A Little White Shadow

Mary Ruefle

Wave Books

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

The fourth title from the freshly-minted (and minty fresh!) Wave Books, A Little White Shadow is simultaneously the name of Mary Ruefle’s collection of poems, the means by which she collects them, and the title of the original text from which she’s done her collecting. It’s a wee little thing, this book, slickly produced and glossy, but the glossiness is redeemed by the fact that the booklet comes pre-desecrated, marred by little white shadows. Like the recently re-issued Radi os, A Little White Shadow exists by absence, by the strategic erasure of the original text.

Those fancy production values matter here, because the photo-quality reproduction of the disfigured document brings both its primary tone and Ruefle’s subsequent shadings into mutually sharpened relief. Whatever function the book once served (Ruefle leaves unmolested the whole of its nominal purpose — ‘Published for the Benefit of a Summer Home for Working Girls’ — and the date of publication, 1889) its prim milieu declares itself in the color and texture of its age-burnt and mildly tea-stained pages, as well as through the preservation of the font, characterized by archaically bold punctuation type. But just as necessary, of course, is the evidence of Ruefle’s desecrations, hiding in plain sight, row after row of mercilessly if haphazardly applied Wite-Out. To see the proof of her literal obfuscations and not just their result changes the pace at which you read the poems thereby made; given the dualized temporal contexts (the book of the past forced into the present) it becomes easy to envision the poet glancing briefly at each page, finding a choice phrase or serendipitous juxtaposition, and hastily erasing her way to it before moving on. Book, painting, performance, all in one.

Unlike Radi os, however, A Little White Shadow doesn’t carve one coherent text out of the meat of another. Ruefle’s results are pleasingly polyglot, as if she’s found in this single document an occasion to abstract a dozen poetries, each with its signature poems. There are poems in the cryptic-epigrammatic mode, such as

I think what will always lin-
ger longest in our memories of her

we never would any of us miss


and their quarrels

a barbarity worthy of the Goths themselves.

There are also poems that make the exercise of the book seem like nothing more than chemical imperialism, a coy brutalization that offers a glimpse into how one Ruefle turns the words of another writer into Even More Ruefle:

We really did

like Bohemia

and the little
winds blowing

on rainy days

and art was and would always

and her hair, well it might grow

This is a poem that could easily appear anywhere in Ruefle’s canon. And while it’s periodically charming to see her established personae appear here, the more weirdly compelling poems are those that somehow participate in Bizarro-world versions of the ghosted text’s enfleshed intentions:

was my duty to keep
the piano filled with roses.

Coming as it does as the last four lines of a page otherwise utterly erased, the lines immediately beg questions of what else, relative to the speaker’s ‘duty,’ that finds itself corseted into that remaining statement, especially considering the Summer Home for Working Girls, the ‘true’ nature of which Ruefle denies us. Inevitable reverse-engineering of meaning thus makes a micro-context, a wispily attenuated narrative. Thus I link the poem above to the two following:

the servant

seemed to be a

lady in quaint
de Medici costume,

resting on soft
red cushions, partially
covered with hands


the view from the window

and said, “Here I lie day after
day and

and the only things I possess
which can travel, can go no farther,

And from these intuit a decayed, hothouse wistfulness that evaporates from the page as soon as I detect it there. In this way, reading A Little White Shadow is like receiving impassioned letters written to someone who you ain’t. If you are to engage the letters at all, you must take what you can, as you can; there’s no way to ever occupy the shared narrative, but that doesn’t prohibit you from savoring the story summoned by that very impossibility. Indeed, after a book as delightful as this, ‘holistic’ poems are likely to strike you as lead-handed, pedantic.

It’s easy to dismiss this project as slight; it looks like a gimmick (though what poetry isn’t?) and one minor enough to tuck in your back pocket. And while in performing this old trick Ruefle does do her source material a deliberate disservice, in slighting it she also makes something substantial and new.

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One Response to “A Little White Shadow”

  1. Found Poem by Mary Ruefle « The Shebeen Club Says:

    […] can’t help but wish I had the original to compare it with. As someone who’s experimented with poetry with “hidden lines” in alt text and […]

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