We live in an incomplete world. A world where what is in front of us can disappear faster than the light from a struck match. A world where forever can vanish while walking from one room and into another. This is why we tell stories. This is why we write poems and plays and novels. We complete the world by living in the world, by speaking, by making things. We complete the world with our first breath and then we do it again with our last.
And like the world we live in, we too are incomplete. And this is why we listen to stories, this is why we read poems and plays and novels. It is an amazing feeling to read something that will make you feel whole. Not that you know it will have that power when you pick it up off the shelf or download it onto an e-reader. You don’t know what will occur until you turn the first page. But when it happens, when someone you don’t know, someone who could have been alive in this incomplete world a hundred years ago, reaches out to you as if through a wave of understanding, it is a feeling of connection that is so deep, so alive, you will comprehend yourself in a new light, a complete light, if only for a moment. This feeling of completion, of betterment and empathy, was what I felt when reading Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures.
I have written here and there little celebrations of this book and have told anyone who would listen to go out and buy it. And that is because it is not just a book which collects the lectures of a wonderful poet, but for me has been a talisman I have carried around since it’s publication, a book that has made me feel sane when my mind is bending and crazy, when I have felt too sensible.
This is a book not just for poets but for anyone interested in the human heart, the inner-life, the breath exhaling a completion of an idea that will make you feel changed in some way. This is a desert island book. This is a lost at sea book. This is a book which has reminded me how I might treat myself and others, how to approach art, how to be happy even though I live in a body which is doing what your body is also doing: dying.
“What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth—of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked.”
This, from Mary’s lecture titled “On Fear,” is just a brief idea of what you will be walking toward when you go out and find her book. It is also why you will probably be skipping or running afterwards.
Matthew Dickman is the poetry editor of Tin House and the author of All-American Poem (American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008) and Mayakovsky’s Revolver (Norton, 2012). He lives and works in Portland, Oregon.