Charlotte Mandel: Muriel Rukeyser’s Rabbi Akiba Inheritance

By Charlotte Mandel

Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry allows no canonical containment.  She was born in New York Cityin 1913 and died in that city on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1980.  Her lifetime encompasses both World Wars, the Great Depression, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War.  “Whatever can come to a woman can come to me,” stated her poem “Waterlily Fire” in 1962 (Collected Poems 309).  Her appetite for experience was omnivorous:  Modernism came to her–as did Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, the Bible, Keats, the movies, Karl Marx, the daily violence in newspapers.  Had H.D., Pound or Williams not preceded her, she nonetheless would have understood that no word is an orphan, that words are parented by inherited memory–gravures of past meanings rubbing changes into current texts in turn transforming meanings-to-be.  Boundaries are lost, but with compensation: loss translates into the gain of viable cultural memory.  The poet is given a sacred mission–received vision owed to others as trans-mission via the poems.  Her first book at the age of twenty-one won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1935 to introduce a visionary bard of Whitmanic sweep.

In childhood, Rukeyser absorbed the sense of cultural living memory as a gift inherited from an ancestor, a story related by her mother.  This remarkable ancestor was the first-century sage, Rabbi Akiba.  Rukeyser reports, “My mother … gave me a treasure that I believe has a great deal to do with the kind of poetry I think of as unverifiable fact. She told me we were descended from Akiba. Akiba was the martyr who resisted the Romans in the first century and who was tortured to death after his great work for the Song of Songs.  He was flayed with iron rakes tearing his flesh until at the end he said, ‘I know that I have loved God with all my heart and all my soul, and now I know that I love him with all my life.’  Now this is an extraordinary gift to give a child.” (“Education of a Poet” 282).  The sage’s name appears significantly at two stages of Rukeyser’s work.  First in importance is “Akiba,” a poem of five sequences, first published in the magazine American Judaism and anthologized in American Judaism Reader (1967); then included by Rukeyser in her 1968 volume, The Speed of Darkness, and in her Collected Poems (CP 473-79).  The second significant naming of the Rabbi occurs in “Trinity Churchyard” (1976) with its epigraph “for my mother & her ancestor, Akiba” (CP 559).

How does Rukeyser regard her gift of kinship to the first century Rabbi?  She does not elaborate on specifics of its importance, as though assuming (perhaps as Whitman saying “What I shall assume, you shall assume”) her poetry will give answers.  The gift carries unremitting obligation–the task of creating art energized by currents of historical events; art is a sacred trust both historical and prophetic.   Rukeyser is ever aware of Judaism within her inherited mind-body.  This is not a question of ritual observance, but knowledge that her art may feed upon a blood-line of fierce moral tenacity.  Rukeyser’s spiritual and political poetics have been linked to the Jewish concept of tikkun, the need to repair the world, and the poem “Akiba” analyzed as a form of midrash, the rabbinic tradition of retelling biblical stories (Kaufman 21-58).  Rukeyser was conscious of her own multiple origins of nationality–paternal grandparents emigrants fromGermany, and mother’s family fromRomania.  Her mother’s “gift” represents a dynamic of Jewish diaspora simultaneous with connectedness, of exile together with universal belonging, for life-at-risk that is constant rebirth.  And of overcoming silences that coalesce with repressed or unfulfilled sexuality.  All these elements are at work within the words of Rukeyser’s poem “Akiba”.  (The relation of Rukeyser’s bisexuality to her work is beyond the space for this essay.  See Collecott for analysis of the effect of socially imposed secrecy upon lesbian speech and writing.)

Envisioning the parting of the Red Sea, “Akiba” creates a speaking universe.  Splitrock speaks to water, flame to cloud, “the grains of sand on the sea-floor speak at last to the noon.”  Music is “the voice of the world speaking. . .The meaning beginning to move, which is the song.”  Idea is not a detached philosophical concept; rather, “meaning” exists by virtue of “song.”  The Biblical Exodus is conflated with others in history–”the escaping Negroes . . .the shivering children of Paris. . .all those who together are the frontier, forehead of man”(CP 474-75).  “Frontier” is imaged as part of a literal human face.  Song is a journey of the body; it is characteristic of Rukeyser to incorporate sexual-bodily imagery to call up landscape–flesh and nature and idea are inseparable.  Sexual is linked with sacred, for example, in “The Cave” in such lines as “The religious bells, / Bronze under the sunlight like breasts ringing” (CP 208).

Akiba has begun life as a “wordless shepherd”; he learns to sing through sexual love of a woman’s body, and love of their child.  Having learned, “He comes to teaching, greater than the deed / Because it begets the deed. .  .All given, and always the giver loses nothing.”  Giving is maternal–Rukeyser’s sense of her mother’s storytelling is a vital source.  But other words her mother said could be “damaging,” and in the home of her childhood, angry silences held sway (“Craft Interview” 169).  Starved for maternal words of understanding, the unsatisfied child grown to poet conceives Akiba, no longer wordless, as maternal giver:  “Akiba who can now come to his power and speak: / The need to give having found the need to become.”  The poem pronounces an insightful epigram upon that need:  “More than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to give suck” (CP 458).  The need is maternal and erotic.  In her own life, Rukeyser has hungered.  Her hunger has bodily sought the reader.  At the age of twenty-two, she articulates that need privately in a “letter” written to herself:

I have wanted so wildly all these years without satisfaction that I think I could spend my life in bed with the Holy Ghost, the father and the Son and still never be filled, except in self-fulfilling torments. (Rukeyser 1935)

Writing poetry is the form of “torment” that can fulfill the self; this pattern continues throughout her lifetime.  “What I See,” a poem of sexual desire published in 1968, repetitively drums that want:  “I want you and the other, want your obsession, want  / Whatever is locked into you. . .” (CP 442).  The dynamic of “wanting wildly” operates in poems of insistent syntactical address to seduce the reader into a union of consciousness linked to the poet’s physical self.  (Herzog examines Rukeyser’s “active writer-reader connection,” p.79; Ostriker writes of an “imperative of intimacy” in contemporary women’s poems, p. 165).  In a 1943 letter, the poet-novelist May Sarton describes “the poet Muriel Rukeyser [as] a great dynamic girl who seems to hold in herself all the currents of the time, the real creative person, the person who lives always at the peak of conflict which must constantly be resolved in poems, in action” (Sherman 119).

“Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry”–this is the youthful poet’s exhortation in the opening line of her first volume, in a poem she titles “Poem Out of Childhood” (CP 3).  The words “out of childhood” read simultaneously as experience of the child, and of the adult persona, grown out of childhood.  “Breathe-in / breathe-out” are hyphenated into single verbal acts.  To whom do the verbs speak?  The addressee is multiple: to her self in discovery of poetic process, and the stranger, the implied “you” who reads or listens.  Breathe-in the poem, directs Rukeyser, that it may fulfill its intention to become “your” experience.  “Effort at Speech Between Two People” makes a similar demand:  “Speak to me.       Take my hand. . .    Oh grow to know me. . .” (CP 9).  The urgency of such imperative address will punctuate the body of her work (Clunas discusses her use of rhetorical “you”). The speaker in these poems will be satisfied with no less than erasure of boundaries between her speaking consciousness and yours–”Fist my mind in your hand”–a dramatic image of fusion that implies sexual and maternal cravings.  Enter breathe-in–the poem and “you” enter the poet’s experience; the reader fulfills the form of the poem.

Once the sexual and maternal cravings of the poet achieve speech, the reader is nurtured in a physical sense, invited, as in a later poem, “To enter that rhythm where the self is lost.. .All arts all senses being languages” (CP 303).  In “The Speed of Darkness,” an action of the reader becomes her own action:  “You are far away. / A tree that trembles. // I am the tree that trembles and trembles” (CP 484).  Speech is her way to dissolve the condition of “you/reader” as “other”; language, overcoming semantic absence, enacts union.  In her prose book, The Life of Poetry, she demands to know: “My one reader, you reading this book, who are you?  what is your face like, your hands holding the pages?”  (189).

Social consciousness rides with such union–whoever is oppressed must be made free-; any oppression that controls the “other” manifests and solidifies divisions.  “O for God’s sake,” exclaims the short poem “Islands”:  “they are connected / underneath” (CP 544).  All the islands are taking nourishment from one watery source, afloat within a single world-womb.  And in “Then,” a late poem of clear epitaph intention, the reader/listener is wanted even after her death:  “When I am dead, even then, / I will still love you, I will wait in these poems. . .I am still listening to you” (CP 564).  It is useful to read Rukeyser aloud, taking deep breaths on the long lines, holding a breath on the pauses.  She would stamp in red on her typed manuscripts:  PLEASE BELIEVE THE PUNCTUATION.  The reward is to fill one’s lungs with cadences of language which have physical presence (“Craft Interview” 165).

Modernist collage and cinematic techniques appear to powerful effect in her 1938 long poem “The Book of the Dead” wherein Rukeyser incorporates shattering testimony from a legal proceeding suit on behalf of miners suffering illness and death from silicosis (CP 71-102).  The bold juxtapositions of lyric with documentary passages fulfil her own admonition to “breathe-in experience”–all forms of experience becoming physical body of the poem.  She was one of the first to use prose documents this way.  The fusion nurtures poet, reader, and society.

In no way that Rukeyser could have anticipated, her 1944 poem “To Be a Jew in the twentieth century” has, in remarkable yet appropriate fashion, become part of the body of Jewish prayer ritual: Service of the Heart: Weekday Sabbath and Festival Services and Prayers for Home and Synagogue.  In addition to texts for worship, the book provides a section for “readings”: texts from various sources, mostly prose, some poetry, to be read at suitable occasions.  The selections are not identified except on an appendix page of acknowledgements.  These “readings” are grouped under headings, such as “Loneliness” (Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” is included); “Justice” (Blake’s “It is an easy thing” turns up here); “Nature” (Whitman’s “Why should I wish to see” among these.)  Rukeyser’s poem appears with other selections under the heading, “Israel’sMission.”  In this setting, her poem acquires universal presence, its “saying” no longer that of a single voice.  To be “absorbed into the prayer book. . .without signature” offered satisfaction to Rukeyser:  “One feels that one has been absorbed into the line and it’s very good” (“Craft interview” 169).  The sonnet’s vocabulary is unmistakably Rukeyser’s:

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
            is to be offered a gift.   If you refuse,
            Wishing to be invisible, you choose
            Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
            Accepting, take full life.    Full agonies:
            Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
            Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
            Reduced to a hostage among hostages.
            The gift is torment.  Not alone the still
            Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
            That may come also.  But the accepting wish,
            The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
            For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
            Daring to live for the impossible.  (CP 239)

“Torture of the flesh: and “the accepting wish” characterize Rabbi Akiba. The twelfth line’s phrase “fertile spirit” attributes bodily properties to an intangible concept.  Since mind for Rukeyser exists inseparable from body, “fertile spirit” suggests the capacity to engender new birth.  The experience of motherhood has begun to claim its formerly unacknowledged place in the evolution of twentieth century women’s poetry.  The actuality of giving birth felt, as to predecessor poet H.D., akin to resurrection, and her poetry  expanded into new dimensions.  It happens that both Rukeyser and H.D. survived pregnancies that had been medically diagnosed dangerous to life of mother or baby, possibly both.  For Rukeyser, the birth of her son entailed Caesarian surgery followed by hysterectomy.  In a letter to May Sarton, she articulates that sense of motherhood as a physical rebirth of herself:  “It has all been miraculous, the baby is terribly beautiful and strong, they have got me through the miles of surgery, although I’m still weak as water. . .O May, I feel as if it is I who were born” (Letter to Sarton 1947).

The Akiba legend relates the Rabbi’s wonderful escape (this occurs well before his final martyrdom) from Rome-occupied Jerusalemdisguised as a corpse.  According to Rukeyser’s poem, he is “rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death / by his disciples carried from Jerusalem. . .in blackness journeying” (CP 455).  More than symbolically, Akiba undergoes the forms of death and resurrection.

In her final collection, The Gates (1976), Rukeyser embraces the ancestral gift reconciled with her desire for maternal union:  “Mother I walk. . . / Where our ancestor, Akiba, resisted Rome, / Singing forever for the Song of Songs / Even in torture knowing. . . / To you, Mother, I walk, making our poems” (CP 556-7).  The “you” here is named: the poem is fulfilled by fusion of daughter/poet with her mother; maternal and ancestral are one; the possessive merges into the first person plural–”our”–not “my”– poems.  Her wild wanting understood at last.

 

Works Cited

Clunas, Alex. “Rukeyser’s ‘Waking This Morning.’” The Explicator 52 (Summer 1994):237-9.

Collecott, Diana.  “What is Not Said: A Study in Textual Inversion.” Textual                 Practice 4

Dayton, Tim. “Lyric and Document in Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Book of the Dead.’” Journal of Modern Literature 21 (1997- 98):223:40.

Herzog, Anne Frances. “Faith and Resistance: Politics and the Poetry of Muriel Rukeyser.” Dissertation,Rutgers University, 1993.

Kaufman, Janet Ellen. “ReadingMuriel Rukeyser: Yes, We Are Looking at Each Other.” Dissertation. University of Iowa, 1994.

Kertesz, Louise. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser.Baton Rouge:Louisiana State
University Press, 1980.

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s                       Poetry in America.Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser.  Ed. Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog.  Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.  Abbreviated in text as CP.

—”Craft interview with Muriel Rukeyser. ”The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from The New York Quarterly. Ed. William Packard. New York: Doubleday , 1974. 153-76.

—”The Education of a Poet.” A Muriel Rukeyser Reader. Ed. by Jan Heller Levi. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1994. 277-285.

—”Letter to herself,” ALS, August 25, 1935, Provincetown, MA. Berg Rare Book and Manuscript Collection,New YorkPublic Library.

—. “Letter to May Sarton,” TLS, 1974, Berg Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, New York Public Library.

The Life of Poetry. New York: William Morrow, 1949. Ashfield, Mass.: Paris Press, 1996.

Sherman, Susan, ed. Dear Juliette: Letters of May Sarton to Juliette Huxley.New York: W.W.Norton, 1999.

Service of the Heart: Weekday Sabbath and Festival Services and Prayers                         for Home and Synagogue. London:Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, 1967. 261-62.

© Charlotte Mandel

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