Lit: Madness, Rack, and Honey

The following is a quasi-review of Mary Ruefle’s collection of lectures and essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey. This is not meant to be a full analysis or synopsis of the book, but rather a glimpse into its character, voice, and my first impressions upon reading it.


First, I had no intention of falling in love with this book. I swear, I tried to avoid it. My heart’s spread in too many places as it is. But I did. Still am, actually.

Madness, Rack, and Honey is a collection on poetry and literature. It is also far more than that.

On Beginnings. Poetry and the Moon. On Sentimentality. On Secrets: Eight Beginnings, Two Ends. Madness, Rack, and Honey. Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World. Remarks on Letters. Kangaroo Beach. Lectures I Will Never Give.

Ruefle assembles a panoply of charming vignettes and meditations, and her prose, while completely accessible, borders on poetic verse—fully obvious but with degrees of elusiveness. (Poems are paradoxes). She also draws quotes and samples from tons of voices. In a few of the lectures, nearly half of the words are not her own. Somehow, it works. The effect is like a congregation of heartfelt whispers in your ear, some from literary greats and others from Ruefle. At times, they are almost indistinguishable.

It’s quite magical.

Every time I read a poem I am willing to die.

This book came to me during a lonely evening. Strange, loneliness—it is experienced individually, yet it exists as a collective sensation.

We must be careful not to take the word as the meaning itself; words do not “capture” a moment as much as they “communicate” it—they are a bridge that, paradoxically, breaks isolation and loneliness without eradicating it. It is the first experience you ever had of reading a decent poem: “Oh, somebody else is lonely, too!”

Most of these lectures are meant to be savored through time. I read one of them over the course of a week. After the echo of the last word, the only thought my raddled mind could produce was: a pencil, a statuette, some white pebbles.

(Your incentive: to understand, read it. It’s entitled “My Emily Dickinson.” Ruefle does wonders. She manages to turn thirty-nine pages into a work of smoldering resonance. Holy smokes.)

In another, Ruefle writes what she remembers, which in turn made me remember.

I remember standing in a field in Switzerland at dusk, surrounded by cows with bells around their necks, and reading John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” out loud from an open book I was holding in my hands, and I started to weep—weep is a better word for it than cry—and I remember the tears slowing streaming down my face, it was that beautiful to me, and I loved poetry that much. I was eighteen.

This book is a treasure trove of irreverence and sincerity. (“Irreverence and sincerity are not opposed; we all know this, yet it is a common occurrence in life that our behavior is in direct opposition to what we know.”) If I could have my way, this quasi-review would be nothing but quotes. Well, hold on, I do have my way!

In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?

Honestly, though, I cannot sum up this work. I can only produce a keyhole into the world of madness, rack, and honey that Ruefle illuminates.

We are all one question and the best answer seems to be love—a connection between things.

Take this disjointed review, for example.

Even between the ones at war, the disconnected, the scarred, the grinding opinions, there is a connection, one that we often glaze over: that we are humans, alive, and we can be taught something about that.


A side note on this particular edition of the book: I should have foregone the library and bought my own copy instead, because I cannot recall how often I was tempted to converse and annotate; nearly every page is quotable and contains sentences that beg to be underlined. The margins are wide and ample (very inviting), the overall book design is spot-on, and I’m loving the type-centered cover.

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