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Madness, Rack, and Honey

March 09, 2019

I just finished Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, a collection of lectures about poetry and art in general. It’s an amazing book, full of observations that have the weight and obliqueness of aphorisms. Here a few that stand out.

From “On Beginnings”:

Now here is something really interesting (to me), something you can use at a standing-up-only party when everyone is tired of hearing there are one million three thousand two hundred ninety-five words used by the Eskimo for snow. This is what Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa: Some languages are so constructed—English among them—that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words right before you step into the limousine, or in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand. Or, if you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows you and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end. … And in the best of all possible lives, [the beginnings and endings of lives and poems] are the same: in poem after poem I encountered words that mark the first something made out of language that we hear as children repeated night after night, like a refrain: “I love you.” “I am here with you.” “Don’t be afraid.” “Go to sleep now.” And I encountered words that mark the last something made out of language that we hope to hear on earth: “I love you.” “You are not alone.” “Don’t be afraid.” “Go to sleep now.”

From “On Secrets”:

Now what amazes me is that [a sequence of artists] was born, and later still I was born, and by some miracle I cannot figure out, it was given me to hear these voices, and all these examples of a human life were speaking, and when I listened carefully I could hear that they were speaking about speaking, and when I listened carefully to them speaking about speaking, I could hear they were singing about listening. And that has been a long journey for me, of listening. I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, “I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say”; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.

When you are walking down a city street and not paying much attention—perhaps you are downtrodden by some confusion—and come suddenly upon a rosebush blooming against a brick wall, you may be struck and awakened by the appearance of beauty. But the rose is not beautiful. You think the rose is beautiful and so you may also think, with sadness, that it will die. But the rose is not beauty. What beauty is is your ability to apprehend it. The ability to apprehend beauty is the human spirit and it is what all such moments are about, which is why such moments occur in places and at times that may strike another as unlikely or inconceivable, and it does not seem far-fetched to say that the larger the human spirit, the more it will apprehend beauty in increasingly unlikely and inconceivable situations, which is why there is such a great variety of art objects on earth.

From “A Person Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World”:

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love—a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten. In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single span, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves.

Once I witnessed a windstorm so severe two 100-year-old trees were uprooted on the spot. The next day, walking among the wreckage, I found the friable nests of birds, completely intact and unharmed on the ground. That the featherweight survive the massive, that this reversal of fortune takes place among us—that is what haunts me. I don’t know what it means.

From “Kangaroo Beach”:

When I think of life, I think of my own personal existence as it is borne forward in time, or I think of the lives of billions of strangers as they are being borne forward in time, but I seldom think of myself and these billions at once. It is the difference between Life and being alive. I do not know on which day I am most being sincere. And then there are those days I think only of the dead, and those are the days I think of everybody together—myself, the strangers, the dead—because we are all of a group, we are a class unto ourselves. To consider myself and others among the already-dead, is that irreverent of me?

From “Twenty-Two Short Lectures”:

Poets are dead people talking about being alive. It’s that simple. People who are alive are not really people because they haven’t died; but people who have been alive and then died are the whole kind of people we want to be our teachers. I really can’t explain it, being alive and all.

The brain enfolded itself slowly, over millennia. … After all that endless folding came a time when the brain had to keep growing without there being any more space inside the skull: thus writing and reading evolved. Writing and reading are ways the brain can contain itself outside of itself. If you can’t remember the ingredients you need to make dinner you make a list and voilá—a bit of your brain gets carried outside of itself. Eventually—more millennia—books came into being, and the human brain was able to keep expanding. A book is the physical expansion of the human brain. It is not an object to be treated lightly. When you hold a book in your hands you are holding a piece of cerebrum in your hands, like Saint Denis himself, who walked for miles carrying his head in his two hands, after he had been beheaded.

From “Lectures I Will Never Give”:

My gender (female) has had absolutely no influence on my writing; it has had a tremendous influence on my life. In my writing I think of myself as a poet, that is, in my writing my gender is poet, while in my life I think of myself as a woman, I have lived my life as a woman, a woman’s life. … There is something genderless (sex-wise) about the mind working in the art field; at its best it seems to me, to my mind, to be an encounter between the human mind and the universe, which is without consciousness and without gender. So writing is between mortal self-consciousness and all that it is not, all that is not it. … Even if… the minds of men and women have been rigged differently, that is simply circuitry (means) to the same end—mortal self-consciousness, the human imagination. And I am interested in this, the highest end of the wiring. My proof is that men and women die in the same way, to put it bluntly. The point of sameness in the different bodies. The skeletons retain gender in the width of the hip bones, yes, I don’t deny that the difference is still there in the bones, but what of the mind that has vanished? The vanishment is identical—each equally gone.

In my life I must take into consideration the person with me, and the ways in which a person does that—takes into consideration another person—constitute one of the great struggles in life, the failures and successes of mutual consideration. Therein lie many tragedies and comedies. … But when I write, I take into consideration not another body but space, abyss, time, pulse, and this encounter constitutes the other great struggle in life—that of the mind in consideration of mindlessness.

I don’t have an easy time reading poetry. But prose with the sensibility of poetry, the rhythm and mystery of poetry—that’s something wonderful!