“A woman sitting alone, doing nothing”

Tilly Nevin reviews Mary Ruefle’s stunning and startling new collection 'My Private Property'

Mary Ruefle’s prose poem ‘Self-Criticism’ in her new collection, My Private Property,
begins “In a typical poem by myself, a woman is sitting alone doing absolutely nothing. She notices a fly crawling across the table and strikes up a conversation with him”. Ruefle’s prose poems (for want of a better term) on first glance might appear to be about a woman sitting alone, doing absolutely nothing. These poems begin when the speaker strikes up a conversation with a fly, or speaks through the mouth of a yellow finch watching a woman through her windowpane, or sees crumbs on a countertop or notes the strangeness that is a plastic Christmas Tree. Many of the pieces in the collection are about a woman ‘sitting alone’. But from such simplicity, from the detail of everyday life comes a striking beauty: the woman who sits alone, alienated and aging, is not really just doing nothing but creating something beautiful and startling from the ordinary.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Ruefle says “the unspooling of the body leads to rather grand contemplations at the same time it leads to the quotidian, the daily aches. It is the most beautiful and heartbreaking of paradoxes. It’s life”. Noticing a Christmas tree becomes an analysis of contemporary society and its strange arbitrary social rituals, about poverty and time. Remembering a moment when as a teenager she sprinkled salt and pepper
in a friends milkshake, an older woman is caught between two versions of her self—
similarly, in ‘Personalia’ the speakers says, “Now I am an old woman who wants to die and lodged inside me is a young woman dying to live: I work on her’”, a line I can’t seem to shake.

A shrunken head is both a literal object and yet also metonymic of both colonialism and
of our afterlife in memory: ‘Don’t we carry photographs of the heads of those we love who have died?’ The collection asks if we can stay close to loved ones as well as to the past selves we once knew—does a woman remain both the young girl she was, skipping school, and yet also go through the menopause?

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The epigraph to the collection, taken from Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget reads “what an extended body in which to die” and most of the pieces in My Private Property in some way or another are about aging, the effect of time on the body. When you age, Ruefle
points out, you notice how a Christmas tree might not really be a Christmas tree at all but
a symbol for the cycles of life. Still, Ruefle says “my allegiance to poetry, to art, is greater than my allegiance to knowledge and intelligence”: age doesn’t give a simplistic, quantitative
knowledge of how time works, but a greater allegiance to art, which provides a space for the wonder, the humour, and the grace one can achieve with age.

My Private Property is stunning—each work in the slim volume holds more in its simple, almost childlike tones than Victorian novels might. Some call Ruefle “the best prose writer
in America”. It is impossible to decide whether Ruefle’s new collection counts as prose or
prose poetry—it is impossible to label such works. The quasi-refrain, describing different
types of sadness in different colours (“Blue sadness is sweetness cut into strips with scissors”) to some evidences the poetic quality of the texts. Although Ruefle herself calls some of the pieces prose works, the author also notes that in the refrain “if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes”.

Whether you call My Private Property prose or poetry it doesn’t matter, “nothing changes”. Ruefle would probably note the strange insistence with which we do classify literary texts. In doing so we risk missing the joy, the brilliance glimmering in these works.