Fire is as much a tool and a representation of rebirth as it is a force of destruction. Water can represent the same, but also a freedom and a fear of the unknown. After all, who really knows what lurks under dark waters? Nothing in Muriel Rukeyser’s poem sequence “Waterlily Fire,” composed over the span of four years beginning in 1958 and published in 1962, exists in singularity, and the complex relationship she creates between fire and water is testament to that. Rukeyser presents her audience with a piece that opposes male artificiality with female nature, addressing the issue of women’s enforced isolation and fractured identities, the conquering of this oppression, and the breaking of natural and imposed barriers throughout the poem.
In “Waterlily Fire,” Rukeyser describes a fire that was at once more than reality and more than metaphor. Rukeyser bore witness to the aftermath of the fire that ravaged the Museum of Modern Art and one of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paintings (1914-1926). She was meeting with her friend Richard Griffith, curator of the museum’s film library, whom she calls “Dick” in the sequence’s opening section, “The Burning” (CP 406). Beyond this actual event and biographical fact, Rukeyser describes a metamorphosis. The sequence begins with a description of the fire and of a city that the fire is at once destroying and transforming. Change, after all, often comes with a destruction of what preceded it. Rukeyser homes in on the idea of losing youth and being visited by an awakening, which appears to be a sexual one. Water lilies, a symbol of purity, burnt the day Rukeyser witnessed their remnants, and her poems also burned with youth, naivety, and innocence.
The sequence ends with the line, “I speak to you / You speak to me,” which implies a sort of dialogue intended to be created by the poems (410). This dialogue, created by a woman, aligns with Rukeyser’s idea of muses. In “Many Keys,” a “lost” feminist essay she composed in 1957, which has recently been recovered, edited, and published with an introduction by Eric Keenaghan, Rukeyser characterizes women as muses for men rather than being their own muses. The woman “is a listener who answers, traditionally, as Muse, evoker; who answers, sometimes, as artist, and breaks that barrier” but who when writing poetry “does not turn to a muse” (Rukeyser, “Many Keys” 195). Rukeyser breaks tradition and convention by initiating instead of responding, and she suggests that women, through their being their own muses, gain autonomy and the power to put forth their own narratives. When they are simply the muses of men, their very being is oppressed and the truth of who they are is hidden. Rukeyser’s work gives the audience her own truth, a truth riddled with independence, revolution, and desire. In “Waterlily Fire”—more specifically, in the first two sections of the poem— Rukeyser discusses women as their own oppressors and liberators. She expresses this duality through their presence as both fire and water, their isolation as an island but also their ability to build bridges, and their existence as both pure water lilies as well as humans who experience desire and are objects to desire. These are natural, elemental barriers that women can find as much strength in as they can find weakness. The imposed barriers come in the form of guards, which draw out fear instead of strength.
Because this message is based on layers of duality, it seems that the existence of natural barriers implies that all other barriers can only exist in the sense of being unnatural and must be abolished instead of amended. These unnatural, external barriers exist and are addressed in “Many Keys” because the essay expresses the necessity that women have their own voices. Women must integrate themselves into their writings not only because it is what they know but also because they need to take back narratives that have been controlled by external factors for much too long. By creating their own narratives, they remove themselves from false narratives and create the bridges that are described in “Waterlily Fire.” In the second poem of the sequence, “The Island,” Rukeyser evolves from “I was the island with no bridges” to “I am a city with bridges and tunnels” (406). Rukeyser makes the fracturing of women’s identities apparent by showing how they are fractured within themselves as well as by outside forces that inflict limitations and rules upon them. But through this device, Rukeyser also makes clear that the mending of their identities through the formation of connections with others is a natural thing.
These connections do not imply one shared identity, though. Women may fight together against a shared oppression, but every woman has the individual struggle of accepting and becoming herself. In one stanza, Rukeyser moves from the idea of the acceptance of oneself to a description of “blossoms like sex pink, dense pink, rose, pink, red” (407). Before the poem ends, this image transforms into “Lilies of all my life on fire” (408). Becoming whole means realizing one’s humanity, and humans have desires. If we are to have a discussion of the societal fracturing of women’s identities, it would be an injustice to ignore the over-sexualization of women and the stigmatization of overtly sexual women. The poem mends this fracture by presenting the purity and the sexuality of women as natural, both essential to who a woman is. Once this fact is accepted, as Rukeyser writes, “I walk past the guards into my city of change” (408). Rukeyser walks past imposed internal barriers and external oppressors at once, becoming a woman who is capable of owning her own identity and building bridges.
These guards featured in the last line of “The Island” are the physical manifestations of the unnatural entities in the first two poems. In the sequence’s opening poem, “The Burning,” Rukeyser writes, “I pass guards, finding the center of my fear” (406). The guards, as mentioned above, are then present in the line that ends the second section, “I walk past the guards into my city of change” (408). They stand out in the poem, breaking away from natural things (i.e., fire, water, earth, human desire) and presenting the audience with what is presumably only a few men. These men only pose a threat if the people walking by them fear them. This fear is not a natural, automatic fear, but instead one that is taught. Guards police what a person does, ensuring that consequences are enforced for stepping outside of boundaries. This strictness, this fear, is something that is created and something that is oppressive, and Rukeyser shows a woman breaking the expected pattern of complacency, instead fighting to reinstate the natural as ruling. Another thing to note is how Rukeyser’s presentation of the imposed barrier implies that the guards are men, even though their gender has not been explicitly stated.
If the male imposition of control and barriers is unnatural, then the womanly show of power is elemental. Men, the guards, can create a limited amount of fear when they are given a woman’s permission to do so, but what can a woman create? What can she destroy? The second line of “The Burning” begins, “I go to the stone street turning to fire” (405). In the first line of “The Island,” the narrator claims she was “Born of this river and this rock island” (406). This contrast of fire and water shows the natural strength of women, and it also shows women as contradictory forces of nature who can oppress themselves. Both quotes mention an origin of a stone or rock, thus showing something stable that the strength is rooted in; but one passage shows a beginning of water and the latter shows a turning point of fire. Rock can withstand both fire and water, so women’s core is protected, but their two natures are at constant odds with each other. Fire and water are opposites. A woman’s identity is fractured because she will always be at risk of putting out her own fire. However, there is also a strength that can be found in the ability to nurture opposing forces within oneself. The guards had their own perceived strength, but this woman has the potential for both destruction and liberation. Beyond herself, her water and her fire can be used not only to oppose other women but also to create a collective identity: Fire may put out water, but the fires of two women combined is much stronger than the fire of one alone. It also seems curious that Rukeyser allows women to reclaim fire, as it has been known in history as an oppressive force that afflicts women, be it the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. The presentation of a fractured woman also opens the avenue to a stronger collective identity.
Stephanie Coontz shows another side of the importance of solidarity between women in “Demystifying the Feminine Mystique,” a chapter of her book A Strange Stirring. She shows Betty Friedan, a woman quite often credited with spurring second wave feminism with her classic book The Feminist Mystique (1963), as a woman who strategically isolated herself from other women, thus fracturing her own beliefs in order to focus purely on the white middle class. This was apparent through her distancing herself from the French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, acknowledging her only through a “brief reference” that “minimized the tremendous debt Friedan and her book owed” to Beauvoir (Coontz 143). This was because Simone de Beauvoir’s political beliefs and her belief in intersectional equality did not align with the objectives of Friedan’s intended audience. Instead of building bridges, Friedan found it necessary to burn them. This example truly emblematizes Rukeyser’s ideas of the isolation and fractured identities that affected women because it shows that Friedan distanced herself from what the audience she was appealing to would find undesirable, hence the isolation. It also shows her breaking away from part of what she based her entire feminist theory on, thus showing a fracturing within herself as well as between other women.
Friedan created a collective identity, but an exclusive one. She had the privilege to be truly selective when building her bridges, as she existed within the realm of majority as a middle-class white woman, and thus brought to life Rukeyser’s idea of a woman as an island. Though this brings to light the isolation Rukeyser spoke of in her poem, it also brings into question the inclusivity of Rukeyser’s metaphors: Who exactly had the power in “Waterlily Fire”? Friedan built bridges, but selectively and strategically, as both a show of strength and weakness. Her strength is found through exclusion and the bridges she did create are as limiting as they are liberating.
Beyond the necessity of the fracturing, Coontz’s observation about Friedan shows how women are pitted against each other. If this state coincides with the need of patriarchal societies, does it mean that this fracturing is unnatural and imposed? Socially imposed identity-based boundaries are meant to create a collective identity, yet they create an intersectionality that actually pits women against each other. Women are islands and they are not taught to build bridges, hence their isolation from each other. This exemplifies the confusion of the natural and the unnatural Rukeyser’s islands reference in her poetic sequence. Women are either islands and isolated, discovering their own strength through making connections and building bridges, or they find their strength through prescribing to what is normal, each finding strength in a man as opposed to the poem’s vision of the elemental strength a woman is able to tap into.
Fighting imposed barriers means creating a collective identity despite the isolation that is often expected of women. Rukeyser, in her essay “Many Keys,” mentions how isolation and fracturing of identities occurs when women are expected to be muses. Coontz, in “Demystifying the Feminine Mystique,” describes a purposeful and strategic fracturing and isolation because Friedan, for her book to be popular, could only show a part of who she was. In Rukeyser’s poem, the physical barriers, apart from the guards, and isolation come from how she presents women as islands. As I noted earlier, one stanza from “Waterlily Fire” suggests the liberation of making connections, but what of the oppression women were liberated from? After Rukeyser finds such liberation, one later line in the section “The Island” asserts, “Whatever can come to a city can come to this city” (“Waterlily Fire” 407). The poem goes on to compare the city to a man, going from “changing like a man changing” to “I love this man” (407). This movement raises questions about the root of the narrator’s freedom and how free she actually is. After all, is the city not her? Is it not her island? Because if her freedom stems from manliness as opposed to a liberation of women, she has not been freed at all. Her identity is not mended, her isolation from her own identity is still more than present.
Rukeyser, within both her poem and her essay, exemplifies the power of autonomy. To have the ability to embrace and express oneself is to have the ability to exist complexly, as both fire and water, as both author and muse, and to overcome the static barriers that stand in the way of improvement. Beyond that, she also emphasizes the importance of connections. By writing, women connect with their audiences and establish credibility with them. By building bridges as Rukeyser does in “Waterlily Fire,” women are not only able to overcome their own isolation but also to guard against those who are able to infringe upon their land. Having only a bridge to connect to others, after all, means you have great power over who is able to enter your island.
Even the title of the sequence “Waterlily Fire” puts emphasis on the paradoxical nature of what can be described as either the weakness or the strength found within a woman and within womanhood. Though describing a literal fire, the title also leads to a presentation of water and fire, two things that naturally oppose each other but in combination represent women in the poem. If a woman is both water and fire, then she has not only the capability to be her own oppressor but also the capability to be both the oppressor and the liberator of other women. This is simply because, within herself, she would only have two opposite forces that work against each other. In conjunction with another woman, fire or water can be made twice as powerful.
All of this combines to create the shared but fractured identity of a woman. She is taught to be the victim but forced to be her own liberator. She is fire, water, island, bridges, isolated, connected. The elemental is not just natural but also tied to human nature. Rukeyser presents women as sexual beings, as beings who crave and find intimacy and connections. They are fire, destructive and full of desire, and water, salvific and fluid. They are complex beings with a depth that is hidden behind external impositions and identities that fracture under the pressure of societal expectations. When stripped to the barest of meaning, these texts by Rukeyser and Coontz point to how women can be anything, and they most certainly can be more than just muses or complacent figures. Sometimes, this requires concessions like the ones that Friedan had to make. Sometimes, it is difficult to break past the imposed barriers and even harder to break past the natural ones and learn to control the fire and water within oneself. Women’s identities are fractured and isolated by society, and it takes a tremendous amount of strength to fight that.
Rukeyser, in “Waterlily Fire,” starts a conversation that prompts a response in the line that she uses to end this sequence: “I speak to you / you speak to me” (410). The conversation that Rukeyser started is still a conversation today. The fracturing and isolation have changed form, as it did when Friedan found a limited amount of strength in them, but that condition is still present and often ignored. The often-toxic dichotomy between the sexes is treated as though it is natural, but Rukeyser shows this conflict in a different light. She shows it as an unnatural, imposed state that can always be beaten out by what is natural, what is elemental, because nature will always overtake the limitations imposed on women by men. The presence of some natural barriers implies that all others are unnatural, and unnaturalness tends to have the connotation of bad. A woman’s identity is often portrayed not only by how she presents herself but also by how other people perceive her. This fact is seen in the media today, as women are often automatically deemed the liar in any situation where they make accusations against men. Ultimately, in her poem “Waterlily Fire,” Rukeyser moves beyond what can be seen in her essay “Many Keys” and in Coontz’s “Demystifying the Feminine Mystique” by creating a world where a woman’s strength can be derived from more than divisiveness and by creating the start of a conversation that is hopeful for more than a metaphorical liberation.
Coontz, Stephanie. “Demystifying the Feminine Mystique.” A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. Basic Books, 2011, pp. 139-65.
Keenaghan, Eric. “There is no glass woman: Muriel Rukeyser’s lost feminist essay, ‘Many Keys.’” Feminist Modernist Studies, vol. 1, nos.1-2, 2018, pp. 186-204, Taylor and Francis Online DOI:10.1080/24692921.2017.1368883.
Rukeyser, Muriel. “Many Keys,” edited by Eric Keenaghan. Feminist Modernist Studies, vol. 1, nos. 1-2, 2018, pp. 186-204, Taylor and Francis Online, doi:10.1080/24692921.2017.1368883.
Rukeyser, Muriel. “Waterlily Fire.” The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Edited by Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog with Jan Heller Levi. U of Pittsburgh P, 2005, pp. 405-10.