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From Multivalent Writing to a Poetics of the Book: A Media-Specific Analysis of Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow

De l’écriture multivalente à la poétique du livre : Analyse média-spécifique de A Little White Shadow de Mary Ruefle
Catherine Ann Winters

Résumés

Dans A Little White Shadow (2006), Mary Ruefle joue avec les caractéristiques communément attribuées au livre imprimé (stabilité, continuité et autorité), invitant son lecteur à voir dans le recueil bien plus qu’un simple réceptacle pour la poésie. Cette œuvre d’effacement est un facsimilé tronqué qui reproduit les marques du blanc-correcteur dont Ruefle s’est servie pour recouvrir le texte d’un court roman d’Emily Malbone Morgan, paru en 1889, sous le titre A Little White Shadow. En faisant de la matérialité même du livre un élément central du poème, Ruefle entend dépasser l’idée d’un recueil qui ne serait qu’un objet ou un dispositif éditorial destiné à présenter de la poésie. Elle procède en effaçant physiquement un livre déjà historiquement « effacé », c’est-à-dire oublié par la critique et quasiment introuvable au moment de la publication de son poème, et dont les thèmes sont l’écriture, la lecture et la littérature. Cette technique s’inscrit dans la pratique artistique du livre d’artiste tel que le définit Johanna Drucker, au sens d’un projet qui interroge la forme et le sens du médium et pose la question de ce qu’est un livre. C’est en mettant à son tour en relation forme et contenu que Ruefle développe sa propre poétique du livre. En somme, elle réfute l’idée selon laquelle le livre de poésie serait mort tout en reconnaissant que le codex (en tant que format entendu, sans conséquence sur le sens du poème) vit probablement ses dernières heures. En venant greffer, à même son poème d’effacement, nos attentes et préjugés à l’égard du médium-livre, Ruefle fait au contraire du livre de poésie, jadis considéré comme le format par défaut, une forme à part entière dans son projet d’écriture.

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  • 1 In her chapter entitled “The Artist’s Book as a Rare and/or Auratic Object,” Drucker defines the “a (...)

1Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006) is a delicate, old-looking little book. The soft cover is the brownish-yellow of aged paper, as are the internal pages. Yet the feel of the book betrays its recent origins. While the book appears antique, this is not because it has traveled over a century to reach your hands, but because it is in fact a facsimile of an 1889 book by Emily Malbone Morgan bearing the exact same title that Ruefle used as the basis for her erasure poem. The covers and each page of Morgan’s book have been scanned and reprinted by Ruefle with modification throughout, mostly in the form of white correction fluid that covers the majority of the original text, leaving only a few words visible on each page. Rather than just serving as a container for the poem – or an apparatus that the reader must interact with to access the poem –, the form of the book itself therefore becomes a significant part of A Little White Shadow, through the multivalent relationship between the original text and what is or is not there. In addition to using a preexisting text to write her poem through erasure, Ruefle also publishes a faithful reproduction of her copy, providing the older book with what Johanna Drucker calls “an auratic quality,”1 which draws our attention to the materiality of the book as well as the meaning of the text (Drucker 2004, 101). This allows Ruefle to engage the book as a feature of her poem, reclaiming the physical object as an essential part of the project even as anxiety over the death of the book continues to be widespread. My argument here is that a poetics of the book is embedded in Ruefle’s poem, since A Little White Shadow activates its own form to question our assumptions about the stability, preservation, and authority of the print medium; incidentally, it does so by playfully obscuring the words in an obscure book.

From Erasure Poetry to A Little White Shadow

2While Ruefle’s name is the only one on the cover, readers who open the book can easily see that the original author’s name has been concealed inside by correction fluid and that Ruefle’s signature has been amended, meaning that the act of appropriation is made highly visible (Fig. 1). Moreover, the original copyright information has been retained on the dedication page: “copyrighted by E. M. M.” in 1889 (Ruefle 2006, 1). Through the visibly altered facsimile, Ruefle seems to suggest that we can weigh the choices she herself made, as well as see the mark of process, if we go back to Morgan’s version (Fig. 2).

Figure 1 : Title page of Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (Seattle and New York, Wave Books 2006).

Figure 1 : Title page of Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (Seattle and New York, Wave Books 2006).

Figure 2 : Page 1 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (Hartford, Brown & Gross 1889), with Emily Malbone Morgan’s original dedication and copyright.

Figure 2 : Page 1 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (Hartford, Brown & Gross 1889), with Emily Malbone Morgan’s original dedication and copyright.

3Of particular interest in Ruefle’s 2006 project is the fact the original book by Morgan, also entitled A Little White Shadow, is not easily found (Carr 2010a, 190). While it has now been digitized, this is merely a recent development, and only fourteen libraries physically hold the book in their collections (OCLC, 2022). The obscurity of the original therefore forces us to question whether we are meant to compare the two books, as is often the case with erasure poetry, or to perceive A Little White Shadow as a work with an absent referent. Using a relatively unknown and rare book means that Ruefle introduces tension in the relationship between original text and altered text because, while the older text is significant, it has practically disappeared from the cultural landscape. In this way, Ruefle deploys what Jerome McGann calls the “double helix of perceptual codes [of every literary work]: the linguistic codes […] and the bibliographical codes” to engage erasure poetics in an interrogation of the print book in general (McGann 1991, 77). Solidly placed within the realm of erasure poetry, Ruefle’s work nevertheless activates the medium of the book in a way that similar projects do not: by going beyond using erasure as a poetic form alone.

4Erasure poems have been widely theorized and Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow is normally discussed within that vein. Erasure is a poetic form “in which poems are wrought by erasing parts of an existing text and presenting the remainder as the work of art” (Epstein 2012, 319) or “the creation of a new text by disappearing the old text that surrounds it” (Ruefle 2010). Writers create and publish erasure poems (and other works of erasure, for they are not all poems, e.g. Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer) in a variety of ways; most “write” their poems by simply working through a text and crossing out words, sometimes reading, sometimes not (for example, Phillips 2000, 425; Ruefle 2010; Kleon 2014, xiv) but the appearances of the published works are more varied. For example, the erasure of source texts can be additive – such as painting (Phillips 2005) or drawing with permanent marker over the words of a text (Kleon 2014) – or subtractive – such as substituting white space where the words were (Borsuk 2018; Fitch 2014) or cutting holes into the paper where words would have been (Foer 2010). A Little White Shadow as produced by Ruefle most closely follows the procedure of Tom Phillip’s A Humument, in that the erasure is additive – achieved by painting over text by hand (with correction fluid) and then producing a facsimile of the (partially obscured) book – but this is a simple method of painting over words that does not illustrate the text. Some writers have chosen to retain the words of the original text while setting it off as visually different, as Jen Bervin does in Nets, which erases Shakespeare’s sonnets and prints the “erased” words in a lighter gray alongside Bervin’s selected words in black. Many authors publish their works of erasure as books (all of the preceding examples are print books); but some also publish erasure poetry online as digital projects, like Jenni Baker’s “Erasing Infinite” (Baker 2014-2022). As illustrated by this short list of examples, while works of erasure can all be understood under the general description of “the deliberate removal (or covering over) of words on the page rather than their traditionally direct application thereto” (Macdonald 2009), there are considerable differences in how works of erasure are published and this is significant in exploring how the medium of the book can be reclaimed as poetry. These differences in modes of publication, and therefore potential relationship to the form of the book, reflect the history of the form.

  • 2 These two titles illustrate a common trope of erasure: the elision of letters in the title to form (...)

5Many critics point to either Ronald Johnson’s Radi os (for example, Macdonald 2009; Epstein 2012, 320) or Tom Phillip’s A Humument2 (for example, Kaplan 2014; Ruefle 2010) as the origin of erasure poetics but the technique has a roughly 250-year history that also intersects with the techniques of “cut-ups” and “fold-ins” from the 1920s (Kleon 2014, xviii-xxii). Álvaro Seiça acknowledges a similar history as Kleon and has identified an increase in erasure poetry in the last fifteen years. Scholars such as Epstein have linked this “mini-trend” of erasure poetry to the larger movement of appropriative writing, which Kenneth Goldsmith claims has been proliferating in the digital age, thanks to the copy-and-paste function on computers that makes it easier to achieve compared to our previous methods of writing, the typewriter and longhand (Goldsmith 2011, 5). As Goldsmith notes, “there was nothing native to the system of typewriting that encouraged the replication of texts” (Goldsmith 2011, 6). While it is certainly true that innovations in personal computing have influenced literature, we should not discount that changes in commercial printing – in which “each of the pages in [… a] book is essentially a single illustration – a combination of text and imagery… that has been etched onto an aluminum plate with preternatural precision by a computer-guided laser and printed in an offset lithographic press” – have also opened up this wide array of options for erasure in the form of the book (Houston 2016, 237). However, not all projects resort to both the “bibliographical codes” of the book that include the physical object and our learned cultural habits and practices, or social protocols (McGann 1991, 77; Gitelman 2006, 7), alongside the “linguistic codes” of the content (McGann 1991, 77). As Simon Morris states:

[I]n the digital age, poetry’s function is to examine the means of transmission, exposing the frame of language, the container that creates meaning – how language is stored, viewed, and moved from one context to another. In considering this, the digital age sees a renewed engagement between speech, reading, and writing. (Morris 2017, 189)

6Where Morris’s interest is in the “medium” of language or literature, we can explore the historical “means of transmission” of the book, as Ruefle does through erasure (Morris 2017, 189). It is this interest in the medium of the book that lays the groundwork for a poetics of the book.

7Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow is most often referenced in scholarly work as an example of the abundance of erasure poetry, either generally (Macdonald 2009; Epstein 2012, 320; Pindyck 2017, 59) or as a way to characterize different types of erasure. In “‘Nothing is Left Out’: Kenneth Goldsmith’s Sports and Erasure Poetry,” Brian C. Cooney categorizes erasure poems into modern and postmodern examples and says that Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow is a postmodern erasure because it enacts a “palimpsest” of the source, rather than being a complete erasure that “entirely effaces the source text” (Cooney 2014, 18). Furthermore, he calls Ruefle’s work a “challenge to canonicity” because she uses a “random book” and thus finds “beauty in the ephemeral itself” (Cooney 2014, 21; emphasis original). In “Writing out of the (never) Was and into the May (never) be… A Reading of Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow and Jen Bervin’s Nets,” Emily Carr also addresses the canonicity of Morgan’s original A Little White Shadow as it relates to performative writing. Carr claims that “Ruefle’s erasure moves out of the centre” as compared to Bervin’s Nets that “moves in from the margins (experimental contemporary women’s writing) to the centre (the Shakespearean sonnets),” thus similarly situating the obscurity of Morgan’s original text (Carr 2010b, 2; emphasis original). Genevieve Kaplan further reinforces this fact in “‘Destroying’ the Text to Create the Poem,” where she claims that “with A Little White Shadow, there is no critical, canonical conversation to join” (Kaplan 2014). Kaplan’s article pays more attention to the material form of A Little White Shadow than other articles and suggests that Ruefle is “critiquing the book as an object” (Kaplan 2014). Yet she does not really look at how Ruefle’s poem addresses our expectations regarding the book as form; instead, Kaplan concludes that “in the creation of new, appropriated poetic texts, writers take on the role of reader […] experiencing a heightened awareness of the parts of the book and being open to non-linearity, they conceptualize a new way to come at the work of writing” (Kaplan 2014). Rather than focusing on how erasure poetry changes the role of the author, I am interested in how Ruefle’s work in A Little White Shadow probes and challenges our assumptions about the book. She achieves this through poetry that exists across texts and time to interrogate the benefits of the form of the book in our shifting media culture.

Multivalent Poetry and Ruefle’s Poetics of the Book

8A Little White Shadow does not just find its beginnings in a book but also comes to its final form within one. The book becomes an essential part of how we are meant to read Ruefle’s work, which we can understand through the concept of “multivalent poetry,” as used by Sandra Beasley in “The Scientist Speaks:”

The fifth dimension [of poetry] contains the sum outcomes generated by choices made in chance events across time. We borrow a term from chemistry, “multivalent,” in which the ion sustains more than one valence potential on initial inspection.
The fifth-dimensional poem has been encountered in the field as the “erasure,” made via inflection of an earlier text, in which the origin is disclosed as a critical component […]. Pleasure and meaning is derived only after considering the totality of available choices. The poem is defined not only by what is present, but by what is absent. Other forms may exist as well. (Beasley 2017, 17)

9Here Beasley focuses on how the reader comprehends both what is present and what is not, as occurs in other forms of erasure as well, especially those “modernist” erasure poems that start with canonical texts (Cooney 2014, 18, 21). Drawing on Beasley’s theory of multivalent poetry, I would like to look at A Little White Shadow as exploring the relationship of the book across time and introducing the possibility of the poetics of the book. Among the “chance events across time” that have affected A Little White Shadow is its disappearance from bookstores and libraries, resulting in an obscure book (Beasley 2017, 17). While the original is essential to Ruefle’s poem, it is not because the work pushes “out of the centre” of canonical texts but, rather, because it drags Morgan’s text out of the margins of literary history to illuminate a book that has faded from view (Carr 2010b, 2; emphasis original). As a result, the “shadow” of this late-nineteenth-century novella lays over Ruefle’s poem, allowing her to play with our cultural understanding of the book form. A Little White Shadow differs significantly from other erasure poems by foregrounding the physical presence of the original text of Morgan’s A Little White Shadow alongside the visual and spatial aspects of both the original text and its erasure, drawing our attention to the complex multivalence of such erasure. The intersection of reproduction of form, retention of the title, and erasure of an obscure book offers space for Ruefle to address how we envisage the form of the book.

Reclaiming the Book

10Since Ruefle chose to retain the title of Morgan’s book and produce a facsimile of its (altered) original pages, we can assume that the older book has some significance for her own project (even if the average reader is unlikely to read it), so I will briefly summarize the tale here. The novella tells of a winter that the narrator, Mary Kennear, and her companions once spent on Ischia, an island not far from Naples. The group is a mix of upper-middle-class and wealthy travelers from several countries, including the United States. During their stay, the group meets the adored Madame Teresa, who is welcoming and charitable despite having suffered debilitating pain over the last thirty years, and touches the group with her grace and wisdom. The climax of the story comes as the group prepares to leave the island for sundry summer locales. Shortly after their leave-taking, Madame Teresa dies. Kennear eventually writes an account of their time on the island to memorialize Madame Teresa as a “little white shadow” of a woman, describing her as a person who:

[D]id everything for me: she turned my dreams into realities. She taught me that there can be no alleviation of pain save in active service, a gift of whatever fullness one may have to fill the emptiness and hunger of other lives and hearts. For having once caught sight of that dread Passion Cup in the Sacrament of Pain, which was lifted to her lips as to so many of the world, there was no turning back. I could not but follow on as Sir Galahad and Sir Percival did of old after the Vision of the Holy Grail, for after that sight the strongest pain of life will lie in its contrasts, and its only relief lies in bearing the burdens of others, and sharing their pain. (Morgan 1889, 40-41)

11Within this moralistic tale of selfless service – presumably influenced by Morgan’s role in the Episcopal Church (Brown 1944) –, the narrator includes descriptions of the island’s sights and sounds as well as encounters with art. Though steeped in the values and social norms that weighed upon women through the late nineteenth century (Carr 2010b), the novella also acknowledges the benefits of an escape from work and everyday life in “that dolce far niente life” of sweet idleness (Morgan 1889, 9). The book is both about the value of service and an attempt to be of service itself, since Morgan wrote it to support her work with the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross to fund vacation homes in the country for working women (Brown 1944; Morgan 1889, 1).

12According to Johanna Drucker, an artist’s book is a book that “interrogates the conceptual or material form of the book as part of its intention, thematic interests, or production activities” (Drucker 2000, 378). While I am not suggesting that Morgan’s novella should be understood under the rubric of the artist’s book, it does already contain a strong link between its theme and production, which Ruefle then builds upon in her alteration of the book. Ruefle does not simply maintain the relationship, she also interrogates our assumptions about the book as part of her poetry, as artists do in artists’ books. Furthermore, I am drawing a parallel here between a poetics of the book and artists’ books because literary works that activate their medium, often with a visual aspect, do not necessarily and solely become works of visual art or sculpture at the expense of their literary value (Starre 217, 251). By erasing a book that has already been “erased,” Ruefle comments on how we tend to think of the book as a means of preservation.

  • 3 All capitalization and punctuation are as they appear in the original text.

13Interestingly, Ruefle’s erasure removes almost all proper names and personifies seasons, months, cities, and concepts; the resulting poem engages the themes of art, music, and literature and plays with the descriptive language to cause new defamiliarizing juxtapositions. In many ways, Ruefle removes the context from Morgan’s novel to write a poem about art, and more specifically books. To study this more closely, here are several pages of Ruefle’s alteration, transcribed as faithfully as possible, with line breaks indicating new pages and slashes indicating new lines3 (Fig. 3 and 4):

  • 4 Normally, Ruefle applies the correction fluid so that all the words around the selected ones are co (...)

a heart / a heart … / laden hearts4 / … // showed me a little book

saints / disagreed with her.

artists / and their quarrels / a barbarity worthy of the Goths themselves

flowers and birds / not able / to say something practical about human companionship

the / pen / was / going to try and join us there later, provided the fever did not break out

the last three years had taken no vacations / and the / world seemed / drowsy

on the German piano / birds were singing / in the language / which some believe he wrote after he drew the portrait of her

in black velvet // the last one he wrote when quite an old man // Ren- / dered into English // this was something of its meaning: // paper / on / fire

They had been at a loss for a subject at first, but had finally chosen / looking down the road as if waiting for / a new volume of Browning (
Ruefle 2006, 28-36)

Figure 3 : Page 28 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006).

Figure 3 : Page 28 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006).

Figure 4 : Page 35 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006).

Figure 4 : Page 35 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006).

14Personified in this passage, as a result of Ruefle’s erasure, are, successively, “a heart,” “flowers and birds,” “the / pen,” “the last three years,” and a “world” described as “drowsy” (Ruefle 2006, 28, 31, 32, 33); meanwhile, “saints / disagreed,” “artists […] quarrel[led],” and birds were “singing in / the last language” of “an old man” whose words might be taken to mean “paper / on / fire” (Ruefle 2006, 29, 30, 34, 35, [fig. 4]). A volume by an English poet is at last invoked – see the lines “as if waiting for / a new volume of Browning” (Ruefle 2006, 36) –, bringing unity to the poem and its various objects (book, pen, language, and paper). The idea of the book and its destruction (possibly in favor of more canonical work such as Browning’s poetry) is apparent in this section of the poem as well as in the piece as a whole, though in a somewhat disparate form perhaps best viewed as lilting images or extremely short poems (McDaniel 2006). The “little book” mentioned in the text, the one shown by “a heart / a heart… / laden hearts” to the first-person narrator or speaker, is the same book that we, as readers, hold a facsimile of in our hands (Ruefle 2006, 28). The pen later joins the writer, saints, artists, flowers and birds, leaving the speaker without conventional writing utensils so that she defaces the book instead, as can be seen in the translated “paper / on / fire” (Ruefle 2006, 35). In this light, the final couplet “God / changed, the ‘Little White Shadow’” appears to refer not to the god of religion (Ruefle 2006, 41-42), but to Ruefle as the destroyer and now creator of A Little White Shadow, a book first forgotten by readers then obscured by correction fluid. Whereas the “little white shadow” in the source text refers to a woman who serves despite living a circumscribed life due to her illness, Ruefle’s “little white shadow” is now the book itself.

15Before going into more depth about how Ruefle reclaims the book as form, it is important to address how we understand the medium both generally and specifically within the genre of poetry. First, all media have “possibilities for use presented by [their] form” as well as genuine limits based on that form (Borsuk 2018, 1). In A Little White Shadow, for example, Ruefle makes use of the possibilities of inscription afforded by paper. But she also resorts to three stickers in her alteration of the book because, rather than manipulating text outside the form of the book, she limits herself to superimposing onto the printed page, and the stickers help her work around the potential limits of including new images (Fig. 5).

Figure 5 : Page 41 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006).

Figure 5 : Page 41 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006).

16In addition to the conditions determined by the material object itself, one must take into account “the constellation of values and meanings traditionally associated with ‘the book,’” namely our expectations and assumptions about how we are meant to interact with it (Freedman 2009). Ruefle’s project exists precisely between the (physical) limitations and possibilities of the material form and those (abstract) “values and meanings.” She often adopts a benefit of the material form, using it in an unusual way that disrupts our presuppositions, like Jonathan Safran Foer who, in Tree of Codes, makes use of the paper and three-dimensionality of the book to introduce die-cut holes that make absence ever present, forcing us to question our assumptions about how we read and to engage with the consequences of the Holocaust. In order to grasp how Ruefle interrogates permanence, stability, and authority, we need to examine how these values became associated with the book.

Poetry, Books, and the Digital Age

17The book as form has played an important role in the history of poetry, but poetry does not have the same connection to the book as other literary genres. In contrast to the novel, which appeared and developed as a genre once the form of the book was already associated with literature, poetry has never completely embraced book-bound forms, with traditions of oral performance always existing alongside printed poetry. The poetry book has since become an important part of a poet’s life, largely because of the association of books to literature and the authority of the book. But most poetry books exist simply as an apparatus for the display and circulation of poetry, or to signal the success of the poet, with only a minority relying on the medium as an essential part of the artistic project. This is true of many books throughout the twentieth century (not just poetry books) because “the first generation to accede to mass literacy was also the last for which the book had been the default communications medium” (Price 2019, 133). During the twentieth century, books maintained a relatively stable form (compared to their early history) and became the default format for information and knowledge, literature and entertainment. For a long time, the choice of such a medium for poetry was in the hands of the publisher (and, subsequently, of readers), but now the choice also lies with the writer who, in the digital age, has many options to choose from, especially if public dissemination is the only goal. As newer media and digital platforms appeared to dethrone the book, scholars and pundits began to theorize it as an obsolete form, responding to the larger anxiety over the “death of the book” that scholars Amaranth Borsuk and Leah Price have now refuted (Borsuk 2018, ix-xiv; Price 2019, 1-2, 165; Price 2009).

  • 5 This is not the first time that a shifting media culture has led to a change in poetry. In Overwhel (...)

18If we treat the poetry book simply as another way to circulate poetry (rather than an elemental part of the poem), then it would indeed appear to be dead, rendered “obsolete” by the significant changes in our media culture since the rise of personal computing and the Internet.5 Yet our current media ecology can also be understood through the convergence paradigm that Henry Jenkins outlines in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide: “If the digital revolution paradigm presumed that new media would displace old media, the emerging convergence paradigm assumes that old and new media will interact in ever more complex ways” (Jenkins 2006, 6). The function and status of older media shift in accordance with new media, and the benefits and limits of different forms dictate their place within the media ecology. For example, digital reference sources, such as dictionaries and directories, can be accessed and updated more easily than their print counterparts. Scholars often treat convergence in terms of competition and division, but we can also treat it as a cooperative relationship in which mediums influence each other, making possible the introduction of previously unconventional features, or “new tricks,” based on those found in other mediums (Hayles 2008, 162). If we imagine books as existing outside of our digital world, then any intertwining with, or reliance on, technology becomes a corruption or proof of the form’s impending doom. Yet while shifting functions have allowed digital technology to displace the book for nonlinear access – like searching for a phone number or a definition –, they have changed books and literature in a way that has often been positive. For example, new possibilities have emerged for print, as we see with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which took advantage of the comparative ease and speed of etching printing plates to update a memorial for murdered Black Americans with each new reprint, so that the list grew over the years (Rankine 2014, 134). Most importantly, convergence culture has allowed the potentialities of the book to expand as the book now interacts with newer technologies, both directly in its creation and indirectly in our lives. In sum, the medium of the book has unique possibilities, benefits, and limitations, all of which affect both the literature that it holds and the reading experience it affords. Books will not “die” if authors choose to write and design books that make use of these unique affordances and limits, which I have termed the “poetics of the book.”

19The conventions of print books are not genuine limits of the medium but, rather, a part of the constellation of values and meanings” that we associate with books that we tend to treat as obvious (Freedman 2009). As N. Katherine Hayles points out, the physical properties of the book do more than allow a material existence for the text: “We are not generally accustomed to think of a book as a material metaphor, but in fact it is an artifact whose physical properties and historical usages structure our interactions with it in ways obvious and subtle” (Hayles 2002, 23). Hayles goes on to identify standard properties of the book, notably “binding pages sequentially to indicate an order of reading” (Hayles 2002, 23). Of course, individual works of literature have thwarted this convention (and others) over the years, but many more have used the binding in this conventional way, informing how we expect to read and interpret literature. While in novels and other works of prose this ordering primarily produces narrative, the order of the pages within a book of poetry has more possible meanings. Michael Hinds and Stephen Matterson remind us in Rebound: The American Poetry Book that in poetry books, sequence broadly serves to provide context (Hinds and Matterson 2004, 1). In explaining their drive to study books of poems by canonical American poets, Hinds and Matterson write: “Our feeling was that this investment in the individual poem was problematic, in that it contradicted the terms in which poets have presented their work. These terms are often implicit in poetic practice, since poets present their poems as a book collection” (Hinds and Matterson 2004, 1). Essays in the book go on to address how the order in a poetry book can create narrative, affect mood, and build patterns. Thus, while we might initially assume that the poetry book as a genre thwarts our assumptions of “the book,” these books generally make use of the same expectations as other literary books.

The Book as a Medium of Preservation and Authority

  • 6 At one point in the field of book history, much was made of the stable and permanent nature of the (...)

20Though the form of the book is a material metaphor that informs our reading practices, for example providing context to individual poems and space for a reader to inspect a self beyond their interiority, questions of why the medium of the book has persisted are still pertinent since providing order and context are not inherent in the form of the print book. One answer to this question is that the material construction of the book is a good method of preservation. The book allows for a stable and permanent physical “body” for the poem, one that readers can share and store. Whereas an oral performance of a poem offers nuances of meaning that are lost in the printed version, the print version assures readers that the book will not change in transfer or over time and upon opening it the same poem will be readily available. As Peter Stoicheff writes: “[I]t was a device that gave permanence to human expression; […] its physical structure provided easy access to that information; […] its size and weight made it comfortable to hold and portable; and its efficiencies of production and the availability of its raw materials made it affordable” (Stoicheff 2015, 87). In other words, the book is important as a physical object that can “preserve” poetry, not only resisting change in a single copy but also providing a durable form for overall presentation, and this characteristic is one of the “assumptions we make about the book’s fixity, authority, materiality, and permanence” (Borsuk 2018, 198).6 Additionally, the library as an institution added to this sense of the permanence of the book through its role in preserving books, even though this has also been shown to be imperfect. As Karen Attar notes, “cheap, small, ephemeral publications which were read to tatters, such as chapbooks […], were particular victims” (Attar 2015, 30). The original A Little White Shadow is just such a cheap, small book. Books are imagined as a stable and enduring form, in part because of their material properties and because of the institutions that exist to preserve them.

21Of equal importance to Ruefle’s project is the authority of the book, especially as it is understood alongside stability and durability. “The art of publication – of making public – is central to our cultural definition of the book,” Borsuk notes, and publication and authority have long been intertwined (Borsuk 2018, 239). The book became an authoritative form against others that could be more easily produced by individuals because governments regulated the publication of books in early-Modern Europe, largely to suppress “subversive” texts, as Cyndia Susan Clegg reminds us (Clegg 2015, 126). However, as publishing moved from a privilege granted by governments to a capitalistic business venture, the authority became part of “the vetting, intervention, and prestige conferred by print publishing and scholarship” (Borsuk 2018, 215). While publication is no longer only available through publishing houses and other gatekeepers, the cultural prestige granted by these institutions has not entirely disappeared. Simone Murray explains this paradox in The Digital Literary Sphere:

While self-published authors may have their work published in the culturally esteemed format of the printed codex and gain legal admission to the category of author in terms of intellectual property ownership, their continuing exclusion from the circuits of literary estimation and consecration still denies them the halo of creative superiority that has proven authorship's most lingering allure… We have, in response, witnessed a de facto resuscitation of the author as an elite category and a revalorization of the gatekeeping intermediaries that traditionally stamped printed publications with their imprimatur as a guarantee of merit and quality control. (Murray 2018, 32-33)

22Not only do we assume that books will endure, but because of the authority granted to them through publication, we also assume that they are worthy of preservation.

23In our current media landscape, such properties as authority and preservation have obviously become available to poetry outside of the book form. Yet we still expect print to fulfill expectations of durability and permanence, even though these values are not inherent in the book and the book as object offers more to poetry than these values alone. Still, they continue to inform our interaction with books and these social protocols are precisely what writers like Ruefle seek to disrupt when they challenge our understanding of the book. Borsuk notes that “these works interrogate the codex, calling into question how books communicate and how we read, using every aspect of their structure, form and content to make meaning” (Borsuk 2018, 113). Poetry can activate the book form in more than one way, and artists’ books constantly explore the range of options for creating art within book form. Artists’ books also alert us to the fact that the relationship between form and content is essential to engaging the form of the book as a part of its poetry. Johanna Drucker, in A Book of the Book, defines the artist’s book as “self-conscious about the structure and meaning of the book as a form” (Drucker 2000, 378). Rather than focusing on who makes the artist’s book, how many copies are made and how, Drucker suggests that “an artist’s book has to have some conviction, some soul, some reason to be and to be a book” (Drucker 2000, 384, emphasis original). The poetics of the book is not a formula, but a space in which the book and its history enter into poetry as a visible and essential part of the poetry itself.

24While other works of erasure primarily employ the language of the source text, A Little White Shadow also makes use of its form and content, occupying a “zone of activity” most obviously through the erasure and transformation of Morgan’s story (Drucker 2004, 2). Here we emphatically encounter another reader modifying the text we hold through the selection of a finite number of words and, most importantly, challenging the notion of the book as preservation – both because the text of Morgan’s book is decidedly not preserved in Ruefle’s erasure and because Morgan’s book is no longer widely available –, in stark opposition to the idea of the book as a stable method of preservation. Except for a few notable lost works, we rarely address the physical deterioration of books or even the planned obsolescence of “unworthy” books (Price 2019, 60; Price 2012, 219). The authority granted to books through publication is not enough to save them from defacement, weeding, and eventually disposal. Preservation is only available for the select few that have transcended their peers through sales, criticism, and allusions in other works, and even then, the preserved books are not necessarily the ones worth keeping. Ruefle erases an “erased” book precisely to play with these assumptions about the permanence, stability, and authority of the book.

Poetry Books and Obsolescence

25Ruefle’s poem opens with the line: “one in ruins / struck / notes / whose sounds / spent a winter here” (Ruefle 2006, 3). The “one in ruins” may be A Little White Shadow which, having been defaced, is now “in ruins.” It might also refer to Morgan’s book since, as Kaplan notes: “The 1889 copy I acquire through inter-library loan is in poor condition, stained, with a broken spine; it is unlikely to continue circulating for long,” suggesting that other copies of the book as well (not just Ruefle’s) are “in ruins” and timeworn (Kaplan 2014). Moreover, the book in ruins “struck / notes / whose sounds / spent a winter here,” bringing to mind musical notes that, much like the physical book, fade over time; heard only for a certain season, they recall how Morgan’s novella reflects on a season on Ischia and itself faded from the history of books (Ruefle 2006, 3). By contrast, more canonical works are preserved, such as the “volume of Browning” mentioned earlier and “Dante” (Ruefle 2006, 36, 7) – the only two authors whose names are retained from the original text –, as are Morgan’s mention of books (Ruefle 2006, 28), poetic forms (Ruefle 2006, 13), and pages (Ruefle 2006, 28, 23, 8), as well as allusions to writing and reading.

26The reference to Dante is also the first time that Ruefle uses the image of a shadow in her poem: “the island / drifted into / Dante / the shadows / growing longer and more purple” (Ruefle 2006, 7). In this first instance, the shadows are growing “longer and more purple” (as opposed to “little” and “white”), and explicitly connected to Dante. Ruefle uses the image again twice, first on page 15 (“I was brought in contact with the phenomenon peculiar to / ‘A / shadow’”) then on the final page, this time invoking the title, “the ‘Little White Shadow’” (Ruefle 2006, 42). In Morgan’s novella, however, page 15 already introduces “A little white shadow,” and on the final page, she uses it to describe Madame Teresa, as can be seen in the original:

  • 7 The previous mention that the narrator is indicating is her attempt at describing the island: “But (...)

Later that purely artistic observation of Marion’s came to me with a singular force of meaning, for a short time afterward I was brought in contact with the phenomenon peculiar to the island, which I have already spoken of,7 “A little white shadow.”
All lives – all life has its shadows. Some dark and heavy, some lighter, yet none so light that we like to be o’er shadowed by them long. But in the case of my phenomenon it had passed through most all the phases of shadowy existence here, and lying closely on the confines of another world have become so imbued with that other brightness that one could not tell at last the difference between its shadow and THAT light. (Morgan
1889, 15)

27Having introduced the reader to the idea that even the shadows at noon on Ischia are infused with light, the narrator then goes on to introduce the renown of Madame Teresa, foreshadowing how she will become the “little white shadow” of the title, “imbued with that other brightness” of service. However, Ruefle has no mention of Madame Teresa in her altered version of A Little White Shadow, and the remainder of the page which introduces this “phenomenon” reads “Everyone you met was sure, sooner or later, to speak / the / time, –” (Ruefle 2006, 15). Whereas Morgan’s first mention of the “little white shadow” directly leads to the introduction of Madame Teresa and by extension the theme of service, Ruefle reframes “a shadow” to refer to time and the book.

28Thus, the shadow of time has fallen upon this book, materialized through the “little white shadow” of the correction fluid that obscures Morgan’s original text. Even Ruefle’s choice of correction fluid becomes significant in the project as it is for Phillips, who said of his method in A Humument that he wanted to fashion a “unity of word and image, intertwined as in a mediaeval miniature” (Phillips 2000, 425). Ruefle’s white correction fluid immediately calls to mind the “little white shadow” of the title, but it also does not actually remove the text. Rather, the correction fluid obscures the text: it is still there but we cannot read it. The color discrepancy already signifies a gesture of effacement, but there is also a dissonance between the textured appearance of the dried fluid and the absence of texture on the page: much like we cannot feel the texture of a shadow, we cannot run our fingers over the bumps on Ruefle’s page. What at first seems like a consequence of the limits of printing – it is easy to print images but difficult to print textures – becomes subsumed in the enactment of Ruefle’s metaphor for the obscured text. We cannot read the words Ruefle has covered but neither can we read Morgan’s text that time has obscured – it is still there, but we do not have access to it.

29The shadow that has fallen on Morgan’s text has made it mostly unreadable. Her book having practically disappeared from circulation, we can no longer discern its white shadow from the light of the newer text. Ruefle’s alteration is indistinguishable from Morgan’s book, precisely as “one could not tell at last the difference between its shadow and THAT light” (Morgan 1889, 15), because it is only through the chance event of Ruefle finding and altering Morgan’s original book that we have received this poem. As the poem later says: “very simply / ‘It’s always noon with me. / pale, and deformed but very interesting” (Ruefle 2006, 23). Here Ruefle draws on the link of the “little white shadow” to high noon, which we could also treat as the present moment with the past and future always stretched out in either direction, just as the center of the day exists in the middle of past and future. The book tells us that it exists within perpetual noon, as books always are when we read them (as evidenced by our use of the present tense in referring to books), but also that it is “pale, and deformed but very interesting” connecting back to the original image of the book as “one in ruins” (Ruefle 2006, 23, 3). Thus, as the “little white shadow” of Morgan’s text rests on the relationship of the light and shadow, so too does A Little White Shadow rely on the original text and its defacement.

30This brings us back to the close of the poem that I quoted earlier. Having reflected on how this book has been forgotten and obscured, the speaker tells us “a heart / a heart… / laden hearts / … / showed me a little book” (Ruefle 2006, 28). Again, this “little book” clearly invokes Morgan’s A Little White Shadow and specifically the copy that Ruefle found and altered, though this time without mention of its condition. While, earlier in the book, we are led to believe that “one in ruins” might refer to the copy of Morgan’s A Little White Shadow that Ruefle found because the book itself is old and mostly forgotten, it now becomes clear that the opening always meant the copy that we receive and read, already altered by Ruefle, that is inextricable from Morgan’s text. In this way, the final lines, “having once caught sight of / a letter / God / changed / the ‘Little White Shadow,’” do not simply mean that Ruefle altered the book, but that in changing the book, Ruefle has enacted a change in the status of this book that was once erased from memory (Ruefle 2006, 41-2).

31Ruefle has renewed Morgan’s book through her erasure by pulling it from the margins of history. By weaving together the physical book, poetry, and our assumptions and expectations of the form of the book, Ruefle is able to intervene in the trajectory of Morgan’s A Little White Shadow. As Drucker says in The Century of Artists’ Books:

The convention of the book is both its constrained meanings (as literacy, the law, text, and so forth) and the space of new work (the blank page, the void, the empty place). But working on an existing book is not quite the same as either of these it is not a replication of a conventional form and it is not a completely new statement within the existing vocabulary of forms. The transformed book is an intervention. (Drucker 2004, 109)

32In other words, Ruefle does not simply intervene in the source text by obscuring words through erasure, she also intervenes in our cultural understanding of the book as stable, permanent, and authoritative by bringing this particular book back into the current literary discourse through her erasure. The text of the poem and the physical manifestation of its publication both draw our attention to the relationship of this palimpsest, in which “the original bleeds through, interweaves its presence with the new materials [as an] intervention into the social order, and the text of the world as it is already written” (Drucker 2004, 109). Drucker goes on to say that “transformation also recuperates works whose status is canonical or its opposite – obscure and unremembered, part of the dross of continual production” (Drucker 2004, 109). This recuperation is an essential part of this multivalent work that uses a book to make itself, but also uses our ideas of the book to reflect on the intervention that is possible when poetry books have “some conviction, some soul, some reason to be and to be a book” (Drucker 2000, 384; emphasis original).

Conclusion

  • 8 See “A Little White Shadow,” 2013.

33Morgan’s A Little White Shadow was digitized by Google Books on September 12, 2013, roughly seven years after Ruefle published her erasure with Wave Books.8 We cannot say with certainty that Ruefle’s book saved Morgan’s full text from obscurity, but it seems likely that in obscuring the pages of the novella, Ruefle enacted yet another thwarting of our assumptions about the form of the book. As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, questions of preservation and access to books have gained new significance (Price 2019, 91; Borsuk 2018, 213-229). Digitization has changed how we read rare and obscure books, and while scanning seems to be a powerful method for retaining texts, it is also important to recognize that it erases the influence of the form of the book. Furthermore, in an interesting turn of fate, many large-scale digitization projects, notably the Internet Archive, have taken to storing physical copies of the books that have been scanned as a stable back-up (Borsuk 2018, 220). In other words, the book is an imperfect method of preservation, but it is still one of the better methods available today. Furthermore, the authority of Ruefle’s publication of A Little White Shadow added renewed value to Morgan’s novella, allowing it to go from an absent referent to an easily accessible text (though not as a print book), thanks to the relative stability of the book form: Morgan’s text could not have been scanned if its form were truly ephemeral. Though there may only be a handful of physical copies, many of them “in ruins,” the medium was able to preserve Morgan’s novella of sweet idleness and service long enough for Ruefle to pluck it from obscurity so that, in effacing it, she allowed it to be further unobscured.

34A Little White Shadow by Mary Ruefle is the partly erased facsimile of an older book and as such, plays with our expectations and assumptions regarding the book form – namely notions of stability, preservation, and authority. Through this erasure, the absent referent became a part of Ruefle’s multivalent poetics, and allowed Morgan’s obscure text to become more than the “little white shadow” of a ghostly text but also a digitally available facsimile. Only this sort of play that engages with the book as more than a container for poetry can keep the poetry book from becoming obsolete in our shifting media culture. By activating the form of the book as does an artist’s book, Ruefle shows what a poetics of the book can be. Rather than treating the medium as merely a container or an apparatus for poetry, the material object together with the values we associate with it and its history become part of Ruefle’s project. A Little White Shadow does more than use an older book for its poetic form, it uses the form of the book to motivate its poetry.

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Notes

1 In her chapter entitled “The Artist’s Book as a Rare and/or Auratic Object,” Drucker defines the “auratic quality” of artists’ books as a “sense of charged presence” that “comes in large part from the faithfulness of the reproductions – each element in the archive feels real, seems authentic, appears original” (Drucker 2004, 101).

2 These two titles illustrate a common trope of erasure: the elision of letters in the title to form the new title. Radi os derives from Paradise Lost, Johnson’s source text, and A Humument comes from A Human Document, which Phillips altered to create his book.

3 All capitalization and punctuation are as they appear in the original text.

4 Normally, Ruefle applies the correction fluid so that all the words around the selected ones are covered. However, in the case of “a heart / a heart… / laden hearts,” she traced a circle or heart-shape, allowing parts of other words to peak through. I have chosen to take that shape as a conscious choice that reflects the content of the words inside, rather than transcribe the truncated words.

5 This is not the first time that a shifting media culture has led to a change in poetry. In Overwhelmed: Literature, Aesthetics, and the Nineteenth-Century Information Revolution (2019), Maurice S. Lee traces how similar issues were at play in the long nineteenth-century; likewise, Borsuk notes that Mallarmé’s “crisis in poetry” grew from the “proliferation of language in the landscape and in the pages of the daily newspaper” (Borsuk 2018, 127).

6 At one point in the field of book history, much was made of the stable and permanent nature of the book as a major change in global intellectual development; but this trend has waned in recent years. As Sydney Shep says: “The reinvention of moveable type by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century and its adoption throughout Europe and beyond paved the way for the insertion of print into the spectrum of communication technologies. Print, however, was not necessarily fixed and immutable with an authority derived simply from multiplicity and reach: the technical language of state, impression and edition all attest to a variability that is a hallmark of the process. And the very status of print was contested from the start, particularly in scientific communities accustomed to different authority structures and modes of dissemination” (Shep 2015, 54). However, we should also acknowledge that while some scholars have questioned these ideas, they still loom large in our cultural conception of the book.

7 The previous mention that the narrator is indicating is her attempt at describing the island: “But I fear I was never good at statistics or guide-booky letters, and I never cared for such facts as how often St. Januarius’s blood congealed, or how many years it took to build the Cathedral at Milan. Marion said such letters and articles should be left for Cook’s tourists, and in this as in most things I agreed with her. It is only of a certain phenomenon of the island, in fact one quite peculiar to Ischia, that I would, omitting all else, tell you about” (Morgan 1889, 13-14). This “phenomenon” is then introduced, what the narrator later calls “the purely artistic observation of Marion’s” (Morgan 1889, 15), that is to say “when Marion suddenly stopped and pointed to Casamacciola and the bay lying below under the intense white light the sun casts at noon. ‘A new revelation’ she exclaimed. ‘Even the shadows are white at this hour of the day!’” (Morgan 1889, 14).

8 See “A Little White Shadow,” 2013.

9 All Web references last accessed 1 September 2022.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 : Title page of Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (Seattle and New York, Wave Books 2006).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/13864/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 212k
Titre Figure 2 : Page 1 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (Hartford, Brown & Gross 1889), with Emily Malbone Morgan’s original dedication and copyright.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/13864/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 160k
Titre Figure 3 : Page 28 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/13864/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Titre Figure 4 : Page 35 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/13864/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 184k
Titre Figure 5 : Page 41 from Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/13864/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 177k
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Référence électronique

Catherine Ann Winters, « From Multivalent Writing to a Poetics of the Book: A Media-Specific Analysis of Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 33 | 2022, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2022, consulté le 31 mai 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/13864 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/sillagescritiques.13864

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Auteur

Catherine Ann Winters

Independent scholar

Catherine Ann Winters (winters_ca[at]uri.edu) earned her PhD from the University of Rhode Island in May 2020. Her research focuses on intradiegetic interaction in multimodal contemporary American literature. She is currently Program Coordinator at New Hampshire Humanities, the state National Endowment for the Humanities affiliate.

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