When Mary Ruefle’s book Melody: The Story of a Child arrived in the mail several weeks ago, I could smell the musty, antique pages and the faint whiff of stale cigarette smoke before I even opened the package. The beige envelope arrived by U.S. Postal Service, without insurance and without tracking–a method that is not only cheaper, but also less conspicuous, as Ruefle explained to me on the phone one afternoon.
Ruefle is anti-FedEx (a description that fits this writer in so many ways); she finds both the cost and the hyped-up urgency of express shipping unnecessary. She also hates preciousness. When I expressed concern about damaging the spine of the book during the scanning process, Mary was lackadaisical: “Don’t worry. It’s meant to be handled. That whole archival, white-glove thing is ridiculous anyway.”
A new erasure by Mary Ruefle is a rare event, and the publication of one online or in print even rarer. Her one-of-a-kind creations occasionally appear in journals or are purchased by museums or collectors. In 2006 Wave Books published the acclaimed volume A Little White Shadow, a book of “haiku-like minifables, sideways aphorisms, and hauntingly perplexing koans,” as described by Publisher’s Weekly. Although Ruefle doesn’t own a computer or do email, she has a website where fans can enjoy perusing a small sampling of her one-of-a-kind erasures.
Still, these unique works are difficult to come by, so when Mary offered to share an erasure that had never been seen before, I jumped at the chance to publish it on Gwarlingo.
Ruefle is one of today’s most admired practitioners of erasure poetry–the creation of a new text by disappearing the old text that surrounds it. Gwarlingo readers who enjoyed the erasure poetry of Jen Bervin last December will find much to appreciate in Ruefle’s work. Her writing is playful, poignant, humorous, and eccentric, and like no other voice I know.
It is fitting that Ruefle’s Sunday Poem should follow my article on Lewis Hyde and appropriation, for Melody is an excellent example of a creative work made from existing text, in this case, a 19th century novel called Melody: The Story of a Child.
In Ruefle’s skillful hands, we enter an alternative world that is far removed from the original saccharine plot of Laura E. Richards’ 1894 melodrama: “Miraculously saved from charred rubble, blind twelve-year-old Melody changes the lives of an entire community as well as her greedy captors.” Ruefle has transformed Richards’ religious melodrama into a compelling, concise, subversive work of art.
Why erase the words of other writers? As Jeannie Vanasco explains in The Believer, the “philosophical answer is that poets, as Wordsworth defines them, are ‘affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present.’ The more practical answer: compared to writing, erasing feels easy…To erase is to write, style is the consequence of a writer’s omissions, and the writer is always plural. To erase is to leave something else behind.”
William Burroughs and Brion Gysin are both considered pioneers of the “cut up” technique, a method that involves cutting words from newspapers and magazines and rearranging them into new stories and poems. (Burroughs said he learned the technique from Gysin).
But text collage predates Burroughs and Gysin. At a Dadaist rally in the 1920s, Tristan Tzara offered to create a poem on the spot by pulling words at random from a hat. And in 1922 T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land, a touchstone of 20th century literature comprised partially of quotes from the Bible, Bram Stoker, Ovid, the Hindy Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Shakespeare, Whitman, and other sources.
But the technique can be traced back even further. In 1819 Thomas Jefferson cut and pasted numerous sections from various Bibles as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus. Using a razor, he arranged selected verses from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in chronological order, mingling excerpts from one text with those of another in order to create a single narrative. Jefferson’s new Bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, excluded the supernatural elements of the New Testament, as well as perceived misinterpretations he believed had been added by the Four Evangelists.
English artist Tom Phillips is another pivotal erasure artist. His best known work is A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, an erasure Phillips began creating in 1966 and continues to publish in new editions today. “It is a forgotten Victorian novel I found by chance,” Phillips explained, “plundered, mined, and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems.” A more recent addition to the erasure canon is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, a sculptural piece of art and book created from Bruno Schulz’s book, The Street of Crocodiles.
It is in this tradition that Mary Ruefle’s captivating erasures belong. Not only is Ruefle following in the footsteps of Jefferson, Gysin, and Phillips, but she is one of the finest erasure artists working today–a brilliant artist who deserves more attention than she’s received. Although she has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The MacDowell Colony, and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as a Whiting Writers’ Award, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she remains on the fringes of the contemporary canon.
I suspect that Ruefle’s name would be better known were it not for the fact that she shuns technology and (to her credit) completely disregards the trends of the New York literary scene. Reufle isn’t interested in mass production, mass audiences, or mass anything for that matter. You aren’t going to find her on Facebook or Twitter or on a smart phone. Instead, you can find her in Bennington, Vermont, doing what she does best–writing, reading, and teaching. As her website says, “The only way to contact me is by contacting my press, Wave Books, or by running into someone I know personally on the street.”
While this unplugged lifestyle may not help Ruefle promote her writing, I suspect it does help her create these unique, thoughtful works of art. This is “slow art” at it’s best. Reading Melody, I was struck by the amount of time (and patience) it takes create a one-of-a-kind work like this, and also by the passage of time itself–by the threads of human connection that allowed this slender volume to make its way to Ruefle, then to me, and now onto you.
To flip through the pages of Melody is an intimate experience. The hand of the artist is in evidence on every page–in the smears of white-out, the fingerprint smudges, the playful, colorful swirls, the vexed, heavy black marks that transform text into a gaping void.
Several years ago, Mary gave me a copy of the Summer/Fall 2008 edition of Gulf Coast magazine, which includes pages from her ogle-worthy erasure Friends in Fur and Feathers. The excerpt also includes Ruefle’s “Remarks on the Erasures,” which is worth quoting here, since it reveals Ruefle’s own views on process:
“I don’t consider the pages to be poems, but I do think of them as poetry, especially in sequence and taken as a whole; when I finish an erasure book I feel I have written a book of poetry without a single poem in it, and that appeals to me…
The books have been called ‘found poems,’ but I don’t consider them as such. A found poem is a text found in the world, taken out of its worldly context and labeled a poem. I certainly didn’t ‘find’ any of these pages, I made them in my head, just as I do my other work. In the erasures I can only choose words out of all the words on a given page, while writing regularly I can choose from all the words in existence. In that sense, the erasures are like a ‘form’–I am restricted by certain rules. I have resisted formal poetry my whole life, but at last found a form I can’t resist. It is like writing with my eyes instead of my hands.
I use white-out, buff-out, blue-out, paper, ink pencil, gouache, carbon, and marker; sometimes I press postage stamps onto the page and pull them off–that literally takes the text right off the page! Once, while working on an all-white erasure, I had the sense I was somehow blinding the words–blindfolding the ones I whited-out, and those that were left had to become, I don’t know, extra-sensory or something. Then I thought no, I am bandaging the words, and the one left were those that seeped out.
I’ve made thirty-two erasure books and given many to friends as gifts; one has been published, and several sold into private collections. One or two of the books work when read aloud in public, but most of them don’t. I can’t imagine ever stopping making them, and I hope to be working on one when I die.”
It is not the same to read this beautiful book on a screen. You’re missing the feel of the soft cloth cover and fragile, antique pages, as well as the musty smell of aging paper and stuffy cigarette smoke. You cannot feel the rough smear of white-out, touch the moth’s wings, or experience the jagged edges of repurposed postage stamp sheets. It is not the same, but it is nevertheless a rare opportunity to inhabit the unconventional world of Mary Ruefle—a place as visceral as anything you’ll encounter.
I have included a few sample pages of Melody here as a teaser for this special expanded edition of the Sunday Poem, but the work is best viewed full-screen and in sequence.
CLICK HERE to read Mary Ruefle’s erasure poem Melody full-screen and in its entirety.
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Melody: The Story of a Child © Mary Ruefle. Images of Melody by Michelle Aldredge for Gwarlingo. Please feel free to share this erasure with others. We only ask that you provide the proper credit to Mary Ruefle and Gwarlingo.