Review of Mary Ruefle's My Private Property (Wave Books, 2016)

“It is sad, is it not”: A Review

by Trevor Ketner

A cancerous cactus, shrunken heads, the different colors of sadness: these are just some of the many startling and poignant images from NEA and Guggenheim fellow Mary Ruefle’s new prose collection, My Private Property (Wave Books). My Private Property is infused from the very beginning with what I’ve come to think of as a passionate melancholy. For example, in “Little Gold Pencil,” Ruefle writes: “I had a nice feeling of sharing, so when they asked me whether I had anything else to say I told them that in the beginning you understand the world but not yourself, and when you finally understand yourself you no longer understand the world.”

Paired with this resignation is a deeply felt and nurtured curiosity for a world that should simply prove (and does prove to some) to be boring: “These crumbs on my kitchen counter look like a scattering of stars, though they are not much bigger than grains of salt, and made of toast, burnt bread.” Even in something as mundane as crumbs, Ruefle finds not only two comparisons to be made, but also two different ways of characterizing the crumbs themselves. She continues, “There are those (I have seen them too) who do not notice such things as crumbs, and if pointed out to them, consider crumbs as natural as a tree and as unremarkable as anything that goes unnoticed” (“The Invasive Thing”).  My Private Property is filled with moments like these, moments of stillness, contemplation, even sadness, leading to a realization or a revisioning of the world surrounding the speaker, whom the reader so often feels must be Ruefle.

These pieces are much like a perfect ceramic replica of a pillow; though seemingly light and comforting, each piece is in fact heavy with meaning and emotion. It is to Ruefle’s credit, and evidence of her mastery, that a book so concerned with sadness is not depressing. Instead sadness is explored as an emotion of life and the living, of loss not as something concrete, but a sign of change, a different breed of having. This is perhaps exemplified best in the title essay, which examines the cultural and personal significance of shrunken heads.  “My Private Property” opens:  “It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads.” We are then taken through a quick series of thoughts: on the Peruvian Jivaro tribe’s process of shrinking heads; an account of an explorer whose head was shrunk and sent back to his wife who fainted every time she had to take it out of its trunk for cleaning, and ended up being eaten by mice in the trunk anyway; of Ruefle’s time in Brussels as a young child in a military family where she sees an African example of a shrunken head in a museum she visits over and over again, importantly acknowledging, “the museum [she] wandered in was built on rape and plunder and pillage and oppression and murder, that everything in it was stolen.” The essay ends with the account of Ruefle’s mother’s death, when her head swelled to an unnerving size. In all, the essay is what My Private Property as a book is about: a world in which sadness claims us and we, as it seems we must, claim it back as our dearest possession.

One of the most moving pieces in My Private Property is “Pause,” an account and reflection on menopause both as a social phenomenon and as a very individual one for Ruefle. Before “Pause” appears the only image in the book, a scan of a hand-written page Ruefle calls her “cryalog” a catalog of all the times she cried over the course of some past April:

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 kill myself—with an iron, a steaming-hot turned-on iron

This is by far the most viscerally violent moment in the entire book. Quite essential to the rest of the collection, it grounds some of the light-hearted pieces like “Observations on the Ground,” or “The Woman Who Couldn’t Describe a Thing if She Could.” Even within “Pause” Ruefle undercuts the searing reality of sadness with some humor: “You have on some days the desire to fuck a tree, or a dog, whichever is closest.” The power of her humor is that not only does it act as a foil for the darker moments in My Private Property, but also it is utterly believable. Reading “Pause,” the reader has no problem believing Ruefle when she says she wanted to fuck a tree, just as they believe her when she says, “You will feel as if your life is over and you will be absolutely right about that, it is over.” Even for someone who will never experience menopause, Ruefle packs enough pathos into this relatively small space to make you invested in it, invested in the reality of sadness, loss, and change.

In similar form, the prose poem sequence about the colors of sadness (blue, purple, black, gray, red, green, pink, orange, yellow, white, and brown) woven throughout the collection is beautiful and poignant. In “Pink,” Ruefle writes, “Pink sadness is the sadness of white anchovies. It is the sadness of deprivation, of going without, of having to swallow when your throat is no bigger than an acupuncture pin. . . .” While initially surprising, the pieces ultimately lead to a certain comfort as the reader comes again and again across the glyph marking each, and knows, as if in on some secret, what will come after. The “Author’s Note” (which I will not share here so as not to rob others of the satisfying moment of reading it at the end of the collection), acts as a key, and, like any good key, it turns and opens a whole new room.

The essays and prose poems of My Private Property have obviously been curated by the mind of a poet. There is a masterful manipulation of juxtaposition and association of images that are threaded throughout so that the book holds a shape, not like an arrow pointing in a singular and definitive direction, but instead like a bowl collecting rain. One can trace, especially on a second read (which I found to be an almost immediate reflexive reaction upon finishing the book), the fine architecture of the book itself.

My Private Property is pure magic. It dazzles and moves the reader to a deeper understanding of the place sadness holds in their lives. Ruefle seems to be implying that while sadness is the one emotion we feel we have most to ourselves, the most idiosyncratic feeling, it is also the one most easily understood by others. Insightful, emotive, and brimming with empathy, My Private Property is a masterwork of love for the world and others in it.

Trevor Ketner holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. Their poems have appeared in Best New PoetsDay OneNinth Letter, West Branch, Pleiades, The Offing, Devil's Lake, Boxcar Poetry Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. Their essays and reviews can be found in The Kenyon Review, Boston Review, Lambda Literary, Booklist and The Rumpus. They currently serve as Associate Poetry Editor for Slice Magazine.