This is a Penn Sound PoemTalk, a 30-min. discussion of Muriel Rukeyser’s “Ballad of Orange and Grape” with Amy Kind, Mytili Jagannathan, and David Abel, organized and introduced by the founder of PennSound and PoemTalk, Al Filreis.
MURIEL: IN MEMORIAM
You left us in February
You left us two days before Valentine’s.
In the morning I heard myself say, “No more.
Do not call me anymore.”
I listened to your lifetime.
In the afternoon I was warned: “Saturn
is slipping into Libra. Do not alter
your alliances. Mars is conjunct Jupiter.”
You were the teacher I never had
The poet who wrote my poems before I thought of them.
In the evening I stared at the eastern sky
and dared the two spots of light to harm me.
December wrapped children have the secret sealed in their bones:
the earth does not die – it only seems to. I suppose
you taught me that in a poem
I can not find again.
In the middle of the night I was awakened by
those unblinking eyes one orange one blue
I covered my skin
I averted my face.
The next evening I learned of your death
from a newspaper over a delegate’s shoulder.
She said: The silence at home. The river to which I have just come back and
didn’t realize how much I needed. The Bible. Blake. Keats. Donne.
She said: The poems get into one before one has language.
She said: I find returns very romantic in all things. I love the coming back at
different times of all things, including sounds, including words.
She said: I mean recurrence in all things. What they call repetition. With a
poem, with a dream, you have to take it back into life to see what it becomes.
She said: The poem is a meeting place just as a person’s life is a
meeting place. It isn’t that one brings life together. It’s that one will not allow it to be torn apart.
She said: These are the rhythms most to be alive: writing poetry, lovemaking,
bringing to birth. There is extreme joy.
She said: It seems to me that the awful poems are written from someplace
into which the poet has not dived deep enough.
She said: I am perfectly willing to give or offer or sell them, but I don’t like to
submit, although I am willing to submit to many things.
“…Past the line of memory
along the long body of your life.”
Child of Akiba
born at the end of the year
before the year the first
World War ignited
traveling to witness
along U.S.1 deep into her own discovered country
into the silica mines of West Virginia
to the miners dying of the pure white dust
to the company on trial
on a voyage to the sea of war
to France from Barcelona in a small boat
evacuated with the athletes five days after
the war broke open
keeping vigil before the gates of prison
in the mud and rain of Korea
beside the poet in solitary, Kim Chi Ha
in Vietnam after the war
seeking the writers who survived
teaching us all
the vision of the poet and the scientist is one
a clear voice opening the obstacles
to fulfill Wordsworth’s prophecy: “a birth of human
understanding”. Midwife of the transfiguration
Confidence murmured in my ear
when you entered the lounge,
“She wanted a child, but she didn’t marry
to have one!”
The walls were decorated with books
in Sarah Lawrence at a seminar in autumn
a fire in its place, we in ours,
the warmth of all ideas
exchanged so politely.
The windows steamed over. My ears burned.
St. Mark’s Church. 24 hour poetry marathon
reading to end the war to end our patience.
Every pew packed, hungry to be heard
mostly men lined the walls.
A space cleared around you
quiet came to take its turn.
You stood alone in Cooper Union’s Great Hall
on a Friday night in the early ‘70s.
You called up to us The Ballad of the Orange and the Grape,
The Conjugation of the Paramecium, The Speed of Darkness.
You left the microphone and walked to the edge of the stage
to talk to us.
Said the man behind me, “She stands tall.”
The women gathered in Loeb Student Center
in November 1979, poets, storytellers, anti-nuclear activists.
You were present in your absence.
Each woman read one of your poems
before she read her own.
“Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry”
One Life 1957
The Life of Poetry 1949Doors, gates, locks
shut in, she broke open.
Her silent mother taught her
‘you can’t leave home, you belong here.’
She hid under a chair. She was told to be
happy. It was her birthday. She burnt her finger.
The Theory of Flight 1935 Her mother lived in fear. Her father poured concrete.
The rest of the family was all about money.
She was disobedient. She wrote poetry. She was disinherited.
A Turning Wind 1939She dreamt of suicide. She stood at a window at
The light held her back. The dream recurred
throughout her life. Somehow each time she found
out how to get to the next step.
The Beast in View 1944 She drove south to Scottsboro and Spain
core of all our lives
“to carry and spread and daily justify”
The gypsy in her the anarchist united in her then.
Body of Waking 1958 She chose to have a child. They were almost lost
to the whirlpool. The doctors rescued them to each
The Orgy 1966 She sought the “wild good”. “Almost every day
for a moment there was happiness.”
The Speed of Darkness She didn’t turn her back. She wished to make music
out of her violence, out of her contradictions.
1968“so much is possible for everybody.”
Breaking Open 1973Sienna and blinding white light…a dead woman was
lying beside her..
Darkness arrives/splitting the mind open.
Something again/is beginning to be born.
Her heart. Her mouth. Her heart.
The Gates 1976 When I am dead, even then
I will still love you. I will wait in these poems.
“Muriel: In Memoriam” is based on Rukeyser’s own tribute to Käthe Kollwitz in her sequence of Lives. Each of these five sections attempts to serve an equivalent function and to recall the rhythms of the original.
Part 1 The central image, that of two planets in conjunction, coincidentally appears as a sign in the lower left hand corner of every numbered page in The Speed of Darkness.
Part 2 All quotations are from an interview with MR in The Craft of Poetry, William Packard, Ed., Doubleday 1974. Pages 153-176.
Part 3 The epigraph is from “This Morning.”
The biographical incidents from an article by Louise Bernikow, “Muriel at 65: Still Ahead of Her Time,” MS, January 1979; a tape-recording made at a Day in Honor of Muriel Rukeyser, December 9, 1978 at Sarah Lawrence College and broadcast on WBAI; from The Speed of Darkness & U.S. 1.
Part 5 Epigraph from “Poem Out of Childhood.”
Louise Bernikow’ article; MR’s poem, “Effort at Speech Between Two People,” “Recovering,” and “Then,” American Poetry Review, vol 3, #3 (1974), page 6.
Because Rukeyser chose to describe nine self-portraits by Kollwitz, I selected nine self-portraits from Rukeyser’s life in her own words or in paraphrase. The titles of her books are in chronological order (except for the first two titles)
Order The Book of the Dead from West Virginia University Press.
By Elisabeth Däumer, Eastern Michigan University
Rukeyser composed this five-part poem over the span of four years (1958-1962) in response to a fire at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, which destroyed two of Monet’s Waterlily panels. Beloved by New Yorkers, the paintings had been acquired just three years prior, during the Monet revival that seized Europe and the United States, and that inaugurated a radical revaluation of the painter’s late work previously rejected as formless and passé. Now these same paintings, among them the waterlilies that the aging Monet had painted, again and again, over the last three decades of his life, were celebrated for the freedom of their brushstroke and a luminescent openness credited with shaping the new way of “seeing” introduced by Abstract Expressionists.1
Both the acquisition of the paintings and their destruction, which provoked an outpouring of sympathy from people across the nation, was captured in two issues of Life Magazine.2 As an artist, New Yorker, and friend of a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Richard Griffith, Rukeyser was deeply attuned to the poignant story of the paintings and their loss.3
In the paintings’ dissolution of fixed forms, their attention to the changing movement of water and the play of color and light that constitutes their endless appeal, Rukeyser found a pictorial analogue to her own poetic search for a “language of water,” undergirded by a relational vision in which everything is connected in fluid, sometimes mysterious, ways.4 “Due to their openness,” as art critic Sagner-Düchtung explains, “Monet’s late paintings defined a new relationship” (59) both between nature and self and between viewer and work. In this new way of seeing, inspired by Monet’s effort to “represent the various phenomena of reality in their close interweaving with unknown reality” (29), clear demarcations between nature and self as much as between viewer and work are dissolved; the increasingly abstract and unfinished style of Monet’s late waterlily paintings creates an impression both of infinite openness and luminous unity between water, sky, flowers–a unity into which the viewer herself, deprived of the firm anchor of a stable perspective, is compelled to partake. Grasping for ways of describing the effect of Monet’s late impressionistic paintings, contemporary critics of his late work turned to Far Eastern Religions “in order to express forms of consciousness for which [they] could not find other words” (Monet and Japan 60).5 Although “Monet was no Buddhist,” art critics Virginia Sape and David Bromfield remind us, “he had been inspired by Japanese paining, whose very meaning lay in breaking down the boundaries between the self and nature” (60). That Rukeyser was deeply responsive to the painting’s implicit Bhuddist consciousness is apparent in her poem’s association of the waterlily with the Lotus, the sacred flower of Buddhism, which in part of four of “Waterlily Fire” epitomizes not only enlightenment, but a dialogic ethics rooted in the non-coercive gift of language: “I speak to you . You speak to me.”6
Rukeyser’s poem brings her multiple identifications with Monet’s waterlily panels into play, immediately, when she depicts the destruction of the paintings as a life-altering event with inescapable ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual meanings: —“Noontime of my one hour”—through which “the moment walks” (CP 405-6). In addition, by relating the ravaging force of fire with the fragile beauty of the waterlily and its Asian counterpart, the lotus, the title’s surreal image of burning waterlilies is charged with the disturbing echoes of two recent historic traumas: the searing fire of the atom bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, designed to kill a people, whom President Truman, defending the atomic attack, dismissed as “savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic”; and, if more obliquely, the Shoah, the total fire that almost annihilated the Jewish people.7 In subsequent sections of the poem, the resonance of its central paradox, fusing beauty and destruction, East and West, nature and technology, women and men, extends to the terrifying specter of global nuclear disaster and the war in Vietnam.
Significantly, in Rukeyser’s panoramic poem, the eruptive fire at the museum serves as catalyst for a poetic meditation in extremis, less on the destructive violence of war than on the fragility of human boundaries, the primacy of relation, and on Rukeyser’s responsibilities as woman, poet, and activist. The poem’s movement from local event to global awareness, from female solidarity to an all encompassing humanism, and from a childhood steeped in the antagonistic history of Manhattan to an anti-nuclear protest, is accentuated by refrains of ever expanding consciousness, beginning with “whatever can come to a wall can come to this wall” in part one (CP 406), to “Whatever can come to a woman can come to me,” in part five (409); this feminist insight into our shared vulnerability as women leads to the speaker’s more expansive humanist recognition of universal relatedness, “Whatever can happen to anyone, can happen to me” (410): We are related passively, through our shared (if often denied) vulnerability to disaster and violation, but also actively, when in our willingness to embrace this recognition, we engage with each other in dialogue and communal action.
Despite her proverbial faith in language, Rukeyser never underestimated the tremendous effort required to fulfill its communicative potential, its promise of truth. “Speech between people,” as one of her early poems suggests, is an “effort,” and the fear of openness and self-revelation as strong as the longing for intimacy (CP 9). Nor does the consciousness of our existential interrelatedness facilitate the task of communicating across entrenched social and cultural divisions, whose long histories include the atrocities of racism and genocide. Thus in “Waterlily Fire,” Rukeyser’s explicit invocation of dialogue—“I speak to you. You speak to me. Is that fragile?”—becomes the subject of reflective inquiry (of a koan or puzzle) rather than solely a fact to be proclaimed, suggesting a sharpened awareness of the tenuousness of language and its stunted role in the wake of Cold War insistence on a starkly binary vision of human coexistence, according to which the demonized “other” can only be held in check by nuclear arms and compulsively erected barriers, both physical and mental.
1 See Michael Leja’s “The Monet Revival and New York School Abstraction” in Monet in the 20th Century, by Paul Hayes Tucker with George T.M. Shackelford and MaryAnne Stevens (London : Royal Academy of Arts; Boston: Museum of Fine Arts; New Haven: Published in association with Yale University Press, 1998), pp.98-108.2
2 “Old Master’s Modern Heirs,” Life December 2, 1957, pp. 94-99; “Fiery Peril in a Showcase of Modern Art, Life April 28, 1958, 53-56.
3 On the day of the fire, Rukeyser, as she recalls in the extensive footnote to “Waterlily Fire,” “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” (CP 621).
4 For a discussion of Rukeyser’s language of water see Trudi Witonsky’s essay “’A Language of Water’: Back and Forth with Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser” Women’s Studies 37 (2008): 337-366.
5 “A New and Strange Beauty. Monet and Japanese Art,” in Monet and Japan. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, ACT 2601, 2001, pp. 1-63.
6 Collected Poems of Rukeyser, ed. Janet Kaufman and Anne Herzog (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), p. 409. All further references to Rukeyser’s poetry will be marked in the text as CP.
7 Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, “1945, August 6, 10:45 a.m. The atom bomb.” A New Literary History of America, ed. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollers (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 2009), p. 781.