Alicia Ostriker: Learning to Breathe Under Water

By Alicia Ostriker

There are… two kinds of reaching in poetry, one based on the document, the evidence itself; the other informed by the unverifiable fact, as in sex, dream, the parts of life in which we dive deep and sometimes—with strength of expression and skill and luck—reach that place where things are shared and we all recognize the secrets. (Jane Cooper, How shall we tell Each Other of the Poet, p. 6)

Unverifiable fact…the parts of life where we dive deep. I cherish this quote, this image. For I have asked myself: how are my arms to reach around the amplitude that is Muriel Rukeyser? I have asked: what terms, what adjectives, what syntax, can be adequate to the oracular force, the sybilline intensity, the urgency, the pure mystery of Rukeyser’s poetry, her prose, her drama, the profound song, the cataract of passion, intelligence and moral responsibility that floods everything she wrote?

Some of Rukeyser’s writing is clear and direct; much of it is not. I begin to read and am immediately in danger of drowning. The writing is not merely fluid, it is oceanic. It cannot be paraphrased. At the writing’s surface, I am not on the shore at ocean’s edge like Whitman in “Out of the Cradle,” on solid ground listening to the birds and the sea-mother. At the writing’s surface I am already in a lifeboat, surrounded in all directions by measureless waves. The waves of language slap and surge and pull, making their music. But it is beneath the surface that the meanings wait for me. To read Rukeyser is to learn to breathe underwater. Underwater, where life on our planet begins.

Here are the first three lines of the poem “Islands,” which I love to introduce to students who may be afraid of revealing too much about themselves in their poems, afraid of being “confessional.” I tell them, and I tell you, if you take nothing else away from this semester, take these three lines. They are quite clear and direct.

Islands

O for God’s sake
they are connected
underneath.  (CP 538)

For me, these three lines are the perfect response to Matthew Arnold’s once-famous poem “To Marguerite,” which insists that each human being is an island:

Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.

Arnold describes the islands as yearning for connection, “for surely once, they feel, we were/ parts of a single continent”—but the poem insists that “a god” has ruled that separation and alienation are inescapable, and his poem ends with a beautiful and devastating image of alienation:

The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.

Now look again at Rukeyser’s three lines and their depth of reply. Of challenge.

O for God’s sake
they are connected
underneath.

That first line, an exclamation of irritation and impatience—as if to say to Matthew Arnold, how can you be so stupid, so oblivious to the obvious truth. But that first line is simultaneously an utterance of exaltation—“for God’s sake” is to be taken literally as an invocation of holiness. Connection, not estrangement, is what God wants, or what God has actually created. “They are connected”—for an instant seems contrafactual, and then we get that simple final line, “underneath.” Of course! Islands are all connected at the sea floor. And we are all, all islands connected at the level of our unconscious, or unspoken, or unspeakable deep selves. This is what makes poetry possible. This is what makes poetry necessary.

Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving Into the Wreck” is a sister-poem to Muriel’s “Islands. ” “You breathe differently down here,” says Rich; and it is here, below the surface, that “the damage…and the treasures” are to be found, and that the poet can become the androgyne “I am she…I am he…” which then melt into the collective “we are, I am, you are….” At a memorial for Rukeyser, Jane Cooper quoted her as saying, shortly before her death, “I hold to the streams below the streams.” “The emotional obstacle is the real one,” Muriel says, describing the resistance to poetry in The Life of Poetry (13). But on the ocean floor there is no obstacle.

Water is so important to Rukeyser. Is it an accident that The Life of Poetry begins on shipboard, “a boat on which I sailed away from the beginning of a war…over the deep fertile sea of night”? Or that so much of the first chapter of Rukeyser’s biography of Willard Gibbs, “The ‘Amistad’ Mutiny,” takes place on or near water? Or that one of Muriel’s books of poetry (a book of self-rescue) is entitled “The Green Wave?” Or that her description of Whitman’s cadences, like “water at the shore, not beginning nor ending, but endlessly drawing in, making forever its forms of massing and falling among the breakers, seething in the white recessions of its surf, always making a meeting-place” (LP 78) so fully describe her own cadences? I don’t know.

The second poem I’d like to read with you is similar but a little more difficult. How do we read the poem called “Poem:”

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.  (CP 430)

I have walked the distance between the Bowery Poets Club and St Marks Church in the East Village handing copies of this poem to passers-by and sitters at sidewalk cafes, some of whom nodded in recognition, some of whom were puzzled. Where does this poem take us, where does it leave us? It finds us “more or less insane,” invaded by the knowledge of suffering, battered by consumerist media whose technology is a kind of curse but also a kind of blessing. Yet a community exists in time present: “my friends.” There is the hope that the poems one makes can reach “others unseen and unborn.” We may think immediately of the “ironic points of light” in Auden’s great, gloomy poem “September 1939,” that “flash out wherever the Just/ exchange their messages.” Like Auden, Rukeyser wants “to show an affirming flame,” but she goes much further than Auden in her idea of how to do this. To begin with, she does not invoke Auden’s capitalized abstraction, “the Just.” For Rukeyser the signal-senders are that much humbler thing, “my friends…those men and women.” Then, there is an actual program, trying to imagine an alternative “way of living…almost unimagined values.” To imagine the unimagined…to construct peace, to make love—see how she is saying love is something we can actually create, build, construct—and then comes the great speculative hope of reconciliation that is the opposite of war. Reconciliation of waking with sleeping, I think, might mean that we can draw the dream life into daylight. Reconciliation of ourselves with each other, ourselves with ourselves, recognizes that conflict exists not only out there in Europe but between us and deep within us, and that we can deal with conflict by an almost unimagined method. Here I remember another sister-poem, Marianne Moore’s very Rukeyser-like WWII poem of agony and conscience,“In Distrust of Merits,” where Moore says “I must/ fight till I have conquered in myself what/ causes war, but I would not believe it./ I inwardly did nothing.” Pushing past even that formulation, the struggle with oneself, Rukeyser and her friends tried “by any means” to transcend themselves.

I have puzzled about these lines. By what means do we reach our limits and then even beyond ourselves and our circle of friends? Making poetry, art, film, science, teaching the young, becoming a burning witness of high and mighty wrongdoing by traveling as a teenager to the trial of the Scottsboro boys, to Spain at the opening of the Spanish Civil War, to Gauley Bridge not long after, and as President of PEN 40 years later to North Korea to lie on the ground protesting the imprisonment of another poet and activist? Having sex with both men and women, becoming a single mother in 1947, going to jail as an anti-war activist, accumulating a forty year long FBI file…what??? Then after all this, “to let go the means. To wake.” Here I think I know what “to wake” means. Asked by a well-meaning teacher what his plans are, Steven Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man declares his intention to wake from the nightmare of history. All mystics see our ordinary lives as a kind of sleep. “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” says Wordsworth. Awakening, in Buddhism, has many meanings, including the sudden achievement of enlightenment which is liberation from bondage to karma.

So there is an exalted moment of imagined, anticipated, hoped for freedom, the freedom of pure unfiltered consciousness. Then a pause. Then that devastating final line: I lived in the first century of these wars. Like a blow to the chest—I lived in the first century of these wars. So these wars, the poem implies, will continue and continue for centuries. O my God, how can we bear this? It feels like despair, the blunt force of despair. But maybe not. Maybe I can also read this ending as telling me what of course I already know, wars will go on and on, but also that the struggle, the personal political struggle toward wholeness, is a worthy way of living one’s life. When Rukeyser says of art: “It will apply to your life; and it is more than likely that it will lead you to thought or action, that is, you will want to go further into the world, further into yourself, toward further experience” (LP 26), it is our despair she speaks to.

Rukeyser’s insistence on freedom to connect and therefore hope, where connection is culturally forbidden or impossible, finds its apex in poems like “St. Roach” and “Despisals,” late poems in which respect is demanded for the cockroach, for the body’s ghetto, the asshole, “the useful shit that is our clean clue,” and the speech of the clitoris, and we are asked to vow, as the poet commands herself, never to despise the other, the it—“to know that I am it.” Rukeyser may or may not have read Buber when she wrote “Despisals,” but you see how close her concept of the “it” is to Buber’s concept. I imagine if the author of “I and Thou” and the author of “Despisals” were to meet in heaven, Buber might bow his head gently like a grandfather to Rukeyser and say “You took the concept further, bubeleh.”

Perhaps the most radical realm at the sea floor of our minds is the realm of pregnancy and childbirth. When I began writing about pregnancy and childbirth in the early 1960’s, I had never read another poem on this subject. I wondered why, since we were always told that poetry is “universal,” and surely pregnancy and childbirth are experiences as universal as love and war. Ultimately i realized that the topic was taboo. That Rukeyser wrote “Poems For the Unborn Child” in 1947 is astonishing. She wrote of nursing as well, and the erotics of nursing. In “The Speed of Darkness” the poet is “I bastard mother” addressing the image of a man who could be lover or son “who struggles to get the live bird out of his throat”:

I am he am I?      Dreaming?
I am the bird am I?      I am the throat?

A bird with a curved beak.
It could slit anything. The throat-bird.

Drawn up slowly.       The curved blades, not large.
Bird emerges      wet      being born.
Begins to sing. (CP 467)

These lines are mysterious to me, I cannot pretend I understand them in any rational way, but I wish I had a dollar for every time Rukeyser uses the verb “begin.” Have you noticed the centrality of this verb? “Then I began to speak what I believe” she says in the opening scene of The Life of Poetry. “Your presences,” she says in the very late poem “Double Ode,” “allow me to begin to make myself.” Over and over the collective presence of the verb “begin” speaks to us on the ocean floor of our minds. We reply that beginning again is too hard, we won’t do it. She looks us in the eye, looks me in the eye, me with all my fears and despairs, my depression and sense of inferiority (like yours! Or yours!) and commands: Begin.

The last poem I want to read with you is one that thoroughly confuses me—a late poem, “Desdichada,” published in 1973 whie we were still deeply in Vietnam, in a book saturated by sex and politics. The title means sorrow or unhappiness. In the poem she is addressing an unnamed “you” who has failed to “acknowledge” her, parent or lover or critic—perhaps the father of her son. The poem begins:

For that you never acknowledged me, I acknowledge
the spring’s yellow detail, the every drop of rain,
the anonymous unacknowledged men and women.
The shine as it glitters in our child’s wild eyes,
one o’clock at night. This river, this city,
the years of the shadow on the delicate skin
of my hand, moving in time.

Responding to a hurt we are to understand as devastating, the poet releases this flood of images she acknowledges, not to be paraphrased but to be felt—encompassing microcosm and macrocosm, raindrops, river and city, an instant of time and a span of years. To be treated ungenerously makes her need to be generous. In the next stanza she goes further, in lines grammatically and rationally a bit incomprehensible on their surface:

While this my day and my people are a country not yet born
it has become an earth I can
acknowledge.      I must.         I know what the
disacknowledgment does.      Then I do take you,
but far under consciousness, knowing
that under under flows a river wanting
the other   :   to go open-handed in Asia,
to cleanse the tributaries and the air, to make for making,
to stop selling death and its trash, pour plastic down
men’s throats,
to let this child find, to let men and women find… (CP 474)

Deep moving water is a way to say that love takes place beneath consciousness, is universal, and wants not possession (which is implied by “wanting / the other”) but that “the other” should become more on the side of life. If you are loved you become able to love. If you feel acknowledged you feel able to acknowledge others. But what it you are rejected—are you doomed to reject others? Auden says “Those to whom evil is done / do evil in return.” I think what Rukeyser is doing in this poem is trying to work out what she wrote about so many years earlier—living by “almost unimagined values.” Not to do evil in return– NOT to reject—instead to acknowledge the beauty of the world. And more than that—not to disacknowledge the one who has disacknowledged her. There’s a struggle here. “I do take you”—what does that mean? I take you for my lawful wedded husband? I take you for a fool? As if bitterly answering the question “what do you take me for?”

Doesn’t it sound aggressive—I take you? I grab you by the hair and try to drown you? but the under under as if to say underneath my hurt and anger and your indifference there is something else…

Well, all this is speculation. When I read this poem, to you or to myself, I am touched somewhere very deep within, somewhere where I both hurt and hope, and can’t explain. Even more at the end—what can I make of the last stanza of Desdichada? If I acknowledge the one who has hurt me, am I a masochist? Does this mean death? Do I want to choose death? The final stanza of Desdichada is even more mysterious than its first two stanzas, as it shifts from a “you” to a “him” who may be the lover…or death…and a set of images too ambivalent to untangle here—though I’d be happy if anyone wants to ask about this ending in the Q&A.

Connection is not only one of Muriel’s great themes, it is one of her great strategies as a maker of poems, that allows her to be free in form as well as content. Hybrids of poetry and prose. Lyric and documentary together in The Book of the Dead, as a ”she-poet” relentlessly bridges the distances between woman and man, white privilege and black migrant labor, poetry and public discourse, poetry and technology. Science and poetry seen as twins, not opposites. The personal inextricable from the political. The political tied to the sacred, the mythic “belief in the love of the world, / woman, spirit, and man”(“This Place in the Ways” CP 254). As Jan Heller Levi reminds us in her Introduction to The Rukeyser Reader, we need to “imagine poetry and life as an interdependent, interconnected reality.”

The first Rukeyser poem I ever read was “Effort at Speech Between Two People.” I’m not sure, but I think it was in an anthology that someone had given me, maybe edited by Louis Untermeyer, and I think I was not yet eleven years old when I read it, this almost-hopeless dialogue of the deaf, one speaker saying – with spaces between the phrases- “Speak to me.       Take my hand.       What are you now?” and the other saying “Oh grow to know me.       I am not happy.       I will be open.” And each offering snippets of their inner lives, and each craving love….I was a child. The poem baffled me, I didn’t understand why it looked so different from other poems, or what most of its lines meant. At the same time, I distinctly remember, I understood it completely, my deep self understood it was about my mother and father, me and other children, and everyone, and that this was unspoken speech and the urgency and desperation of it, and that the yearning in it was almost hopeless but not entirely. The words open, know, touch one another, take my hand….somehow conveying hope in the midst of despair.

Hope and despair, despair and hope: a question alive for us as it was for her.

I would like to read to you a poem from an early book of mine titled A Woman Under the Surface:

The Runner

–for Muriel Rukeyser

Sweat glides on the forehead of the gasping runner
Who runs of necessity, who runs possibly for love,
For truth, for death, and her feet are sweltering.

Behind the runner lies a battlefield.
There, the dust falls. Ahead, the narrow road
Eats a plateau, leads into streets and buildings,

A beach, and the excavation of motherly ocean,
Everything under the arch of an innocent sky.
Sweat trickles between her breasts, evaporates,

And the runner, seeing bright bone under brown landscape
Where one of us would see rocks, bushes, houses,
Begins to feel how fire invades a body

From within, first the splinters
And crumpled paper, then the middle wood
And the great damp logs splendidly catching.

Ah, but some moments! It is so like fireworks,
Hissing, exploding, flaring in darkness,
Or like a long kiss that she cannot stop,

And it is heavy for her, every stride
Like pulling an iron railing
Uphill, ah Christ—we would have to imagine Jerusalem,

Dresden, a hurt this hard, like a screen of fire
Rising, continuous and intolerable
Until solid things melt. Then the runner is floating,

She becomes herself a torch, she is writing in fire,
Rejoice, we have triumphed, rejoice,
We have triumphed,

Although words, although language
Must be useless
To the runner.

Recently I told a lovely former student of mine, Carrie Preston, who now teaches at Boston University, that I was going to be giving this talk to you, and asked her what Rukeyser meant to her. Here is Carrie’s reply:

She died when I was 2 and I didn’t find her until I was 20, in college. Eighteen years was too long to have missed a poet who seemed to have something to say about everything I’ve experienced since then. In a crisis of faith there was her “whole and fertile spirit for guarantee.” For heartache, there was “also the green tree of grace, / all in the leaf, in the love that gives us ourselves.” And when I was overwhelmingly asked to team-teach a gender studies class with a biologist who did not speak my language this semester, there was her Paramecium, the possibility of lying down beside another as “Slowly inexplicably / the exchange / takes place.” We both taught the poem to the class.

Thank you.

Comments are closed.