Nicholas Papaxanthos on Mary Ruefle: Writing is Writing

Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle. Wave Books, 2012.
Trances of the Blast, Mary Ruefle. Wave Books, 2013.
Review by Nicholas Papaxanthos

“I always looked askance at writing on writing, but I’m intelligent enough to see that writing is writing.”

— Mary Ruefle, from her introduction to Madness, Rack, and Honey

Madness, Rack, and Honey is a collection of lectures that manages to strike that difficult balance between the critical and the poetic—and the results are rewarding. As Ruefle writes in “Poetry and the Moon,” the moon might be the very embodiment of lyric poetry, but even a cup of tea is subject to lunar tides. Her observations and insights are engaging, heartfelt, instructive, and analytical. The big lesson to be learned in these lectures is the biggest of all: how to live a life of writing, how to be engaged with words, and how to approach poetry for the “madness, rack, and honey” of it—that is, the wild exchange of energy between the poet and the world, the often painful experience of that exchange, and the transformation of words into something unbearably sweet.

The incunabula of Ruefle’s own writing life are revealed in “I Remember, I Remember,” a deeply personal lecture on her reflections growing up with poetry, her reading experiences of Ashbery, Woolf, and Proust among others, her first experience making a metaphor, hearing Anne Carson read, sending a short story to a national magazine and more. “On Theme” challenges the dangerous emphasis on theme in literary criticism, in calls for poems (i.e. a journal wanting poetry for a special issue on “spiritual experiences among lesbians”), even in the restaurant business and tourist industry. It’s the kind of essay/lecture I would hope professors in the humanities are assigning as reading material to their first-year undergraduate students. “Twenty-Two Short Lectures” is another of my favourites, variously fascinating, absurd, humorous, and touching. As an example, below is “Short Lecture on The Nature of Things,” which reads like a play:

 (Turn vase into a hat and wear it)

You think the vase has become a hat; it has not.

My body has become an upside-down flower. (260)

Much of Madness, Rack, and Honey, as Michael Silverblatt puts it, teaches the reader that “getting lost is beautiful and fun and simple and revealing” (np). “Anyone can see the lectures become increasingly fragmentary and turn, who knows, even against themselves,” Ruefle writes in the introduction (viii). It’s not unusual for Ruefle to present an idea in a lecture that later, in the same lecture, is challenged and dismissed. The lectures are not extemporised but reflect a thought-process that is always, to quote Silverblatt again, “losing and finding and losing and finding itself…which is like the action of a poem itself, breathing” (np). The collection reminds me of Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness; like Young, Ruefle is less concerned with intention than attention—that is, at any moment she seems ready to scrap any prior intention and embrace whatever the writing is beginning to signal.

I read Madness, Rack, and Honey alongside Trances of the Blast, and one felt like a natural extension of the other. No surprise, I suppose, both written by the same person—but really it is a surprise, to see no boundaries between lecture-writing and poem-writing, to realize that writing is writing, that a lecture can be poetic and a poem can be lecture-ish, it’s all writing. Most interesting are those moments where the lectures and poems strongly overlap; for example, in the lecture “On Beginnings,” Ruefle writes how she misses seeing “The End” on the last page of a novel, and with it that “feeling of being replete, a feeling of satisfaction, and the feeling of loss, the sadness of having finished the book” (5). “Spikenard,” a poem from Trances of the Blast, fulfills that need with its last line, “The end”; but instead of carrying the weight of a novel, the poem implies that weight, each of the lines turning suddenly, upon reaching “The end,” from feathers into bricks, for the novel suggested and missing between them. It’s as if the interaction between poem and lecture created a third invisible piece of writing for the reader to discover for themselves. Another example: the first three lines from “Le Livre de ma Vie” are “I love you. / But who is the I / and who is the you?” The questioning of pronouns recalls the lecture “On Sentimentality” where Ruefle takes issue with an article by Philip Sterling in which he argues against the use of the second-person pronoun, the “vague you” in American poetry. “Le Livre de ma Vie” then becomes a kind of satire and quirky supplement to Ruefle’s argument.

There are quieter connections too, such as the doll with a sad face from “Lectures I Will Never Give” making a cameo in “Greetings my Dear Ghost,” and the similar word-dissection wordplay in parts of “On Fear” and “Müller and Me.” The seamlessness of subject matter and technique between lectures and poetry is surprising and satisfying—and not just for the analytical potential, but also for the person the reader is invited to meet behind the writing. As a final note, here is a passage from the lecture “Remarks on Letters”:

 The greater the disparity between the voice of your poems and the voice of your letters, the greater the circumference of the point you have missed. The demands upon you, as a writer, are far greater than you could have guessed when you filled out your application form and mailed it. How far are you willing to travel this love you profess to have for words? (211-12)

Mary Ruefle’s interview with Michael Silverblatt can be found here. 


Nicholas Papaxanthos is currently living in Montreal, pursuing an MA with a focus in creative writing at Concordia University. He recently put together the chapbook Teeth, Untucked with Proper Tales Press, and has been published in the anthologies Lake Effect 5 and 529, as well as in The New Chief Tongue 10 and This Magazine.