(1913 - 1980)





Modern American Poetry


File in the FBI

























Poet's Choice

By Edward Hirsch

Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page BW12

Whatever can come to a city can come to this city. . .

Whatever can come to a woman can come to me. . .

Whatever can happen to anyone can happen to me. . .

Muriel Rukeyser, from "Waterlily Fire" (1962)

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) was one of the most engaged and engaging modern American poets. "Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry," she wrote in her first book, Theory of Flight (1935), and it was a method that she followed for the rest of her life. We haven't had many American poets with such a deep moral compass, such a keen historical sensibility and such a committed social consciousness. She wrote as a woman and identified strongly with the suffering of others. As the critic Louise Kertesz puts it in The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser, "No woman poet made the successful fusion of personal and social themes in a modern prosody before Rukeyser."

Rukeyser's way of blending the personal and the political looks backward to Walt Whitman and forward to Grace Paley, Jane Cooper and Adrienne Rich, who has now edited a first-rate version of Rukeyser's Selected Poems for the American Poets Project at the Library of America. Rukeyser's commitments were adamant and clear. She was determined to be politically aware without any sacrifice of poetic craftsmanship. "To live as a poet, woman, American, and Jew -- this chalks in my position," she wrote in 1944. "If the four come together in one person, each strengthens the other."

I have always loved the clear-eyed and stubborn ethic expressed in part VII of "Letter to the Front," which first appeared in her book Beast in View (1944):

To be a Jew in the twentieth century

Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,

Wishing to be invisible, you choose

Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.

Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:

Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood

Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God

Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment. Not alone the still

Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.

That may come also. But the accepting wish,

The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee

For every human freedom, suffering to be free,

Daring to live for the impossible.

Rukeyser had a large social vision of poetry that we still desperately need. She firmly believed that American poetry -- "the outcast art" -- had an important place in American culture. I agree with her that poetry has been an essential resource that we have often wasted in our country. "American poetry has been part of a culture in conflict," she declared in her prose book The Life of Poetry, which seems to me as valuable and important today as when she first wrote it in 1949. (It was reprinted by Paris Press in 1996.) She goes on to define two essential features of American life: "We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare. It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories. . . . But around and under and above it is another reality. . . . This history is the history of possibility."

Rukeyser understood all too well the way that warfare has been interwoven into our history, and she was determined to oppose it with a notion of democratic possibility. Keeping that possibility alive was for her part of the hard work of poetry itself. It was a kind of prophetic imperative. Hence her tiny parable of the sixth night of creation.

The Sixth Night: Waking

That first green night of their dreaming, asleep beneath the Tree,

God said, "Let meanings move," and there was poetry.

(All quotations are from Muriel Rukeyser, "Selected Poems," ed. by Adrienne Rich. Library of America. Copyright © 1935, 1938, 1939, 1944, 1948, 1958, 1962, 1968, 1973, 1976, 1978 by Muriel Rukeyser.)


She, Too, Sang America

Reviewed by Joshua Weiner
Sunday, July 3, 2005; BW05


Edited by Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog

With Jan Heller Levi

Univ. of Pittsburgh. 670 pp. $37.50

Muriel Rukeyser belongs to a middle generation of American modernists that includes Karl Shapiro, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks and Thomas McGrath -- all born in the second decade of the 20th century. Stephen Vincent Benet chose her first book, Theory of Flight , for the Yale Younger Poets' Prize in 1935; Rukeyser was 21 years old. The two reigning poets of the time were T.S. Eliot and a considerably younger W.H. Auden, and it's fair to say that Rukeyser drew from both of them even as she rejected them. From Eliot she took a collage method of rapid juxtaposition, while rejecting his gloominess; she used Auden as a model of how to employ multiple forms in response to social and political subjects, though she rejected his facile urbanity. Thus the reader of this new edition of Collected Poems finds Rukeyser continually drawing from modernist practice even as she challenges its presumptions about how poems should sound, how they should convey meaning, and what they are for.

"Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry," Rukeyser wrote. For her, the poem was not a verbal artifact to be consumed so much as the record of an imaginative and psychological process that would inspire readers to initiate their own similar processes. This sense of exchange constitutes a vision of poetic community and a belief in the power of poetry to transform lives; it was her lifelong argument against the notion of art for art's sake, of poetry's sublime uselessness, of Auden's eventual pessimism that poetry "makes nothing happen." Hers was a Romantic notion, yet it was anything but frivolous; rather, it was a sustaining commitment against an all too familiar modernist irony and spiritual exhaustion.

It's no surprise then to find in her titles allusions to renewal and movement: "Theory of Flight" (she was a student pilot), "Eccentric Motion," "Metaphor to Action," "The Gyroscope," "The Speed of Darkness." When Rukeyser describes her search, in writing a biography of the scientist Willard Gibbs, for "a language that was not static, that did not see life as a series of points, but more as a language of water," she reminds us of her most powerful poetry, which emphasizes movement.

These are roads to take when you think of your country

and interested bring down the maps again,

phoning the statistician, asking the dear friend,

reading the papers with morning inquiry.

Or when you sit at the wheel and your small light

chooses gas gauge and clock; and the headlights

indicate future of road, your wish pursuing

past the junction, the fork, the suburban station,

well-travelled six-lane highway planned for safety.

Past your tall central city's influence,

outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,

are centers removed and strong, fighting for good reason.

These roads will take you into your own country.

Select the mountains, follow rivers back,

travel the passes. . . .

This is the opening of "The Road," the first poem in Rukeyser's great "The Book of the Dead" (1938), a sequence of "documentary" poems that draws on actual legal testimony from the investigation into one of America's worst industrial tragedies -- the death of hundreds of migrant mine workers, many of them African Americans, from silicosis poisoning in the drilling of the Hawk's Nest Tunnel in West Virginia in the early 1930s. As the first full-fledged documentary poem in America, it expresses a modernist interest in what Rukeyser called "verifiable" fact. At the same time, it takes an ethical stand while evoking the more subjective "facts" of feeling, intuition and dream that ground her shorter lyrics. The poem belongs with other works of social conscience, such as James Agee's and Walker Evans's prose and photo masterwork Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), while anticipating William Carlos Williams's long poem "Paterson" (1946), also based on historical documents, as well as Allen Ginsberg's intrepid "Wichita Vortex Sutra" (1966), transcribed from audiotapes Ginsberg made during a drive across the United States.

Given her interest in history, in community, in elaborated poetic figures and extended forms, Rukeyser appears more and more as an exemplary American modernist, the lyric poet of epic awareness. This may be why her sequences of poems -- there's at least one in each full collection she published -- seem now to stand as her more successful works. Her achievement is most impressive in these larger structures, which she needed to advance her themes to their greatest potential, and which appear to grow organically even as she hewed to formal traditions. When she hits a bad stretch, she just keeps going, drawing on the poem's established motif and patterns of phrasing until she regains poetic footing. In fact, Rukeyser was often criticized for formal sloppiness, a kind of wet impressionism, or blurring of the image, at a time when poets were countering the bloated rhetoric of late Victorian verse. For her, the fetishization of the image was a kind of death; she keeps moving in her poems between images, much as a camera shot sweeps over objects in a scene -- a tactic that no doubt grew, in part, from her training as a film editor.

As with the work of Emily Dickinson and Thelonious Monk, Rukeyser's poems are often misread as rhythmically chaotic, yet it is the sure and flexible cadence that sustains them through occasional obscure passages. Her poems proceed not by way of logical argument or detailed description, but by association or rhythmic recurrence, "like a wave, shocked to motion." It is always a musical poetry. Her ear for accent and syllable is bright and light, even as she unfurls bolts of vague diction and meandering speech; in other words, although her work is uneven, she knew exactly what she was doing as she risked aesthetic failure in her attempt to "write for the living." Yet while poets and readers committed to the struggle for social justice in the '60s and '70s locked onto her signal (her poems lend titles to two significant feminist volumes of the time, No More Masks! and The World Split Open ), by the time of her death in 1980, she had fallen below the radar of most readers.

"The process is after all like music," she writes in her poem "Käthe Kollwitz," a tribute in the voice of that radical modern German artist. "Held between wars/ my lifetime/ among wars, the big hands of the world of death/ my lifetime/ listens to yours." One hears Whitman in her inclination to dissolve the boundaries between herself and others. "I am in the world/ to change the world." Such was Rukeyser's standard, and she was, in some sense, a war poet her entire life. Only one question always remained: Where is the front? She found it in the city, in rural stretches and industrial enterprise, in the civil rights movement, the gender wars, and within herself, as well as on the literal battlefield. Rukeyser belonged in the end to what the poet Thomas McGrath called "the unaffiliated far left." Unaffiliated because, like him, she was criticized by those toeing the left party line, as she was by the right, for writing in a manner perceived as both too bourgeois and too unconventional. This didn't bother her in the slightest. She understood from early on that for the imagination "flight is intolerable contradiction." She was hip to the categorical snares and evaded them without compromising her conscience or her art.

Why her work seems always to be emerging from out-of-print limbo, only to submerge again, is one of the mysteries of publishing. Her Collected Poems is a monument of the last century, a gift to the present and a hope for the future. In it one finds sestinas, rondels, sonnets, blues, epistles, elegies, odes and a variety of little songs, ballads, proverbs, suites, charms. Almost 700 pages long, it contains more than 400 poems of such variety, passion and compassion, indignant judgment, joy, humor and conviction that it is impossible to summarize, let alone parse. Those who own the previous edition, from 1978, will want this one for its inclusion of Rukeyser's translations of Octavio Paz (the first translations into English of that giant), significant and revealing juvenilia, a late fugitive poem addressed to Alice Walker, and the editors' corrections to the earlier text. Those reading the poet for the first time will find useful, unobtrusive notes. "She was never literally lost," Adrienne Rich wrote in 1993, "but we have still to reach her. How do we reach her? . . . We reach her by recognizing our need for her." ·

Joshua Weiner, a recent recipient of the Prix de Rome, is the author of "The World's Room."





All the voices of the wood called “Muriel!”
but it was soon solved;  it was nothing, it was not for me.
The words were a little like Mortal and More and Endure
And a world like Real , a sound like Health or Hell.
Then I saw what the calling was  :  it was the road I traveled,
                           the clear
time and these colors of orchards, gold behind gold and the full
shadow begin each tree and behind each slope.  Not to me
the calling, but to anyone and at last I saw  :  where
the road lay through sunlight and many voices and the marvel
orchards, not for me, not for me, not for me.
I cam into my clear being;  uncalled, alive, and sure.
Nothing was speaking to me, but I offered and all was well.

And I arrived at the powerful green hill.

A comment here                       





This is the cripple’s hour on Seventh Avenue
when they emerge, the two o’clock night-walkers,
the cane, the crutch, and the black suit.
Oblique early mirages send the eyes:
night dramatized in puddles, the animal glare
that makes indignity, makes the brute.
Not enough effort in the sky for morning.
No color, pantomime of blackness, landscape
where the third layer black is always phantom

Here comes the fat man, the attractive dog-chested
 legless—and the wounded infirm king
with nobody to use him as a saint. 

Now they parade in the dark, the cripples’ hour
to the drugstore, the bar, the newspaper-stand,
past kissing shadows on a window-shade to
colors of alcohol, reflectors, light.
Wishing for trial to prove their innocence
with one straight simple look: 

the look to set this avenue in its colors—
two o’clock on a black street instead of
wounds, mysteries, fables, kings
in a kingdom of cripples.

A comment here             





I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane.
The news would pour out of various devices
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

A comment, here                       







Whether it is a speaker, taut on a platform,
who battles a crowd with the hammers of his words,
whether it is the crash of lips on lips
after absence and wanting : we must close
the circuits of ideas, now generate,
that leap in the body's action or the mind's repose.

Over us is a striking on the walls of the sky,
here are the dynamos, steel-black, harboring flame,
here is the man night-walking who derives
tomorrow's manifestoes from this midnight's meeting ;
here we require the proof in solidarity,
iron on iron, body on body, and the large single beating.

And behind us in time are the men who second us
as we continue. And near us is our love :
no forced contempt, no refusal in dogma, the close
of the circuit in a fierce dazzle of purity.
And over us is night a field of pansies unfolding,
charging with heat its softness in a symbol
to weld and prepare for action our minds' intensity.






He said he would be back and we'd drink wine together
He said that everything would be better than before
He said we were on the edge of a new relation
He said he would never again cringe before his father
He said that he was going to invent full-time
He said he loved me that going into me
He said was going into the world and the sky
He said all the buckles were very firm
He said the wax was the best wax
He said Wait for me here on the beach
He said Just don't cry

I remember the gulls and the waves
I remember the islands going dark on the sea
I remember the girls laughing
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying: Inventors are like poets, a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added: Women who love such are the worst of all
I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.

The Author reading the poem, here                   







Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the

roads.  He smelled a familiar smell.  It was

the Sphinx.  Oedipus said, "I want to ask one question.

Why didn't I recognize my mother?"  "You gave the

wrong answer," said the Sphinx.  "But that was what

made everything possible," said Oedipus.  "No," she said.

"When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,

two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,

Man.  You didn't say anything about woman."

"When you say Man," said Oedipus, "you include women

too.  Everyone knows that."  She said, "That's what

you think."






The fear of poetry is the
fear     :      mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son's head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down.     And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended.     And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof.     That strikes long after act.

They fear it.    They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet's

The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.







For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,

for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth,

they showed me by every action to despise your kind;

for that I saw my people making war on you,

I could not tell you apart, one from another,

for that in childhood I lived in places clear of you,

for that all the people I knew met you by

crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling

   water on you, they flushed you down,

for that I could not tell one from another

only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender.

   Not like me.

For that I did not know your poems

And that I do not know any of your sayings

And that I cannot speak or read your language

And that I do not sing your songs

And that I do not teach our children

          to eat your food

          or know your poems

          or sing your songs

But that we say you are filthing our food

But that we know you not at all.

Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time.

You were lighter than the others in color, that was

     neither good nor bad.

I was really looking for the first time.

You seemed troubled and witty.

Today I touched one of you for the first time.

You were startled, you ran, you fled away

Fast as a dancer, light, strange and lovely to the touch.

I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.





In the human cities, never again to
despise the backside of the city, the ghetto,
or build it again as we build the despised
backsides of houses. Look at your own building
You are the city.'

Among our secrecies, not to despise our Jews

(that is, ourselves) or our darkness, our blacks,

or in our sexuality       wherever it takes us

and we now know we are productive

too productive, too reproductive

for our present invention – never to despise

the homosexual who goes building another


with touch    with touch    (not to despise any touch)

each like himself like herself each.

You are this.


                                               In the body’s ghetto

never to go despising the asshole

nor the useful shit that is our clean clue

to what we need.    Never to despise

the clitoris in her least speech.

Never to despise in myself what I have been taught

to despise.    Nor to despise the other.

Not to despise the it.     To make this relation

with the it        :         to know that I am it.


The Author reading part of the poem, here       







There were three of them that night.

They wanted it to happen in the first woman’s room.

The man called her; the phone rang high.

Then she put fresh lipstick on.

Pretty soon he rang the bell.

She dreamed, she dreamed, she dreamed.

She scarcely looked him in the face

But gently took him to his place.

And after that the bell, the bell.

They looked each other in the eyes,

A hot July it was that night,

And he then slow took off his tie,

And she then slow took off her scarf,

The second one took off her scarf,

And he then slow his heavy shoe,

The other one took off her shoe,

He then took off his other shoe,

The second one, her other shoe,

A hot July it was that night.

And he then slow took off his belt,

And she then slow took off her belt,

The second one took off her belt…






These are roads to take when you think of your country

and interested bring down the maps again,

phoning the statistician, asking the dear friend,


reading the papers with morning inquiry.

Or when you sit at the wheel and your small light

chooses gas gauge and clock; and the headlights


indicate future or road, your wish pursuing

past the junction, the fork, the suburban station,

well-travelled six-lane highway planned for safety.


Past your tall central city’s influence,

outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,

are centers removed and strong, fighting for good



These roads will take you into your own country.

Select the mountains, follow rivers back,

travel the passes. Touch West Virginia where


the Midland Trail leaves the Virginia furnace,

iron Clifton Forge, Covington iron, goes down

into the wealthy valley, resorts, the chalk hotel.


Pillars and fairway; spa; White Sulphur Springs.

Airport. Gay blank rich faces wishing to add

history to ballrooms, tradition to the first tee.


The simple mountains, sheer, dark-graded with pine

in the sudden weather, wet outbreak of spring,

crosscut by snow, wind at the hill’s shoulder.


The land is fierce here, steep, braced against snow,

rivers and spring. KING COAL HOTEL, Lookout,

and swinging the vicious bend, New River Gorge.


Now the photographer unpacks camera and case,

surveying the deep country, follows discovery

viewing on groundglass an inverted image.


John Marshall named the rock (steep pines, a drop

he reckoned in 1812, called) Marshall Pillar,

but later, Hawk’s Nest. Here is your road, tying


you to its meanings: gorge, boulder, precipice.

Telescoped down, the hard and stone-green river

cutting fast and direct into the town.


                        from The Book of the Dead


A comment, here







Camera at the crossing sees the city

a street of wooden walls and empty windows,

the doors shut handless in the empty street,

and the deserted Negro standing on the corner.


The little boy runs with his dog

up the street to the bridge over the river where

nine men are mending road for the government.

He blurs the camera-glass fixed on the street.


Railway tracks here and many panes of glass

tin under light, the grey shine of towns and forests:

in the commercial hotel (Switzerland of America)

the owner is keeping his books behind the public glass.


Postoffice window, a hove of private boxes,

the hand of the man who withdraws, the woman who

            reaches her hand

and the tall coughing man stamping an envelope.


The bus station and the great pale buses stopping for


April-glass-tinted, the yellow-aproned waitress;

coast-to-coast schedule on the plateglass window.


The man on the street and the camera eye:

he leaves the doctor’s office, slammed door, doom,

any town looks like this one-street town.


Glass, wood, and naked eye: the movie-house

closed for the afternoon frames posters streaked with


advertise “Racing Luck” and “Hitch-Hike Lady”.


Whistling, the train comes from a long way away,

slow, and the Negro watches it grow in the gray air,

the hotel man makes a note behind his potted palm.


Eyes of the tourist house, red-and-white filing station,

the eyes of the Negro, looking down the track,

hotel-man and hotel, cafeteria, camera.


And in the beerplace on the other sidewalk

always one’s harsh night eyes over the beerglass

follow the waitress and the yellow apron.


The road flows over the bridge,

Gamoca pointer at the underpass,

opposite, Alloy, after a block of town.


What do you want – a cliff over a city?

A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?

These people live here.


                                   from The Book of the Dead

A comment, here






This is a lung disease. Silicate dust makes it.

The dust causing the growth of


This is the X-ray picture taken last April.

I would point out to you: these are the ribs;

this is the region of the breastbone;

this is the heart (a white wide shadow filled with blood).

In here of course is the swallowing tube, esophagus.

The windpipe. Spaces between the lungs.


                                   Between the ribs?


Between the ribs. These are the collar bones.

Now, this lung’s mottled, beginning, in these areas.

You’d say a snowstorm had struck the fellow’s lungs.

About alike, that side and this side, top and bottom.

The first stage in this period in this case.


                                   Let us have the second.


Come to the window again. Here is the heart.

More numerous nodules, thicker, see, in the upper


You will notice the increase      :      here, streaked fibrous

            tissue –




That indicates the progress in ten month’s time.

And now, this year – short breathing, solid scars

even over the ribs, thick on both sides.

Blood vessels shut. Model conglomeration.


                                   What stage?


Third stage. Each time I place my pencil point:

There and there and there, there, there.


            “It is growing worse every day. At night

            “I get up to catch my breath. If I remained

            “flat on my back I believe I would die.”


            It gradually chokes off the air cells in the lungs?

            I am trying to say it the best I can.

            That is what happens, isn’t it?

            A choking-off in the air cells?



            There is difficulty in breathing.


            And a painful cough?




            Does silicosis cause death?


Yes, sir.


                                                 from The Book of the Dead


A comment, here







These roads will take you into your own country.

Seasons and maps coming where this road comes

into a landscape mirrored in these men.


Past all your influences, your home river,

constellations of cities, mottoes of childhood,

parents and easy cures, war, all evasion’s wishes.


What one word must never be said?

Dead, and these men fight off our dying,

cough in the theatres of war.


What two things shall never be seen?

They     :     what we did.   Enemy     :     what we mean.

This is a nation’s scene and halfway house.


What three things can never be done?

Forget.     Keep silent.     Stand alone.

The hill of glass, the fatal brilliant plain.


The facts of war forced into actual grace.

Seasons and modern glory.     Told in the histories,

                        how first ships came


seeing on the Atlantic thirteen clouds

lining the west horizon with their white

                        shining halations;


they conquered, throwing off impossible Europe –

could not be used to transform; created coast –

                        breathed-in America.


See how they took the land, made after-life

fresh out of exile, planted the pionneer

                        base and blockade,


pushed forests down in an implacable walk

west where new clouds lay at the desirable

                        body of sunset;


taking the seabord.   Replaced the isolation,

dropped cities where they stood, drew a tidewater

                        frontier of Europe,


a moment, and another frontier held,

this land was planted home-land that we know.

                        Ridge of discovery,


until we walk to windows, seeing America

lie in a photograph of power, widened

                        before our forehead,


and still behind us falls another glory,

London unshaken, the long French road to Spain,

                        the old Mediterranean


flashing new signals from the hero hills

near Barcelona, monuments and powers,

                        parent defenses.


Before our face the broad and concrete west,

green ripened field, frontier pushed back like river

                        controlled and damned;


the flashing wheatfields, cities, lunar plains

grey in Nevada, the sane fantastic country

                        sharp in the south,


liveoak, the hanging moss, a world of desert,

the dead, the lava, and the extreme arisen

                        fountains of life,


the flourished land, peopled with watercourses

to California and the colored sea;

                        sums of frontiers


and unmade boundaries of acts and poems,

the brilliant scene between the seas, and standing,

                        this fact and this disease.




Half-memories absorb us, and our ritual world

carries its history in familiar eyes,

planted in flesh it signifies its music


in minds which turn to sleep and memory,

in music knowing all the shimmering names,

the spear, the castle, and the rose.


But planted in our flesh these valleys stand,

everywhere we begin to know the illness,

are forced up, and our times confirm us all.


In the museum life, centuries of ambition

yielded at last a fertilizing image:

the Carthaginian stone meaning a tall woman


carries in her two hands the book and cradled dove,

on her two thighs, wings folded from the waist

cross to her feet, a pointed human crown.


This valley is given to us like a glory.

To friends in the old world, and their lifting hands

that call for intercession. Blow falling full in face.


And those whose childhood made learn skill to meet,

and art to see after the change of heart;

all the belligerents who know the world.


You standing over gorges, surveyors and planners,

you workers and hope of countries, first among powers;

you who give peace and bodily repose,


opening landscapes by grace, giving the marvel lowlands

physical peace, flooding old battlefields

with general brilliance, who best love your lives;


and you young, you who finishing the poem

wish new perfection and begin to make;

you men of fact, measure our times again.




These are our strength, who strike against history.

These whose corrupt cells owe their new styles of


                                   to our diseases;


these carrying light for safety on their foreheads

descend deeper for richer faults of ore,

                        drilling their death.


There touching radium and the luminous poison,

carried their death on their lips and with their warning

                        glow in their graves.


These weave and their eyes water and rust away,

these stand at wheels until their brains corrode,

                        there farm and starve,


all these men cry their doom across the world,

meeting avoidable death, fight against madness,

                        find every war.


Are known as strikers, soldiers, pioneers,

fight on all new frontiers, are set in solid

                        lines of defense.


Defense is sight; widen the lens and see

standing over the land myths of identity,

                        new signals, processes:


Alloys begin     :     certain dominant metals.

Deliberate combines add new qualities,

                        sums of new uses.


Over the country, from islands of Maine fading,

Cape Sable fading south into the orange

                        detail of sunset,


new processes, new signals, new possession.

A name for all the conquests, prediction of victory

                        deep in these powers.


Carry abroad the urgent need, the scene,

to photograph and to extend the voice,

                        to speak this meaning.


Voices to speak to us directly.    As we move.

As we enrich, growing in larger motion,

                        this word, this power.


Down coasts of taken countries, mastery,

discovery at one hand, and at the other

                        frontiers and forests,


fanatic cruel legend at our back and

speeding ahead the red and open west,

                        and this our region,


desire, field, beginning.   Name and road,

communication to these many men,

as epilogue, seeds of unending love.


A comment, here






Do you know the name of the average animal?

Not the dog,

            Not the green-beaded frog,

Nor the white ocean monster lying flat –

            Lower than that.

The curling one who comes out in the storm –

The middle one’s the worm.


Lift up your face, my love, lift up your mouth,

Kiss me and come to bed

            And do not bow your mouth,

Longer on what is bad or what is good –

            The dead are terribly misunderstood,

And sin and godhead are in the worm’s blind eye,

We’ll come to averages by and by.







I lie in the bath and I contemplate the toilet-paper:

Scottissue, 1000 sheets –

            What a lot of pissin and shittin,

            What a lot of pissin and shittin,

Enough for the poems of Shelley and Keats –

All the poems of Shelley and Keats.








When I wrote of the women in their dances and

            wildness, it was a mask,

on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,

it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,

fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone

            down with song,

it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from



There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory

of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued


beside me among the doctors, and a word

of rescue from the great eyes.


No more masks! No more mythologies!


Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,

the fragments join in me with their own music.


A comment, here




The Conjugation of the Paramecium

This has nothing
to do with

The species
is continued
as so many are
(among the smaller creatures)
by fission

(and this species
is very small
next in order to
the amoeba, the beginning one)

The paramecium
achieves, then,
by dividing

But when
the paramecium
desires renewal
strength another joy
this is what
the paramecium does:

The paramecium
lies down beside
another paramecium

Slowly inexplicably
the exchange
takes place
in which
some bits
of the nucleus of each
are exchanged

for some bits
of the nucleus
of the other

This is called
the conjugation of the paramecium.

The Author reading the poem, here                   


  more poems, here                  


The TLS n.º 5373,    March 24, 2006


Head of Dream

Stephen Burt


The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser

Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog, editors

670 pp. University of Pittsburgh Press    $ 37.50;

distributed in the UK by Eurospan. £ 28.95

0 8229 4247 X

Read this review, here 


A Mater of Fact and Vision: The Objectivity Question and Muriel Rukeyser's "The Book of the Dead" - a - Critical Essay
Twentieth Century Literature, Jan, 1999 by Shoshana Wechsler

Read this article here