On the centenary of Muriel Rukeyser’s birth: the lives of a poet

This post, in celebration of the centenary of Muriel Rukeyser’s birth (15.12.13), is a more personal one than my last. I want to evoke, as far as I can, a feeling as well as an understanding of the enormous influence Rukeyser has had on the lives of those who knew her, and those who have read her. Encountering her work, whether it is her poetry, her prose biographies, her dramatic scripts, or her essays, is invariably an intellectually invigorating experience. The act of reading becomes, with a Rukeyser text, simultaneously an act of reception and response – an act of witness, as she termed it – that sends the mind flying in several directions; that instantly instigates curiosity; that generates a conversation between text, writer and reader, seemingly started eons ago and yet constantly fresh and exciting. If this sounds gushing, so be it. There are some things (admittedly, very few) I find in Rukeyser’s work that aren’t particularly ‘good’; there are some efforts that even fail (and this was seldom her fault; she was vastly undervalued and even feared; she was almost buried by the academy: she was significantly ahead of her time). But, aside from the fact that the overwhelming majority of Rukeyser’s oeuvre is exceptionally good and still strikingly resonant, I’m not sure she would have had it any other way. As her friend and student Laura Manuelidis noted to me, Rukeyser knew full well that to produce something good involved on occasion producing something ‘bad’: ‘Being bad is part of it’, she used to say to me, ‘don’t erase the bad; let it be’. The result renders Rukeyser’s writing a true gift to the world, because it communicates not only the deepest and sharpest and most vital (in both senses) messages of human life in all of its forms and motions, but that it also articulates the ‘coming into being’[1] processes of that life.

The effect of Rukeyser’s work, I am trying to argue, is in large part what it creates, and continues to create long after her books have been closed (only waiting to be reopened). I am reminded most, as Marian Evans and Christine White have been, of her much-quoted poem, ‘Islands’, the first short stanza of which is:

O for God’s sake

they are connected

underneath

Each piece of writing, each artistic endeavour of Rukeyser’s, encourages us – the ‘bathers’ in the sea surrounding the ‘islands’ – to plunge our heads under the water we are treading and see the truth. ‘The bathers think / islands are separate like them’, Rukeyser ends the poem, in two of the most simple yet eye-opening and heart-breaking lines in modern poetry.  Her works are calls to connective conversation. ‘If we could touch one another, /if these our separate entities could come to grips’, wrote Rukeyser in the poem ‘Effort at Speech Between Two People’, when she was just 22 years old.

Her cumulative works are a life narrative in which we all have a role; in which every life is connected, from the lives of the Gauley Bridge miners and their families, from Thomas Hariot to Willard Gibbs, from Houdini to Wendell Willkie, from Käthe Kollwitz to Anne Burlak, to the life of the reader/witness. I am emphasising the vitality of connective stories here, not only because Rukeyser tirelessly did the same thing throughout her own life, but because this blog is in commemoration and celebration of that life. ‘The universe is made of stories, / not of atoms’, she wrote in ‘The Speed of Darkness’ in 1968.

The stories that Rukeyser lived, made, and continues to influence are innumerable, and they connect in ways that it would take more than several lifetimes to discover. I have found, however, that those people who take in Rukeyser’s works and words, and who live by the same standards of passionate curiosity, of openness, equality, and moral and intellectual fortitude, cross each other’s paths and connect with each other in extraordinary ways. The series of coincidences that have (so far) occurred in my life after I began to research Rukeyser is both remarkable and somehow naturally expected. I wrote in my last post that I was delighted to hear from Bill Rukeyser, Muriel’s son, that he had lived in the street next to mine in Belfast, when he was producing his excellent journalistic work on the Northern Irish conflict in the early 1970s. In direct relation to my work here, when I received news from Elisabeth Däumer (without whose insight, intelligence and industry this site would not exist) about my article in the Journal of Narrative Theory Rukeyser special issue, I was visiting a friend in Berlin, sitting in a café in Kollwitzplatz, having spent a good while looking at the statue of Kollwitz, and admiring several examples of her work. Elisabeth, of course, knows the place well. Those readers not familiar with Rukeyser’s biographical poem of Kollwitz will no doubt recognise its most famous lines: ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open’.

The most wonderful set of coincidences happened this summer. Rukeyser’s insistence on ‘a poetry of meeting-places’ extended not only to the connection of mistakenly disparate disciplines such as the ‘two cultures’ of art and science, but to all forms of media, and her dedication to the dual and collaborative work of words and images has informed my academic writing since I first picked up The Life of Poetry as a Masters student. In August this year, I took a research trip to America; my route went from Dublin to New York, to New Haven, to Philadelphia to Mexico City, where I ended my excursion with a paper on William Carlos Williams, ekphrasis and cognitive perception at an ‘Aesthetics and Naturalism’ conference at UNAM.

On the Dublin-New York flight, I sat next to someone with whom I soon struck up a conversation. He saw I was reading a paper about visual poetry; he took from his bag a book of visual poems he had written and published. I told him I was researching a paper – an inquiry that involved consideration of the way the brain processes reading images and reading poems; he told me he had spent much of his life working as a professor of psychology, specialising in neurophysiology. He had then developed and directed the UNESCO Culture of Peace programme, and now spends his time as an advocate for world peace. I told him I would be visiting the Beinecke library at Yale in a week’s time; he told me he lived in New Haven. His name was David Adams. We discussed brain activity, perception, peace activism and poetry, and of course, I spoke of Muriel Rukeyser, whereupon he told me that one of his good friends, the Yale physician and neuropathologist Laura Manuelidis, used to be a student of Rukeyser’s and knew her well. Laura, who is also an excellent poet, was unfortunately out of town the next week, and could not take advantage of David’s generous offer of dinner (it was delicious Peking Duck and lasted me for most of the week). David’s indefatigable campaigning for a better world can be accessed here: http://cpnn-world.org/

When I was able to speak with Laura (and speaking with her is as enriching an experience as speaking with David), I discovered not only that we shared a common ground of poetic and political preferences, but that we also shared a friend: Professor Clive Bush, a tutor of mine when I was at King’s College London, and the person who had introduced me to the work of Muriel Rukeyser. How apt that it was Rukeyser who had brought our paths to meet. I was immediately put in mind of the symbol of the spiral, a motif of extreme importance for Rukeyser; ‘the life-giver and carrier, the whirlpool, the vortex of atoms, and the sacred circuit’:

The history of a symbol, traced in this way, will show the history of human passion for a relationship – in this instance, between growth and form. Passion it is, deeper, more eager to use and be used, and in its love and play making art, games, talismans, out of an expression of the most deep connection.[2]

I’d like to give the last part of this post to a few recollections of Rukeyser, by Laura and by Clive. I’d also, in keeping with Rukeyser’s spirit of openness, generosity and exposure, like to share their poems, infused with and inspired by the voice of their friend.

Laura met Muriel Rukeyser in 1960, when she took her class at Sarah Lawrence. She remembers the impressive and commanding presence of the poet: ‘the building hardly seemed large enough to fit her inside of it.’ That several students seemed at first afraid of her, but that Laura was not, was perhaps one of the reasons that Muriel was immediately taken with Laura. ‘I remember her saying to me, “I like you – we’re going for a walk”, and we walked and talked for two hours, leaving all the other students waiting.’ From that moment, a close and mutually rewarding friendship began, and Muriel would cook for Laura (‘she gave me my first mixed grill!’), read and critique her poems non-prescriptively (‘never anything like “we do this, we don’t do that”’), and spend countless hours discussing the need and the power of poetry.

Muriel’s unceasing curiosity for all aspects and elements of life left a deep imprint in Laura’s memory of her. ‘She worked all the time,’ Laura recalls, ‘she was always interested in things. She was always reading, and getting me to read things too. She said during our first meeting: “I think you will like Lorca.” I went to the library directly afterwards, found all the Lorca I could read, and of course, I loved it. But she knew that when I was a poetry student of hers, I never read her work, and she understood. She knew I needed to find my own voice.’ Later, when Muriel offered to help Laura, who was now in her second year of medical school, publish her book of poems, she asked whether Laura had come up with a title. ‘I replied “Poems for the Matriarchy”. “Oh no!” she said. I was surprised but understood later. No confinement.’

The poem I am posting below is one that Laura worries slightly does not communicate the strength, passion and resilience of Muriel Rukeyser. It might not. It does, however, apart from demonstrating what an excellent student she had in Laura, communicate Rukeyser’s grace and humanity. Laura wrote it in response to seeing her friend and mentor in a hospital bed after a stroke; she pulled the curtains around her and was thanked with the remark that she was a ‘real lady’.

Sunday hat (for Muriel Rukeyser, 1980)

(in Out of Order, 2007)

And now, at last, to remove this Sunday hat

Wilted with flowers, and circa

1898,

And loose the stiffened neck of lace

Down until the shoulders are not hemmed

And the chest is also not embraced.

Then slowly, to unsnap the cuffs—

But do not glance upon the veins or brown

Irregular spots:

The skin is not the soul

(The sermon master told me so);

And then the bodice, like a brick

And then the belt

And then the skirt.

Oh I will kick my feet as I once did!

But first, I must undo the crush

Of garters and of mesh

Upon my hips,

Hooks and buttons that make a lady straight

Down to the crimp of stockings

On my toes.

At night, would that I could

The dye upon my hair

Undo

And in this fallen condition be

And breathe

And drown into my bed and sleep.

And if I dream

And then undo my skin

Am I a lady underneath?

My joints are hard

My heart is small and weak.

Will they love me laid upon these sheets?

I am gay, I am dancing

And those who care are laughing

With me.

Unlatch my jokes

           —Here I am!

Able to flirt with nothing on.

My inelastic corset laced with pain

All gone.

Yes, I promise I will

My used and mottled hat

Place on my head

This one last time;

Arrange my dress—and let my face be rouged—

Compose my hands across my waist

Before I’m cramped within this narrow space.

My eyes alone

Behind a veil of light

Caress you with all my freedom, and my might.

Rukeyser used to ‘send’ people to Laura, and one of them was Clive Bush. A great and lasting friendship began between the two ‘disciples’, when in 1973, Clive, on a research fellowship at Yale, was despatched by Rukeyser to Laura, her husband and children for intellectual companionship and general ‘looking after’. Muriel had a sharp sense for compatible personalities.

Clive’s seven-year friendship with Muriel (ending in her death in 1980, but of course in many ways extending far beyond it) began via the American Studies scholar and writer, Eric Mottram. Having dinner with Clive, Eric mentioned that the author of The Traces of Thomas Hariot was coming to London for its launch. When the British press thrashed the book – still misunderstood, but one of the most intriguing, clever and well-researched biographies I’ve read – Clive was incandescent with anger. He obtained the number of Monica McCall, Rukeyser’s agent (and partner), called it, and released a torrent of heated opinion on the state of literary journalism in the UK into the ear of the person who picked up. When he had finished, there was a pause, and a low voice chuckled and replied, ‘Do you think you could write all that down and send it to me?’ Realising that Muriel, not Monica, had answered the phone, Clive agreed, on the proviso that she gave a reading to his students at Warwick University, where he was then teaching. The favour was returned.

When I ask Clive what he learnt most from his friend, his reply is very similar to Laura’s. ‘Her emphasis on combination was extraordinary’, he asserts. ‘She had such an openness to all knowledge, and not out of some intellectual objective, but out of the understanding that it is absolutely vital to all human beings.’ Muriel’s capacity to recognise and open paths of connection between forms, disciplines and people was aided by her ability to enjoy life to the full. ‘She was very humorous’, Clive remarks, ‘and she loved to tease and be teased. She was playful, too. I remember when she discovered I knew Wiltshire (England) well, she boasted to me that she had stopped on the way to Corsham Court to play darts in the Methuen Arms, a pub with which I was also very familiar.’

Muriel introduced Clive to numerous artists, academics and writers, as well as a variety of Jewish food – a particular favourite in New York being lox and bagels – and whiskey. The description of a delight in sensual pleasures fits: Rukeyser enjoyed the give-and-take of all types of pleasure, whether intellectual, emotional or sensorial. The poem I am reproducing of Clive’s is one that evokes this synaesthesia, allowing at once glimpses of the interests he and Rukeyser shared, and echoes of her own strong voice.

 

IX Penance

(from Pictures after Poussin, 2003)

they ran through her hands like water

but in this exchange money was no object

and she of a relative profit

 

an illusion of the public good

rioted in Roman columns

 

she kissed his feet as if the proportion of services

did not belong to the costs of consumption

 

he said if debt could be figured then small debts

were small terrors

 

she had come out in a board room of ironic men on their sides

who were about to eat perfect bread with arranged knives

memory became memorials between their eyes

there were tears on bare feet

the letter of the law was bespoke

so that they could all look up to themselves in telling

the yellow and white

of their oldest professions

fell off her shoulder

became a source of light

she had received and suffered what came from the noise of meteors

her breasts and hair touched his feet outside a table whose still life kept its nourishment as vertical

depth in an unvarying centre of groping arms

the boy on his knees

poured wine under the open eyes

of the only man who could extinguish

that forgiveness of the shroud’s fold

through which he never saw

I will finish this post, however, with poetry from Rukeyser. The themes of birth, rebirth and life are prevalent throughout Rukeyser’s entire oeuvre; lest we forget, one of the greatest gifts she gave to literature is entitled The Life of Poetry. In the connections I have traced along this post, however, I thread my own life, touched not only by hers, but by the lives of those she knew and loved, and who loved her in return. In some ways, the recently emerging scholarship on Rukeyser is a thankful bringing back to life – a reawakening, if only in some small parts of the world (that, we know, are not discrete) of witness to Rukeyser’s writings. The following poem is entitled ‘Born in December’, written by Rukeyser for a friend, but pertinent to herself, born on the 15th December, and also, gratifyingly, to me, born on the 20th.

Born in December for Nancy Marshall

(in Body of Waking, 1958)

You are like me born at the end of the year;

When in our city day closes blueness comes

We see a beginning in the ritual end.

Never mind: I know it is never what it seems,

That ending: for we are born, we are born there,

There is an entrance we may always find.

They reckon by the wheel of the year. Our birth’s before.

From the dark birthday to the young year’s first stay

We are the ones who wait and look for ways:

Ways of beginning, ways to be born, ways for

Solvings, turnings, wakings, we are always

A little younger than they think we are.

Muriel Rukeyser, born 100 years ago, always a little younger than they think, yet always ahead of her time. Her legacy stretches onward in the memories of those she touched, in the lives and works of those who continue to be touched by her presence and her words. I shall leave, therefore, the last word to her:

Then

(The Gates, 1976)

 

When I am dead, even then,
I will still love you, I will wait in these poems,
When I am dead, even then
I am still listening to you.
I will still be making poems for you
out of silence;
silence will be falling into that silence,
it is building music.



[1] From ‘Absalom’ in The Book of the Dead (1938)

[2] The Life of Poetry, 37.

One Response to On the centenary of Muriel Rukeyser’s birth: the lives of a poet

  1. Eulalia Busquets Lluch says:

    Touching Words. Thank you for sharing all this experience of life and poetry.

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