Muriel Rukeyser: In each word, a storm (Article)

by J. S. Porter

A poem calls to you if you bend your ear to it. “A Little Stone in the Middle of the Road, in Florida,” for instance. A charming title. Itself a poem. It reads:

My son as a child saying
God
is anything, even a little stone in the middle of the road, in
   Florida.
Yesterday
Nancy, my friend, after long illness:
You know what can lift me up, take me right out of despair?
No, what?
Anything.

So much depends on that word anything, first clustered in a group, then breathing free and alone. Anything. Anything can happen, anything can change, God can come, despair can lift. The little boy’s anything and the woman’s anything. Word-chimes. Between anything and anything, a lot can happen.

Anything is a word at work in Muriel Rukeyser. Even when you don’t see it or hear it in an individual poem, it’s an informing foundation. Other essential words in her word-pool are child, woman, Orpheus, suicide, song, touch, speak, you. From words like these she builds her 573 pages of Collected Poems.

Do you need a poet and poem to line your pocket? Like a lucky penny. My parents thought so. Mother had Yeats and his “Lake Isle of Innisfree.” She learned the poem by heart at nine and never forgot it. Father had Wordsworth and his “Intimations of Immortality.” For Dad, there was no higher calling in the world than the call to be a poet. He read history and biography, but poetry was for him the highest ordering of words. I don’t have a specific poem or poet in my pocket. In some moods, Raymond Carver. In others, Mark Strand, Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver, Robert Lax (I include his journals as part of his poetry) or William Carlos Williams.

Tonight I’m thinking of Muriel Rukeyser and her “Despisals,” maybe even her “Speed of Darkness” and “Effort at Speech Between Two People.” I need to consider “Tree,” “Kathe Kollwitz,” “The Conjugation of the Paramecium,” “Poem,” “Islands,” “The Gates,” “Double Ode” and “Haying Before Storm” too. A poet only needs ten good poems to be a poet, and one or two great ones to be in the circle of Wordsworth. Rukeyser has “a storm in each word.” She makes magic “of forgotten things.”

I came to Rukeyser by way of her prose. This sentence caught my attention: “There is also, in any history, the buried, the wasted, and the lost.” The sentence provided a way of seeing history, large and small. Aren’t we what we’ve buried, wasted and lost?

The strange prose of The Life of Poetry, with its spaces and silences and leaps. I liked the way Rukeyser’s mind moved. It reminded me a little of how the Brazilian storyteller Clarice Lispector’s mind moved. Lispector too is concerned with seeing. Rukeyser’s words might be Lispector’s: “What do we see? What do we not see?”

The first poem to make an impression on me was “Despisals,” which I read in an Antaeus anthology years ago. “Effect at Speech Between Two People,” a poem I came to more recently, also made a strong impression. “Despisals” is late in Rukeyser’s production, “Effect at Speech…” is early, one of her first published poems. “Effect at Speech…” reminds me of a style of speaking I trapped for a time—or, a style that allowed itself to be trapped— like a wind in a jar, but the wind soon blew open the jar. The style was uncontainable. I never got it back. My story was called “Kasaala,” a fictionalized account of my days and nights in Africa when I was twenty-one.

Is that what draws me to Rukeyser? Her voice. What she leaves out. How her mind works. How the wind comes in. Words are hard to make—hard to say— in Rukeyser. She’s not going to lie to you. In The Life of Poetry she says there are two essential American poetries: the poetry of outrage (Melville) and the poetry of possibility (Whitman). Rukeyser’s is mostly a poetry of possibility, and sometimes a poetry of outrage. Even in her politics, in her political poems, there is a sense of the primacy of making, of the need to make and build while you knock down and criticize. Listen to her in “Wherever”:

Wherever 
we walk
we will make

Wherever
we protest
we will go planting

Make poems
seed grass
feed a child growing
build a house

Whatever we stand against
We will stand feeding and seeding

Wherever 
I walk
I will make

Even in a revolution, you need to seed and feed and build.

I have forty or so anthologies of poetry in my library. Two or three have Muriel Rukeyser in them. How things change, fast. You’re a name for a few years, then a kid has a hard time finding you in the public library. If you’re lucky, you come back later. Another generation digs you up. If you’re unlucky, you stay buried. Rukeyser has one book of criticism on her work, a recent biography, and is the subject of a recent collection of remembrances and critical reappraisals; she doesn’t seem much written about in the journals. You could take a course in American poetry and not hear her name.

In a poem she seems to have written in response to a friend’s suicide, she tells the reader to flower. Flower for the dead. The poem is called “The Power of Suicide.”

The potflower on the windowsill says to me
In words that are green-edged red leaves:
Flower   flower   flower   flower
Today for the sake of all the dead.  Burst into flower.

Maybe if Rukeyser knew that many of her books were out of print, including her Collected Poems, the message would be the same. Flower. Just flower. (I’m sounding like a Nike commercial.)

In her personal essay “The Education of a Poet” Rukeyser says, “There were no books in the beginning…” There was Shakespeare and the Bible, the book of books. Her early days were not book-ended. Later, yes.

She doesn’t tell you much about herself, a detail here and there, nothing too personal; she doesn’t give much of her personal story away. You learn from others that she was probably bisexual, she had a son from a father different from the man she was married to for a few months, her favourite ice cream was Haagen-Dazs’s rum raisin. One of her last acts was to accept an invitation from the Modern Language Association to speak on “Lesbians and Literature.” Illness precluded her going to speak. Rukeyser tells you some things in “Effect at Speech…” Her widowed aunt played Chopin, on her birthday after hearing a story about a dead rabbit Muriel crawled under her chair and stayed there for a long while, she contemplated suicide at fourteen. There is more untold than told in Rukeyser. As a teacher, Rukeyser had this standard assignment: Complete this sentence “I could not tell…” There was much Rukeyser chose not to tell, but she believed, according to her student Jane Cooper, that in what you cannot tell lie the inescapable poems. The necessary ones. The ones that have a will of their own and insist on an outing.

Her mother passed on her belief in a Jewish ancestor (Rabbi Akiba) who stood against the Romans and preserved the Song of Songs. “Resist the Romans,” Rukeyser says in a poem. “The holy poem…/the Song of Songs always,” she says in the same poem. Her father too is a strong presence in her poetry. He wants her to be a golfer. Instead she writes poetry (more rebellion) and protests injustices (the political poetry of outrage forms a sizeable portion of her output) against blacks and workers and the Vietnamese. He’s a cement salesman; he, in his daughter’s eyes, helps to build New York City. Did her first thoughts on the need for form in poetry come from her having watched his pouring of cement into frames?

In the early years Rukeyser has a friend who says she won’t talk to her anymore unless she stops constantly writing poems. Muriel promises her friend that she’ll stop. She doesn’t, she breaks her promise, she goes on writing poems. Her father told her never to break a promise, and she feels very guilty at having done so. Rukeyser repeats this story in The Life of Poetry. It is her birth story. What should you call her? Jew? American? Poet? Poet first, poet before anything else. She decided to be a poet, even at the cost of friendship. She’d pay the price. She says in “The Speed of Darkness” as if speaking directly to her son: “I bastard mother/promise you/there are many ways to be born./They all come forth/in their own grace.” Was she birthed by a broken promise?

The mother and father don’t appear to be very happy in Rukeyser’s work: not for what she says about them, but for what she doesn’t say. You wonder if she came from a family like Delmore Schwartz’s—long silences, tension, little physical contact. In “Dreams Begin Responsibilities” Schwartz’s father does not take responsibility for his dreams of marriage and children. Rukeyser’s family disinherited her. She felt herself to be untouched as a child. Did Rukeyser’s parents take responsibility for their dreams?

Touch is important in Rukeyser’s poetry. There are exhortations everywhere in the poetry to touch. She yearns for touch. Didn’t her mother touch her? Is it possible to spend your whole life looking for what you missed in the first years of life? In “Islands,” a sharp-edged little poem, Rukeyser makes a distinction between nature in general and human beings in particular as an odd concoction of nature: even islands are connected, while people remain distant.

 O for God's sake
 they are connected
 underneath

 They look at each other
 across the glittering sea
 some keep a low profile

 Some are cliffs
 The bathers think
 islands are separate like them

There are things you can’t talk about in Rukeyser’s family. In “The Education of a Poet,” she says that in her family you couldn’t talk about sex, money or death. She says in a poem that you can’t talk about cock and cunt. In “Despisals,” Rukeyser says not to despise the clitoris; in “The Speed of Darkness” she says “Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child.”

She quotes an analyst: “What you are dominated by in your childhood is whatever your parents really love.” Is the reverse also true: what you are dominated by in your childhood is whatever you’re parents really despised and were afraid of? “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget,” Rukeyser says in a poem, and repeats the line three times.

“Write poems out of the experiences that have eaten you,” Rukeyser says in Sharon Olds’ “A Student Memoir of Muriel Rukeyser.”

Does one of her strongest poems, “Despisals,” come out of rebellion against what her parents despised? Don’t despise the ghetto, she says. Don’t despise the Jew. The black. Sexuality. The homosexual. Don’t despise touch. Don’t despise the asshole. Don’t despise the clitoris.

 ...Not to despise the other.

 Not to despise the it.  To make this relation

 with the it    :    to know that I am it.

Here in three lines Rukeyser summarizes a core of Clarice Lispector’s writing, about not despising the cockroach, about not despising our animal nature, about not despising the it.

In “Double Ode,” one of her last poems, Rukeyser says “Tonight I will try again for the music of truth.” She’s going to do it tonight. There’s a sense of urgency. She’s going to try again as if she’s tried many previous nights in the past. She’s going to try for the music of truth. Not the facts of truth, the objectivity of truth, the geometry of truth, but the music of truth. Truth comes in a sound, in sounds; it comes in finding the courage to say the real words, the words that don’t cover up. It’s one of her most beautiful lines: “Tonight I will try again for the music of truth.” The truth is unattainable, but you go on trying, you go on flowering or trying to flower…

“The universe is made of stories,/not of atoms” she says in “The Speed of Darkness.”

If that’s the case, how vital then is the need to tell the truth, to tell true stories.

“The building music” she says in another poem. You build words, you build music, you build truth. This she learned from her father, the builder.

 "Tonight I will try again for the music of truth.

                     ...

 Moving toward new form I am--

                    ...

 Do I move toward form, do I use all my fears?"

She touches me here. Her looking for a form is me looking for a form. I’ve looked for years for a form that would allow me to join things in a certain way and to play with them and even pray with them. What I take from her words is to use everything, the whole body, the whole person, not to waste, not to bury, not to lose.

Things are not easy for Muriel Rukeyser. Things are not easily said. When I read a poem whose author is unknown to me, I say, could this be Rukeyser? If the words seem easily said, I know it’s not.

If they seem said with great difficulty, I say to myself, yes, this could be Rukeyser. Speech is an effort, writing is an effort. In an “Effort at Speech Between Two People” she writes:

 Speak to me.     Take my hand.     What are you now?

 I will tell you all.     I will conceal nothing.

                      ...

 Oh, grow to know me.     I am not happy.     I will be open.

                      ...

 ...Take my hand.     Speak to me.

Isn’t this speech too intimate for poetry? Too naked for form? It’s a cry, not a poem. Not art, but pain. A desperate lunge towards the other, even if the other isn’t there or there is no other. Hands. Words. Me. You. The need for conversation, the need for touch, the need for the other. I will tell you everything (no, I won’t). I will conceal nothing (I will conceal almost everything). I am unhappy (yes, that’s true). I will be open (no, I won’t).

Some of the lines are true, some are untrue. But there is music in them all. “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” Rukeyser asks in her poem “Kathe Kollwitz.” She answers her own question with these words: “The world would split open.” Therefore, she doesn’t tell so as the world won’t split.

There comes a time in a poet’s career where there is a new turning, “a directer relation with the sun” says Thoreau. “The turning” as it’s called in Heidegger. “A New Path to the Waterfall” Raymond Carver calls it. There’s a change in diction, a gathering of energies, a moment when the self seems to find itself or speak itself.

Emily Dickinson is struck by lightning in poem 1581, “Struck no one but myself—/But I would not exchange the Bolt/For all the rest of Life—”. She writes the poem in l883, the year of her great poetic outpouring. It doesn’t differ in diction or in style from the poems before it or after it, but it gives voice to a singular event that transformed, or made her fully conscious of, her writing life. Critics argue over watershed poems. Is it this one? Is it that one? I think it’s the lightning poem in Dickinson, the first time she enfleshes a metaphor to do justice to her precarious mental state and her overpowering strength to record it.

I don’t know. How can one be sure? All I know is that when I read the Dickinson lightning poem I feel the lightning, feel the force of direct truth-telling instead of her more usual slanted speech. But because I’m cleaved by the bolt, does that mean the poet is too? Does she receive the same electric charge in her writing as I do in my reading?

Is there a transformative turn-around poem for Rukeyser? I think there is. The year of publication is 1958, the book is Body of Waking, the poem is “Haying Before Storm”.

 The sky is unmistakable.  Not lurid, not low, not black.
 Illuminated and bruise-color, limitless, to the noon
 Full of its floods to come.  Under it, field, wheels, and
     mountain,
 The valley scattered with friends, gathering in
 Live-colored harvest, filling their arms; not seeming to hope
 Not seeming to dread, doing.
       I stand where I can see
 Holding a small pitcher, coming in toward
     The doers and the day.
       These images are all
     Themselves emerging: they face their moment: love or go
 down. 
     A blade of the strong hay stands like light before me.
     The sky is a torment on our eyes, the sky
     Will not wait for this golden, it will not wait for form.
     There is hardly a moment to stand before the storm.
     There is hardly time to lay hand to the great earth.
     Or time to tell again what power shines past storm.

I don’t know the context for this poem, what it leads out of or leads to. I don’t know its compositional history, whether it came fast or slow, whether the final draft is different from the first. I just have the words in front of me and they go straight to blood and bone. This for me is Rukeyser’s lightning poem. A storm. That can’t be described, or can only be described in negatives. It’s not this, not that. The harvesters can’t be described either; they’re not this, not that. The storm is. The harvesters do. Being and doing: the two interactive states of human consciousness and perhaps the two interactive states between what is there and who we are—we that part of Being not content to be.

The poet tells this short tale of a gathering storm with herself standing where she can see. She’s the observer. Neither a part of the sky nor the people working under the sky. She carries a pitcher. Presumably water for the workers on a hot day at noon, on a day about to change drastically. Images emerge from the poet’s consciousness as if she’s in a dream or a trance or a dream-trance. She sees a single blade of golden and the tormenting sky. Something is going to happen. There will be no waiting for gold or form. Time is running out. There’s hardly time to stand or touch or tell. Hardly time. But there is time enough. Time enough to stand, to touch and to tell. First you have to feel the outrage of deprival, then you can more fully appreciate the possibility of replenishment. The good must be taken away, or the threat must be there that it may be taken away, before it can be given back. Before you can say again there’s a power shining past storm, a power deeper and stronger than storm.

This to me is a poem of great faith and hope, but only at the articulated cusp of absolute loss, at the risk of utter deprival and devastation. You can’t get to the shining power, the power that shines, any other way. You need a storm to see it and feel it and articulate it. You need a storm in each word to tell the truth.

(Distillate © HA&L + J. S. Porter | {from the Greek bios} — the course of a life.)

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