Not all poetry comes to us whole. Paper erodes, tablets are smashed. We will never retrieve much of what was delivered orally. In a recent translation of Sappho, the ancient Greek female poet, the classicist Anne Carson reminds us how flagrantly time steals. "On a papyrus roll the text is written in columns . . . To read such a text is hard even when it comes to us in its entirety and most papyri don't. Of the nine books of lyrics that Sappho is said to have composed, one poem has survived complete. All the rest are fragments."
Reading lyrics by Sappho is doubly haunting then. In addition to being moved by what survives, one feels like a voyeur, an eavesdropper strolling by a house at night, suddenly pelted by the sounds of an impassioned argument drifting out an open window. In her latest book-length poem, A Little White Shadow, Bennington writer and Vermont College professor Mary Ruefle attempts to recreate this sensation. Each page of this tiny book is smothered in what appears to be liquid paper, a.k.a. white-out. Only a few shards of text remain, leaving the impression of a document that has been censored or heavily revised.
In a way, it has been. Ruefle has begun with an actual 19th-century text, and then applied the correction fluid on top of it. The result is a very unusual kind of found poem. On the first page, we read "one in ruins," then skip down through a sea of white to find "struck . . . notes . . . whose / sounds / spent a winter here." Two pages later, we get "autumn / had no particular talents but
. . . genius." Seasons have come and gone, the poem suggests. And now we are trying to recreate the music.
There is something gimmicky to this experiment, but it's interesting how quickly the eye adapts and then attempts to decode it. Some sections of the white-out are nearly transparent, and ghostly chunks of text nearly peek through the scrim. Try as one might, however, it's impossible to make it out. In other places, Ruefle applies the white stuff like a Van Gogh of erasure, the brush strokes thick and furious. You can see the texture, but it's not tactile.
There are two kinds of statements being made here. One has to do with the passage of time, and what remains. Even if it seems a bit morbid to collect "seven centuries of / sobbing / gathered / in the / twilight" and call it music, or poetry, we have to try. The book reminds us of a vital connection with the past, then wallops us with the fact of our own creeping mortality. "The dead. / borrow so little from / the past," goes one of the book's more profound lines, "as if they were alive." A little later: "It / was my duty to keep / the . . . piano . . . filled with roses."
If this doesn't feel like some sort of weird funeral, I don't know what does. Ruefle is haunted by grief over the unsaid, the untransmitted message. One of the finest poems in her previous volume, Tristimania, considered letters that may not arrive. "Why is a stamp destined/to miss the kiss of its own cancellation?" she wrote. "There they go, stupes / into the maelstrom, / on the wings of a sweet white dove." It's been a long time since letters were sent via pigeon or other flying fowl, but things still get lost.
The other comment implicit in this book has to do with the creation of a poem. Convention-ally, we think of poetry as something written. But in order to craft verse, one must have imagery, senses or experience, all of which draw on memory -- which, as everyone knows, is full of holes. In other words, the building blocks of a poem have been pre-sorted by time. Sometimes, what passes through is profound. Other times it's merely silly: "at last standing breathless before / two donkey / stopped and spoke with them."
A Little White Shadow takes this internal creative mulling and externalizes it, makes it visible. Here the poet is working as a sculptor, chiseling and sanding, finding what's there amid layers of useless material. On more occasions than one might imagine, Ruefle finds a line or two of great beauty: "the servant / seemed to be a / lady in . . . quaint / de Medici costume, / resting on soft / red cushions,
. . . partially/covered with . . . hands."
She also finds several wonderful, memorable couplets: "my ignorance /was a reigning influence" is one, and "saints / disagreed with her" will surely one day be used to describe a diva. Toward the end of the book, Ruefle discovers "artists and their quarrels / a barbarity worthy of the Goths themselves" lurking among text we will never get to see.
Perhaps a book like this will set a few purists on the warpath. This is not poetry, they might say. It is one step removed from a crossword puzzle or that refrigerator magnet word-play game. To which Ruefle could fling the very best of what she's dredged from a dried up and dead old piece of 19th-century text: "Agnes . . . Agnes, / the stern sad problems of human / existence / has its pauses." These are some of our more elegant ones.