Monday, August 8, 2016

Jay Ponteri: I Recommend to You Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property

Dear reader, I present to you the first sentence of the MASTERFUL title essay of Mary Ruefle’s new book My Private Property (Wave Books, 2016): “It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads” (51). The narrator goes on to display her interest in the sacred rite performed by various indigenous tribes of Africa and South America of shrinking the heads of those recently deceased into keepsakes. And here my shrinking head is reminded of the unique quality of the language arts: to present what lies inside on the outside, to show what’s inside one’s head to others who cannot see inside this head, to others trapped inside their own heads shrinking and expanding usually at the same time. There is so much to say about Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, and believe me it’s tempting, sans word-count limit from the folks at Essay Daily, to say everything about Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, and of course I can’t say everything about Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property because I’m a human being, which makes saying everything impossible (thankfully so), so I’ll say some things. I’m NOT reviewing Mary Ruefle’s new book My Private Property—I’m recommending you purchase it right this moment. The moment you are convinced this book is for you, stop reading this elongated recommendation, open a new window in your browser and type in the web address then purchase away. I consider myself a critical enthusiast, a nuanced, excitable thinker-praiser, a writer making use of this electronic page space to express my wonder, my reverence for the prose of Mary Ruefle. I’m listening to the band LOW as I write this. As I revise this I’m listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song “Tuesday’s Gone.” As I revise this I’m listening to Red Red Meat’s “Oxtail.” As I revise this I’m listening to Uncle Tupelo. If you’re looking for me to say profound things about Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, if you’re looking for me to tease out the book’s flaws, to consider this book of prose in light of Mary Ruefle’s past writings and makings, if you want me to categorize what kind of prose Mary Ruefle writes—is it lyric essay, prose poem, memoir, or story?—if you want me to articulate critical thoughts about how the prose of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Stein, Walser, Kafka, Anne Frank, and Sebald (among others) might have informed Mary Ruefle’s prose, then, dear reader, walk out into the cool night, tilt upwards your mellow lobe, and stare at the cosmos. Feel all the (im)perceptible ways you connect to everything and nothing, feel the edges of your body as it encounters everything other. In short—stand alone in the world even though you are, in fact, in relation to the world.

I might speak about what Mary Ruefle said, 16 months ago, during a question-and-answer talk at Portland State. The interviewer asked her about how metaphor works or maybe the question was about her process, how she writes, I can’t recall. In response Ruefle said—paraphrasing here—writing is like peeing in that one’s head fills and fills with thoughts, dreams, sensorium, fills to capacity till she then empties it all onto the page as one pees to empty the bladder. She writes to feel the relief of being emptied, the relief of feeling emptied. (“A thought is silent talking to yourself in your head. But you can still hear it. This is the number-one difference.”) Mary Ruefle’s peeing analogy, poem writing as swift bodily emptying, seems connected to the act of writing prose—writing sentences all the way to the end of the page’s right margin—perhaps providing, to paraphrase the poet David Lehman, the fastest route from heart-head to the page. The speed of release relieves, lightens the bodily load. Then the feeling of feeling emptied, one kind of freedom. This book offers 41 prose pieces filled with thoughts, dreams, stories, and memories that have passed through Mary Ruefle’s head—her private property—onto the page. (“Am I vain to think of my head as a book? Am I not transcribing the book of my head as I write?”) I might speak about how any empty cup will do. I might speak about “a three-hour-away town.” I might speak about Mary Ruefle being one of our great unparagraphers, i.e., a writer who writes within a single block of prose till completion (whatever that means), only making use of white space around and inside the letters and between and around the words and that precedes the first word and follows the last. Here an avid, livid inclusion guides compositional method; the prose reads on the page as crowded, capacious consciousness. I try to spill out as much of what passes through my consciousness onto the page, and the thought of organizing this lovely spillage into manageable, focused chunks for readers often seems like trying to kill not only thought but heart too. The operative word here is spill, which means in its intransitive form to flow, run, or fall out over one place into another. Writing feels like an expansion or unfurling of self, not a diminution of self—for that I can go to the bank or the next faculty meeting. Simply put: one moves the mess of contradictory thoughts feelings dreams perceptions sounds from one’s head to the page. Things fall out of our bodies and the able writer must let them. Here is what an unparagraph looks like on the page.

Here is how an unparagraph reads—this also from the title prose piece, “My Private Property,” where (as aforementioned) Ruefle considers the tradition of head shrinking in Amazonian and African tribes:
Among these millions of words time passes, and in time slavery passes, if only on paper, a page shuffled among thousands of pages, and then there are two words, rubber and ivory, that break off from the others and river around the world in the form of automobile tires and piano keys. But commerce and culture quickly take us down a corridor leading to more automobile tires and piano keys, and their equivalent—money— and I want to go the way of shrunken heads, and dolls, soft rubbery flesh and ivory-like porcelain, skin and bones, faces and masks. At sixteen, I was not much the other side of dolldom, so it is little wonder that there in the Congo Museum I fell in love with a shrunken head. Of course, the head was not Amazonian but African. I don’t know how the art evolved on that continent, but genius flourishes everywhere, it has always been so and will always be so, and there will always be people who believe otherwise. As I said, a shrunken head is as close to a real doll as one could ever come, and in this sense it is both a child’s toy and an adult toy—it’s another person after all—and I was not then, or am I now, immune to the charms of having someone else to play with. He was dangling from an invisible thread, much as a spider does, from the top of a glass case taller than I was. He was the size of an orange. He was particular and unique and human and utterly real, a man with eyes and eyelashes and hair (apparently the Africans do not close the eyes of their dolls). It was only later that I learned that the hair and eyelashes do not shrink with the flesh of the face, and so the shrunken often have the luxurious eyelashes of a child, and the hair is much longer than the face, though often cut, so great is the human impulse toward proportion. But my man had long, uncut hair, and as it was 1969 I didn’t think anything of it; all the men I liked had long, uncut hair. His skin had the sheen of an eggplant—it must have been oiled—and all the purples of that fruit were in it; his nose was broad and flat, his eyes deeply set, unnaturally so, and beautifully shining, but so many years have passed I cannot be sure of what was there and what was not, though I returned to look at him countless times; he was, after a while, what I came to look at, and at some point I began to commune with him. Yes, I gave life to an inanimate object, but can a human head ever really be said to be an inanimate object? He was not a skull, he was not decomposing, he was not mangled in any way. He had been, and was, a person. I don’t remember what it was we communed about, but he possessed me as I possessed him, and to possess the head of a beloved, no less than the head of an enemy, is the greatest sickness on earth. I could enter the museum blindfolded and turn exactly the right corners, one after another, to find myself standing before him at eye-level. I shall never forget his expression: he looked startled. No other words come to mind. And though I could not see myself, I must have looked startled, too. We stood facing each other the way, when you come upon a deer unexpectedly, you both freeze for a moment, mutually startled, and in that exchange there seems to be but one glance, as if you and the other are sharing the same pair of eyes. The years passed. I left the city, I never returned, the signage in the museum changed, of that I am sure, but the impression left upon me by the shrunken head has never changed, so that I now wonder why human beings do not incorporate the art of shrinking heads into their burial rites. I am serious. (57-59)
I might speak about how this very unparagraph enlarges the narrator’s head in its revelation of contradiction and equivocation (“Yes, I gave life to an inanimate object, but can a human head ever really be said to be an inanimate object?”), dream, digression, inquiry, perception of self in relation to others, perception of others too (“His skin had the sheen of an eggplant—it must have been oiled—and all the purples of that fruit were in it; his nose was broad and flat, his eyes deeply set, unnaturally so, and beautifully shining…”), the mind untidily, disproportionately making use of all the soul modes to chase an answer it wants / wants-not (same thing) to find. “…and to possess the head of a beloved, no less than the head of an enemy, is the greatest sickness on earth…” This is what we reader heads like to do—not so much possess other heads but see what’s going through others’ heads, to perhaps feel less lonely, more human, more vulnerable. In an unparagraph, the prose and everything it reveals become porous, move in more closely together, heightening the writer’s capacity to more fully realize origins and impacts and to make connections between seemingly disparate elements while teasing out contradictions among similar elements, the body absorbing knowledge through cozy cohabitation. Stuff 17 human bodies into a VW Bug and you’ll figure out some things. The narrator here communes with this shrunken head as the reader communes with the narrator’s expanding unparagraphing head. Two parallel realms of being conjoin—two glances become one. The unparagraph holds inside and outside the writer a highly instinctual, relational space. I might suggest you read Matt Hart’s wondrous essay titled “Mary Ruefle’s Astonishments” appearing in the forthcoming Despite the Possible: Fifteen Women Poets, edited by Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher. I might speak about the memory-based-essay prose here, e.g., pieces like “Milkshake,” “Recollections of My Christmas Tree,” and “Lullaby,” among others, how the most compelling memory-based prose is about memory itself, how Mary Ruefle’s prose enacts, on the page, the experience of memory, more specifically, how the mind unfolds memory, collapsing time and space, how one’s psychic state, emotional and physical needs / wants, losses / sorrows, around the present moment of composition, make use of memory the way a body makes use of food, and how a memory of one’s body, of others’ bodies doesn’t restore the body in decline as much as regain the body by extending the body to immaterial realms, and this spiritual extension is momentary, present in both the writer’s experience in composition and the reader’s reception of words in representation of this other being’s consciousness, one mind being absorbed into another, one body receiving the language body of another. Here in “Recollections of My Christmas Tree,” the narrator recalls childhood Christmas decorations:
My mother put an electric candle in each window, they were ivory-colored plastic, and at the end of each taper, near the bulb, fake drips of wax were molded; I loved the drips the most, it meant that the candles looked real to people looking at them from the outside. What I didn’t know then was that these decorations evolved from the Jewish menorah, the Hebrew Festival of Lights. I don’t think my mother knew that either, but if she did she never mentioned it. And I certainly never contemplated the resemblance of a sleigh to a cradle. The runners of the sleigh are what makes the cradle rock. Once there was a very eccentric man, in the nineteenth century in upstate New York, and when he was in his fifties he had a carpenter build him a cradle. I saw it in a museum, the biggest cradle ever made, and every night he slept in it, and when he entered his last illness he stayed in the cradle day and night, feeling the sensual throes of the cradle while somebody nursed and rocked him. I mean in the sense of caring for him. (31-32)
Memories nest inside memories. Mary Ruefle places her trust in the present moment of composition, in the mind’s deep freedom on and off the page to discover those memories nesting inside others. The dream of this man sleeping in his cradle in his last days nests inside the narrator’s memory of seeing in a museum the largest cradle in the world nests inside her memory of her mom’s artificial tapers made to appear real from inside and outside the house. Memories of her mom’s holiday decorations, even the prose itself, cradle and rock the narrator, and I also mean in the sense of her own words caring for her. I could so easily write 1,000 words about “Pause,” an unabashed, revelatory prose-let considering the experience of menopause emotionally, physically, and spiritually, sans self-helpy uplift. (“Reading this, or any other thing ever written about menopause, will not help you in any way, for how you respond to menopause is not up to you, it is up to your body…”) The narrator juxtaposes the aging body’s invisibility to the highly self-visible inner experience of unraveling. The “pause” Mary Ruefle speaks of is not so much a pause in sexual action or procreation but in one’s orientation of self to the world back to the self:
No matter how attractive or unattractive you are, you have been used to having others look you over when you stood at the bus stop or at the chemist’s to buy tampons. They have looked you over to access how attractive or unattractive you are, so no matter what the case, you were looked at. Those days are over; now others look straight through you, you are completely invisible to them, you have become a ghost. (20-21)
Her tone of voice mixes directness and incredulity and reverence. I also might describe her tone as sincere and raucous, as denuding and generous.
Of course in the meantime you have destroyed your life and it has to be completely remade and there is a great deal of grief and regret and nostalgia and all of that, but even so you are free, free to sit on the bank and throw stones and feel thankful for the few years or one or two decades left to you in which you can be yourself, even if a great many other women ended their lives, even if the reason they ended their lives is reported as having been for reasons having nothing to do with menopause, which is thankfully behind you as you would never want to be a girl again for any reason at all, you have discovered that being invisible is the biggest secret on earth, the most wondrous gift anyone could have ever given you. (22-23)
I could say so much about this directness in Mary Ruefle’s prose, how she does not tell it slant, a phrase used often these days to describe lyric essay. Yes, telling it slant, or working more indirectly through image and metaphor, through more neutral, clipped prose, sans transitional language or overt explanation to reveal the divided consciousness, is one way to essay, and, gentle reader, member of the essay team, here is another way: the direct method, better described by Alberto Giacometti in James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait, in response to being asked if Giacometti’s ever done portraiture in profile:
Yes. One or two. But a profile isn’t half as difficult. The center of it is the ear, and ears don’t interest me. When you look at a person, or think of how he looks, it’s always full face. (63)
Using the direct method the writer does not shy away from attempting to name then explore the core matter as she understands it. The writer unabashedly names feelings, mind-states, sources, ailments, doohickeys while seeing the limitations of naming, questioning the naming too. The writer often acknowledges the present moment of composition, the act of writing as an experience of making something. The writer sets aside any delays in revelation, does not circumnavigate, does not purposefully omit or misdirect or understate or make use of conceit. (“The center of it is the ear, and ears don’t interest me.”) The tone shifts out of neutral to more emotive registers. Directness errs on the side of inclusion, the side of too much stuff, the side of antiquing and donut shops and winter soups and quilting. Mary Ruefle’s directness in “Pause” expresses her vulnerability, creates and strengthens intimacy between narrator and reader, in turn, giving way to more revelation of the contradictory selves dividing the whole body. Here is an “always-full-face” moment towards the end of “Pause” in which the narrator addresses the reader:
If you are young and you are reading this, perhaps you will understand the gleam in the eye of any woman who is sixty, seventy, eighty, or ninety; she cannot take you seriously (sorry) for you are but a girl to her, despite your babies and shoes and lovemaking and all of that. You are just a girl playing at life.

You are just a girl on the edge of a great forest. You should be frightened but instead you are eating a lovely meal, or you are cooking one, or you are running to the florist or you are opening a box of flowers that has just arrived at your door—and none of these things is done in the great spirit that they will later be done in. (23)
I might say Mary Ruefle “tells it slant” too—e.g., read the prose piece “Like a scarf,” the story of a yellow scarf, which begins as the image part of a metaphor for an affair then blows beyond the act of comparison through the actual lives of many lovers. The story has the feel of collective dreaming, unfathomable human connectivity. I might say inside my body Mary Ruefle’s prose often converses with the prose of Robert Walser. I might say I gladly carry inside my mortal body (in decline) an ongoing conversation between the prose works of Mary Ruefle and Robert Walser that feels eternal. I might say our finite bodies carry all sorts of rosy infinitesimals.

I might say us dreamers have gotten ahold of the essay form. I might speak about how Mary Ruefle’s prose explores the varied experience of singular feeling, feelings within feeling, braiding feelings, feeling slipping into other feelings, feelings inflecting feeling, feeling chasing feeling. We do not forget to feel what we feel; we push away feeling what we feel. In Mary Ruefle’s lecture, “On Fear,” she considers, among other things, Christian Mystic and Theologian, Julian of Norwich’s four categories of dread, e.g., animal fear, anticipatory dread of pain (“…and that, folks, covers nine-tenths of the world’s surface…”), doubt or despair, and holy dread born reverence or awe. In My Private Property, Mary Ruefle, a mystic herself I’m convinced, includes 11 untitled pieces imagining, examining (same thing in Ruefle’s prose) the different colors of sadness. Here is one in its entirety:
Yellow sadness is the surprise sadness. It is the sadness of naps and eggs, swan’s down, sachet powder and moist towelettes. It is the citrus of sadness, and all things round and whole and dying like the sun possess this sadness, which is the sadness of the first place; it is the sadness of explosion and expansion, a blast furnace in Duluth that rises over the night skyline to fall reflected in the waters of Lake Superior, it is a superior joy and a superior sadness, that of revolting doors and turnstiles, it is the confusing sadness of the never-ending and the evanescent, it is the sadness of the jester in every pack of cards, the sadness of a poet pointing to a flower and saying what is that when what that is is a violet; yellow sadness is the ceiling fresco painted by Andrea Mantegna in the Castello di San Giorgio in Mantova, Italy, in the fifteenth century, wherein we look up to see we are being looked down upon, looked down upon in laughter and mirth, it is the sadness of that. (80)
Within “yellow,” sadness enlivens, sweetens; while in “blue,” sadness arises from phenomena one can perceive but not grasp or apprehend (“…it has receded into a niche that cannot be dusted for it is beyond your reach…”), i.e., the sadness of impossible things, and “green” is the sadness of growth, of life burgeoning, that growth immediately announcing its inevitable decline, eventual death, and loss for others who remain (“…it is the funereal silence of bones beneath the green carpet of evenly cut grass upon which the bride and groom walk in joy…”). White sadness is the sadness of the echo, the ghost. Brown sadness “…is the simple sadness. It is the sadness of huge, upright stones… Huge, upright stones surround the other sadnesses, and protect them…” and to complicate matters in the way we writers like to do, on the very last page appears this author’s note: “In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.” Taken together the color pieces form tremendous, upright word-stones protecting the human experience of various feeling.

I might talk about how Mary Ruefle’s prose makes you laugh aloud, and, in the same beat, breaks your heart. I might talk about a lecture Mary Ruefle gave about the imagination, how she announced at the beginning she’d only take questions before delivering her lecture then after she spoke her last word, she pushed play on a boombox, and as we all listened to “Imagine” by John Lennon, she packed up her stuff then walked out of the room, so by the time the song ended she was no longer in the room, and we, the audience, remained, applauding her even though she wasn’t in the room to receive our applause, which made me realize we were applauding not her but her lecture, the thing she gave to us, the thing left inside us, and in this way we were applauding ourselves and one another. I might speak about how her work draws the reader’s attention to the work and not the one who makes the work, that not one of us is more important than what we make. Dear Mary Ruefle, I stand in place (in a cafe in Portland, Oregon) and applaud thee wildly. O I might speak about E.M. Forster’s Marabar Caves, Emily Bronte’s (later, Anne Carson’s) moors, Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes. Inside of my mortal body a book unfinished, set free in numinous realms of possibility, skates along the infinite. I mean to say, incompletion is forever. I might speak about the body that eventually learns to seek inside oneself. I might speak about the way Mary Ruefle’s prose casts strange, idiosyncratic phenomena as ordinary matter (the first sentence of “Pause”: “I recently came across an old cryalog that I kept during the month of April in 1998…”) while suffusing ordinariness with its proper amounts of agitation and strangeness, as in the piece, “Observations On The Ground”:
Beside burying the dead in the ground, we bury our garbage, also called trash. Man- made mountains of garbage are pushed together using heavy equipment and then pushed down to the ground. The site of this burial is called a landfill. The site of the dead buried in boxes is called a cemetery. In both cases the ground is being filled. A dead body in a box can be lowered into the ground using heavy equipment, but we do not consider it trash. When the dead are not in boxes and there is a man-made mountain of them we use heavy equipment to bury them together, like trash. (7-8) 
To defamiliarize is to sensitize, to heighten presence in the moment, to bring us back to wonder for the variegated surfaces of the world, most of which we do not make, have no control over. I could write an entire book on Mary Ruefle’s title piece, “My Private Property,” how reading this essay offers us, as readers, the feel of infinitude, that the prose itself seems without end just as my review of Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property—no, my review of my thoughts upon reading Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property—seems without end, how the form of the essay, in its desire to discover about-ness through language, encourages imbalanced, unending consciousness, encourages expanding cogitation, association, dream, shlemiel, schlemazel, voices of others streaming inside yours, existential inquiry, mom, is that your sweet voice I hear?, yellow scarves blowing across an empty plaza, hasenpfeffer incorporated, backing one’s thoughts into every nook and cranny, every niche—O if only I could think a single thought in every pocket of inhabitable Earth yet why would I want to inhabit every bit of space, this a problem the narrator considers in “My Private Property.” In this piece about the rite (and art) of shrinking heads everything seems to shrink or swell to the extent shrinking becomes a form of swelling and swelling a form of shrinking. Sometimes one strips away layers in order to make a larger space inside oneself, to trace interior avenues to their outer edges, to find where the self ends and others begin, to follow the echo to the instance of full fade. A dish towel hung on the rack to dry. Spatula on the counter top. Breakfast bowls drying in the drainer. Paul Harvey’s voice on AM Radio and suddenly our essay emerges inside my grandma’s kitchen, a sauce cooking on the stove as my grandma stands at the window, pulling back the yellow curtains she sewed herself to watch the squirrel and crow play. One can commune with other consciousnesses, but one can’t possess another consciousness, and in response to this human refusal, one lashes out at others, makes a trophy of another person’s former head now shrunken to the size of an orange while another writes an essay that swells and swells, which another then reads and ends up becoming. Writing these very words, I continue to shrink my head onto the page while you, patient reader, swell with these words and nobody, not the writer nor the reader, possesses those words—the page holds them momentarily, and the pages of “My Private Property” hold Mary Ruefle’s thoughts about Amazonian heads, African heads, explorer’s heads, a mother’s head too:
No, my mother’s head, sadly, could not have been shrunk, by even the greatest artist, and yet her head has always figured into my daydream of having twelve shrunken heads, each one belonging to someone who has passed through my life, touching me in deep and unforgettable ways, and I would keep my dozen heads in an egg carton made especially for them, twelve beloved heads kept safe and together. I would never let them mold or rot, I would not let the mice near them, their fate would be to remain exactly as they were in life, exactly as they are, albeit orange-sized and portable, and from time to time I would take them out and look at them and be startled, and I think of the widow who fainted at the sight of her husband’s head, and I think if I could hold the head of a single beloved in my hand I would indeed feel faint, but I think I also would get used to it, I would grow calm and be moved in the tenderest ways, just the sight of them there in my hand, resting gently and safely (a shrunken head cannot be broken) with such tiny and shining eyes, why, resting gently and safely with such tiny and shining eyes it would be as if they were but babies, returning to live again, and I could touch their faces. I am ashamed to think of the baby heads as my private property, but I do. It has been said that inside the human head is to be found the only freedom that exists for all, but very often that freedom grows lonely and bored and frightened and yearns to join another head, very often owning one head is not enough, owning your own head gives rise to the desire for the head of another, out of the perfectly natural desire for love and communion. But out of greed, out of the desire for control and power, grows a monster, the desire to own as many heads as possible. None of us are immune—who doesn’t want more clients, patients, customers, readers—but desire can swell to inhuman proportions. Thus the King of Belgium declared a vast territory as his private property, and all heads within it, including (unbeknownst to him) all the shrunken heads, heads shrunk after a week’s worth of artful work. I don’t really know anything about heads, though I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about them, and more time than ever since seeing a shrink. I am not even sure I own my own head, but my innermost fantasy is to own twelve beloved heads nestled in an egg carton, to comfort me in moments of dearth in exchange for my infinite love. How can I call myself benevolent? I want, as my personal private property, twelve human heads. I have often thought god needs prayers to remind himself he is important, and still matters. Without our interceding glances, what would he be but a shrunken head on the end of a thread in a museum of ideas? Sometimes I think there is no place left for me to go but back to the Congo Museum, that horrific monument of smashed lies and beautiful things, and stand face-to-face before a face I can barely remember but do, and pray to that shriveled thing that when I die, as I must, let someone preserve me as I was then, that first day, ignorant, innocent, at my most beautiful, and overcome by another. It occurs to me I wanted to die that day. Why else would I have skipped school and wandered off alone and found a friend among the dead? One who thrilled me to life? O my pantheon of shrunken heads, struck like new-laid eggs in a carton, comfort me when my rivers are high, comfort me when my waters are gone, for I can almost hear you breathing. (63-65)
The narrator’s desire to touch the head that once lived and once died then returns to life—isn’t this like communion, taking into one’s own body the body and blood of another who sacrificed his life—the return of the dead happens inside us, inside the living—and even though I have not observed any speaker / narrator in Mary Ruefle’s poems, prose, or erasures cultivate illusions of eternal life, there is something very human about pinpointing this moment of encountering the return through touch: “…why, resting gently and safely with such tiny and shining eyes it would be as if they were but babies, returning to live again, and I could touch their faces.” The essay that feels never-ending makes use of little-to-no white space—in this case, the unparagraph—long and lushly tangled, loose sentences, a.k.a., peripatetic or walking syntax, association, and repetition and sonic patterning and variance in place of conventional transitional signals that often cue the reader to the essay’s structural flow. Imagine driving through downtown with signs without arrows, numbers, or words. All you know is you’re somewhere headed some place. This particular essay that feels never-ending is a dream of return—the return a form of the never-ending—of touching that return, O boomerang, and surely like all touch, this touch passes but is without end as the essay is ongoing and this piece in its feeling of ongoingness seems to me reminiscent of the prose works of Tommy Bernhard, Ginny Wolff, Robbi Walser, Max Sebald, the music compositions of John Cage, Sonic Youth (namely their four SYR records), Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine, among others. One is not trying to reach some exact insight that illumines why and how the writer chases various lines of meaning—one chases thoughts knowing she will never reach a destination, knowing the destination is the motion of thought manifest in expression, the peeing, the speed of release, the feeling of emptying one’s body, one’s thoughts onto the page. Where I used to think, Stay in this moment of composition one beat longer, I now think, Stay in this moment of composition indefinitely, one of many ways to beat back that only ending we can never beat back: death. The essay as elaboration of the body into the spiritual realm. I might speak about the yellow English walking suit Robert Walser wore on his long walks through the Swiss and German countrysides. I might speak about the essay as a form of nesting consciousness, the nest built from word-, phrase-, and sentence-branches and twigs nesting all the word-birds and word-worms, a safe shelter for ongoing consciousness and human feeling inside of which nests these lines from Olena Kalytiak Davis’s poem “a letter home”:
greetings from my bubblebath
well, by that i mean this, my day
whenever i say “bathtub” read “day”
read away!
whenever i say “poem,”
which i won’t, read “stay"
inside of which nests this prose piece by Mary Ruefle entitled “Snow”:
When I am inside having sex while it snows I want to be thinking about the birds too, and I want my love to love thinking about the birds as much as much as I do, for it is snowing and we are having sex under or on top of the blankets and the birds cannot be that far away, deep in the stillness and silence of the snow, their breasts still have color, their hearts are beating, they breathe in and out while it snows all around them… (14-15)
which you should just go read right this moment (can be found in The Most of It, Wave Books). Perhaps I might end this review or essay or whatever it is (Dream? Consciousness as yellow scarf a-flight? Fitted bed sheets of unfolding and folding thoughts?) with the last sentence from “Lucky”: “I slept dreamless as a baby, and when I awoke I was naked as a baby, and alone, and afraid.” Or perhaps I might end this essay by admitting I can’t figure out in this moment of composition where Mary Ruefle’s thoughts end and mine begin, which for me is the point, or perhaps I might end with the final passage from “To a Magazine”:
Forgive me if I have put your thoughts into words. It was the least I could do for such a comrade, whose orphaned sighs reach me in my squat hut (42).
Books from which I quoted
My Private Property by Mary Ruefle
A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord
Madness, Rack, & Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle
The Most of It by Mary Ruefle
Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities by Olena Kalytiak Davis


Jay Ponteri directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Marylhurst University. His memoir, Wedlocked, was published by Hawthorne Books, April 2013, and it received the 2014 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His chapbook of short prose, Darkmouth Strikes Again, was published by Future Tense Books, summer 2014. His essay “Listen to this” was mentioned as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2010 , and more recently, “On Navel Gazing” was mentioned as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2015. He has published prose in Essay Daily, Seattle Review, Salamander, and Forklift, Ohio, among others, and this essay from his manuscript LOBE just appeared in Knee-Jerk Magazine:

1 comment:

  1. And while you're at it, you should just by the year's subscription to books that Wave is publishing this year. A bunch of them are great, and surprising. Tyehimba Jess's OLIO, for instance, would be of interest to many Essay Daily readers. Plus, man, killer designs this year. Their designer is crushing it. Spare and minimal but interesting.