This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.
When we begin to discuss the terms “erasure,” or “mark-out” in reference to poetry, the distinct lack of something, the elision, deletion of, or practice of obscuring and “hiding” is often the predominant given in the conversation; the awareness of that which has been taken away, the impact of rendering pieces of a text either completely inert or absent from the page by scrawling, drawing, or black-box style markings. No matter the method, the technique usually effects censure or restriction. Instead of dearth or absence, Ruefle’s use of “white-out” to create the 42-page poem speaks less of deletion and more of replacement or possibility. The use of the “corrective” material creates a revisionist spirit that, given the events of history surrounding the original A Little White Shadow and those that come after.
The treatment performed on Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow takes on the poetic method of mark-out with her interpretation of the “white shadow” that pervades the text. Even on the title page, Ruefle has painted over the author of the novel A Little White Shadow (Emily Malbone Morgan, Brown & Gross, 1889) and signed her name over Morgan’s – one of the gestures made in the text that contributes more toward addition than subtraction. While the footprint of Morgan’s text is already slight (the work covers the entirety of the source text, itself only 42 pages), Ruefle’s work casts a much longer shadow. Paradoxically, in the act of taking away, the erasure opens the book to myriad possibility, an energy of potential, and a spirit of action rather than redaction.
Rather than, as the epigraph reads, being “so much the less complete,” A Little White Shadow is lighter in terms of present text, but much heavier in poetic weight and so much more whole, even if it exhorts the reader to look beyond its pages for that sense of completeness.
Reminiscent of Reddy’s Voyager, Ruefle’s book takes on a specific historical conditions embedded in the original text. Morgan, an active member of a religiously progressive social family, used her writing as a tool to support charitable activity – as told by the epigraph to the source, unchanged by Ruefle, that the original A Little White Shadow was dedicated “for the benefit of a Summer Home for Working Girls,” one of many projects that Morgan took on throughout her life as a significant figure in the Deaconess movement. And Morgan’s work often contributes to the spirit of community responsibility, her protagonists often interacting characters who are taking on or who actively seek out wards for which to care. Her first attempt being A Little White Shadow, the text takes on a heavily autobiographical and symbolist style that turns into the thread that Ruefle grasps as her entry point, decoding the text and creating a depth that attaches itself to the short novel’s pervasive shadow motif – the “shadow” in this case decoding the narrative of autobiography that runs throughout, the “shadow” of the author cast over the text.
Ruefle’s text is a footnote pointing to and reestablishing Morgan’s place in cultural context – a kind of poetic “yes, and” that summons an interpretation of Stein’s “system to pointing” among a referential poetics. Whereas many reviews of Ruefle’s work consider the book to be a collection of oppositional and shifting styles, it is, rather, a cohesive body. While many found poetry books opt for their own formats, Ruefle’s is constructed to be as close a facsimile to the original as can be easily reproduced; the pages are archival photo quality copies of the mark-outs – preserving the typography, color, and the sense of texture (even if not able to reproduce the actual sensation). Rather than remove the book from history and forcibly make it contemporary, A Little White Shadow is endowed with a kind of historical status and significance that makes it artifact rather than mere artifice.
The contemporary text is mark-out that removes only those things that would obscure Morgan-as-speaker of the long poem. Thus, Ruefle exposes Morgan’s voice not as author, but as figure to step out of time and address the modern such as a moment nearly halfway through the book when the operating thesis occurs and Morgan speaks:
we would never any of us / miss // suffering // would lay back / on her pillows exhausted with the intensity of hope.
The turn of the 20th century being a time of marked social change reflected in the autumnal setting of Morgan’s novella, the position of the author-cum-speaker at an inflection point is not lost in Ruefle’s poems. Though one normally associates the spring season with renewal, for Ruefle’s speaker there is change associated with the energy of fall writing that, “autumn // had no particular talents but genius”, the line breaks coming with a kind of halted awkward momentum that is separated by barriers of physical white space created by the white-out used to hide the surrounding words. But from this mixed sense of restraint and potential comes passages that communicate the willingness to break out of social roles such as the “duty to keep / the piano filled with roses” into a realization that
everyone you met / was sure, sooner or later, to speak // the // time.
This start-and-stop kinetic pacing creates a tension that, in turn, generates its own narrative as the text builds from page to page with a frantic, irregular energy as the pages contain more text in larger fragments over the course of the closing pages of the book only for the speaker to retreat back into long-held social positions as those around the speaker are pictured “look-/ing down the road as if waiting for / a new volume of Browning”, and the sense of transformation, change, and potential becomes arrested by “September // married very quietly to / Rome // on her way back to Russia.” Ruefle’s text completes the arc of a “shadow” narrative along with that of Morgan’s novella, though with dramatically different speed and with significantly different results.
If there is any issue with A Little White Shadow it is that, in the spirit of addition, Ruefle’s inclusion of pasted-in imagery that occurs twice in the book could possibly have been put to more use. As it stands, the two visual elements superimposed on top of the marked-out text are the image of a chair and that of a letter which, while fitting the imagery and context of the page, do little to add depth to the text. While these objects do break up the page and call back to other work that has contained a similar mechanic (Tom Philips’ A Humument being one example), in Ruefle’s book, they approach becoming little more than “red herrings” in a text that does so much with its placement as an origin for a network of reference – the more puzzling of the two being the inclusion of an envelope addressed to “Mrs. Henry Ward Brown” of Menlo Park, California, about which research into possible reference and connection turned up little to inform the text on the page.
However, the alternate approach taken by Ruefle in A Little White Shadow does achieve success in acting as a revisionist text that becomes a chronicle of change hewn from a novella that represented an era – one that eschews a world in which “ignorance // was a refining influence” and the “world seemed // drowsy”, instead opting for a time of change and possibility, one that surrounded Morgan in her own time. It is a reminder that even after “seven centuries of // sobbing” there is hope for action in the future.