There’s a line in Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Käthe Kollwitz” next to which I write: this, the center of everything. That line, from the five-part poem’s second section, reads: “A woman pouring her opposites.” The poem is better-known for a question that Rukeyser later asks, then immediately answers: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open” (Muriel Rukeyser Reader 214, part 3, lines 25-26). These might well be Rukeyser’s most-quoted lines; they appear in some form as countless epigraphs, as the title of at least two anthologies, and in the pages of works of various disciplines, not to mention the opening paragraphs of essays like this one. (In her essay “Learning to Breathe under Water,” Alicia Ostriker calls them “almost a mantra among women poets.”) It seems to me these lines are so repeatable because they successfully encapsulate a truth: that women have historically been prevented from telling the truth about their lives, and that acts of speaking that do tell truths about women’s lives “split open” the world in that they transform and potentially destabilize that tenuous construction we call “the world,” which has so often been a world authored by and for men. (“Most disturbing,” Ostriker also writes, “is the moment… when much of what we think we know about “women” and “poetry” is called into question.”1 ) It seems also that this “world split open” is a subtle and elusive thing, and that one of the questions these lines offer us is: what does (or would) it mean for the world to split open?
That’s quite a question, and in fact looking at these lines is taking me straight to some of my deepest, truest questions, ones with which I think Rukeyser’s work is intimately engaged: What is a truth? What is a woman? What, even, is a life—or what should it be? (Or might. Or could.) Of course these are and are not abstract questions. I don’t mean them rhetorically. I mean that what it means for a woman poet to tell the truth is still a fraught question, weighted with gendered expectations about who gets to tell what kind of truth, which truths can be universal and which merely personal. (Rukeyser, in response to being called a “she-poet” by a critic, said: “Anything I bring to this is because I am a woman… maybe, maybe, maybe that is what one can bring to life.”2) There are complicated layers of truth-telling to be found in “Käthe Kollwitz,” in which one woman (Rukeyser) tells something of the truth (a truth) about her life by looking at or with or through the life of another (Kollwitz).
Ruth Porritt’s 1999 essay “Unforgetting Eyes: Rukeyser Portraying Kollwitz’s Truth” argues a similar point; Porritt points out that the poem “raises questions about artistic truth and how writers represent the complicated lives of the women they honor” (163). I relate these questions to Ostriker’s claim that we can see women poets searching for identities “both personal and communal”; she writes that “women writers make poems for and from the lives of lost women, the insulted and injured of present and past history, the heroines, the writers and artists who are their spiritual sisters and ancestresses. And always the note is intimate” (Stealing the Language 191). (She quotes Rukeyser later in the same paragraph.) Ostriker’s for and from, as well as her designation of this kind of writing as a species of intimacy, resonate with Porritt’s suggestion that Rukeyser’s poem offers us not just a vision, but an ethics: “that the woman poet should not speak at others, nor for others, but with others to cocreate new truths” (164). 3
Not at, not for, but with: I repeat these words to myself, wanting to make them into something: a new illusion4, a new truth—or an old truth rediscovered, recycled, made new. Audre Lorde reminds us that “there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human… There are only new ways of making them felt.”5 I find something that feels new in “Käthe Kollwitz”—half a century after Rukeyser published The Speed of Darkness, in which it appeared, I feel surprised and recognized and maybe even subtly transformed by this poem of one woman imagining another, seeing another, “looking directly at you” (part 5, line 1).The poem—like many of the poet’s—is a long one in multiple sections, which shift through various modes to create something like a portrait of a woman in the midst of moving through her world, seeing and being seen from a variety of angles. It’s Rukeyser’s attempt, in poetry, to apprehend Kollwitz in as much of her complexity as possible. It might be described as a crystallized act of looking—which might also describe most poetry, or at least some of the poems I love the most. What I want to offer here is a reading that seeks to make visible the complexities of truth and representation I see in the poem, focusing on its formal qualities and tracking, where I can, the relations between Rukeyser’s lines and Kollwitz’s images (guided, at times, by Porritt’s and Gander’s works, which have already done significant work in that direction), striving throughout “to read by the light that [the poem itself] emits.”6 In that spirit, here’s how Rukeyser begins:
Held between wars my lifetime among wars, the big hands of the world of death my lifetime listens to yours. (part 1, lines 1-5)
These lines: they’re glowing. Life and death, the scope of the world and the different but equally unrepresentable scope of a single person’s subjectivity—it’s all, immediately, here. Though the stanza locates “my lifetime” as “held between wars,” the lineation also inverts this positioning: the line “among wars, the big hands of the world of death” is also held between two repetitions of “my lifetime.” That rhyme between “wars” and “yours” lends a sense of wholeness to these initial lines, such that both lifetimes are also held by the sound. We can understand “my lifetime” here to mean Rukeyser’s own, and “yours” to refer to Kollwitz’s, but I think it’s also notable that there’s no “I” here, only “my,” leaving some ambiguity around the question of who’s speaking and from where or when. In other words, it’s not an “I” who does the listening, but “my lifetime”—suggesting, to me, that this listening comes both from within and outside of a self.
The lines that follow draw on imagery from Kollwitz’s prints and drawings; we’re asked to look at ordinary people “in the street, in dailiness, / their lives showing / through their bodies” (lines 7-9). These “lives shown through bodies” draw attention to the processes by which we become visible, and to the ways in which we make meaning both of people and of images—in many of Kollwitz’s prints, bodies become allegory for their historical situations, even as they’re also singular, themselves. The only direct first-person statement in this first section is attributed to one of these “sufferers” (line 6), when Rukeyser describes “a look as of music / the revolutionary look / that says I am in the world / to change the world” (lines 10-12). “My lifetime” (line 13), then, in its next repetition, is difficult to locate as Rukeyser’s specifically; it could equally belong to one of these anonymous subjects or to Kollwitz herself, as suggested by the lines that follow: “is to love to endure to suffer the music / to set its portrait / up as a sheet of the world” (lines 14-17). There’s a beautiful blurring of forms here—music and portraiture and poetry flow into one another, as do the images of the rest of this long stanza: religious and literary and natural references all appear before “death holding my lifetime between great hands / the hands of enduring life” (lines 21-22) brings us back to the image of the poem’s first lines.
I picture these “great hands” of death as the hands of a clock: an embodied image of passing time. I also attach these hands to a number of hands in Kollwitz’s images: the grave, haunting hand of a mourner atop a coffin in Memorial Sheet to Karl Liebknecht (1919); the skeletal, shadowy, ominous yet gentle hand in Call of Death (1934), resting on the old woman’s shoulder; the hands that link the figures of The Volunteers (1922); the hand that holds and guards the cluster of women and children of The Mothers (1921).7 Yet when the hands of death transform into (or reveal themselves to have always already also been) “the hands of enduring life,” the hands I can’t stop thinking of are those of a much earlier sketch, in pencil: the hands of Child’s Head in a Mother’s Hands (1900) are so visibly a mother’s, hands of care. In the isolated sketch, the child might be sleeping—but it’s only a study for the etching of the same year called The Downtrodden, which shows a family in mourning. This imagery prefigures the heart-wrenching series called Woman with Dead Child that Kollwitz would make three years later, just over a decade before she’d lose her own son, Peter, in World War I. In the prints, a mother holds a child’s body, curled around it like a shell. Her face seems almost to melt into the child; her hand is nearly as large as the child’s head. This hand, too, is the hand of death and the hand of life. It has a gravity I want to call unbearable, though I know that I don’t know what that would mean. I mean that I can feel someone’s heart breaking when I look at it.
Where the poem’s first section engages with and invokes Kollwitz through imagery drawn from her works, the second brings Kollwitz into the poem more directly, as a voice speaking quotes in her own words.8 The Kollwitz that the poet creates for us here speaks variously: on form, on her subject matter, on love, on life. “Woman as gates” (part 2, line 1) is the phrase Rukeyser uses to introduce this voice, echoing the first section’s image world of lifetimes “held between” (part 1, lines 1; 21) and also speaking to the artist’s role as conduit for meaning. “The process,” Kollwitz—through Rukeyser—tells us, “is after all like music, / like the development of a piece of music. / The fugues come back and / again and again / interweave” (part 2, lines 1-6). Here, again, music becomes a metaphor to say something about artistic production. Rukeyser’s lineation centers the phrase “again and again,” highlighting the repetition and also moving the reader’s eye away from the groundedness of the left-hand margin, effectively weaving the text that comes back to the word “interweave.” In the following lines, Kollwitz clarifies her point: “A theme may seem to have been put aside, but it keeps returning— / the same thing modulated, / somewhat changed in form” (lines 7-10).
It’s easy to see how this applies to Kollwitz’s work; similar images and subjects appear and develop across the breadth of her career. This principle also tells us something about Rukeyser’s own work, and speaks directly to some themes I see appearing in this poem as well as in her earlier and later work: the role of art in a war-torn world; the difficulty and necessity of communication; the complicated relation between the categories ‘artist’ and ‘woman’; the presence of death in life; the interplay of other opposites. This kind of repetition is not stasis, but—as Kollwitz tells us—”modulation.” Repeated themes accrue meaning as they’re brought into new combinations, new connections. (I make the musician tell me again how fugues work; the point that seems to me to matter is that, as he tells it, what makes a fugue a fugue is that not just some but all of the pieces of melody are working with the same repeated themes. Rukeyser claimed she didn’t work with “unrelated elements” at all,9 which also strikes me as true, if enigmatic.)
There’s a time slip here, or a productive ambiguity, in that Kollwitz’s words are both “said” and “saying” (part 2, lines 23 and 1); in other words, Kollwitz’s voice speaks both from a past time in which she did say these words and from the continual present in which she addresses us through Rukeyser’s poem. The poet’s choice to let Kollwitz speak for herself makes sense in relation to Rukeyser’s work in documentary poetics and biography. Kollwitz’s language that Rukeyser chooses to repeat is wide-ranging in terms of subject, and its modes of address are also various—some of these words are clearly notes for herself, but others also include the voice of some interlocutor, as in lines 13-15, when someone—maybe an interviewer—asks: “After all there are happy things in life too. / Why do you show only the dark side?” The question is a familiar one, and speaks to the pressures on artists—women artists in particular, but also artists of other marginalized groups—to beautify suffering for an audience who might find a focus on real, lived struggles too much. (It also strikes me that “showing only the dark side” is a myopic reading of Kollwitz’s work, which seems to me to focus as much on connection and relation and resilience as it does “the dark side.”) Rukeyser quotes Kollwitz’s reply, or her reflection on how she replied: “I could not answer this. But I know— / in the beginning my impulse to know / the working life / had little to do with / pity or sympathy. / I simply felt / that the life of the workers was beautiful” (lines 16-22).
I love these lines for their willingness to find beauty in what’s overlooked or seen as merely ordinary, “in dailiness” (part 1, line 7), in what’s been excluded from the realm of what counts as art. I also suspect that Rukeyser’s choice to include this quote speaks to how she might have seen it relating to her own work: I imagine that she’d also had the question of “why you show only the dark side” leveled at her, maybe many times. The poet also quotes the artist saying “I am groping in the dark” (line 23), which resonates with Rukeyser’s willingness to remain in uncertainty even while asserting her own voice, to tangle with opposites without collapsing them into resolution.
Kollwitz’s statements quoted here about sensuality and her marriage, as well as her suggestion “that bisexuality / is almost a necessary factor / in artistic production” (lines 46-48), bring to mind Ostriker’s observation that “to be a creative woman in a gender-polarized culture is to be a divided self” (Stealing the Language 60). In a culture in which the role of the artist has historically been gendered as male and primarily reserved for men to inhabit, it’s no surprise that Kollwitz found that what she called “the tinge of masculinity within me” (line 49) was a source of creative power. Of course it’s not completely clear what Kollwitz means by “bisexuality” here, as the end of the quote seems to refer to something more like what we might now call gender fluidity, and at any rate Kollwitz’s bisexuality is not exactly Rukeyser’s, which is not exactly mine. Still: a star in the margins. (Rukeyser loved women and men, and though she wasn’t outspoken about it, didn’t spend a lot of time claiming any particular orientation—a stance to which I also relate—the truth of this is there in the poems.)
Rukeyser ends this section with an anecdote of her own, in which a man comments: “Kollwitz? She’s too black-and-white” (line 57). This could be tongue-in-cheek—nearly all of Kollwitz’s work is, literally, in black-and-white—but also stands in for the kind of dismissals that Kollwitz’s work, as well as Rukeyser’s and that of other politically engaged women artists, was (and is) routinely subject. In an essay contextualizing Kollwitz’s art, Elizabeth Prelinger writes:
Because Kollwitz steadfastly adhered to a figurative style in the era of abstraction, because she was a woman in a field dominated by men, and because she depicted socially engaged subject matter when it was unfashionable, critics have focused on those issues and have rarely studied the ways in which the artist manipulated technique and solved formal problems.” (“Kollwitz Reconsidered” 13)
This statement seems to me uncannily also applicable to Rukeyser’s work; essay after essay describes resistances that her contemporaries found to her from multiple angles—too political for the New Criticism-influenced mode that was in fashion at the time, too formally experimental for others who prioritized art’s ability to be socially engaged.
Prelinger goes on to describe Kollwitz as “a virtuosic visual rhetorician who, in her best work, achieved a brilliant balance between subject and form” (13), a balance that I also see Rukeyser achieving even in this single poem. Its third section returns to shorter lines and an omniscient voice recalling that of the first section; we begin with the lines: “Held among wars, watching / all of them / all these people / weavers, / Carmagnole” (part 3, lines 1-5). “Weavers” and “Carmagnole” are both titles of Kollwitz pieces; the short lines here evoke looking through a series of images without settling on any single one. We’re asked repeatedly to pay attention to the artist in the act of seeing—Kollwitz is “watching,” “looking at,” “a woman seeing” (lines 1; 6; 14). The third, and longest, stanza here returns to events from Kollwitz’s biography, including Peter’s death, which was then echoed by her grandson’s—also Peter—in World War II. The lines grow longer here as events and images flow together: “another Peter killed in another war; firestorm; / dark, light, as two hands, / this pole and that pole as the gates” (lines 22-24).
These lines revisit and reimagine the hands of death from the first section, as well as that of “woman as gates” (part 2, line 1)—in both cases, the woman and in particular the woman artist becomes the location of transformation: the gate through which everyone enters the world, literally, but also the witness to life and death and the thresholds at which they meet. We return to that question: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” This line is far more powerful within its context; in thinking about the facts of Kollwitz’s life, the way it does map onto and was shaped by these wars, it’s easy to see how the force of those truths does “split open” the world. Still, this splitting is not necessarily violent, or not only violent. Rukeyser doesn’t punctuate the answering line, writing merely “The world would split open” (line 26), leaving the sentenced balanced between completeness and continuity.
The section that follows is surprisingly gentle, and it’s the one that puzzled me most on my first several readings of the poem. Where the first three sections were numbered, but untitled, this one announces itself as “Song : The Calling-up,” signaling it as differently lyric than the preceding words. I read this song as conjuring both artistic creation and motherhood, which it envisions as connected; it begins: “Rumor, stir of ripeness / rising within this girl / sensual blossoming / of meaning, its light and form” (lines 1-4). That turn at the end of the first stanza is my favorite moment in this section—it’s wonderful, I think, that the “sensual blossoming” is one “of meaning” (emphasis mine), making what’s “rising within this girl” legible as creativity or her own voice instead of or alongside sexuality. The second stanza’s “birth-cry” (line 5) reads as conception, considering the stanza ends with “the warm woman / a mother in response” (lines 7-8). The last stanza’s “word of death” echoes the earlier “world of death” (part 1, line 3), and if we read this section as a song framing Kollwitz’s early life, seems to also refer to her son’s death, following which she worked for years on a sculpture memorial for him— “from the material make / an art harder than bronze” (part 4, lines 11-12).
The poem’s last section, titled “Self-Portrait,” is where I find its real heart, and it’s where Rukeyser looks most closely at Kollwitz’s work. Looking, and the intimacy of looking, are central, as in these opening lines: “Mouth looking directly at you / eyes in their inwardness looking / directly at you / half light half darkness” (part 5, lines 1-4). I’m fascinated by this opening, which suggests a connection between looking and speech from its “mouth looking,” and which continues one of the poem’s central threads of setting up an opposition or binary and then destabilizing that binary—light and darkness are separated, divided by that mid-line caesura, but eyes are also “looking / directly at you” even in “their inwardness”—the directness and immediacy of a gaze are not separate from an interiority’s degree of remove. The “you at whom Kollwitz looks is herself in creating a self-portrait, but also Rukeyser, and also the reader seeing both of these women through these words: layers of distance across which communication is still—as the poem shows us—possible.
Rukeyser moves through considerations of several of Kollwitz’s self-portraits here, using the repeated line “flows into” both to describe the qualities of line within the images and to shift between images—Kollwitz ages over the course of this section’s single long stanza.10 The woman “alive, German, in her first War / flows into / strength of the worn face / a skein of lines” (lines 14-17). Representational friction is a phrase used in scholarship about ekphrastic poetry to describe the tension between an image’s formal composition and representational capacity—I think of this here, where Kollwitz’s self-portrait is both an image that represents a person and a series of marks on paper, two-dimensional. That “skein of lines” reads as double to me, referring both to the lines of “the worn face” and the lines of the drawing, as does the later phrase “the marks of her knowing” (line 24)—each of which could also describe qualities of the poem itself.
As Rukeyser turns towards Kollwitz’s late work (“Seedcorn must not be ground,” in line 28, is the title—quoting Goethe—of her last lithograph), the presence of Kollwitz’s lost son returns via reference to her work titled Pietá, which engages the tradition of images of the mourning Madonna. Rukeyser describes: “mother and / between her knees / life as her son in death / pouring from the sky of / one more war” (lines 34-38), echoing the imagery of Woman with Dead Child, which Kollwitz made in the same year. In these lines, the way Kollwitz’s images flow into one another gives way to the connection between mother and child, and the way war destroys that connection—Kollwitz’s life is a microcosm of a web of loss. I think of Ostriker’s articulation “that our normal conception of self as rigidly bounded entity is a fiction” (Stealing the Language, p. 178), which she then sharpens: “in fact we are all interdependent permeable membranes continually penetrating and being penetrated by a world of others.” This interconnectivity is apparent in the way Rukeyser sees Kollwitz as the “face of our age” (line 32) and also as only herself, achingly specific, present and absent, disappearing before our eyes: “face almost obliterated / hand over the mouth forever / hand over one eye now / the other great eye / closed” (lines 40-45). I feel such tangible grief in these lines, in which the poem suddenly becomes an elegy—or maybe it was all along, but I didn’t really know it until that ending, in which the artist who we’ve been trying both to see and to see with must close her eyes.
Rukeyser, or her speaker, has a less-immediate presence in this stanza, and yet she’s also everywhere. I can imagine her staring at Kollwitz’s self-portraits for minutes turning into hours, turning to other images, coming back again and again to the same face, looking directly at Kollwitz looking herself in the eyes. (I want, of course, to look over her shoulder, or stand next to her in some gallery, for her to be pointing at the lines, saying this flows into that, showing me what she means, to see her seeing in real time. In museums I always want to look at the faces of whoever I’m with more than I want to look at the works themselves, which might serve as a kind of poetics—if one I’m not sure I’d endorse, even though or probably because it’s mine.)
In a diary entry, Kollwitz asks: “That which I have always said previously: the content could be the form—where have I succeeded at that? Where is the new form for the new content of these last years?”11This inseparability of form and content, and openness to reimagining form as the content of a life changes, are also visible in Rukeyser’s work, and “Käthe Kollwitz” shows the poet finding the language to represent another person as both vibrantly present and essentially unknowable. The poem is rich for analysis, full of connections and references and interwoven themes, but what I really want to communicate here is something of my feeling while reading it, suddenly more aware of myself as a woman looking at a woman looking at a woman looking at the world: these layers of life and time and meaning that can be teased out, guessed-at, but never quite untangled. I am still learning what it might mean to trust my own opposites, to “use all my fears.”12 In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser asks: “How do we use feeling? How do we use truth?” Rukeyser’s and Kollwitz’s bodies of work each offer many possibilities in these entwined directions. I turn towards these women, to what I can apprehend of their lifetimes—trying to remain open, in eyes and in I, to look, to listen.
Coooper, Jane. “And Everything a Witness of the Buried Life.” Herzog and Kaufman, pp. 3-14.
Gander, Catherine. Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection. Edinburg University Press, 2013.
Herzog, Anne. “Art of the World: Muriel Rukeyser’s Poetry of Witness.” Bridges, Fall 2002, pp. 26-31.
Herzog, Anne F. and Janet E. Kaufman, eds. How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984; 2007.
Loy, Mina. The Last Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger Conover. The Jargon Society, 1982.
Ostriker, Alicia. “Learning to Breathe under Water.” Poetry Foundation, June 12, 2013.
—. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Beacon Press, 1986.
Porritt, Ruth. “’Unforgetting Eyes’: Rukeyser Portraying Kollwitz’s Truth.” Herzog and Kaufman, pp.163-183.
Prelinger, Elizabeth, editor. Käthe Kollwitz. Yale University Press, 1992.
Rukeyser, Muriel. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. Jan Heller Levi. Norton, 1994.
—. The Life of Poetry. Paris Press, 1996.