Throat Of These Hours: Muriel Rukeyser, Verifiable & Unverifiable

THEN

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 be still making poems for you
out of silence;
silence will be falling into that silence,
it is building music.

‘Why aren’t you talking with people who knew Muriel Rukeyser?’ a poet friend asks me. I explain. As a history graduate, an oral historian, a librarian, a lawyer and documentary maker of course I’m tempted to interview all of you who have stories to tell and to get myself to those Muriel Rukeyser files in the Library of Congress. Essays and poems about and for her, like those collected in How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?, inform and enrich my understanding. But I’m convinced that to place her in Throat of These Hours (for stage and for radio) it is crucial that I focus on Muriel Rukeyser’s own words. Fifteen months ago, a nourishing conversation with her generous son Bill Rukeyser encouraged me to risk this approach. Later, I found THEN. Its promises and its reference to building across silence gave me further confidence.

It’s always rewarding to go from Muriel Rukeyser’s poems to her prose (The Life of Poetry, The Orgy, Savage Coast, some essays). And to go back again, and see something that I hadn’t noticed earlier or better understand something I’ve read before. But it’s complicated. And I get nervous.  What if I miss something fundamental about Muriel Rukeyser? What if I place her life and work in a context she’d hate?  So from time to time I go back to what other people have written about her. And when I do, I find Muriel Rukeyser ‘waiting’ somewhere unexpected, exactly when I need her,  providing some of the surprises and pleasures I mentioned in the last post.

Today, as I reflect on my research, it’s a section from her essay The Education of a Poet. Describing two kinds of poems, it reaches me for a second time in Catherine Gander’s new book Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary; The Poetics of Connection:

…the poems of unverifiable facts, based in dreams, in sex, in everything that can be given to other people only through the skill and strength by which it is given; and the other kind being the document, the poem that rests on material evidence. (“The Education of a Poet” (1976), in Sternberg, The Writer on Her Work, p. 226)

I laughed with delight when I read this. Yes! This explains how it works. It’s obvious really. To build Muriel Rukeyser’s presence in Throat of These Hours I use the unverifiable, which I gather from the skill and strength of her writing; and the verifiable that comes from elsewhere. And do the best I can with each of them.

One example of the unverifiable comes from The Speed of Darkness when Muriel Rukeyser speaks across a generation directly to me (yes, me!) and to every reader who is a poet (and from The Life of Poetry we know how inclusive her ideas about ‘poet’ are):

…thinking of the poet
yet unborn in this dark
who will be the throat of these hours.
No. Of those hours.
Who will speak these days,
if not I,
if not you?

If I trust the unverifiable fact that Muriel Rukeyser is speaking to me, the skill and strength of Muriel Rukeyser’s lines compel me to risk entering an intimate yet public conversation, and to risk making errors of interpretation. Throat of These Hours is a tiny participation, a longer version of a tweet or a Facebook post that may or may not reach others. But because Muriel Rukeyser asks me  “Who will speak these days/if not I, if not you?” I’m doing everything I can to speak these twenty-first century days as they affect some women artists’ lives and work; and the pollution of water and breast milk. And – with Christine White –  to transmit her question directly to theatre and radio audiences.

Other unverifiable facts come from THEN, amplified for me by Chris’ composition (she performs her work-in-progress in the clip below). When I re-read, or hear sung, the promises in THEN: “I will still love you, I will wait in these poems… I am still listening to you… I will still be making poems for you/out of silence”, the unverifiable facts that reach me are (again) that when Muriel Rukeyser wrote ‘you’ she spoke to every reader; and that she would support what I’m doing, even if my New Zealand eyes and ears and heart sometimes misunderstand hers. Her promises reassure me and strengthen my resolve.

I need this reassurance, as a woman writer and cultural activist who has spent many years searching among fragments and silences for a personal and cultural matrilineage. When I was born, my mother told me, she turned her face to the wall. She didn’t want another child. She was an ‘absent’ mother throughout my early childhood; and we found each other ‘difficult’ until the last ten days of her life, when I accompanied her to her death. (My own mother-lack meant that I in turn was often an absent mother for my three young sons; remedying this later on has been challenging for us all.) And within the wider culture where I work, default reference to the predominant global literary and artistic patrilineage endures, even though New Zealand women writers now achieve equally with men (thanks in part to consistent advocacy from influential writers who are men, especially poet Bill Manhire, director until recently of the International Institute of Modern Letters). But since I found THEN, about a year ago, its handful of words gives me, at last, exactly what I need – a reliable connection to a matrilineage that is strong and complex and ‘normal’. If I falter as I write Throat of These Hours, I re-read THEN or listen to Chris singing it. Renew the connection. And, encouraged, start again.

I’ve also found that I sometimes need confirmation when a single verifiable fact seems significant for me or for my characters. That’s when I most want to investigate among those who knew Muriel Rukeyser, or among her unpublished documents. I’ve wondered for example about the parameters of Muriel Rukeyser’s support for other women writers, because the need for women writers to support one another is a theme in Throat of These Hours. I read (in “On Muriel Rukeyser” in How Shall We tell Each Other of The Poet? p. 293) that Denise Levertov learned of her election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters from her friend Muriel, in their final telephone call. She later realised that Muriel had worked on her behalf for this election and for Grace Paley’s election. Aha, I thought, she advocated for other women writers. But did she advocate only for friends? How far did she go?

In her beautiful essay “And Everything a Witness of The Buried Life” (How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? pp. 6-7) Jane Cooper refers to another (rethought?) version of Muriel Rukeyser’s statement about the two kinds of poetry, from the Preface to The Collected Poems (1978):

Here are…two kinds of reaching in poetry, one based on the document, the evidence itself; the other kind informed by the unverifiable fact, as in sex, dream, the parts of life in which we dive deep and sometimes–with strength of expression and skill and luck–reach that place where things are shared and we all recognise the secrets.

When I re-read this halfway through writing this post (it’s taken a few weeks on and off) I had no memory of having read it before. And again I laughed with delight and recognition. Yes! For sure there’s an element of luck involved in research when we dive deep and sometimes… reach that place where things are shared. And sometimes that luck involves documentary evidence. And through luck I learned more about Muriel Rukesyer’s support of other women writers.

Wanting to sit with Muriel’s voice for a while, in effect to visit her as a friend and witness, I spent a day listening to recordings on her page at Penn University’s Penn Sound site. It was a day of pleasure, with an extended Lee Anderson interview and Muriel’s readings of her poems, including one mislabelled The Speed of Darkness – another magnificent poem, one I’ve never read or heard before, about DNA. A joy to hear her speak, laugh, joke a little about ‘Tantrum Buddhism’.

In the Lee Anderson interview, Muriel Rukeyser twice insists on having her say about women poets. In the first statement she speaks about the difficulty for women associated with the Beat Group. Muriel Rukeyser was familiar with how the group treated these women and the effect of this on the women. And she was determined to record what she knew.

There’s one thing that struck me very much in San Francisco that I haven’t heard talked about and that is the difficulty in the Beat Group, the difficulty for women, the difficulty in their attitude toward women too and toward anything that women might mean to them. It seems to me that in what they are doing now there is very little possibility of commitment of any kind including commitment to women, possible commitment for women and that this has been very painful, an agony for the women connected to the group.

So I learned that Muriel Rukeyser was staunch in her support of women writers. She would seize an opportunity within a general conversation to speak out about their (our) experience within a well-known group of predominantly male writers. She would use strong language as she did so.

In another segment, Lee Anderson asks:

…Aside from Rexroth, who has disowned his own followers, the Beat Generation, besides Robert Duncan, Ferlinghetti and Levertov, which of the poets do you think show most promise in the San Francisco area?

Muriel Rukeyser responds:

I think two people you haven’t named are Josephine Miles [the interviewer laughs and says “She’s not…” and Muriel speaks firmly over his – repeated – objection] and Mary Woods and these are not in that group at all, these are people who were in San Francisco and Berkeley before the Beat Generation came up or came in because a lot of them are of course refugees from New York…

I’ve often seen the little smiles and heard the little laughs that some influential men give when thoughtful women present their views of what matters in the literary and arts worlds. I’ve heard the interruptions and interjections that accompany those little smiles and laughs. These behaviours have been a constant in my life over many years. To hear Muriel Rukeyser speak in similar circumstances touched me deeply. Yay. As her assertive voice moves across Lee Anderson’s interjection, it further verifies that Muriel Rukeyser extended her personal support for Grace Paley and Denise Levertov to other women writers. And that when she did this she met, at least once, with the same kind of opposition that exists in the twenty-first century. These recorded statements also – somehow – support the unverifiable fact that she speaks to me and to others like me in her poems and would understand and care about my characters’ dilemmas. She shared aspects of their (our) experience.

Another example refers to the domestic, so often a complex issue for women artists. And certainly so for my characters. And for me. I don’t iron much. But Thursday afternoons I walk up the hill behind my place, to visit a friend born in the same decade as Muriel Rukeyser, a selection of reading in my back pack for any downtime when my friend naps and there are no domestic tasks waiting for me. The other week, as I iron my friend’s bed sheets – very soothing after my morning’s work on the Throat of These Hours radio script – I wonder, as I do from time to time, about Muriel Rukeyser’s domestic life. How did she manage all that she did and was? I imagine that she enjoyed eating. But did she like to cook? Did she like to create an orderly household? Did she iron? Could I ask Bill Rukesyer about this? Do I need to? Then, when I finish the ironing, I open my bag and take out Kate Daniels’ “Searching/Not Searching: Writing the Biography of Muriel Rukeyser” (Poetry East 16-17, Spring/Summer 1985, pp. 70-93).

The essay engages me deeply, on a winter afternoon high above Wellington Harbour. So much to think about. And there (on pp. 74-75) waits an immediate partial answer to my questions.

I know I like, in addition to her stoicism, her inconsistency, the way neatness in all things evaded her. I like the corroboration of my intuitive guesses about this when I find an old friend saying that Muriel did not know how to fold her clothes, that the neat and unwrinkled folding of clothes mystified her. I love this: that she did not reject the importance of unwrinkled clothing but approached it as a mystery.

Another wonderful surprise. And I smile at ‘intuitive guesses’, ‘corroboration’. I like these terms that relate to the unverifiable. And then, on the next page, Kate Daniels writes:

[Muriel Rukeyser chose] to protect her ability to work, to protect the circumstances in which it flourished… she would not choose between motherhood and writing poems.

These are choices that Tina my protagonist has to consider, too. I’m relieved to have this confirmation that Muriel Rukeyser would understand how hard it can be for women artists to make these choices and deeply grateful to have this information from Kate Daniels, who’s researched the documents.

Through this kind of luck, I continue to build Muriel Rukeyser’s presence in Throat of These Hours and hope that in small ways I will reach “that place where things are shared and we all recognise the secrets”. And tomorrow Chris White, Lorae Parry and Madeline McNamara come to read the second draft of Throat of These Hours as a radio play.

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