may 1/RUN

4.35 miles
minnehaha falls and back
47 degrees
wind: 27 mph

Ugh, the wind! A few times it felt like I was running straight into it. Almost took my breath away. The falls were falling — were they roaring? I can’t remember what they sounded like. The creek was flowing. The park was crowded with walkers and hikers and bikers. I stopped at my favorite spot, took off my sweatshirt, and put in my coming back from injury playlist, which starts with “Back in Black.”

Running south, listened to the black-capped chickadees, the howling wind, a loud wave of kids voices yelling and laughing at the school playground. Running back north, listened to a playlist — “Back in Black,” “Upside Down,” “Fantastic Voyage,” “I’ll Be There,” and “Let’s Go Crazy.”

favorite image of the wind: the leaves whirling and swirling and scattering just in front of me as I ran northwest

least favorite image of the wind: running straight into the wind, my cap bending with the force, my nose closing up from the dust, one of my feet being pushed into the other, finding it difficult to breathe

May with Mary (Ruefle)

Today is the first day of a new month and the start of a new monthly challenge! For May of 2023, I’ll be spending time with another Mary, not Mary Oliver, but Mary Ruefle. Inspired by a tweet last week about Ruefle’s series of poems on the sadness of color, I ordered 2 books of hers that I’ve been thinking about getting for a few years: My Private Property and Madness, Rack, and Honey. I’m very excited!

I thought it might be interesting for me to record my reading/thinking/wandering process with Mary this morning. Perhaps the only person who will appreciate it is future Sara, but that’s okay. I find my wandering process to be fascinating, messy, very energetic, and an accurate reflection of how I encounter and engage with ideas. It’s easy to forget the path it follows, hopefully tracing it here will help.

Since I don’t have a full plan yet for how to read Ruefle, I decided to start by skimming through My Private Property. The third prose poem is, “Please Read,” which might be my first encounter with Ruefle, years ago when it was the poem of the day on I had bookmarked it, intending to post it on here someday. Today is not yet that day.

Two pieces later (what do you call her writing in this book? Fragments? Mini essays?) is one of two writings from her that I’ve already posted on here: Observations on the Ground. It would be interesting to read this bit, from the middle of the essay (I’ve decided to call her writing in this book essays, at least for now), beside A. R. Ammons and garbage:

Besides 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 into 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 do use heavy equipment to bury them together, like trash. It is estimated that everywhere we walk we are walking on a piece of trash and the hard, insoluble remains of the dead. Whatever the case, the dead and the garbage are together in the ground where we cannot see them, for we do not relish the sight or smell of them. If we did not go about our burying, we would be in danger of being overcome.

“Observations on the Ground”/ Mary Ruefle

Next I read one with an intriguing title, “A Woman Who Didn’t Describe a Thing If She Could,” which had a similar approach to describing things as does “Observations” — from the outside, making no assumptions or judgments or reliance on cultural shorthand (shared things that we all are supposed to know and agree upon as true — is that another way of saying assumptions?).

Then I came across a photocopy of an image from her notebook titled “April’s Cryalog,” which I immediately recognized as part of an essay of Ruefle’s I had read sometime this year, Pause. It’s about menopause, which seems to be starting for me. No thanks. I have the vaguest sense of how I encountered this piece, but it’s too fuzzy to put into words. Did I encounter it in a tweet? Was I searching for poetry about menopause? Anyway, when I first saw this image I immediately stopped reading/skimming the book to look for the essay in my reading list document, which is where all of the poems, essays, articles, tweets go after languishing on my “safari reading list” for weeks or months or years. Of course, if I had just turned the page, I would have seen the essay right there, printed in My Private Property.

Searching through the reading list, I also found a quote from Ruefle that I had saved about the eyes of a poem being more important than its mouth. I looked it up and discovered it’s from “On Theme” in the other book of Ruefle’s that I bought: Madness, Rack, and Honey.

I could reread the menopause essay or keep skimming, but I think I’ll read her lecture from Madness, Rack, and Honey: “On Theme.”

“On Theme”

I’ll attempt to offer some sort of summary: Mary Ruefle doesn’t like themes, especially what happens to them as they grow older and get applied to things beyond their original scope, which is that they lose not only their original meaning but any connection to that meaning. The original idea gets distorted, shrinks. Without getting into the many examples (her parent’s Indian inspired suburb, family fun day with the simple Shakers, Victorian home decorating in the 20th century), I’ll add this: she especially doesn’t like themes in poetry and the trend she observes in poetry journals requesting poems about endless topics: “AIDS” “quilts” “dogs” “sailing” …

But, as I try to continue this summary, I’m realizing that summarizing — the trimming down of her words until they fit in the neat little box of 1-2 sentences — is not the right approach. The meaning and purpose — the magic — of her words is found in all of her random examples, her orbits around her topic, “themes.” To leave those out is to reduce the meaning of her ideas/words.

All of this close reading and summarizing is causing me to spend more time on this essay than I’d like and giving me flashbacks of being an academic. Let me try another approach: I read this essay because it had a quotation in it that I’d was struck by and that a lot of other poetry people liked. I wanted to find the original source of the quotation in order to understand it better, or at least not extrapolate with it (this is a word Mary Ruefle uses in the lecture) to some meaning that completely loses its origins. Here’s the passage:

Auden said a poem should be more interesting than anything that might be said about it. If you take the theme out of a poem and talk about that theme, there should still be some residual being left in the poem that goes on ticking, something like, why not say it, color, something that has an effect on your central nervous system. It is not what a poem says with its mouth, it’s what it does with its eyes.

The passage comes just after a discussion of how impossible it would be to organize books around themes — must I buy 3 copies of each book to ensure that it is placed in all of the themes to which it belongs, she wonders. She concludes that organizing by theme is as arbitrary (and ridiculous) as organizing them by color to match the decor of the room. Then, she offers the Auden passage. After it, she abruptly turns to a rant about the endless calls for poems in “any poetry trade rag.” Then she moves to an interesting discussion of how theme has shifted from meaning topic/subject to attitude, which assumes a someone behind the idea/attitude. And, I’ve decided to stop here because I do want to understand what she’s saying, and it will take longer.

Here’s where I am with the essay and her passage right now: why is this passage so popular with poets? Perhaps I’m not quite getting it yet, but it feels like when people pluck this passage out of the rest of this essay without any context or explanation beyond, it’s good craft advice, they’re performing what Ruefle is railing against: taking an idea and extrapolating with it in a way that shrinks/loses the original meaning. Is Ruefle playing a joke here?

A few more things:

  1. I can’t quite remember, but I think I bookmarked Ruefle’s passage initially because I didn’t like it and the idea of the senses being reduced to the eyes — what the poem does with it eyes.
  2. This lecture seems to be responding to the current state of poetry as a field of study (as of 2012). I’m less interested in conversations about the direction of poetry and literary magazines or young poets vs. old poets. Really, I think I’m only interested in this passage with the mouth and the eyes — why it gets shared so much, what it means, and whether it means what people who share it think it does.

Not today, Satan!

Yes, twitter has too many problems. But it still has poetry people who tweet wonderful poems that they plan to include in their, “Not today, Satan” anthology, so I’m not quitting it just yet.

What I Am Telling You, Jessica, Is That Those Chickens Are Fine/ K.T. Landon

for Jessica Jacobs

You say that a poem that contains a fox
and a henhouse must, at some point, include
a slaughtered chicken, that the rifle on the mantel
must go off in Act Three. But what I am telling you
is that my neighbor has built his coop to last
and surrounded it with a sturdy double fence
of chicken wire, and that that fox is out of luck
this time. And I know that good news for the chickens
is bad news for some vole or field mouse or hapless
housecat. So maybe all I’ve done is point that gun
in another direction or into another poem, but this
is a poem in which no chickens will die. A rabbit
will bound across the road and the car will slow
in time. The fox will discover the trampoline behind
the house next door and with it the wonder of flight.
Everyone I love will live and call me after supper
to say goodnight. My neighbor is a good man,
a minor god who has brought forth a paradise
for chickens. And I know those chickens, clucking
contentedly in their self-important obliviousness,
are too foolish to be a metaphor for hope
(though isn’t hope always foolish?) but in this poem
the chickens stand for joy—for feed scattered
with a free hand and fresh water in the trough,
for a swept house and a warm nest, for the sun
and the breeze and friends to admire your glorious,
feathered self and this single, glorious day.
And we’re in pretty deep now, aren’t we,
speculating about the Inner Life of Chickens,
but can you doubt, watching them watching us,
that they have one? That they, too, understand
the urgency of this still and incandescent moment
that is here and leaving already? I know
it’s not always this way. The gun goes off
eventually. One night the latch will fail to catch
or a hinge will rust through, and the fox will bring
terror and death, as foxes do. Every story ends
with a corpse. But, Jessica, it’s not Act Three yet.
My neighbor, the chickens, the fox, you, me—
we love what we love for as long as we can.
Right now, in this blue and breathing hour
that shines inside us all, those chickens are fine.

Do I love this poem enough to add it to My 100 list of memorized poems? Maybe. Although, as I type this, I’m thinking it could be fun to compose a cento with lines from my favorite darkly hopeful poems. I think I’ll call the poem, “Not today, Satan.”

One other thing to add: when I read this poem to Scott this morning, he was convinced that the Jessica in it was JB Fletcher. Nice!