Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The better question is whether a thing essays

and whether the way that thing essays--which is perhaps to say wiggles slightly, in a provocative or interrogative manner, as if by its act of unsurety, or doubling-back, renouncing its previous movement of mind or body--whether it reveals or illuminates some edge of meaning. I am thinking of Mary Ruefle, with whom I took half of one class one semester of graduate school some time ago. I left the class at break time because I was under the impression that all she had said she would talk about was things I already knew, nay, was master of. And besides, from what I had seen, Ruefle was clearly on the edge of something, a precipice, probably, and on the other side--what? madness? an effervescent otherness? the clouds? a descent or ascent into something uncalculable and therefore terrifying because it remained beyond my sight? I don't know. It was other, and it didn't appeal to me. I had drinking to do. I had workshopping to do. Not necessarily in that order. She appeared to be one in a series of professors brought in for the semester who would half-ass their way through a "class" on some subject that devolved into gossiping about whatever and gave little fuel to our small, desperately churning creative engines.

Eight years later, in the preamble to teaching my craft seminar in nonfiction (the rather-badly named "Essay as Activity") at the University of Arizona, I found myself reading The Most of It, her book of "prose" or possibly "fables" or possibly "poems" or possibly "prose poems" or possibly "psalms" or possibly "lyric essays" (I am not sure which genre tag is most appropriate, or whether any genre container can hold these in; yet Russel Edson sez: "if it's not something else it's probably a prose poem." Thus?). Now I'm convinced that Ruefle is a genius, which is to say completely unhinged, unbound, lovely. As in her brain opens--or a brain opens, a construction of her brain and a collaboration with whatever radio signals from beyond it picks up--and she gives us these odd, uncoiling, elaborate, lovely, hilarious, and above all things utterly surprising sentences.

And they are sentences. They certainly are sentences. Admittedly they have the lyric capacity of lines of poetry or crots of essay or whatever. Her associative shifts and leaps, the ways these sentences essay, are pretty awesome to watch. This extends to her lectures, which to this reader at least have the same odd conchlike and borderline insane quality:
"If you bother to read this at all it is a clear indication your life is intolerable and you seek a distraction by engaging in the activity you are presently pretending to engage in. I say pretending because you would never have reached the conclusion your life is intolerable had you not also reached the conclusion it is unreal.... This is what pretending to write looks like: it looks like this. Not a landscape and yet passing before your eyes, unrolling as featureless as a plain and often you are the antelope, scared to have been born under such dismal skies.... Isn't existence grand, the grandest bond between two you can imagine? Doesn't it outstrip your finest memory? Memories are worthless, have you ever stopped to consider that? Do you remember being by the seashore and watching the great broom of the sea come swooping down on the shore, pushing all the glinty particles of sand out of its way? The sound of the sea's broom was so tremendous, it sloshed the fluid in your ears?" ("Some Thoughts on the Lyric Essay, from the Seneca Review)
Or you could also try out her excellently wandering lecture at Vermont College, "On Theme," later published in West Branch, worth your time on interlibrary loan or at AWP.

As Brian Phillips notes in his essay, "Cocteau and Catfish: on Poets' Fiction," reviewing The Most of It: "What makes this ["Hard-Boiled Detective"] so funny is that the obviously insane theme is presented deadpan, as an essay, with a logically developed (and screwily persuasive) argument.... But the logical order is intrinsically a narrative as well, because Ruefle's sense of language and character is so vivid that the real fascination of the story comes from imagining the person who would create this piece of prose and the events that led to its creation."

(As an aside, I find her sentences incredibly tweetable: "Is there anything sadder than the sight of a medium heartbroken dove stuffed with French fries on Christmas morning?" At least, when they're short enough to tweet. Usually they are not--and the length is part of the pleasure of the magic trick: the longer the sentence goes, the more oddly it trajectories, and the more pleasure is arrived at when we get to the detonation of the period--assuming it works. It doesn't always work, of course, but it works a lot.)

That this book was the winner of the Essay Prize in 2009 seems about right to me. While it may or may not be nonfiction, it is quite clearly a brain on the page--not always Ruefle's brain directly as much as the product of Ruefle's brain and its capacity for imagining. Check out the excerpt on the site I just linked. The interview is absolutely worth your time.

Her class clearly would have been more than worth my time eight years ago, but as with many other things, understanding comes late. And maybe it's better to have had this near miss with Ruefle's actual brain to regret, and to essay, albeit briefly, here. This way I narratize and contextualize my rediscovery of some seriously kickass work--whatever tag you want to hang on it.

Or perhaps it is better to forget. As Ruefle says in a long essay on her erasures published in Quarter After Eight, a magazine I continually forget about and rediscover, to my pleasure:
And who can forget? And who can forget? I CAN, you may be thinking, because I never knew any of this before, or I CAN, because none of this is of interest to me, or changes my life-so I, I can forget.
And that, my friend, is the art of erasure, as it is enacted in your own life, and all lives: life is much, much more than is necessary, and much, much more than any of us can bear, so we erase it or it erases us, we ourselves are an erasure of everything we have forgotten or don't know or haven't experienced, and on our deathbed, even that limited and erased "whole" becomes further diminished, if you are lucky you will remember the one word water, all others having been erased; if you are lucky you will remember one place or one person, but no one will ever, ever read on their deathbed, the whole text, intact and in order.

First your life is erased, then you are erased. Don't tell me that erasure is beside the point, an artsy fragment of the healthy whole. If it is an appropriation, it is an appropriation of every life that has preceded your own, just as those in the future will appropriate yours; they will appropriate your very needs, your desires, your gestures, your questions, and your words.

Or so I believe. And I am glad. What is the alternative? A blank page.


  1. I was wondering just yesterday about varying forms of 'essaying' while watching Bob Ross paint on PBS. I was sitting there with a beer in hand and trying to collect my thoughts when I started truly listening to his riffs while he scuffed and patted and smeared paint onto canvas. Mr. Ross was essaying and I began to think he was essaying through riffs, through side banter, through painting. I've always joked about how Bob Ross and his happy trees is soothing, but I began to see a world view through the lens that the man's actual act of painting: through one medium springs forth another. Through painting comes the act of essaying. Perhaps, I was drunk (I had one beer), but it all made sense to me.

    Another thought your post brought up was the idea of nonfiction as a liquid genre, able to solidify itself into any other genre, hence the idea of the lyric and the prose poem. I always wonder where nonfiction's narrative allegiance truly lies in: is it fiction? is it poetry? Is it neither and perhaps yet another medium like television, internet, or song? It seems some of the nonfiction writers who I admire for their bold attempts at essaying challenge the reader and the norm.

    (Thanks A, for making my gears turn!)

  2. Well you know this is how I feel about the Let's Blend, Perform Surgery, and Paint the Tin-Man guy too--

    I don't think of nonfiction as a liquid genre inasmuch as I think of the essay as a liquid genre. The idea of essay as an action/activity that can take place in all sorts of texts is what interests me, right now anyhow.

  3. Ander is fascinating, as always: