Madness, Rack, and Honey

Madness, Rack, and Honey
Collected lectures
by Mary Ruefle
ISBN: 9781933517575

The title grabbed by attention, as did the cover design: boldly set type with the M and that first comma nearly squeezed off the edge, with soft not slick paper. It feels good and hefty in the hand: this is a booklover’s book.

It would have been heartbreakingly disappointing if it wasn’t also a good book. Turns out it is a collection of lectures by a poet I wasn’t familiar with. Three hundred pages later I am still not familiar with her poetry, but I like the way she thinks, writes, and shares her mind at work.

I believe the poem is an act of the mind. It hink it is easier to talk about the end of poem than it is to talk about its beginning. Because the poem ends on the page, but it begins off the page, it begins in the mind. The mind acts, the mind wills a poem, often against our own will; somehow this happens, somehow a poem gets written in the middle of a chaotic holiday party that has just run out of ice, and it’s your house.

It’s the running out of ice bit, and it being your house, that hooked me.

Ruefle pulls no punches. On the topic of the vague you is poetry, she has this to say:

Mr. Sterling asks a burning question: “After all, how can we know who ‘you’ is, if ‘you’ is, in fact, some ill-defined ‘I’?” I’d like to answer that: read the poem, use your noggin, and figure it out.

She lets her mind wander, she makes unexpected connections, she isn’t in a hurry. She talks about kittens and Las Vegas and Emily Dickinson. She knows why you are reading the book: “Everybody loves secrets — that’s why you are here.”

It is hard not to quote from every chapter, there are so many great lines, so many ideas that struck me.

On why she writes:

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.

From “On Fear”:

Feelings are not subpar. On the other hand, lest we forget, let me repeat: to be more emotional and less cognitive is to be less evolved than the species is able to be. It is to be like a four-year-old child. Feelings seem to represent a place where emotions combine with intelligence and experience to create a highly personal thought process that results in an individual’s worldview. And that is where I want to take up our fear again.

I started reading this every night before bed; it was something to savor. Of course I finished by reading earlier and earlier in the day. I wanted to see more of what Ruefle had to ask (“In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?”) and the strange-but-not-strange things she would say (“I remember “remember” means to put the arms and legs back on, and sometimes the head.”)

It is early going, yet I am willing to say this will be one of the best books I read all year. I foresee rereading it. (I am going to explore her poetry, too.) Highly recommended, particularly for booklovers and artists.

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