When Mary Ruefle’s book Melody: The Story of a Child arrived in the mail several weeks ago, I could smell the musty, antique pages and the faint whiff of stale cigarette smoke before I even opened the package. The beige envelope arrived by U.S. Postal Service, without insurance and without tracking–a method that is not only cheaper, but also less conspicuous, as Ruefle explained to me on the phone one afternoon.

Ruefle is anti-FedEx (a description that fits this writer in so many ways); she finds both the cost and the hyped-up urgency of express shipping unnecessary. She also hates preciousness. When I expressed concern about damaging the spine of the book during the scanning process, Mary was lackadaisical: “Don’t worry. It’s meant to be handled. That whole archival, white-glove thing is ridiculous anyway.”

A new erasure by Mary Ruefle is a rare event, and the publication of one online or in print even rarer. Her one-of-a-kind creations occasionally appear in journals or are purchased by museums or collectors. In 2006 Wave Books published the acclaimed volume A Little White Shadow, a book of “haiku-like minifables, sideways aphorisms, and hauntingly perplexing koans,” as described by Publisher’s Weekly. Although Ruefle doesn’t own a computer or do email, she has a website where fans can enjoy perusing a small sampling of her one-of-a-kind erasures.

Still, these unique works are difficult to come by, so when Mary offered to share an erasure that had never been seen before, I jumped at the chance to publish it on Gwarlingo.

 

"I have resisted formal poetry my whole life," says Mary Ruefle, "but at last found a form I can't resist. It is like writing with my eyes instead of my hands."

 

Ruefle is one of today’s most admired practitioners of erasure poetry–the creation of a new text by disappearing the old text that surrounds it. Gwarlingo readers who enjoyed the erasure poetry of Jen Bervin last December will find much to appreciate in Ruefle’s work. Her writing is playful, poignant, humorous, and eccentric, and like no other voice I know.

It is fitting that Ruefle’s Sunday Poem should follow my article on Lewis Hyde and appropriation, for Melody is an excellent example of a creative work made from existing text, in this case, a 19th century novel called Melody: The Story of a Child.

In Ruefle’s skillful hands, we enter an alternative world that is far removed from the original saccharine plot of Laura E. Richards’ 1894 melodrama: “Miraculously saved from charred rubble, blind twelve-year-old Melody changes the lives of an entire community as well as her greedy captors.” Ruefle has transformed Richards’ religious melodrama into a compelling, concise, subversive work of art.

Why erase the words of other writers? As Jeannie Vanasco explains in The Believer, the “philosophical answer is that poets, as Wordsworth defines them, are ‘affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present.’ The more practical answer: compared to writing, erasing feels easy…To erase is to write, style is the consequence of a writer’s omissions, and the writer is always plural. To erase is to leave something else behind.”