“It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads,” opens “My Private Property,” the title piece of Mary Ruefle’s new collection. Ruefle confesses that at age sixteen, she fell in love with a shrunken head in the Congo Museum in Belgium: “…I was not then, nor am I now, immune to the charms of having someone else to play with.” She reminds squeamish readers that the gruesome rite of head shrinking is not unlike our more familiar traditions. “Don’t we carry photographs of the heads of those we love who have died?” In fact, one of us “leaving on a long journey would carry such a head,” maybe in a locket or box. Though Ruefle’s matter-of-fact sentences seem pedestrian in tone and form, they swerve with weird logic.
Ruefle’s content ranges widely in this essay, from the sordid history of colonialism to the violent nature of love to writers’ desire to possess their readers and thereby “own as many heads as possible,” just as a god is dependent on prayers—otherwise “what would he be but a shrunken head on the end of a thread in a museum of ideas?” Here, as elsewhere in the collection, Ruefle collapses the boundaries between the personal, political, and metaphysical.
The book contains 41 prose pieces of varying lengths and style. Some read like parables (a fox that cannot stop crying) and some like autobiography (a “cryalog”—reproduced in facsimile—that records how often Ruefle cried during one month in 1998 and launches a treatise on menopause). Scattered throughout are eleven untitled pieces that describe the colors of sadness. At times the kaleidoscopic impressionism of these color poems lacks the directional energy on display elsewhere in the book, but the images are striking and unexpectedly layered (orange sadness “speaks the strange antlered language of phantoms and dead batteries…”).
Tucked in the back of the book is a playful note: “In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.” But it does, of course, for the reader has been permitted entry into the “private property” of Ruefle’s mind. The reader becomes the girl in the museum captivated by a head: “there seems to be but one glance, as if you and the other are sharing the same pair of eyes.”