Into the Unknown: Mary Ruefle, Part II
A Hermit Thrush (image courtesy of Audubon.org)
“I don’t think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that 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; you will never actually see the thrush (the hermit thrush is especially shy), but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come.”
–Mary Ruefle, from the introduction to Madness, Rack, and Honey
“Oh. I really don’t think Mary would like knowing there was this … project about her happening for your blog. I don’t think she would react well.”
I was talking to visiting faculty member Akiko Busch in the College bookstore not too long ago when she gave me her honest opinion of my “Finding Mary Ruefle” project for Literary Bennington. I had been told by another professor that Akiko was very close friends (they had even been roommates!) with Mary Ruefle, the elusive and exclusive poet extraordinaire. I explained my assignment to Akiko a little further: that all this talk of “searching” and “seeking” was really just reflective of my desire to have a conversation with Ruefle, to ask her what she thought about the recently discovered heart shape on the surface of Pluto, or the possible UFO sighting in the deserts of Southern California.
“You could write her a letter,” she offered, referencing my resolution to put into words my desire to spend some time with her. “I would personally see that she’ll get the letter. I just wouldn’t mention this ‘search’ or the assignment. Maybe just tell her why you like her work.”
I held onto my Five-Hour Energy awkwardly, feeling flushed and clammy in the company of the eerily calm Akiko Busch. I told her I would write a letter, and that it would be great if she could deliver it. I left the bookstore feeling sad and, truthfully, a little ashamed. I imagined Mary Ruefle getting word of a student’s public attempts at reaching out to her, and the impression she would form that I was entitled, invasive, and insensitive. When I’m really only sitting in my bed, plagued with a mild headache, listening to Michael Jackson’s “Baby Be Mine” and trying to finish an assignment for class.
Dante with Claude Fredericks. Greek poetry with Claude Fredericks. Homer with Claude Fredericks. Translation with Claude Fredericks. Prose workshop with Claude Fredericks. I was looking through the bound curriculum books from the 70s and 80s, the years Ruefle taught at Bennington College as a member of the Literature and Languages faculty, and trying to find the courses she had led. It was all supposed to be here: every class that had been offered at the school. But I didn’t find any professor named Mary Ruefle listed in the index, or any classes on John Ashbery or the Confessional Poets in the curriculum.
“Would a professor use a pseudonym?” a friend asked helpfully.
I looked through the curriculum books again. The library was closing. I was tired. There was a professor with the name Marguerite, and I thought that sounded promising. In the back of the book, it said she attended Howard University, not Bennington, and taught music classes, not poetry.
“That’s so weird. She’s just not here!”
I was looking at the faculty directory from 2007 with Joe, one of the librarians in Crossett Library. Mary Ruefle had been listed as a faculty member in the directory from 1996, but between that time and 2007, she had asked to be removed.
In a frustrated state, I explained my search to Joe. I explained my hesitation about writing the piece as well as the things standing in my way. Joe smiled warmly and encouraged me to write the piece, even if it meant confronting not being able to find her.
I remembered the warning on Mary Ruefle’s website: The only way to contact me is by contacting my press, Wave Books, or by running into someone I know personally on the street. I had spoken to her close friend and former roommate; I searched the records of her alma mater; I had endured the omniscient frown of hers that loomed over my search in general, wishing that I would realize that there were bigger things to pursue other than a reclusive poet.
“I have her address if you want to stop by!” Joe offered one last time.
Scene: Me in my Honda Pilot, doing endless laps around her house in Bennington while Mary Ruefle sits in her living room listening to Thriller on vinyl, pondering whether or not the subject in Jackson’s songs is referring to the audience or a romantic other.
I left the library and walked back to my room. The feeling of defeat also came from a place of regret: I had started a search I couldn’t finish. I was following something that evaded pursuit, something that receded further and further into the unknown the closer I seemed to get.
All of these failed attempts at getting closer to Mary Ruefle began to actually convince me that Mary Ruefle was not, in fact, human. Instead, she was the thrush she speaks of in the introduction to her book of lectures Madness, Rack, and Honey, receding “deeper and deeper into the woods” the more anyone tried to find her. I had followed her trail thinking that the sight of this thrush would somehow improve me—better me as a poet—and now I wonder whether my intentions in trying to find Mary Ruefle were pure or not.
Did I want to hear her thoughts on Sappho, Michael Jackson, and lyrebirds, or did I really just want to see that she existed, that she occupied actual space in a maximally decorated living room in Bennington, Vermont?
And so I end my search with Ruefle’s words: “[But] I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come.” At this point I feel stranded in these proverbial woods, with no thrush sounds to speak of. In this desertion, I suppose I can really only wait, listen, and see what interests me next, and follow the sounds deeper into the unknown.
By Kevin Costello ‘17