The Poem as Meeting Place

Witness, Fear, and Conversation in the Poetry of Muriel Rukeyser

By Chelsea Lonsdale

If the poem is a meeting place, it cannot be dismantled into disciplines. It cannot be disassembled into individual parts that, on their own, are worth more or less than what is possible when they combine. Poetry is the meeting place in which all of the parts of one’s own self, as well as the many identities that come together in poems, are significantly greater than what they were alone: interplay. Rukeyser’s poetry emphasizes the interaction between parts, the complexities of relationships between people, action, and material. The poem is a meeting place in which nothing is singular; experience is not a singular sensation.

Rational Man
The marker at Auschwitz
The scientists torturing male genitals
The learned scientists, they torture female genitals
The 3-year-old girl, what she did to her kitten
The collar made of leather for drowning a man in his chair
The scatter-bomb with the nails that drive into the brain
The thread through the young man’s splendid penis
The babies in flames. The thrust
Infected reptile dead in the live wombs of girls
We did not know we were insane.
We do not know we are insane.
We say to them : you are insane
Anything you can imagine
on punishable drugs, or calm and young
with a fever of 105, or on your knees,
with the word of Hanoi bombed
with the legless boy in Bach Mai
with the sons of man torn by man
Rational man has done.

Mercy, Lord. On every living life.

“Rational Man” is an excerpt from “Breaking Open,” published in Breaking Open, 1973. As I am typing this poem, I think about the polarized wars of the 21st century. Polarize: to restrict or to divide. There are many wars happening; many of us wake up each day unaffected. For Rukeyser, perhaps the poem was a meeting place for the stories of war to be told, to be shared, to be publicized. Perhaps “Rational Man” points to an exchange between any of us; we are all Rational Man, and yet we are all also the living lives who suffer. Poetry is the embodiment of interplay. It allows for metaphor, for tropes, for odd spacing and punctuation, for indentations that follow breathing. Note the absence of punctuation in the first ten lines. These lines function as a list, an ongoing recognition; timelessness.

Here is the poem merged with lines from “Looking at Each Other,” also from the collection titled Breaking Open:

The marker at Auschwitz
(Yes, we were looking at each other)
The scientists torturing male genitals
(Yes, we had made love with each other many times)
The learned scientists, they torture female genitals
(Yes, we had heard music together)
The 3-year-old girl, what she did to her kitten
(Yes, we had gone to the sea together)
The collar made of leather for drowning a man in his chair
(Yes, we hated the inner and outer oppression)
The scatter-bomb with the nails that drive into the brain
(Yes, we saw the sunlight pouring down)
The thread through the young man’s splendid penis
(Yes, the corner of the table was between us)
The babies in flames. The thrust
(Yes, our eyes saw each other’s eyes)
Infected reptile dead in the live wombs of girls
(Yes, our mouths saw each other’s mouth)
We did not know we were insane.
(Yes, our bodies entire saw each other)
We do not know we are insane.
(Yes, it threw waves across our lives)
We say to them : you are insane
(Yes, the pulses were becoming very strong)
Anything you can imagine (yes, the calling)
on punishable drugs, or calm and young
with a fever of 105, or on your knees,
with the word of Hanoi bombed
with the legless boy in Bach Mai
with the sons of man torn by man
Rational man has done. (the arriving the coming)

Mercy, Lord. On every living life.
(Yes, we were looking at each other)

In wondering how to respond to Rukeyser’s poetry, I find myself wanting to ask questions, and to put her poems into conversation with themselves to possibly find answers. Close-reading is hard for me, I’ve never been comfortable trying to pick apart another’s poem, trying to assemble meaning from technique, ignoring the context or maybe letting in some circumstance but never relying on emotion; I am an emotional creature. Even in joining these poems together, I am still choosing the lines, I am choosing to maintain order. Both of these poems leave out punctuation at the ends of their lines, despite the sound of a complete thought. I put these two poems into conversation to intensify my point: poetry is a meeting place. Janet Kaufman describes meeting, for Rukeyser, as something that “does not remain stable over time but occurs in process, in the between, in the effort to go out toward an Other and recognize its full presence” (55). Kaufman is making reference to another of Rukeyser’s poems, “Akiba,” in which she is changed by witnessing the political and spiritual life of a rabbi, and then asks her readers to also witness and be changed by her words (55). In “Despisals,” as Alicia Suskin Ostriker explains in Stealing The Language, Rukeyser compares city ghettos with the “ghettos – taboo places and acts – of our bodies” (196). Again, Rukeyser resists separation; she resists the divide that polarization insists upon.

What does it mean to be a witness? Is witnessing a silent act, or is it an obligation to publicize what has been heard, seen, or felt? In what ways should we move beyond passive observation and into action?

Rukeyser speaks to the function of poetry in an interview with Lee Anderson:

…and the idea of process, of transformation, of possibility, is I think very deep in the part that the poet plays in life, although here it meets the part of anyone who is willing to be receptive to the creative and to make something of that receptivity. I don’t know, really, how these things can be split, although I knew that in the giving up of self during the writing of a poem, as in love, in bringing to birth, in any of the very deep places in our lives where our self is more or less given up that we do reach each other and that there is a way of sharing this kind of experience, and that seems to be to be the center of this function (March 21, 1959, via Penn Sound “Poems and commentary by Muriel Rukeyser”).

In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser confronts what she calls the resistances to poetry. Resonating within the lines of her work, I see the theme of encountering, facing head on the daily realities that we seem to be often separated from. Rukeyser calls this fear, recognizing that in desperation we cry out for one another, that “in any of the very deep places in our lives….we do reach each other.” Rukeyser, a woman who “lived in the first century of world wars,” describes a time of silence in the midst of war: “I think now of a boat on which I sailed away from the beginning of a war. It was nighttime, and over the deep fertile sea of night the voices of people talking quietly; some lights of the seacoast, faraway; some stars” (The Life of Poetry, 1). Further, she acknowledges the obligation one has to share what they have born witness to, the dull humming of conversation, “people talking quietly about what they had just seen and what it might mean to the world” (2-3). A man asks her where, in all of this, poetry belongs. What can poetry do? What she says just prior to this question in her Introduction, I believe, answers him: “we had seen the parts of our lives in a new arrangement.” I think this is what people fear. People fear the rearranging of their parts, their selves, their familiar faces and objects and knowledge rearranged into a shape that faultlessly accommodates the human form.

One: people believe that poetry is not to be used, as if there could be a clean dichotomy of what is to be used and what isn’t. In the same interview with Lee Anderson, Rukeyser speaks to the tendency to view time as a “static succession of points,” and the attempt to preserve these moments as fixed monuments. The expression that poetry affords, is perhaps paralyzing to those of us who are discomforted by seeing ourselves rearranged on the table, or the page. It is what Rukeyser calls “the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.” Following the belief that poetry is not to be used, we instead have the “speaking of poetry,” or text interpretation. This is safe, contained. It is not a response that we owe the poem, but rather an acknowledgement of its value (as we view it in a controlled environment). We fear the “total response” that poetry invites, the intellectual and emotional, feeling response (11). In this resistance, we fear our unordered selves.

Two: Silence. Without poetry, without “I speak to you You speak to me” in “Waterlily Fire: 5 The Long Body,” how might we bear witness to anything? This is not description, it is not a scheme of classification, it is not abstract, it is not methodological. She says,

[The questions] come up again and again during these years, when under all the surface
shouting, there is silence about those things we need to hear (LOP, 15).

Poetry does not mediate our feelings. Poetry asks simply that we feel. Better yet, poetry reminds us that we do feel, and that we resist this bodily truth. We censor ourselves; we are civilized. But in “Rational Man,” in “Breaking Open,” in “Waterlily Fire,” Rukeyser reminds us that even the most civilized, the most rational, the most composed individual is still subject to crises, still complex, still tragic and full and feeling. Maybe it is that we are more willing to accept the universal nature of science than we are willing to accept our somatic and psychological selves.

Here, a meeting place:

Is it possible that the “chaos” of our time and the “obscurity” that labels our poetry have a common base – that there are clusters of events and emotions which require new ways of making them more human, and that modern art and modern science have a clue to provide? (LOP, 21).

Moving forward, what does it mean to witness? Rukeyser speaks of semiosis, a triadic relation in which there is the maker, the recipient/audience, and the thing itself (in this case, a poem, or an event). She explains the term “witness,” as “the act of seeing or knowing by personal experience, as well as the act of giving evidence” (LOP, 175). I would argue that we resist witnessing in the same way we resist poetry: we are overwhelmed by the instinctual, visceral response.

Anecdote: I, too, live in a time of war, but this war is happening far away. I have a choice to look at the photo gallery on a news website – the digital world makes this immediately accessible to me. I choose not to look because I am both repulsed and guilted; by looking, I am obligated to act, and I don’t know how. I choose not to look. I choose to pour my coffee and go about my day, hardened to what I read, because reading is as close as I’ll get to the gallery, reading is enough to make me feel helpless, unhinged, and fed up all at once.

Rukeyser’s witness implies responsibility, giving life to what one has encountered and the subsequent declaration that “we are about to change, that work is being done on the self” (LOP, 175). Thus, the triad she speaks of is in flux: “We are changing, living beings, experiencing the inner change of poetry” (LOP, 175).

Lastly, something I find comforting in Rukeyser’s “Note from the Author” in The Life of Poetry:

I have attempted to suggest a dynamics of poetry, showing that a poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water. Poetry depends on the moving relations within itself… The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy, and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.

This must be breaking open; the splitting open of the self to transfer energy from one being to another, the admittance of our complexities, our capacity to be both terrible and brilliant, catastrophic and fertile, and of course never representative of both polarities without acknowledgement of all of the space inbetween. Poetry is a meeting place, a place where I think next I might explore Ann Berthoff’s Learning the Uses of Chaos, a place of electric bodies, honor, vitality, and most importantly, use.

Works Cited:

Penn Sound. “Poems and commentary by Muriel Rukeyser.” From the Lee Anderson papers, used with permission of the Muriel Rukeyser Estate, 2011. Retrieved from

Kaufman, Janet. “‘But not the study’: Writing as a Jew.” “How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?” Ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

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

Rukeyser, Muriel. “Breaking Open.” Breaking Open. New York: Random House, 1973.

— “Looking at Eachother.” Breaking Open. New York: Random House, 1973.

— The Life of Poetry. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1996.

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