The time of this poem is the period in New York City from April, 1958, when I witnessed the destruction of Monet’s Waterlilies by fire at the Museum of Modern Art, to the present moment.
The two spans of time assumed are the history of Manhattan Island and my lifetime on the island. I was born in an apartment house that had as another of its tenants the notorious gangster Gyp the Blood. Nearby was Grant’s Tomb and the grave of the Amiable Child. This child died very young when this part of New York was open country. The place with its memory of amiability has been protected among all the rest. My father, in the building business, made us part of the building, tearing down, and rebuilding of the city, with all that that implies. Part II is based on that time, when building still meant the throwing of red-hot rivets, and only partly the pouring of concrete of the later episodes.
Part IV deals with an actual television interview with Suzuki, the Zen teacher, in which he answered a question about a most important moment in the teaching of Buddha.
The long body of Part V is an idea from India of one’s lifetime body as a ribbon of images, all our changes seen in process.
The “island of people” was the group who stayed out in the open in City Hall Park in April of 1961, while the rest of the city took shelter at the warning sound of the sirens. The protest against this nuclear-war practice drill was, in essence, a protest against war itself and an attempt to ask for some other way to deal with the emotions that make people make war.
Before the Museum of Modern Art was built, I worked for a while in the house that then occupied that place. On the day of the fire, I arrived to see it as a place in the air. I was coming to keep an appointment with my friend the Curator of the Museum’s Film Library, Richard Griffith, to whom this poem is dedicated.
The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Janet Kaufman and Anne Herzog (Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), p. 620