Elisabeth Däumer’s post Context for Waterlily Fire rightly points out the theme of interrelatedness that runs through the Living Archive’s featured poem this month. When I first read “Waterlily Fire,” I was struck even more by the idea of impermanence and change, which is the actual bridge (to use Rukeyser’s image) that might be relating everything together in this poem. As I wrote in the post Synecdoche, West Virginia, Rukeyser wants her readers to see a kinship between localized disasters, whether it’s the Spanish Civil War or an outbreak of silicosis, and various other crises at home and around the globe. In relating the loss of Monet paintings to an urban upbringing, feminist themes, and anti-war rallies, “Waterlily Fire” is a poem that opens at the end (like a flower, sure) and invites readers to relate the poem’s content to current events and to their own personal struggles. The last line, “I speak to you You speak to me” invites us to engage, keeping the poem alive and mutable, like the “city of change,” rather than monolithic in its genius observations. This is generosity on the part of the author and shows a modernist interest in reader interpretation and a distrust of rigid, artist-imposed meaning.
I have not yet taught “Waterlily Fire” but am thinking of working it in this year. Likely, my creative prompt would ask my class to “speak back” to this poem, to consider the themes of interrelatedness and ephemerality, and to append a sixth section to this work. This poem invokes the idea “Whatever can happen to ________ can happen to ________” four times; I would present students with this formula and ask them to adapt it to their vignette. It’s difficult to read section two, especially as an American, and not think of 9/11: “Whatever can come to a city can come to this city,” and “Towers falling. A dream of towers.” But perhaps students would connect our recent economic hardships to those of the past (consider Rukeyser’s equally-prophetic stock market crash poem “Paper Anniversary”) or to what other countries are experiencing, especially in Europe. Many of my students have recently left home and high school, so perhaps they would connect the end of that era of their lives with other losses and culminations. I would probably write about Calvin and Hobbes or the last episode of Seinfeld… but that’s just me.