The Lyrical and Funny Art of Erasing Words From Books

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On pages 36 and 37 of Captain January, a 19th-century children’s novel by Laura E. Richards, Mary Ruefle has erased all but the following words: “My / heart / was / a / Long / lost / drawing.” Among the soupy lines of white paint that cover the original text, Ruefle has pasted an old-timey etching of a beached whale, its expressive eye staring out at as tiny, ineffectual humans rush about its inert body. As in so many of Ruefle’s erasures, her intervention transforms someone else’s words into something poignant, while her strange illustration injects an unexpected flash of humor. Both elements unsettle the book’s usual purpose, making it delightfully unclear whether its pages are meant for reading, visual viewing, or something else.

Mary Ruefle, “Captain January” (2019), 6 ¾ x 8.5 x ⅞ x 1 inches

A celebrated poet and essayist, Ruefle has made her mark on thousands of pages since beginning her erasure series in 1998. A selection of her erased books, along with a group of her captioned postcards, is on display in Mary Ruefle: Erasures at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum. 

Although this is the first solo exhibition of Ruefle’s visual work, art has long been a key part of her life. “I’ve always been a very visual person,” she said on a recent phone call with Hyperallergic from her Vermont home. As a teen, Ruefle moved to Europe, where she spent a great deal of her time in art museums, and in college, she focused on visual art and literature equally. “When I graduated, I had to make a decision,” Ruefle recalled. “I didn’t have any money. At that point, I couldn’t afford canvas and paint. I couldn’t afford to be a visual artist.” 

Still, Ruefle’s daily erasure practice — she’s completed more than 110 books — has a strong visual art slant. She uses markers, correctional fluid, paint, tape, and even cuts text from the page with scissors to erase existing words and phrases. Texts, photos, and drawings from other publications make their way into these pages, as well as pressed flowers, handwritten notes, grocery lists, fingerprint samples, tangles of string, and other objects. Ruefle’s textured, altered pages collectively form a nonlinear but sequential experience-object that playfully questions notions of authorship — whose work is this now? — while bridging, collapsing, and confounding tidy boundaries between image and text, collage and literature.

Mary Ruefle, “Isla Heron” (2021), 6 ¼ x 8 ⅛ x ¾ x 1 inches

Other poets have defiantly erased the work of more established creators, but Ruefle takes a different tack. “I like to take boring, obscure texts that nobody reads and that nobody would want to read,” she noted. Ruefle favors books that are, in her words, “very sentimental and by today’s standards totally politically incorrect.” Scouring thrift stores, used bookshops, and estate sales, Ruefle selects a book by scrutinizing its text, considering its words as raw material. “I want nouns,” she said. “I want a balance of the abstract and the concrete. I want the word death. I want the word God. I also want peonies and the color blue.”

Ruefle doesn’t read the books before erasing them; her process is intuitive and improvisatory. “I describe it like this: the two pages are a field,” Ruefle explained. “The words are growing in the field, and they hover above the page. They’re like flowers, and I pick the ones I like. My eye is roaming all over, trying to make connections.” The resulting texts are lyrical and melancholic, but sharply funny, too. In a spread from The Story of Ida (originally by Francesca Alexander and published in 1883), Ruefle has glued half of a signed check for one cent, while the text on the facing page wryly reads, “a poet, / that first happy winter / I was / beginning to earn money.” 

Mary Ruefle, “Untitled,” postcard, dimensions variable

Refreshing bursts of wit also appear in Ruefle’s postcards, in which she captions vintage photos with endlessly odd phrases from found texts. “You know, life is long and hard,” Ruefle reflected. “The best way to survive it is to have a sense of humor. My goal is to make someone smile.”

Despite her many accolades, Ruefle is humble about her work, and views her erasures as a crucial but mostly private exercise. “It’s a hobby, to be honest,” she said. “But if you look up the word hobby in the dictionary, you’ll realize that all art is a hobby. A hobby is something that you do for intense personal pleasure.” Ruefle’s erasures bring us an intense sense of pleasure, too.

Mary Ruefle, “Untitled,” postcard, dimensions variable
Mary Ruefle, “The Story of Ida” (2019), 5 ¼ x 7 ⅞ x ¾ x 1 ¼ inches
Mary Ruefle, “The Rose” (2018), 5 ¾ x 7 x 1 x 1 ¾ inches
Mary Ruefle, “An Idyll of London” (2019), 5 ⅜ x 7 ⅜ x ¾ x 1 ¼ inches
Mary Ruefle, “Master Reynard” (2018), 5 ⅛ x 7 ¾ x 1 ⅛ x 1 1/4 inches
Mary Ruefle, “Untitled,” postcard, dimensions variable

Mary Ruefle: Erasures continues at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum at Bennington College (121 Vermont Route 7a, Shaftsbury, Vermont) through October 31.

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