May: Mary Ruefle

Often it takes me a few days or weeks to settle into my topic for the month. Not this month. I knew right away I’d be studying Mary Ruefle. Here’s what I wrote on May 1:

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.

Mary Ruefle Topics

  • when themes lose their origins, when I fall back into academic methods (may 1)
  • to behave like a poem (may 2)
  • on reading, both my love of it, and how I’m losing my ability to see words (may 2)
  • book titles as a list poem (may 2)
  • red (may 3)
  • pink (may 4)
  • beginnings, ends, and middles (may 6)
  • green (may 8)
  • remembering (may 9)
  • washing dishes, including a series of my thoughts (may 10)
  • white sadness, brown sadness (may 11)
  • on fear (may 12)
  • more on fear, Emily Dickinson, and calm lunatics (may 15)
  • the honey and rack in “Madness, Rack, and Honey” (may 17)
  • Mary Ruefle and the madness of wasting time (may 19)
  • a definition of poetry involving a thrush and not knowing (may 20)
  • on secrets, etymology, and preferring wondering over knowing (may 21)
  • better at not knowing or knowing nothing (may 22)
  • blue (may 23)
  • Mary Ruefle, Immortal Cupboards, Windows, Offerings, and a Purple Wood (may 24)
  • orange theory and the effects of wonder and poetry on your heart (may 25)
  • yellow (may 26, may 30)
  • black (may 27)
  • eavesdropping, You, and unhitching (may 31)

Mary Ruefle Lectures, Poems, Fragments Read

  • On Theme (lecture)
  • Observations on the Ground (essay)
  • A Woman Who Didn’t Describe a Thing If She Could* (essay)
  • Pause* (essay)
  • Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World (lecture)
  • Red Sadness (prose poem)
  • Red (poem)
  • Pink Sadness (prose poem)
  • On Beginnings (lecture)
  • The Bench/ Mary Ruefle (prose poem)
  • Green Sadness (prose poem)
  • I Remember, I Remember (lecture)
  • Towards a Carefree World/ essay
  • On Fear (lecture)
  • In the Forest (essay)
  • Madness, Rack, and Honey (lecture)
  • Introduction to Madness, Rack, and Honey
  • On Secrets (lecture)
  • 22 Short Lectures (lecture)
  • Blue Sadness (prose poem)
  • Purple Sadness (prose poem)
  • My Emily Dickinson (lecture)
  • Orange Sadness (prose poem)
  • Yellow Sadness (prose poem)
  • Black Sadness (prose poem)
  • On Sentimentality (lecture)

Articles/Essays/Posts About Ruefle

Color with Mary Ruefle


10 Red Thoughts, Ideas, Things Noticed

  1. the deep and sharp bark of a neighbor’s dog — a red bark, I thought
  2. a red stop sign
  3. a walker up ahead of me, rounding a corner and heading out of sight, a red sweatshirt around their waist
  4. a roller skier in bright red shorts — tomato red 
  5. my raspberry red shoes striking the ground
  6. graffiti on a sewer pipe drip drip dripping water, letters in rusted red
  7. a biker in a red shirt zooming by
  8. my face under the bright shadeless sun, a ruddy red
  9. a moment of tenderness inspired by swelling music, a runner’s high, and last night’s haunting and strange dream about cradling my mom’s head not too long before she died: the soft glow of a warm red heart
  10. car, car, car, truck — all red (at least in my head)


Pink Thoughts: before, during, and after a run

Pink Thing. The pink of gray matter. Pink Think. Pinkaliscious. Preppy Pink and Green. Is it pink or yellow? P!nk. Undercooked meat. Pepto Bismol always pronounced Pepto Bismo. The worst milkshake flavor: strawberry. Pink washing. Peonies in the backyard, drooping dropping petals too soon. The only choice when buying cheap running shorts. My favorite running jacket. Raw. Fleshy. Swim caps. 

Some of my pink thoughts as I ran:

Fuschia funnels. Almost invisible, usually seen as white or yellow or orange. A walker in a pink jacket — the color of salmon flesh. 

Pink as tender and vulnerable. Split open, flesh exposed. That vulnerability is both a weakness or a threat but also an opportunity to transform. Open yourself up. Turn yourself inside out. What was out becomes in, and what was in becomes out.

If all gray flesh is dead flesh (from Listen/ Didi Jackson), then is all pink flesh living flesh? 

Gray matter (brain) looks pinkish because of the blood circulating through it. 

Both of these facts are true: We live. We die. We are pink. We are gray.

Reading Facebook earlier today, a post from Henri Mancini popped up — why? James Galway is in New York with Lizzo to record a new version of the Pink Panther theme song. Excellent. Found an article about it with video here.


My green goal was off to a good start when I spotted a bunny in the alley just before starting to run and thought, the bunny from the line about green sadness, little girls who, in imitation of their grandmothers, decide who shall have their bunny when they die. 

10 Green Moments and Feelings

  1. At the start of the run, just above the oak savanna, floating through light green air, both in color and weight
  2. Midway through the run, in Wabun, above Locks and Dam #1, plodding through bright green air, thick and hot
  3. green grass in the boulevard — growing fast
  4. green light shining through the trees — glowing soft
  5. green sinuses, closing up my nose
  6. green voices — kids at the playground
  7. green-stained sidewalks — the whispers of grassy sadness
  8. green sky instead of clean blue air
  9. green weeds pushing through pavers, joining the orange tulips beside Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” at the park
  10. green curiosity — how much of this green am I actually seeing and how much am I conjuring from when I had more cone cells?

As I ran, I also thought about a mood ring poem that I’m revising: incurable. I’m trying to contrast my disdain for searching for a cure for my vision loss which I’m linking to images of pickling, preserving, curing, with my relief in knowing, with some certainty, that there is no cure — this I’m envisioning as being outside in fresh, open spaces with wider views. As I write this description, I think I need to tighten up my fresh images. Anyway, as I ran, I thought that if these images correspond to colors, then curing would be green and fresh would be blue — or should it be another shade (or is it tint) of green?

a few passages from Ancient Green / Robin Wall Kimmerer


5 Brown Moments and 5 White Ones

  1. river: brown with light brown foam
  2. same river from the other side: deep blue with white foam
  3. brown tree trunks
  4. a brown sound: the knocking of a woodpecker on a dead tree
  5. a flash of the white, almost silver, river through the trees
  6. a limestone wall, the part of it illuminated by sunlight was white
  7. white sands beach, viewed from the other side of the river
  8. the brown trail leading down to Shadow Falls
  9. a white sound: the vigorous tinkling of the falls falling
  10. the brown boulder with 4 small stones stacked on its top

Another thought I had about brown while running: Thinking about the brown sadness of Ruefle’s huge upright stones, I suddenly thought: the gorge. The gorge, with its huge limestone, sandstone walls is both brown sadness and brown happiness.

White happiness is the happiness of crisp sheets hang-
ing on the line just to the side of the farmhouse, of soft
shimmering salt pouring out of a cheap salt shaker, of a 

button-down oxford reluctantly worn.


At one point, I heard a creak somewhere and thought: a blue creak. I think that was the only blue sound I recall hearing.

Re-reading Ruefle’s blue sadness, I’m thinking about how blue light comes in short, choppy waves that scatter more than red or green waves and how Ruefle’s understanding of blue seems to invoke that: strips and pieces of sweetness, memory — nostalgia, reverie, dust, a temple, scattered and out of reach on a shelf, in a far off land. 

I don’t think about blue that often and it doesn’t conjure up powerful images for me. My eyes rarely see blue lights on signs. I suppose I think of water, but the water I see/swim in is rarely blue. Perhaps my favorite blues are: the blue hour early on a winter morning, snow looking blue, cerulean, frozen blueberries (not fresh)


Today on my run, I want to think about purple, and I plan to run the 2+ miles it takes to get to longfellow gardens where some of my favorite purple flowers dwell (or have dwelled in past springs). What are these flowers called? I have no idea. 

other purples to think about: heels echoing, doors creaking closed, deep pits.

Other purple things I remember encountering: the gentle, queer curve of a branch towering over the trail — as I ran under it I thought, that’s very purple. Then the face of a child in the midst of bellowing frustration — I didn’t see their face, but I imagined it could be a deep purple. Purple whispers in the trees.

No purple cars or shirts or shoes or bikes or signs or birds or left behind objects in the grass. Mostly just green and blue.


Today I’d like to think (even) more about orange. What is orange to me? What sounds orange? Tastes orange? Feels orange? Smells orange? 

I tried to think about orange, testing out whether I thought something I encountered felt orange or not. Would I call those loud voices below me orange voices? No. Ran down the hill to the south entrance of the winchell trail and smelled the vaguest whiff of the past — the sweet, fresh smell at my family’s farm in the UP. Is that an orange smell? Nope. I’d call it a red smell because when I think of the farm, I think of the bright red of the farmhouse. I noticed lots of little orange things on the ground — orange leaves, a piece of orange string, an orange flash. As I neared the gravel hill at the ravine, I started thinking about orange theory and its main principle of working out in the orange heart rate/effort zone for at least 12 minutes of a 60 minute workout. Running up the gravel on my toes, I thought about orange breaths and orange effort and decided that when I got home, I looked up the orange theory and think more about it.

Orange Zone (84-91% Maximum Heart Rate) – This is where the magic happens and where you achieve “EPOC” (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) – what we call the “Orange Effect / Afterburn.” The goal is to accumulate 12 minutes or more in this zone within a 60-minute period to achieve the maximum caloric burn for up to 36 hours AFTER your workout is completed.”

I haven’t really worked with heart rate zones when I run, partly because I can’t seem to not stay in the upper range on all of my runs no matter how slow I go, but it seems fun to me to think about orange in terms of effort and heart rate and how that could apply to things outside of (or alongside?) fitness. The orange zone involves a hard effort, where you are doing things that elevate your heart rate a lot, but it’s not all out, not something that makes your heart almost jump out of your chest or pound uncontrollably. That’s red, and a red (all out effort) breath might involve being shocked, experiencing such intense awe or surprise that you lose your breath for a minute. Orange breaths involve intense feeling that can be sustained longer, but are still uncomfortable. Orange breaths are anxious breaths. This morning, as I waited to leave for a doctor appointment, I was breathing with orange breaths and orange lungs — wound up, nervous, not totally sure why. Every time, before an open swim, I breathe orange breaths — nervous about whether or not I will be able to see how to swim across, excited about getting to swim in the lake.

Some Activities/Experiments Inspired by Ruefle

beginnings, middles, and ends

  • notice and record what you notice in the midst of motion. Pull out your smart phone and speak your thoughts into it.
  • Thinking about poems titled, “Poem Beginning with a Line from [insert poet]” or M Smith’s “Poem Beginning with a Retweet”
  • Or golden shovel poems that make the last word in each line spell out someone else’s poem — it began with Gwendolyn Brooks and “We Cool.”
  • Where does a poem begin? When does a project, a plan start? How do you write an origin story? What gets left out/lost/forgotten when we draw the arbitrary lines of begin here and end here?

Who is in your immortal cupboard?

Make a list of your favorite poets/writers. Memorize some of their words then turn their words into a cento

Eavesdropping, You, and Unhitching

Today’s the last day of May and my last day with Mary Ruefle. I just finished reading/skimming her lecture, “On Sentimentality.” 

Eavesdropping: In response to a poet who criticizes and laments the too frequent use of a generic You in poetry as too passive, turning us into observers, mere eavesdroppers, Ruefle asks: What’s wrong with eavesdropping? I agree. Today during my run, eavesdrop. Listen in on conversations between birds, the river and the sky, walkers.

YOU: What kind of subject are you (or is You)? And, if you are You, then who is the I? The path, a shadow, that tree? Think about this as you run beside the river.

unhitching: to crudely paraphrase Lévi-Strauss, unhitching happens in brief moments when we can step outside of or beside or just beyond — below the threshold of thought, over and above society — to contemplate/experience/behold the this, the what it is, the essence of everything, Mary Oliver’s eternity. In your run above the gorge, near the river, below the trees, can you unhitch?

Other Ruefle-related Things I’d Like to Remember

one: knowing nothing, not knowing

Not knowing as an action. To actively not know something. This could mean unlearning it, to be engaged in the act of not knowing it or divesting (disinvesting?) from it. Or it could mean willful ignorance — a refusal to know some fact, someone. I choose to not know! It could be Mary Ruefle’s wonder from “On Secrets” — I would rather wonder than know. Or it could my moment or many moments of refusing to conceal my not knowing to others, to admit/embrace/accept that I can’t see that bird, right over there, that you are pointing out to me. 

Knowing nothing as knowing the thing, or things, that is/are nothing, where nothing is a space where time is stopped or where productivity doesn’t happen (Ross Gay). Or where nothing is the Void, the absence, the blank space around which we orbit, trying to find meaning or possibility or connection. Or where nothing is Marie Howe’s singularity:

No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb      no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with

is is is is is

another definition of poetry

a good poem is seldom comfortable; either it vanquishes us with anguish or electrifies us with ecstasy or makes us pause and consider a new sense of the world or unravels us altogether, but never does it make us feel comfortable in the fashing of these ads [part of a discussion about an ad that used the phrase, the poetry of knits].

pages 46-47


The possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists … in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society; in the conntemplating of a mineral more beautiful than all oru creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.

Lévi-Strauss quoted MRH page 52

a few concluding thoughts

I have enjoyed reading Ruefle all this month. I’ve gotten to know her a little bit better and been able to wander in many different directions. I’ve also experimented with a new way of engaging with ideas/authors/writings. As an academic, I used to spend hours trying to effectively (and comprehensively) summarize the argument of a piece of writing. This summary, what one of my profs called appreciation, was always the first step. With Ruefle, attempting to lay out her entire argument in a neat and logical way doesn’t work. Why try to pin down her wild and wandering thoughts in such a way? Why waste all of my energy trying to summarize something that shouldn’t be summarized? So instead, I’ve been trying to engage with the little bits and bobs (thanks British TV for reminding me of this wonderful phrase!) that resonate for me. For me the point is not to KNOW these poems and lectures and essays by Ruefle but to FEEL them in small and big ways (from log entry for (may 31).