Adam Mitts: The Vocabulary of Silence: Voice and Disability in “The Speed of Darkness”

In 1964, the poet Muriel Rukeyser suffered a stroke. Four years later, in 1968, she published a poem called “The Speed of Darkness.” Over the years, this poem has been interpreted in a number of ways. A common interpretation is that the poem is about a woman finding her voice as a poet. The poem also links to a theme explored by Rukeyser in The Life of Poetry, which is how one writes poetry in a world that no longer values poetry, that, in Rukeyser’s thinking, actually fears poetry because poetry discloses areas of our selves we would rather ignore. In this paper, I wonder what happens to our interpretations of the poem if we read it from the perspective of Rukeyser’s disability, if we see the stroke as something more than a biographical fact current with the time of the poem’s composition, and instead see the stroke as the position from which the poet is writing, linking the stroke with the larger breakdown in communication and the struggle to find a voice with which the poem is concerned.

I am reading the influence of the stroke on the poem thematically, in the ways in which the poem is concerned with silence, speech and communication, but also formally, through the poem’s sometimes choppy, telegraphic sentences, its moments of broken syntax, in the gaps and caesuras in many of the poem’s lines, and finally, in the structure of the poem itself. “The Speed of Darkness” is actually not a single poem. In a reading in Warwick, England in 1972, Rukeyser calls it a series of poems, which suggests that the numbered sections of the poem function much in the same way as laisses in medieval French chansons, where stanzas are arranged paratactically so that each is independent of the other but brought into relation with the other through juxtaposition. This relates to a larger concern of Rukeyser’s work as a poet, which is how we might speak to each other across sometimes insurmountable gulfs and breakdowns in communication, especially during times of war and conflict. As Rukeyser says in “Waterlily Fire”: “I speak to you, you speak to me, is that fragile?” (Collected Poems 409). Rukeyser suggests that this fragility of speech, of communication between persons, is what will save us as a species. This fragility of speech can be seen as embodied in her struggles to speak after her stroke. To read “The Speed of Darkness” through Rukeyser’s lifelong themes is to focus on the precariousness of this relation, but also to pay attention to the gaps between the fragile moments of speech, asking whether these spaces of silence might have a deeper significance.
Silence has always been important in Rukeyser’s work. When writing “The Book of the Dead,” a poem about the Gauley tunnel disaster, the worst industrial disaster in US history, she imagines the mother of several dead miners saying “I shall give a mouth to my son” (Collected Poems 85). In a sense, this is what “The Book of the Dead” does, using interviews with survivors in conjunction with court documents to insure that voices which would otherwise be silenced by history are given a chance a speak. But silence also has a positive aspect in Rukeyser’s writing. In The Life of Poetry, she puts forward a theory of projective verse before Charles Olson, writing that “poetry…is intimately bound with the poet’s breathing,” going as far as to say that “punctuation is biological” (117). For Rukeyser, punctuation also includes the space on the page. There are anecdotes of her fighting with publishers who did not attend to the precise dimensions of her caesuras. In The Life of Poetry, she imagines “a system of pauses” or “a code of pauses” which might transcribe pauses in speech, writing that “the silences…are part of the sound” (116-17). I want to pause here to point out that silence, in this sentence, is plural, in the same way that the voices in Rukeyser’s often polyvocalic poems are plural, which suggests that these silences are not just a caesura in historical records in which individual voices are lost, as in “The Book of the Dead,” or relational silences in which individuals are not communicating with each other, but also the myriad silences in each individual body, which as Rukeyser reminds us, is the source of the poem (Life 79).

The word “silence” appears in three places in “The Speed of Darkness.” The first is a sentence fragment broken by two caesuras:

Resurrection music,silence,and surf.

The second contains the title of the poem:

No longer speaking
listening with the whole body
and with every drop of blood
overtaken by silence
but this same silence is become speech
with the speed of darkness.

Finally, there is the remarkable phrase: “I am working out the vocabulary of my silence.” This line suggests that this silence that becomes speech is not merely the absence of speech. If silence has its own vocabulary, and its own voice, one that we can hear if we “[listen] with the whole body,” then how are we to recognize the voice and the vocabulary of this silence? To read the line “this same silence is become speech” makes of silence a passive state, that of the patient slowly learning to speak again, but Rukeyser suggests a more active form of silence, one which is part of sound, and thought, and communication, as surely as space is part of the page. To answer this paradox, I will turn now to Carrie Noland’s work on gestures.

Noland’s book, Agency and Embodiment, in brief, deals with the question of how bodies assert agency when our movements are socially coded down to the minutest gesture. Drawing from a range of theoretical and scientific sources, Noland shows how movement and cognition engage in a feedback loop in which agency emerges from a dialectic between socially constructed gestures and resistances emerging from the movements themselves. For my purposes, I will focus on Noland’s attention to the intervals between socially meaningful gestures and how these reveal the kinesthetic background of the organism.

Noland explores these intervals in a work of video art by Bill Viola called “The Passions.” In this video, actors are asked to make certain facial expressions, but the video is slowed down to the point that these expressions are not privileged over the intervals between these expressions, which Noland says are “not inscriptions in the ‘library’ of our culture’s expressive habits” (75), but moments when the body “speaks in a language we can’t always translate” (66).  Noland sees these intervals as something more than gaps between expressions but imbued with significance, calling them “movement material from which performances – and even cultural signifiers – can later be made” (72). Noland then turns to Daniel Stern’s work on infant development and how the first sensations experienced by infants are exploratory and yet to be overwritten by social significance. She compares these vitality affects in infants to Merleau-Ponty’s idea of a kinesthetic background of signals received from the body below the level of language. Noland writes that, “these briefly glimpsed movement possibilities are involved, however, in a signifying project…each one is, in Stern’s terms, an emergent signification” (79). Noland links these moments of emergent signification to the paleoanthropologist Leroi-Gourhan’s theory of tatonnement, or groping, by which early humans discovered the meaning of tools by exploiting the movement potential of the human body in an interface with objects in the environment. This groping, it seems, is how knowledge and consciousness are formed.
Returning to “The Speed of Darkness,” we can see how the entire poem is, as Rukeyser puts it, “thinking and reaching,” groping in its darkness to find its form and its words in stammers and silences. In this sense, the whole poem is, as Rukeyser writes, “the shape of the body speaking its evidence.” If we read the stanzas as gestures, or the words in the lines split by caesuras as gestures, then the silence between them is the kinesthetic background, the emergent signification which speaks through relation, or even lack of relation, between the words at either end of the space.

In another poem, “Resurrection of the Right Side,” explicitly addressing her stroke, Rukeyser directly links speech and gesture in the line: “I began to climb the mountain on my mouth / word by stammer, walk stammered / …with none of my own rhythms.” For a poet who, in The Life of Poetry, directly linked the rhythms of the body to the composition of the poem, this sense of “all rhythms gone” is a space which threatens to obliterate all of poetry. Yet even here, at this nadir of poetry, there is a sense that poetry can reemerge: “I go running in sleep / but waking stumble down corridors.” It is my contention that it is precisely this stumbling and stammering which allows the voice to emerge from the silence, not in opposition to the silence but in collaboration with it. I would argue that “The Speed of Darkness” is where Rukeyser learns to speak through silence and stammer, to use her temporary disability as a voice and as a tool for the recovery of her voice. From the kinesthetic background of her body’s silence, Rukeyser’s language in “The Speed of Darkness” gropes through this silence to produce a “resurrection music” which transforms silence from an absence of language to a space of possibility and emergent signification.
Listening to these silences, we can hear voices in the poems that emerge beyond the ability of words to speak for them. In the third section, the words say one thing – Rukeyser describes a pastoral scene during wartime, mentioning the “unmovable spruces,” before mentioning “a tree that trembles.” I am reminded of Noland quoting Stern when he says “the body is never doing nothing” (76).  Rukeyser ends this section by saying “I am a tree that trembles and trembles,” which is to say, what appears unmoving, and unmovable, is actually always moving, that absence is not absence, that silence is not silence. Each gesture, each word, no matter how minute, contains the assertion of an entire agency, of an entire voice.

There are moments in the poem when the silence speaks implacable distances. During the same stanza, “faces, voices” is met by a gulf of silence from “you are far away,” suggesting a need of the poem’s speaker to speak to someone who can’t be reached. These caesuras are sometimes speaking of an abstract sort of distance, such as how the space between “between between” draws out the troubling meaning of that word, a meaning troubled further when it is followed by lines that evoke “the man” and “the woman,” situating gender as a space of distance and miscommunication. When the poem turns its attention to the war, at this point of time the Vietnam War, and Rukeyser writes “these sons these sons,” she shows how an implacable gulf of misunderstanding, of distinction, separates these sons through the separation of national identities. However, at times Rukeyser suggests that separation and individuation are not a fragmentation, but a way in which all things are different and particular and thus brought into relation. At another point in the poem, the gap between “say it” and “say it” echoes the language of speech therapy, but also functions as an insistence, leading to one of the poem’s most famous lines: “The universe is made of stories / not of atoms.” The particularity of things, of selves, of selves within the selves, of lines within stanzas, of words within lines – these things matter, and their relations and communications matter. Silence is not a breakdown in communication. The illness, the breakdown in communication, lies in not listening, in not hearing what the other says, when the slightest flinch, the sparsest word, is imbued with significance.
The most remarkable gesture in the poem is that of the poet trying to get “a live bird out of [her] throat.” This live bird of emerging speech is described by Rukeyser as having “a curved beak,” later becoming “curved blades” which could “slit anything.” The violence of this image, perhaps in reference to the difficulty of a patient undergoing speech therapy, might also reference the difficulty of communication across those boundaries that separate us as speaking subjects, whether of gender, race, class, or other experiences of embodiment and socialization. Yet despite the violence of this image of the “throat-bird,” Rukeyser sees the result of its “being born” as a necessary poetic and political project. The bird begins emerging from the throat of a young man in a dream, as Rukeyser asks in often asyntactic phrases, “I am he am I? / Dreaming? / I am the bird am I? / I am the throat?” Here we see the lyric subject transformed from the young poet of her dream, to the dream itself, to the blade-like throat-bird of poetry itself, and finally to the throat, the bodily source of all poetry and speech. Rukeyser’s hopeful message at the end of this sequence is to wonder about the future of communication, of who will be “the throat of those hours,” while empowering us in the present with the question, “Who will speak these days / if not I / if not you?” Despite the difficulties of speech, in both a physical and a figurative sense, “The Speed of Darkness” ultimately works through its silences to reaffirm the importance of each individual voice, yet Rukeyser’s poem also reaffirms the importance of each individual silence, to question what they might mean, what voice lies within them, whether we are listening closely enough.


Works cited:

Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (1996). Paris Press.

Muriel Rukeyser, “The Speed of Darkness” (1968), “Resurrection of the Right Side” (1976) and “Waterlily Fire” (1962). The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (2005), edited by Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog with Jan Heller Levi. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Carrie Noland, Agency and Embodiment (2009). Harvard University Press.

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