Muriel Rukeyser’s Elegies challenges readers with an array of complicated literary devices and historical references as a way of digesting a thoroughly grueling time in world history, as she lived through it. Since the work isn’t reflecting on the past, but rather a historical present, Elegies stands as especially relevant for readers experiencing unprecedented times. Even as one of those readers, I still had a lot of difficulty interpreting Rukeyser’s ambitious collection. As that’s the case, I wanted to emulate her as a way of understanding the work. If I can at least reconstruct how these elegies were written, I might have an easier time reading them. However, when I went back to reread them closely, I realized how much I tried to take on and decided to emulate just two of the devices I noticed in Elegies, what I’m calling: modernist montage and idiosyncratic nouns.
Montage is a film technique where two scenes or sets of images are juxtaposed with one another in a swiftly moving sequence. This technique requires viewers (or readers) to forge a connection between radically disparate subjects. Modernist art rose to prominence after World War I and, narrowly speaking, was interested in cutting down to the bones of art as a way of processing the horror of the modern age. Hemingway’s work illustrates this movement fairly well. His stories use extremely simple vocabulary and lightly organized descriptions that leave readers with the challenge to try figuring out what’s going on, like being blindfolded while trying to distinguish grapes from eyeballs. Modernist art is disorienting and visceral, much like the times the artists were living in. Therefore, modernist montage is a technique where imagery is juxtaposed with the aim of exploring disorientation, where it comes from and what it can mean. This technique is prominent in all of Rukeyser’s elegies, but for the purposes of this essay, I’d like to look at an instance of montage in the first elegy, “River Elegy”:
Gaudy sadistic streets, dishonest avenues where every face has bargained for its eyes. And they come down to the river, driven down. And all the faces fly out of my city. The rich streets full of empty coats parading and one adolescent protesting violin. (34)
In the first line, Rukeyser brings readers to a town that looks deplorable. It’s “gaudy,” so overdressed and in poor taste. Combined with “sadistic” and “dishonest,” the streets come into focus as blood splattered and broken. The kind of place full of dark alleyways. In the second line, the speaker confirms that this place is familiar with its sadism. “Every face” has had to prove its worth, in exchange for keeping basic abilities such as sight. The third line pulls readers out of the streets and near the riverbed. The frame fills with a crowd made of wounds and rags, “driven down” by desperation or by force. The fourth line confirms their evacuation out of, presumably, the speaker’s city. Then the fifth line immediately yanks readers back to the streets. The streets are rich with empty coats, instead of wealth. The city is war-torn, after all. The frame centers a river of fur, cloth, and military insignia as it “parades” through the “dishonest avenues.” The last line pushes the coats into the background while the foreground features a teen playing his violin’s heart out, seemingly the only resident left. With each line, the image never settles. In each line, Rukeyser hands another brimming photograph. And before readers can really inspect it, she places another one. For the sake of some continuity, I assumed all these images originated in the same city, but they could just as easily only share a day or an event or a central theme. Readers have no anchor. The stanza doesn’t follow the violin boy. He visits at the end and leaves right after. The stanza doesn’t perch us on an eagle, viewing it all from a distance. Instead, readers are practically drowning in the city’s blood. Readers aren’t told for a second where to look or what to look for. Rukeyser simply places another photograph. However, instead of revealing ramble soup, unpacking each image shows the theme as it forms in each reader’s mind. Readers may have no anchor, but they have the ocean. They can still feel the pulsing waves below the deck, catch their power, and move from there. This passage could be interpreted as the fear and chaos created when a city is bombed. This passage is concerned fully with the city’s citizens. Without a warning or a plan, everyone is taking what measures they can come up with. People run to the river. People gather their belongings, even if it’s just a coat. People try to make some merry out of the nightmare. The boy and his fiddle are described as “protesting,” perhaps that protest is a refusal to be afraid. Montage is formed from a longer uninterrupted film strip being cut up into smaller pieces that are then strung together. Perhaps these montages were created by fleshing out whole scenes and then cutting them down to a summary or a close examination of a few key segments. Therefore, montage works mainly by implications and within an unexplained greater context.
Part of the puzzle in Rukeyser’s Elegies is distinguishing what the historical context of each elegy is and in what unique way she is framing that context. Rather than simply borrowing from how people were discussing her times, she came at it from as new of an angle as she felt was useful. One of the ways she accomplished that new angle was by estranging certain nouns from their conventional use and re-using them in her own related but idiosyncratic context. For example in the fifth elegy “A Turning Wind,” Rukeyser writes,
following charts of moving constellations. Charts of country of all visions, imperishable stars of our dreams : process, which having neither sorrow nor joy remains as promise, the embryo in the fire. (31)
As a noun, “chart” refers to a “sheet of information in the form of a table, graph, or diagram,” (Google). A “constellation” is a “group of stars in a recognizable pattern,” and a “vision” is either being able to see or to “think about or plan the future,” (Google). But within the context of this passage, how do those definitions help? Their conventional usages leave these nouns as static objects. Within the passage, the constellations are not just recognizable patterns, they’re moving. The other chart is “of country of all visions”, not simply the ability to see. So I asked myself, in what context would someone need living star charts and access to an array of predictions? Like a lot of questions Elegies raises, the answer lies in the historical present of the 1940s. During the 1940s, black southern Americans were mass migrating to the north, an event known as “The Second Great Migration.” The First Great Migration started in 1916 and surged until the 1970s as a response to the era of Jim Crow legislation following Reconstruction. Black Americans were finally given some legal rights during Reconstruction, but white Americans pushed back as violently as they could. This cruel push back resulted in the majority of black Americans moving up north, where there was less overt racism, hoping to get a fresh start and a stable life. “A Turning Wind” mourns the difficulty of the travel and of attempting to plant roots in a less explicitly racist part of a fundamentally racist country. This passage cited above uses charts to refer to specifically the kind of information people had to draw on to accomplish their journey. They had to gather as much advice as they could to avoid sun-down towns and the rebranded slave-patrol, aka the police. They had to rely on the stars to guide their grueling path. All that time and effort and pain was for the sake of the “imperishable stars of [their] dreams.” While the stars are aspirational, they act as a motivator, solely for the freedom they represent, for example the north star. Furthermore, the process itself is so long and arduous that it produces “neither sorrow nor joy,” only dogged persistence to preserve the “promise” of a better fairer life for themselves and especially their children. Their children who, if left in the south, might have been “embryo[s] in the fire.” Without knowing about America’s Great Migration, this passage might come off as garbled. Unprepared readers can parse only bits and pieces, which leads to a swiss-cheesed view of the subject. However, with knowledge of that context, the work and its nouns represent their subject from its rich insides, its struggles, beliefs, and hopes. That inside angle invoked so fully in “A Turning Wind” would have been, and still is, ignored by the majority of white Americans, who prefer to think of the travelers as parasitic. Rukeyser’s angle on black migrants considers their humanity not only in enduring cruelty, but as dreamers as well. In this elegy, they are people who are capable of the one divine human trait, the ability to hope, to envision a better future, and to act upon both, which reflects precisely who those migrants were then, and who migrants are today. They are people looking for a better home, for themselves and mostly for their children.
Traditional elegies focus on mourning. They accept loss by giving it space on the page. Rukeyser’s work mourns open wounds as they’re being made. She doesn’t simply cry out bitterly. She insists on giving her gruesome present not just a gravestone but a siren. Along with imitating her techniques, I hope to imitate the wounded center of her elegies. We live in a present that’s being eviscerated at all angles with aging knives, knives Rukeyser would have recognized. Rather than just mourn, to only hold pain, I hope to reveal the knives too and a spirit that’s willing to fight back.
Trash bags, blood, and rust seal my windowsill. I forget exactly why but beyond the glass, there's eyes, green, and metal, and blue, and red eyes, searching for a reason to send hands. I've cleaned my bathroom three times now. Rust, yellow stains, some melting plastic. Colors collect on my rags and they never wash out. I live alone. I really didn't always.
Orange hands grip pens When someone asks if his orange head could weep for the nurses, his orange eyes flick left. He's handing out pens. There's blood in his teeth. I'm hide with eyes, daring to stare into the glass again. Trucks with human husks hum. Cages sprayed with rash inducing poison that settles on brown skin (guaranteed™) sit. Children asking about what a "judge" is a few hours before facing trial, alone. Rainbows of tents bled for ransom. Storms of maskless "model citizens" demanding their king be king. Black body after black body smeared on the ground. My mother keeps asking when I'm going to talk to her. Oh, but didn't she tell me? "The economy needs air before anyone else."
Orange smug, orange hands folded. Orange puppeteers pass another law. He pulls the spotlight back to his orange mouth asking human ears to drink bleach. He's gold with teeth.
I'm hide with eyes. I have one question. Did they burn Eden too? When they stripped Eve, when they crowned Adam, did they burn Eden too? The ashes must have been worth so much.
Moon 1, They shuttered us. Moon 2, I greeted and cleaned. Moon 3, They sent us back. Moon 4, They raised the limit until everyone swore they'd quit. Moon 5, They took our carts. They left the fridge, and the desk. Moon 6, We retrained everyone. Moon 7, We trained everyone they sent in. Moon 8, 192 orders in a day, every day. Moon 9, 150 orders. The line snakes the store and Moon 10, you can only beg for so long.
Moon 1, homeschool, again. Moon 2, spring with the shutters on. Moon 3, I'm sleeping in my summer dresses. Moon 4, I'm parallel parking in the movie lot soon to be a walmart, something that will last. Moon 5, Dad's buying burgers. Moon 6, Dave made my lemon dress. Moon 7, Dad's buying more burgers. I missed a meeting. Moon 8, Memoirs, poems, old American tomes, and psych textbooks. Moon 9, Memoirs, poems, old American tomes, and psych textbooks. Moon 10, You can only beg for so long.
Moon 1, 41,446 died. Moon 2, 192,301 died. Moon 3, 134,972 died. Moon 4, 133,785 died. Moon 5, 160,765 died. Moon 6, 175,519 died. Moon 7, 164,002 died. Moon 8, 181,193 died. Moon 9, 272,338 died. Moon 10, You can only beg for so long.
Moon 1, I'm arrogant. Moon 2, I'm afraid of air. Moon 3, I'm sorry. Moon 4, How can I give this time to you? Moon 5, I can't remember my face. Moon 6, How can I possibly mourn you? Moon 7, My headphones are my ears. Moon 8, I'm sorry I spent it like that. Moon 9, This box is my hide and this glass is my eyes. Moon 10, You can only beg for so long.
Shouldn't you be crying? Shouldn't you be screaming? I swear I can hear you anyway. I swear I know where the liquid on your skin came from. I only closed my eyes. I didn't stumble in here. I didn't walk here. Yet here I am, swimming, same as you. I can't place this place. I can't feel its edges, its defining features. I'm swimming, same as you. There should be a ledge, maybe. Something to grip, maybe. Maybe then, we'll remember how we got here. Maybe then, we'll find a way to stay out. Stay out. Stay in a day where you don't need to remember this. I'll work to seal it, until the work grinds my fingers down.
Google. “Chart Definition.”
Google. “Constellation Definition.”
Google. “Vision Definition.”
Our World Data. “Daily New Confirmed Covid-19 Deaths.”
https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus-data-explorer?zoomToSelection=true&time=2020-03-01..2020-03-31&country=~OWID_WRL®ion=World&deathsMetric=true&interval=daily&hideControls=true&smoothing=0&pickerMetric=location&pickerSort=asc Accessed 4 Dec. 2020.
Rukeyser, Muriel. Elegies. New Directions. 1949.
To cite this creative response in MLA, 8th edition: Ansorge, Susanna. “Rat Elegy”–A Creative Response to Rukeyser’s Elegies. http://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/2022/01/17/susanna-ansorge-rat-elegy–a-creative-response-to-rukeysers-elegies/