Mary Ruefle: “A Minor Personal Matter”

Halfway between prose-poems and essays, the offbeat musings in Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It (Wave Books, 2008) take some mundane incident–picking out a garden bench, for instance, or drinking a glass of water–as the starting point for an increasingly strange chain of associations. The original question becomes lost in the narrator’s argument with herself about action versus inaction. As in a Platonic dialogue, the only enlightenment we take away is an awareness of how muddled our concepts are. Or, to use a more modern example, Ruefle is like the toddler in the “Buttons and Mindy” cartoons who perpetually reduces adults to sputtering frustration by responding “Why?” to everything they say. Just when this aimless demolition seems to have gone on too long, Ruefle ends the book with the astonishing piece “A Half-Sketched Head”, in which we see that the preceding diversions served the same purpose as Zen koans, to humble the chattering mind and make room for spiritual clarity.

Rather than spoil the journey by giving away the ending, I’ve chosen to reprint a different selection from The Most of It. (Thanks to Wave Books for permission to quote this here.) Last year I was going through a serious “Why write?” crisis when I happened to read Ruefle’s book. “A Minor Personal Matter” oddly comforted me like nothing else. Perhaps there is no good reason to write, i.e. to exist: okay then, how do you face that and keep going?

A Minor Personal Matter

For a long time I was a poet. That is, I used to be a poet, for quite a long time in fact, and made my life making poems and teaching persons younger than myself just what this entailed, although I myself had no idea what it entailed, beyond a certain amount of courage and a certain amount of fear, but these amounts were variable and it was not always possible to say in which order they appeared and at any rate it was hard to convey. It was harder and harder to convey, but conveying it became easier and easier and that, too, lent an air of confusion to my days. For instance, many days I did not care about saying any of this, I only cared to say certain things that might cause someone to like me, but of course I never said that. I said only that I cared to say certain things that might cause someone to like the language. This seemed foolish because whether or not someone liked the language they had no choice but to use it. Whether or not the language was beautiful or gruff or strange they had no choice but to use it. So I said I only cared to say certain things that might cause someone to like the world, and being alive in it. Whether the world was beautiful or gruff or strange they had no choice but to live. Yes, I said, you may kill yourself, but that would not be living, you would not be living then. A great many poets killed themselves. This was a problem too insurmountable to even understand, although at times I felt I understood it very closely and this also was part of the problem. The only thing that seemed certain to me was that people who had no choice but to use the language while they were alive had a choice in whether or not they liked me. This was a real choice, one I might be able to persuade them in. And so it seemed to me this reason, the one which sounded most foolish of all (and therefore I never spoke it) was actually the most reasonable of all. Still, occasionally I met people who did not seem to like me no matter what I said or did. And it was not easy to turn away from them because they were the challenge. They were the challenge because they challenged me to like myself even if they did not. That was the challenge–to like myself in spite of all that happened or did not happen to me. It was to face this challenge that I ceased to write poems. Could I like myself if I no longer engaged in an activity I openly declared was the reason I was put on the planet in the first place? Would I find another reason to be on the planet, or could I remain on the planet, with nothing to do and no one to like me, liking myself? I decided to try. I was on the planet with nothing to do and no one to like me. And as soon as I found myself there, I realized I had created the circumstances in which I had begun to write poems in the first place, to the extent I now wander the earth, a ghost, with no intent to write, but carrying a spark in my fingertips, which keeps me in a state of constant fibrillation, a will-o’-the-wisp of stress, art, and the hours.