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(1913 - 1980)
When Barcelona fell, the darkened glass
turned in the world and immense ruinous gaze,
mirror of prophecy in a series of mirrors.
I meet it in all the faces that I see.
Decisions of history the radios reverse;
Storm over continents, black rays around the chief,
Finished in lightning, the little chaos raves.
I meet it in all the faces that I see.
Inverted year with one prophetic day,
high wind, forgetful cities, and the war,
the terrible time when everyone writes “hope.”
I meet it in all the faces that I see.
When Barcelona fell, the cry on the roads
assembled horizons, and the circle of eyes
looked with a lifetime look upon that image,
defeat among us, and war, and prophecy,
I meet it in all the faces that I see.
WORD OF MOUTH
I / THE RETURN
Westwards from Sète
as I went long before
along my life
as I went
wave by wave –
the long words of the sea
the orange rooftop tiles
back to the boundary
where I had been before.
Sex of cactus and cypresses,
Tile-orange, green; olive; black. The sea.
One man. Beethoven radio. War
Threat of all life. Within my belief’s body.
Within my morning, music. High colored mountain
along the seacoast
where the swallows fly.
beyond your cries and your cities.
Along my life and death backward toward that morning
When all things fell open and I went to Spain.
One man. Sardana music. This frontier.
Where I now come again.
I do not pass.
NOTE: The country is the Catalan border of France and Spain. The two times are July, 1936, the beginning of the war, and the time of my return to the border in 1963.
Wave after wave
like the divisive South
afire in the country of my birth.
A moment of glass. All down the coast I face
as far as vision, blue, memory of blue.
Seen now. Why do not go in? I stand.
I cannot pass. History, destroyed music.
I need to go into.
In a dream I have seen
Spain, sleeping children:
as I drive
as I go
(I need to go into
of love and)
wave after wave
in a deep forest.
As the driving light
(I need this country
of love and death)
they begin to rouse.
II/ WORD OF MOUTH
Speeding back from the border.
A rock came spinning up
cast from the wheels of a car.
Crackled the windshield glass.
Glitter before my eyes like a man made of snow
lying over the hood, blind white except for glints
an inch of sight where Languedoc shines through.
You on my side, you on the other!
What I have is dazzle. My son; my friend,
tell me this side and tell me that side,
news of the road near Agde.
Word from the side, word from the free-side –
Spain at our back: agony: before me, glitter,
blinding my eyes, blind diamonds, one clear wound.
Something is flying out the sky behind me.
Turning, stirring of dream, something is speeding,
something is overtaking.
Stirring in prisons, on beds, the mouths of the young,
resist, dance, love. it drives through the back of my head.
through my eyes and breasts and mouth.
I know a harvest: mass in the wine country.
A lifetime after, and still alive.
Something our of Spain, into the general light!
I drive blind white, trusting news of this side,
news of that side, all the time the line of the poem:
Amor, pena, desig, somni, dolor. *
The grapes have become wine by the hand of man.
Sea risen from the sea, a bearded king.
NOTE: The line is from a Catalan poem in Cantilena, by Joseph Sebastien Pons, Love, agony, desire, dream, suffering.
The seaward cemetery rises from the sea
like a woman rising.
Phases of sun.
The wine declared god by the hand of man.
A rumor given me by this side and that side.
We drive in brilliant glitter, in jungle night, in distant war,
in all our cities, in a word, overtaking.
A city received, gone past me into all men,
speaking, into all women.
A man goes into the sea,
bearded fire and all things rise from this blaze of eyes,
living, it speaks, driving forth from Spain,
These cliffs, these years. Do we drive into light?
Driven, live, overtaken?
Amor, pena, design.
from Letter to the front
IV – SESTINA
Coming to Spain on the first day of the fighting,
Flame in the mountains, and the exotic soldiers,
I gave up ideas of strangeness, but now, keeping
All I profoundly hoped for, I saw fearing
Travellers and the unprepared and the fast changing
Foothills. The train stopped in a silver country.
Coast-water lit the valleys of this country –
All mysteries stood human in the fighting.
We came from far. We wondered, were they
Our mild companions, turning into soldiers?
But the cowards were persistent in their fearing.
Each of us narrowed to one wish he was keeping.
There was no change of heart here; we were keeping
Our deepest wish, meeting with hope this country.
The enemies among us went on fearing
The frontier was too far behind. The fighting
Was clear to us all at last. The belted soldiers
Vanished into white hills that dark was changing.
The train stood naked in flowery midnight changing
All complex marvellous hope to war, and keeping
Among us only the main wish, and the soldiers.
We loved each other, believed in the war; this country
Meant to us the arrival of the fighting
At home; we began to know what we were fearing.
As continents broke apart, we saw our fearing
Reflect our nations’ fears; we acted as changing
Cities at home would act, with one wish, fighting
This threat or falling under it; we were keeping
The knowledge of fiery promises; this country
Struck at our lives, struck deeper than its soldiers.
Those who among us were sure became our soldiers.
The dreams of peace resolved our subtle fearing.
This was the first day of war in a strange country.
Free Catalonia offered that day our changing
Age’s hope and resistance, held in its keeping
The war this age must win in love and fighting.
This first day of fighting showed us all men as soldiers.
It offered one wish for keeping. Hope. Deep fearing.
Our changing spirits awake in the soul’s country.
Valentina Isabel Oliveira de Almeida
Itinerários na representação do corpo : um olhar sobre Sylvia Plath e Muriel Rukeyser, 578 pag.
Tese de doutoramento defendida em 2007 na Universidade Aberta
American Literature, Vol. 53, No. 2. (May, 1981), pp. 320-324.
SARA TEASDALE: Woman and Poet. By William Drake. New York: Harper and Row. 1979. xiv, 304 pp.
THE POETIC VISION OF MURIEL RUKEYSER By Louise Kertesz. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press. 1980. xviii, 412 pp.
Read this review, here
The TLS n.º 5373, March 24, 2006
Head of Dream
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
Since the 1960s, many poets on the Left, especially women, have considered Muriel Rukeyser (1913 80) a role model. Adrienne Rich called her “the poet I most needed in the struggle to make my poems and live my life”. Anne Sexton dubbed her “Muriel, mother of everyone”. A successful 1973 anthology of American women’s poetry, No More Masks!, took its title from Rukeyser’s verse. Since 1990, publishers and devotees have made available three selections from her work, leading up to this monumental Collected Poems. Rukeyser’s social and spiritual commitments prompted most of her poetry’s virtues, and most of its faults.
Admirers invoke her life, not only her art. Rukeyser had a comfortable New York City upbringing, attending top private schools and Vassar College (alongside Elizabeth Bishop), though she left when her father’s gravel company failed: by that time she was already radicalized, following (as she put it) “Not Sappho, Sacco”. She visited Alabama to report on the Scottsboro trials and travelled to Spain for the Anti-Fascist “Olympics” of 1936; her debut Theory of Flight, won the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1935, when she was twenty-one. During the Second World War, she worked in the federal Graphic Arts project along with the painter Ben Shahn. Afterwards she settled in California, where she married, then quickly divorced a painter and gave birth to a son two years later.
The poet returned to New York in 1954 and began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. She acquired new prominence in the late 1960s as she entered the public life of the anti-war and feminist movements, travelling so Hanoi in 1972 and to South Korea in 1977 in an attempt to free a jailed dissident poet. Her array of publications and projects included biographies of the nineteenth—century American physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs, the presidential candidate and world-government promoter Wendell Willkie, and the early modern astronomer Thomas Hariot; a musical about Harry Houdini; translations from several languages. among them the Spanish of Octavio Paz; one novel, The Orgy (1965), about Ireland’s Puck Fair; and five books for children.
Rukeyser had one personality but three phases. The first, coextensive with the 1930s, comprises densely wrought poems with rough pentameter norms and frequent stops, influenced by Hart Crane, by W. H. Auden, and by the Popular Front. The second, from Best in View (1944) through Waterly Fire (1962), often adopts strict rnetres and retells myths, sometimes with aid from Jungian doctrine. The third, beginning with The Speed of Darkness (1965), saw more conversational, often shortlined, free verse, responding to the era’s demands for immediacy, informality and political relevance.
Those demands suited her temperament. Early and late Rukeyser had a talent for arresting openings, and a related talent for slogans: “These are roads to take when you think of your country” “Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis”; “the year in its cold beginning / Promises more than cold” (the last opens “Gift-Poem”, dated January 1941). “To be a Jew in the twentieth century”, the war-time “Letter to the Front” declares, “Is to be offered a gift’’ (Part of that poem ended up in a prayer book still used by many American Jews.)
When Rukeyser says in the same poem “Our freedom lives / to fight the war the world must win”, we may dismiss it as the sort of things poets in wartime feel obliged to say: but Rukeyser said such things, in one or another cadence, throughout her career. Almost all her poetry sounds earnest, intensely felt, and hortatory: she instructs, or dictates, or implores, presenting herself as heroic witness, as prophet, even as Moses’ burning bush. A poem from U.S. 1 (1938) concludes: “Destroy the leaden heart, / we’ve a new race to start” and in The Speed of Darkness, “We must go deep, go deep in our lives and our dreams… And preserve our own ideas of guilt / Of innocence and of the blessed wild”.
Rukeyser often tries to sound encouraging in the etymological sense of imparting courage. The result could be lines like “In darklit death, the strong pyramid hearth / know something of the source”, or (from the some poem of 1949) “There is only life. To live is to create”. The subject here is Orpheus, but it could be anything. Yet the same poem also includes lines as original and unsettling as these, about the dismembered poet’s head:
the head turns into a cloud and the cloud rises
unwounded, the cloud assumes the shape of plants
a giant plant. Rolls to the great anvil storm-cloud,
creates the storm. This is the head of dream.
Rukeyser’s best single work is “The Book of the Dead”, a sequence within US 1. It considers the Hawk’s Nest tunnel scandal, in which hundreds of thousands ol workers in West Virginia died of lung disease after drilling a tunnel through nearly-pure silica: callous, penny-pinching under-regulated “contractors… neglected to provide the workmen with any safety device “ Incorporating chunks of Congressional testimony and various lyric forms (including the blues) along with techniques from documentary film, ‘The Book of the Dead” has lately gathered academics as magnets gather iron filings. It is also a great read. Rukeyser’s mixed feelings about engineering (dams and tunnel good, dead workers bad) resemble her mixed feelings about formal polish, and keep most of the poem’s components emotionally and verbally fresh: with every line of rhetorical beauty /”equal seas in currents of still glass”) comes a matching line of forceful, plain speech (“they broke the Socialist mayor we had in Butte”).
‘The Book of the Dead” represented a peak: for the next thirty years Rukeyser would pay progressively less attention to evidence, more to myth or wish. Her poem about Gibbs (the first of several longish poems based on biographies) quotes the physicist’s comment “I wish to know systems”. Bolstered by theorists from D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson to Lenin, Rukeyser seems to have seen poetry, all the other arts, the natural sciences, politics, and perhaps even erotic life as manifestations of the same systems and laws (A 1930s poem called for “the gearing of these facts / into coordination, in a poem or numbers, / rows of statistics, or the cool iambs”.) This confidence that all processes are one, that ‘the universe is made of stories” in which all things speak to all things” (equalled, :among modern poets, only by Pound, produced some of Rukeyser’s most :appealing aspects in particular her attention to science and technology. But that confidence also made her treat both politics and poetry as if they were varieties of religion, in which right belief, a good heart, and unstinting devotion mattered more than argument or fact. Her major critical work, The Life of Poetry (1949), contains much eloquence (especially about theatre and film) but also much quasi-devotional blather : “all we can be sure of is the profound flow of our living tides of meaning, the river meeting the sea in eternal relationship, in a dance of power, in a dance of love”.
Poets need inventing, and Rukeyser had it. But poets also need red pencils, judgement sufficient to cross out, revise and compress: Rukeyser too often left the editing to the reader. Sometimes she seems not to hear what she has been saying: one poem in U.S. 1 describes activists “Determined to a world that Mr. Fist / and all his gang can’t master or digest”. In “Letter to the Front” the problem is not sound but sense: “in dark weeping helpless moments of peace / Women and poets believe and resist forever”. The much later “Double ode” (“Moving toward new form I am”) sounds less like Buddha than like Yoda.
In 600 pages of poems, one third of which appeared before the poet turned thirty, we might expect excesses of enthusiasm, failings of self-control. Which, and how many, poems escape such failings? Except for “The Book of the Dead”, the best poems are late ones: few poets have gained so much, artistically, from the sudden expansion of their audience. The last of biographical poems “Käthe Kollwitz” (about the German artist known for her lithographs of suffering women and children), benefits from Rukeyser’s short-lined late style, whose greater compression allows the determined spirit of Kollwitz to take over the poem, and to evoke the gaunt face she drew: “grooved cheek / lips draw fine /the down-drawn grief / face of the age”. Breaking Open (1973) contained Rukeyser’s best short poems. Its open former and shorter phrases make her convictions sound less brassy than steely: “I want strong peace, and delight, / the one wild good”.
Rukeyser took seriously the oral poetry of non Western cultures, and her versions from the Inuit (Eskimo) (also in Breaking Open) are a delight. She makes one Inuit plaint sound like Delta blues: “My house and my wife, I wish they were gone / With me, she’s with a worthless man; / Her man should be strong as winter ice”. “Ballad of Orange and Grape” stands out for brisk verse-paragraphs, and for its suggestion – almost alone in this book – that the ills of the world come about less through patriarchal or capitalist malice than through inattention and simple incompetence.
Rukeyser also explored what were, at the time, unusual topics: ‘Night Feeding” the editors point out, stand “among the first American poems on… breastfeeding”. “Resurrection of the Right Side” describes recovery from a stroke:: “I go running in sleep, / but waking stumble down corridors of self, all rhythm gone”. During the 1970s Rukeyser wrote openly about love between women, and spoke for the women neglected in famous stories: not Icarus, but his abandoned wife; not Moses, but the biblical Miriam - in Rukeyzer’s telling, a disappointed pacifist whom the warlike Israelites abandoned at the at the Red Sea.
Apart from the “The Book of the Dead” and “Käthe Kollwitz”, Rukeyser’s best poems are atypical, and atypically short: “Pouring Milk Away”, ‘Waiting for Icarus’, ‘A Simple Experiment’’, “Orange and Grape”, “Artifact’’, “Destruction of Grief”. Such a prolific and various poet has proved hard to edit: the assiduous editors deserve praise. (They omit of her work for musical theatre, but include an obscure wartime chapbook and a newly unearthed poem.)
Rukeyser included in The Life of Poetry and again in Breaking Open an anecdote in which a theatre director “told the company in dress rehearsal” that “they lacked the most important thing. It would come tonight: / the audience”. Whatever she said about inner sources, Rukeyser‘s strengths and failings, her peaks and troughs, imply that she too, required an audience. When she felt she had one, at the start and at end of her career, she could bring that audience journalism, opinion, encouragement, prayers, even comic asides, along with occasionally durable poems. When she did not, she fashioned top-heavy structures of rhetoric for imaginary crowds.
Women of vision throughout history have been derided as undisciplined, over-serious, or out of control: is it sexist, or reactionary, to find these flaws throughout Rukeyser’s work? Or would it be condescending to ignore them?
Rukeyser makes admirable ethic demands, on herself and on her readers: she does not make the same demands on her language, and often it does not coalesce into works of art. And yet without Rukeyser‘s example Adrienne Rich could not have written her best books: no Leaflets, no Diving into the Wreck, no Time’s Power. For that reason alone, the future should know what Rukeyser wrote.