On her 16th birthday, my best friend Jess received a copy of Out of Silence: Selected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser from her mother. Jess and I didn’t live in the same state, so we were avid letter writers; after that birthday, her letters always included at least a snippet of mesmerizing, spiky poetry:
The best way to describe my reaction to Rukeyser’s poetry is to say I got a raging crush on it, the kind of crush only teenagers get. I would turn lines over in my head and try to figure out how the unsettling oddness of the punctuation and spacing worked with the powerful emotions the poem created in me.
“When I asked, What walks on four 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
I started scouring bookstores and libraries for Rukeyser, eventually finding a copy of Out of Silence at a Borders, nestled into the tiny poetry section whose spines I had already memorized. Many of the poems in it were beyond my understanding, though they still captivated me with their unusual music and imagery. It was Kate Daniels’s introduction, though, that brought Rukeyser into my personal history. I was a budding feminist, an aspiring writer, and a semi-out queer girl living in the South, lonely as hell and wondering if there really was a world where I would get to be myself without apology. Here was an openly bisexual woman who lived life entirely on her own terms, even when the political and social costs to her career were staggering. I read Out of Silence until it started to fall apart. It was more than a book: it was proof. I could be a poet; I could be smart and political without being cruel; I could find a community; I could love women as well as men. I could choose my life.
Of course, not everything worked out exactly as planned — but those things I learned from Rukeyser were all true. I am a poet; in fact, I’m a professor of literature, and I teach Rukeyser whenever I get the chance. I am an out queer woman; I am part of a lively world of feminist writers online. I took off the masks and mythologies that seemed inevitable when I was a teenage girl, and I became myself.
Part of the joy of studying Rukeyser’s work is becoming part of an ad hoc community of scholars, all of whom arrive at her poetry and prose through different stories. Some, like me, stumbled onto her poems by accident; others find her name popping up again and again in the history of second wave feminists like Adrienne Rich, who reclaimed her as a kind of living patron saint for women writers. What continues to astonish me about Rukeyser’s writing is that it doesn’t feel dated; my college students, reading her for the first time a century after her birth, find her as revelatory as I did. As I wrote in an essay for The Toast, Rukeyser scholars also tend to be devotees:
I recently attended a symposium celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rukeyser’s birth, and let me tell you, you have not really experienced academia until you’ve found yourself at a conference where you realize that everyone is secretly a fangirl as well as a scholar. You let your guard down. You imagine extravagant, international galas celebrating your idol. You talk honestly about what a privilege it is to teach something this brilliant, and you enjoy your own humility. (My student, last quarter, on reading “The Book of the Dead“: “I’ve never read poetry like this. I’ve never read anything like this.”)
One of my former students, a poet himself, changed his cover photo on Facebook to a black and white photo of Rukeyser. She watched over his digital world.
Now that I’m no longer that misfit teenager, my relationship to the poems in Out of Silence (and, of course, the indispensable Collected Poems, edited by Anne Herzog and Janet Kaufman) has changed. Rukeyser’s writing about speech and silence has new meaning for me after watching my mother suffer from dementia—I can no longer read “The Speed of Darkness,” with its complex celebration of individual life in the midst of mass death and war, without thinking of my mother, born during WWII, losing her own singular voice. Rukeyser implores us to recognize that silence can also be a presence—“this same silence is become speech / With the speed of darkness.” Reading this poem for me now, as a 35-year-old woman, becomes a reminder that being fully present for another human being is to take a powerful stand against oblivion:
I read Rukeyser for many reasons, but I teach her to answer this call. She’s been an integral part of my personal history for twenty years; I owe it not to her, but to “the present of all I care for” to continue her legacy.