I had to order a new tin of page points recently from Levenger because all of the page points I had were gone. Well, not gone exactly. I knew where some of them were, in which books. But I didn’t have any free ones, so I was reduced to scribbling down page numbers on a scrap of paper. I got my new tin now and I am happily sticking the wonderful little points in everywhere again. I have 30 new ones, no need to be conservative. This is, no doubt, how they all disappeared the first time.
I am happy to say, however, that I found a quantity of them yesterday in Out of Silence: Selected Poems by Muriel Rukeyser. I’d been reading the book slowly, since early last year or late the year before, a few poems at a time. I hadn’t picked the book up lately and had forgotten how frequently I marked a poem I liked. So part of the missing page point mystery is solved at any rate.
Just by the number of marked poems in the book I can confidently say that I enjoyed it immensely. The book is selected poems, poems taken from various of her books beginning with the first one, Theory of Flight (1935) and ending with her last one, The Gates (1976). What I like about poetry selections is that you tend to get a good range of the poet’s work and can get a tantalizing glimpse of the poet’s development. By the placement of my points, I can see that I seem to prefer her later poems.
If you have never read Muriel Rukeyser before, the best way to tell you what she is all about is to describe her as a poet in time. By this I mean that she writes poems about life and events that can be dated but the poems themselves are timeless. Rukeyser is a poet of specifics:
Even now the bright corporeal hand
might come to redeem the long moment of dying.
Even now if I could rest my life,
my forehead on those knees and the arriving shadows
in rising quiet as the long night arrives.
Terror, war, terror, black blood and wasted love.
The most terrible country, in the heads of men.
This is the war imagination made;
it must be strong enough to make peace.
My peace is strong enough if it will come
flowing, the color of eyes. When the world burns away
nothing is left can ever be betrayed.
(from the poem “Sixth Elegy. River Elegy” written in summer 1940)
Rukeyser could be, and is often, labeled a political poet. This is unfortunate because I think that kind of label turns off some potential readers. Rukeyser is political if one considers writing about war and demonstrations and women and the voiceless political. The act of writing her poems is political in the sense of the feminist movement’s motto, “the personal is political.” Rukeyser’s poems are all personal, even when she writes in others’ voices, women, refugees, mineworkers dying from lung disease. The purpose of the personal is to make a connection to the lives of others, the lives of people different from ourselves, in order to see that they are not so different after all:
Brothers in dream, naked-standing friend
rising over the night, crying aloud,
beaten and beaten and rising from defeat,
crying as we cry: We are the world together.
Here is the place in hope, on time’s hillside,
where hope, in one’s image, wavers for the last time
and moves out of one’s body up the slope.
That place in love, where one’s self, as the body of love,
moves out of the old lifetime towards the beloved.
Who looks at the many colors of the world
knowing the peace of the spaces and the eyes of love,
who resists beyond suffering, travels beyond dream,
knowing the promise of the night-flowering worlds
sees in a clear day love and child and brother
living, resisting, and the world one world
(from the poem “Seventh Elegy. Dream-Singing Elegy”)
Rukeyser is not always about war and peace and grim words and situations. Sometimes she will detour into the realm of myth but she always gives it a twist, Orpheus and Icarus are fodder for her pen. My favorite of her myth poems,, and one of my favorites of her poems in general, appears in this book:
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 fours 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
(“Myth” from Breaking Open)