may 7/RUN

3.1 miles
marshall to dogwood loop
57 degrees

Scott and I ran a slightly shorter version of the marshall loop that ended at dogwood coffee. No coffee today, too crowded. Everything is getting green. No fuchsia funnels yet, but some white blossoms, violets (are they violets, or just violet flowers?), tulips. Chirping birds. A downy woodpecker squawking in a tree. I was just about to write that I didn’t remember looking at the river, but then I remembered: lots of white foam everywhere — swirling in the center, collecting on the edges. No rowers again. Anything else? Muddy, wet, humid, hot when the sun was out, very little breeze.

I told Scott a boring story about noticing runners sprinting on the other side of the road as we ran down cretin. He told me that he felt like he was plodding along, that his legs were like logs thumping down on the ground. Then I imagined his legs as logs, which was fun to do — his legs started as thick logs with rough bark, then after a 1/2 block of awkward steps, they peeled off and his human legs appeared.

Another strange story: running down the hill on the east river trail, beside shadow falls, I saw something up ahead. What it actually was was a big white, fluffy dog. What I saw was the bottom half of very broad hipped person walking towards us. This is an example of how my brain tries (and sometimes fails terribly) to guess what my eyes are actually seeing. After telling Scott what I thought I saw, I said, headless and torsoless hips walking towards me? that’s not even a real thing. Come on, brain!

Mary Ruefle

No time to read from My Private Property or Madness, Rack, and Honey, so here’s one of her poems. I remember reading it sometime in the last few years, but not why or when.

The Bench/ Mary Ruefle

My husband and I were arguing about a bench we wanted to buy and put in part of our backyard, a part which is actually a meadow of sorts, a half acre with tall grasses and weeds and the occasional wild flower because we do not mow it but leave it scrubby and unkempt.  This bench would hardly ever be used and in summer when the grasses were high would remain partially hidden from view.  We both knew we wanted the bench to be made of teak so that it would last a long time in the harsh weather and so that we would never have to paint it.  Teak weathers to a soft silver that might, in November or March, disappear into the gray hills that are the backdrop of our lives.  My husband wanted a four foot bench and I wanted a five foot bench.  This is what we argued about.  My husband insisted that a four foot bench was all we needed, since no more than two people (presumably ourselves) would ever sit on it at the same time.  I felt his reasoning was not only beside the point but missed it entirely; I said what mattered most to me was the idea of the bench, the look of it there, to be gazed at with only the vaguest notion it could hold more people than would ever actually sit down.  The life of the bench in my imagination was more important than any practical function the bench might serve.  After all, I argued, we wanted a bench so that we could look at it, so that we could imagine sitting on it, so that, unexpectedly, a bird might sit on it, or fallen leaves, or inches of snow, and the longer the bench, the greater the expanse of that plank, the more it matched its true function, which was imaginary.  My husband mentioned money and I said that I was happier to have no bench at all, which would cost nothing, than to have a four foot bench, which would be expensive.  I said that having no bench at all was closer to the five foot bench than the four foot bench because having no bench served the imagination in similar ways, and so not having a bench became an option in our argument, became a third bench. We grew very tired of discussing the three benches and for a day we rested from our argument.  During this day I had many things to do and many of them involved my driving past other houses, none of which had benches, that is they each had the third bench, and as I drove past the other houses I could see a bench here and a bench there; sometimes I saw the bench very close to the house, against a wall or on a porch, and sometimes I saw the bench under a tree or in the open grass, cut or uncut, and once I saw the bench at the end of the driveway, blocking the road.  Always it was a five foot bench that I saw, a long sleek bench or a broken down bench, a bench with a slatted back or a bench with a solid, carved back, and always the bench was empty. But I knew that for my husband the third bench was only four feet long and he saw always two people sitting on it, two happy or tired people, two people who were happy to be alive or two people tired from having worked hard enough to buy the bench they were sitting on.  Or they were happy and tired, happy to have reached the end of some argument, tired from having had it.  For these people, the bench was an emblem of their days, which were fruitful because their suffering had come to an end. On my bench, which was always empty, nothing had come to an end because nothing had begun, no one had sat down, though the bench was always there waiting for exactly that to happen.  And the bench was always long enough so that someone, if he desired to, could lie all the way down.  That day passed.  Another day followed it and my husband and I began, once more, to discuss the bench.  The sound of our voices revealed a renewed interest and vigor.  I thought I sensed in him a coming around to my view of the bench and I know he sensed in me a coming around to his view of the bench, because at one point I said that a four foot bench reminded me of rough notes towards a real bench while a five foot bench was like a fragment of an even longer bench and I admitted it was at times hard to tell the difference.  He said he didn’t know anything about the difference between rough notes and fragments but he agreed that between the two benches there was, possibly, just perhaps—he could imagine it—very little difference.  It was, after all, only a foot we were talking about.  And I think it was then, in both of our minds, that a fourth bench came into being, a bench that was only a foot long, a miniature bench, a bench we could build ourselves, though of course we did not.  This seemed to be, essentially, the bench we were talking about.  Much later, when the birds came back, or the leaves drifted downwards, or the snow fell, slowly and lightly at first, then heavier and faster, it was this bench that we both saw when we looked out the window at the bench we eventually placed in the meadow which continued to grow as if there were no bench at all.

may 6/RUN

3.75 miles
marshall loop
58 degrees
humidity: 86%

It rained yesterday and early this morning but by the time I headed out the door it had stopped. Everything wet, even the air. So humid! With summer coming, it’s time to stop tracking the feels like temperature and start tracking the humidity. Ugh. Maybe humidity and I can be friends this year?

10 Things I Noticed

  1. from the lake street bridge, the river was a brownish gray and full of foam — and empty of rowers
  2. heard a runner coming up from behind me on the marshall hill. As they passed, they called out great job! this hill is a killer! I think I grunted, yeah!
  3. heard the bells at St. Thomas twice — at 9:15 and 9:30 (I think?)
  4. a block ahead I saw something orange which I thought was a person but was a construction sign
  5. shadow falls was falling today, a soft gushing
  6. encountered a woman in yellow running shoes — or were they lime green? I can’t remember now
  7. running on cretin I noticed a fast runner on the other side, sprinting past St. Thomas — was it the runner that passed me on the marshall hill? maybe
  8. lots of mud, wet dirt, puddles everywhere
  9. the floodplain forest is all light green now, my view to the forest floor gone
  10. running over the lake street bridge, I heard something rattling — was it wind, or the cars driving over the bridge?

Mary Ruefle, “On Beginnings”

I’m working on a course proposal for a 4 week fall version of my finding wonder in the world and the words and I’m thinking of making one of the weeks about fall as time/space for beginnings and endings. So when I saw Ruefle’s lecture, “On Beginnings,” I decided that should be the next Ruefle thing to read.

before the run

I read through the lecture — more quickly than closely — knowing that I would read it again after the run. It’s about beginnings and how there are more beginnings in poetry than endings. The first note I jotted down in my Plague Notebook, Vol 16 was about the semicolon, which is a punctuation mark that I particularly like. Ruefle has just introduced an idea from Ezra Pound that each of us speaks only one sentence that begins when we’re born and ends when we die. When Ruefle tells this idea to another poet he responds, “That’s a lot of semicolons!” Ruefle agrees and then writes this:

the next time you use a semicolon (which, by the way, is the least-used mark of punctuation in all of poetry) you should stop and be thankful that there exists this little thing, invented by a human being–an Italian as a matter of fact–that allows us to go on and keep on connecting speech that for all apparent purposes unrelated.

then adds: a poem is a semicolon, a living semicolon, and this:

Between the first and last lines there exists–a poem–and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other.

This line reminded me of a gameshow I was watching — well, listening to because I was sitting under the tv so I couldn’t see it — in the waiting room of a clinic last week. It’s called “Chain Reaction” and contestants have to link two seemingly disconnected words by creating 3 other words between them. An example: Private and Tension. The chain of words connecting them: Private eye level surface Tension

At some point as I read, I suddenly thought of middles. The in-betweens, after the beginning, before the end. How much attention do these get, especially if we jump right in and start with them. It reminds me of a writing prompt/experiment I came up with for my running log: Write a poem about something that happened during the middle of your run–not at the beginning or the end, but the middle (see nov 27, 019).

As I headed out for my run, I hoped to think about middles.

during the run

Did I think about middles at all during the run? I recall thinking about beginnings, particularly the idea that the beginning of something can feel overwhelming — like a long run: How am I going to be able to run for an entire hour? I have learned to remember that you just have to start and usually something will happen that makes it easier. Did I think about endings? Not that I can remember.

after the run

Here are some bits from the lecture I’d like to remember:

(from Paul Valéry) the opening line of a poem, he said, is like finding a fruit in the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.

Roland Barthes suggests there are three ways to finish any piece of writing: the ending will have the last word or the ending will be silent or the ending will execute a pirouette, so something unexpectedly incongruent.

“But it is growing damp and I must go in. Memory’s fog is rising.” Among Emily Dickinson’s last words (in a letter). A woman whom everyone thought of as shut-in, homebound, cloistered, spoke as if she had been out, exploring the earth, her whole life, and it was finally time to go in. And it was.

Here are more things I wrote in my Plague notebook inspired by this lecture:


mid-walk, mid-run
Activity: notice and record what you notice in the midst of motion. Pull out your smart phone and speak your thoughts into it.

Not how you got there or were you’re headed, but here now in-between

Threshold Doors Ways in or out
Inner becomes Outer
Turn inside out

And now, even more about beginnings and endings:

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?

Ruefle mentions crossing a finish line and also old movies that used to conclude with THE END in big letters across the screen. The satisfaction of a clean, clear ending. How often does that happen?

Is death the end? And of what? Is birth the beginning?

Are beginnings and endings only a product of linear time? Or is it that they take on certain meanings, support certain values (like progress) within a linear model?

a few minutes after posting this entry: Found this on twitter:

from Note 167: “Breathing is the beginning. It is, for us, a first and final movement. In it, we find the prototype of all method, without which: nothing. Breathing, thus, is the foregrounding of all concept—its precursor and first condition, its resolution.”

Between the Covers interview with Christina Sharpe

I haven’t listened to the interview yet, but I would imagine that the breathing here is speaking to and about a lot of things, not the least of which is how black bodies are not allowed to breathe or are forced to stop breathing in ways that white bodies are not.

may 4/RUN

locks and dam #1 hill loopmiles
60 degrees

Another warm day. Hooray! Another chance to run in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. Saw Mr. Morning! Heard some voices down below in the gorge. Ran down the hill then back up it at locks and dam #1. Noticed a big pile of something on the path — clumps of dirt, rock, is that a furry tail? Probably not, but I can’t tell. Often, I see dead squirrels that aren’t there. The river was blue and not quite as high as it was last week.

Mary Ruefle and pink

before the run

from My Private Property/ Mary Ruefle

Pink sadness is the sadness of white anchovies. It is the sad-
ness of deprivation, of going without, of having to swallow
when your throat is no bigger than an acupuncture pin;
it’s the sadness of mushrooms born with heads too big for
their bodies, the sadness of having the soles come off your
only pair of soes, or your favorite pair, it makes no differ-
ence, pink sadness cannot be measured by a gameshow
host, it is the sadness of shame when you have done noth-
ing wrong, pink sadness is not your fault, and though even
the littlest twinge may cause it, it is the vast bushy top on
the family tree of sadness, whose faraway roots resemble a
colossal squid with eyes the size of soccer balls.

Today, or this morning at least, I shall think of pink. Here’s another pink poem I bookmarked a few months ago:


Pink is an unhappy hue, not soothing like cerulean, nor calming like lavender or gray. It is the color of fingernails shorn away, blood dripping from the waxen quick. It is the color of a sunburned arm. The color of harm that lingers on cut shins for days. Pink is not the shade of buttercups or daisies. It is the color of poisonous brugmansia blooms, of poppies that bring on sleep. Pink saturates the face in anger. It is the cast left on a cutting board by a hunk of uncooked meat. Pink, too, is the bittersweet shade of passion subdued, passion that has slipped from burgundy to rose. It is only a tincture of desire and so carries the least conviction. It is the tint that drifts away unnoticed in the night. Be frightened of pink. Do not think it the innocent color of dresses or barrettes, the blush of areolas, strawberry snow cones, or grenadine martinis. Try, for once, to see it rightly. It is frightening. It is the hue of a person’s insides, the color of a womb. That room where life arises. That room where babies are made. Where arms, legs, and heads are created. Eyes, blood, and tiny teeth.

And some of my thoughts about pink:

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.

during the run

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.

Running, as I listened to a P!nk song — What About Us, I lifted out of my hips, opened my shoulders, and led with my chest. Open.

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.

after the run

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.

Came across this poem too — I encountered this poem a few weeks ago, but can’t remember where.

Gift/ Hilda Conkling

This is mint and here are three pinks 
I have brought you, Mother.  
They are wet with rain  
And shining with it.  
The pinks smell like more of them  
In a blue vase:  
The mint smells like summer  
In many gardens.

And one more thing, before I forget. Yesterday I happened upon this delightful line from a Ross Gay poem I gathered a few years ago for this blog: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude/ Ross Gay

the tiny bee’s shadow
perusing these words as I write them.

Later, sitting on the deck on a warm, sunny day — finally! — and under the service berry bush that’s big enough to be called a tree, I saw a shadow on my notebook as I jotted down a note: a bee! Then another shadow, crossing the page, over my words. Were they perusing them? Love it.

may 3/RUN

5.4 miles
bottom of franklin hill and back
55 degrees

What a beautiful morning for a run! Back to shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. Could it finally be spring? The floodplain forest seems to think so, green everywhere. Saw Dave the Daily Walker, lots of runners, walkers, bikers. Heard some black-capped chickadees and woodpeckers. Smelled some cigarette smoke. The trail is open again in the flats. The river is still high and moving fast but it’s not passing over the railing and onto the road. Ran to the bottom of the hill, stopped to check out the water, put in the soundtrack to “Dear Evan Hansen” (we’re playing it in the community band I’m in), ran up the hill, then, on the way back, ran down on the Winchell Trail. I had to step carefully because the path was slanted with a steep drop off.

During the run, I had several feel good/runner’s high moments. So nice!

Running north, somewhere above the white sands beach, I started thinking about something I was working on earlier today about how my changing vision is closing some doors, opening others. I’m particularly interested in thinking about how it opens doors without ignoring/denying the shut ones too. Anyway, I suddenly had a thought: it’s not just that it opens doors, but it makes it so those doors can’t shut. I waited until I reached the bottom of the hill and then spoke my idea into my phone. Here’s a transcript:

It’s not just that doors open, they won’t shut. I can’t close them to the understandings that I’m both forced to confront but also have the opportunity to explore. But the key thing is that the doors can’t be shut.

my notes recorded during a run on 3 may 2023

I came to this idea after thinking about how vision is strange and tenuous and a lot of guesswork for everyone. A big difference between me and a lot of other people is that I can’t ignore or deny that fact. It’s much easier for people with “normal” vision to imagine, with their sharp vision and their ability to focus fast, that they are seeing exactly what is there. They’re not. Even if I wanted to, I can’t pretend that that is true. I’m reminded all of the time of how tenuous converting electrical impulses into images is and what the brain does for us to make those images intelligible.

Mary Ruefle

Before the Run

I’m trying something different, or maybe it’s not different, just something I often do without recognizing it as an approach: I’m following a wandering path through Ruefle’s work that is not systematic, but seems to suddenly appear as I encounter ideas, words, lines from other poems. This morning, during my daily routine of reading the poem of the day on, then, then, I found a wonderful poem that features the color red. Red I said, then thought, why not read Ruefle’s sadness poem about red for today? So I will. First, the poem that set my course:

A Tiny Little Equation/ Shuri Kido

Translated from the Japanese by Tomoyuki Endo & Forrest Gander

For whom is (the evening glow)
To human eyes,
the red wavelength shimmering in the air
is reflected,
but to the eyes of birds
which recognize even ultraviolet rays,
the evening glow looks much paler.
And when all the lives on Earth are finally snuffed out,
and the human solstice has passed,
every color will cease to “exist.”
As clouds pile up densely above the sea,
kids get restless
feeling some sort of invitation.
On such occasions, when you’re unable to read a “book”
while splashing around in the sea or river
as though dancing with water gods,
you’ll notice beads of water on your skin
reflecting the world.
In such an optical play,
the summer vanishes;
some people have gone off
with the water gods
and have never come back.
Textbooks, left on a desk unopened,
hold on to their tiny equations.
When each and every living thing has lost its life
and there remains not a single being,
for whom is (the evening glow)

This poem! For whom (is the evening glow) “red”? Okay, this will be the next poem I memorize. I want to own every word of it. Should I try to fit one of its lines in my colorblind plate cento? I’ll think about it.

Now, Ruefle’s red sadness:

from My Private Property/ Mary Ruefle

Red sadness is the secret one. Red sadness never appears
sad, it appears as Nijinsky bolting across the stage in mid-
air, it appears in flashes of passion, anger, fear, inspiration,
and courage, in dark unsellable visions; it is an upside-
down penny concealed beneath a tea cozy, the even-tem-
pered and steady-minded are not exempt from it, and a
curator once attached this tag to it: Because of the fragile
nature of the pouch no attempt has been made to extract
the note.

as an aside: In my initial typing up of this poem, I left out the is in the first sentence: Red sadness the secret one. I do that a lot, leave out words. I think it’s partly that my failing vision makes me sloppier, but I wonder if it’s not also because my way of reading/thinking has changed, become more abbreviated. I cut out the unnecessary words, worry less about full sentences, want more condensed, compact ideas. I’m tired of extra words — literally, it hurts my brain when I have to read so many words, but also figuratively, having spent so many years wasting all of my energy on finding the right words (right = smart enough, fancy enough, researched enough) to make an argument that finally maybe almost gets to the point. I also like using less words like a fun experiment — how many words do we actually need in order to understand something or to communicate an idea?

I need to think more about this poem and what it means or does. In the meantime, while searching for an online version of this poem (so I wouldn’t have to type it up myself), I found another red poem by Ruefle. I’ve read it before.

Red/ Mary Ruefle

I fucking depended on you and
you left the fucking wheelbarrow
out and it’s fucking raining
and now the white chickens
are fucking filthy

note: Future Sara, and anyone else reading this, I recommend listening to Ruefle read this poem on the poetry foundation site (link in title). The way she spits out fucking is the best.

another note, 9 oct 2023, from future (but now present) Sara: thanks past Sara! Reviewing this post for a class I’m teaching, I came across the note and listened to Ruefle read “Red.” So fucking great!

Ruefle’s poem is a response to William Carlos Williams iconic red wheel barrow poem. I know that tons of poetry people have studied/obsessed over this poem and have tons of great (and not so great) ideas about what it means. I have not, and am not entirely sure what Ruefle intends/means with her poem. I like it anyway. Maybe she’s sick of all of the attention it’s received?

Read WCW’s poem and Ruefle’s side by side on this twitter thread.

On that same thread, I also found these lines from Fiona Apple and her song, “Red Red Red”:

I don’t understand about complementary colors
And what they say
Side by side they both get bright
Together they both get gray

But he’s been pretty much yellow
And I’ve been kinda blue
But all I can see is
Red, red, red, red, red now
What am I to do

Now it’s time to go out for a run. I’ll try to find red.

During the Run

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)

A funny thing about looking for red: I found it everywhere. Today anything that registered as a color other than blue, green, brown, or gray was red. Red cars, red shirts, red leaves on the trees from last fall. No orange, hardly any yellow, all red. Red red red.

may 2/WALK

45 minutes
with Scott and Delia
60 degrees

Since I ran yesterday, I decided to walk today. Windy. Fire warning. Everything so dry. The grass in the boulevard sounded like we were walking over plastic. Spent most of the walk frustrated, discussing how to parent — not frustrated with each other, but the situation. As a result, didn’t notice much on the walk. Can I think of 10 things?

10 Things I Noticed

  1. the call of at least one black capped chickadee
  2. all the snow has finally melted at cooper field
  3. our neighbor’s tree has big white blossoms exploding on every limb
  4. the sun was warm, the air dry
  5. a sidewalk marked with the dreaded white dots that mean they need to be replaced — and that the homeowner will have to pay for it. We paid $3200 last year for the squares we needed replaced
  6. same house: beautiful purple flowers all over the grass
  7. the next house: no white dots, even with several chipped squares — have they not come through to mark this section yet?
  8. the trail down to the bottom of the sink hole at 7 oaks was green and inviting
  9. at the very end of our walk, the teenage son of our neighbor pulled up fast in front of their house — okay, I assume it was the teenager because of his reckless way of driving
  10. the worn down tracks from car tires in the grass below edmund and just above the river road — when did a car drive through here?

Mary Ruefle

A brief return to “On Theme”: I found a helpful essay by Ron Slate on Madness, Rack, and Honey yesterday after I posted my entry. His name sounded familiar and his writing so helpful that I imagined I’d encountered him before. Not sure, but I discovered he’s Jenny Slate’s dad. Very cool. Anyway, back to his helpful commentary from his blog On the Seawall. Here is one idea to archive:

In her lectures, Ruefle behaves like a poem:

As a poet, Ruefle has often found the strange sublime wherever her glance settles, and as a teacher she leaps from topic to topic, critiquing American culture here, then quoting Clarice Lispector or Charles Lamb over there on a different subject. Everything coheres through the stickiness of her solitary mind.

Commentary on MRH

To behave like a poem! I love this idea, both as a description of what MR is doing and also as an aspirational goal.

Earlier in his commentary, Slate mentions another one of Ruefle’s lectures, “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World,” so I’ll read that one next.

Someone Reading a Book

At the start of reading this lecture, I’d like to note my current relationship to reading and my deep belief in books: Reading with my diseased eyes is still possible, but difficult. And difficult to explain. It’s not that the words are so fuzzy or faint to be illegible. Mostly I can make them out, but the page and the words seem to be in constant motion, vibrating. Not quickly, but constantly. Or, is it my brain that’s vibrating? I can’t tell. What I can say with some certainty is that my experience of struggling to read with faltering eyes does not involve a harsh voice in my head sternly saying, I can’t read!, or a panicked voice muttering, i can’t read?, which is what I thought would happen if I were to lose my sight when I imagined such a horror as a kid playing a game of would you rather lose your vision or your hearing? Or maybe I thought I’d cry out, Pa! I can’t see!

No, struggling to read involves a lot of distractions and falling asleep mid-sentence and struggling to finish 400 page books within the 3 week check-out period from the local library. Unintentionally skipping entire lines, wanting to get lost in a good book but somehow managing to do anything and everything else instead — dishes, laundry, scrolling through instagram. Even as I wish I could read as much and as fast as I used to, I am grateful to have the small comfort of gradually easing into the loss, not having one single terrifying moment of recognition. Thank you, brain.

I am in year 4 of the 5 that my eye doctor predicted I had before losing all of my central vision. A few cone cells right in the center of my central vision are holding on, diligently delivering data so that I can read Ruefle’s lecture or this entry. But, how well can I actually read this entry? Even as I try to proofread, I often leave out words or spell them wrong. When those cone cells die — is it certain that they will die? — will I finally have that moment of terrible recognition? Will it be like Ruefle describes when she woke up one morning and couldn’t read:

When I was forty-five years old, I woke up on an ordinary day, neither sunny or overcast, in the middle of the year, and I could no longer read….the words that existed so I might read them sailed away, and I was stranded on a quay while everything I loved was leaving. And then it was I who was leaving: a terror seized me and took me so high up in its talons that I was looking helplessly down on a tiny, unrecognizable city, a city I and loved and lived in but would never see again.

(She concludes: “I needed reading glasses, but before I knew that, I was far far away.” In the margins of the book I wrote: drama bomb, which we — me, Scott, RJP, and FWA have been saying a lot lately.) I can’t know for sure, but I doubt that even if I do wake up tomorrow without being able to read the words on a page that this type of terror will seize me. Maybe one reason is that when I can’t read with my eyes, I can still read with my ears. I’ve spent the last 4 years building up my reading-as-listening skills. And there are so many amazing audio books available!

This is not to say that losing my ability to stare endlessly at words and understand them is not painful. It’s strange to walk by the bookshelves crammed full of all my wonderful books from grad school, filled with notes in the margins, and know they’re useless to me. Or to go to a bookstore, which used to be one of my favorite things to do, and hate — or maybe just strongly dislike — being there, unable to read the title of books unless I pick them up and slowly study them. It’s painful, but not tragic or a tragedy.

But, back to Ruefle. Here are a few things from it I’d like to remember:

1 — ridiculousness

I heard someone say, at a party, that D. H. Lawrence should be read when one is in their late teens and early twenties. As I was nearing thirty at the time, I made up my mind never to read him. And I never have. Connoisseurs of reading are very silly people. But like Thomas Merton said, one day you wake up and realize religion is ridiculous and that you will stick with it anyway.

2 — a journal entry

I find nothing in my life that I can’t find more of in books. With the exception of walking on the beach, in the snowy woods, and swimming underwater. That is one of the saddest journal I ever made when I was young.

When I read her journal entry, my first reaction was, yes! Then as I kept reading, it was, why is that so sad? I agree that there is more than books and walking and woods and swimming, but a life filled with these things isn’t sad. But then I remembered that she has her own issues with the body — being outdoors and athletic — which she brought up in “On Theme,” believing “stupidly they will disenhance whatever intellectual qualities I may possess” (59). Being a body, especially an active body moving through outdoor space, does not diminish your ability to think critically or creatively or intellectually. Instead, it can strengthen these abilities.

3 — connection

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things. This arcane bit of of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpte, utterly forgotten. In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a a single life span….

4 — a list of book titles

In the last section, on page 199, Ruefle offers a list of book titles mixed in seamlessly with types of/ways of reading. The Sun Also Rises with luminous debris and the biography of someone you’ve never heard of.

from Madness, Rack, and Honey/ Mary Ruefle

Against the Grain. Nightwood. The Dead. Notes for the Underground. Fathers and Sons. Eureka. The Living. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Sun Also Rises. Luminous Debris. Childish Things. The Wings of the Dove. The Journal of an Understanding Heart. Wuthering Heights. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Tristes Tropiques. The Tale of Genji. Black Sun. Deep Ocean Organisms Which Live Without Light. The Speeches of a Dictator. The Fundamentals of Farming. The Physics of Lift. A History of Alchemy. Opera for Idiots. Letters from Elba. For Esmé–with Love and Squalor. The Walk. The Physiology of Drowning. Physicians’ Desk Reference. Bleak House. The Gospel according to Thomas. A Biography of Someone You’ve Never heard Of. Forest Management. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. TGravels in Arabia Deserta. The Collected Works of Paul Valéry. A Book Written in a Language You Do Not Understand. The Worst Journey in the World. The Greatest Story Ever Told. A Guide to Simple First Aid. The Art of Happiness.


I really like this lecture and her various accounts of reading books. It makes me want to offer up my own account, especially in the shadow of my vision loss. I appreciate the format of fragments that are their own things but also loosely connect with each other.

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!