mary ruefle

write your way to the tree

There is a new project; its newness thrills.

It is all possibility.

I make notes, follow unexpected paths. Discover that one idea is linked to another and then I am scurrying around the library at lunchtime, stacking books.

As to the writing itself, it is difficult to know where exactly to begin.

I turn back to Mary Ruefle’s “On Beginnings:”

Paul Valery also described his perception of first lines so vividly, and to my mind so accurately, that I have never forgotten it: the opening line of a poem, he said, is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.

No small task, tree creation.

I sit in on the final presentations of graduate students in architecture and in the conversation that follows, there is talk of beginnings. One young woman has chosen to design interventions for four city sites. Instead of presenting one problem, she works with four.

“This is a project about beginnings,” someone says.

“I guess I now know how to begin,” the student says when she is offered the opportunity to speak.

She says: “I was sitting in a courtyard in Oaxaca and it was a public space, but set back a bit, so it was also quiet. I wanted to create that sense of quiet in a public space.”


An act of the mind. To move, to make happen, to make manifest. By an act of Congress. A state of real existence rather than possibility. And poets love possibility! They love to wonder and explore. Hard lot! But the poem, no matter how full of possibility, has to exist! To conduct oneself, to behave.

In the class, an observation is offered:

“You are working with beginnings. Each one a kind of experiment. Perhaps what is useful to know is that if you keep repeating experiments, a methodology will emerge.”

The repeated act of beginning itself revealing its hypotheses.

To begin with one small thing: a breeze through a quiet courtyard in the afternoon sun.

To extract something of value and attempt to translate - through form, through the page, through material objects - that value.

To recreate it. Translated through self. Self as translation. Intervention as machine.

Text as machine through which value is extracted then reproduced.

A thought came to me while watching the presentations and hearing the questions they engendered and I carried it, turned it over in my mind, throughout:

How might you frame the problem such that your solution seems inevitable and urgent?

This is not so different, I think, from the fruit and the tree.

A breeze through a quiet courtyard in the afternoon sun. 

Sun on the skin is a place to start. Light and shadow. 

A point of entry: An archway in the courtyard.

Stone steps leading down to water. You can also say they are leading up.

Here is a way in. Here is a place to start.

Here is tender fruit on the ground. 

History, too is written backward.

Start here. Write your way to the courtyard, to the sun on your skin. Write your way to the tree.


I cannot yet explain why (perhaps I will be able to in time) but this passage, from Mary Ruefle’s essay, “Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World,” just made me cry:

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten. In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single life span, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and for the language which we alone created, without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives — is that too much to ask? — retrieved, and read. Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things — the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe — what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don’t have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can’t read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, “The giraffe speaks!” in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?

Perhaps I have been thinking too long and too much about reading and writing as a way to pretend we are not dying.

I spent an hour in the garden this morning, digging out some bulbs that had managed to take root, uninvited, throughout the yard. It is impossible not to think about time passing in the garden and how the hours pass, with me on my knees, accumulating a pile of spent leaves and branches and weeds and bagging them for the trash. These tasks repeated hour after hour, day after day, year upon year. For what purpose, these hours spent in the dirt?

The joy of blooms, yes; there is that. When the beds are tidy and freshly-mulched, there are aesthetic pleasures to be taken in their orderly arrangements. But that particular pleasure is fleeting and the work of it is endless.

A way to mark time, I think. To fill shapeless hours in a life that is itself shapeless. We sketch it out. We make grand gestures in the sky with our hands. But from our first breath, don’t we carry our death inside us? Cocooned within our bodies until it breaks through, its own kind of blossoming; the one inevitable yield of our time on this tender earth.