle said, adding, “If you’re taking notes, write this down.” She then discussed the various functions of formal poetic structures and exhaled, “You know, I think you shouldn’t be anti-anything or pro-anything... I don’t like the idea of camps… camps lead to fights and it’s just so boring…the world is big, there is room for everything…” In this moment she was a hybrid of Maude from Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude and Mother Mary, full of grace. Equal parts 1970’s Will-o'-the-wisp and Divine.
Ruefle then spent a great deal of time addressing a student’s inquiry about poetry and its relationship to humor, which turned into discussing humor’s relationship to sadness. In the midst of a longer monologue Ruefle said, “Poetry is a matter of mood [and it] always depends on what mood you’re in when you’re reading or writing poetry, but the greatest poems of all have the ability to change mood… most humor has deep, deep sadness behind it. The deeper the sadness, the funnier [the poem] … James Tate was devastatingly sad, but [he] was known for being very, very funny.”
When a student woefully told Ruefle they find ending their own poems difficult, Ruefle was sympathetic and expressed that even for her, “Endings are hard. Endings are closing off the shape. The shape of thought.”
Naturally, Ruefle was also asked about rhythm.“We read consciously, but we read with our subconscious too,” she stated. “That’s because of rhythm and how close it is to music, sound, chanting. My first allegiance to the poem on the page is to sound. I’m not very experimental in form. I’m not interested in it. I guess my experimenting would be with my erasures…”
This led to a much anticipated question about the ethics of erasure books to which Ruefle emphatically stated, “I pay homage to [the books]. I’m dressing them up and giving them life. Preserving them. Changing [them] so [they] don’t get lost and thrown away.” She paused for a second. “You know, it’s interesting how we feel about destruction. Some destruction promotes growth and some is evil, evil, evil.”
The Q&A concluded with Ruefle sharing with the green room what she was reading. She explained that she usually reads around three books at a time, and at the moment they were Leonard Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers, (rather prophetically before he passed), a collection of poems by the French poet Valery Larbaud, and Roland Barthes’, The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France.
In addition to the book recommendations, Ruefle left students beautifully unclear about how to depart from their prior conceptions of her. “Now is the time to be pretentious!” she exclaimed as the Q&A came to a close. “Don’t worry, the world will put pins in your balloons…” Everyone scrawled this in their notebooks and the line has been widely quoted since her visit. Mary Ruefle lives in North Bennington and makes occasional appearances at Wednesday evening Lit Nights in the common room of Franklin and Poetry at Bennington readings in Tishman Hall.
By Blair Blumberg '18