Muriel Rukeyser’s 1968 collection, The Speed of Darkness, begins with four dozen short poems, and concludes with several longer poems, of which “The Outer Banks” is the first. (It is followed by “Akiba,” “Käthe Kollwitz,” and the title poem, “The Speed of Darkness.”) “The Outer Banks” consists of 183 lines of free verse, gathered in twelve numbered sections which vary in length from a single line (section #3), to the 27 lines of section #9, the longest. In general, sections 9-12 are longer, and fuller, than the first eight sections of the poem.

The poem describes, celebrates, and meditates upon aspects of the Outer Banks, a 200-mile-long string of narrow barrier islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina. The Outer Banks are notable for their pleasant climate, open sandy beaches, outstanding recreational opportunities, and seasonal hurricanes. The region has a colorful history, featuring pirates, shipwrecks, the mysteriously lost Roanoke colony, and the first powered air flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903. Rukeyser’s poem embraces all of these geographical features and historical episodes.

Rough water at the Outer Banks by Walter Hogan

Rough Water at the Outer Banks by Walter Hogan

The reader of Rukeyser’s “The Outer Banks” is immediately struck by its splendid description of the geography and climate of that region. If one attends primarily to the poet’s vivid descriptions of the natural environment — while skimming over her references to humans, their artifacts, and their concerns — it is quite possible to enjoy the poem as an immersive experience in the sensual qualities of the sunbaked, wind and wave swept beaches. Rukeyser’s lyrical appreciation of the ruggedly beautiful setting is not unlike the evocations of the seacoast of his native Chile by Rukeyser’s contemporary, Pablo Neruda. And just as Neruda’s gift for lyrical verse is often harnessed to his Marxist political philosophy, so, too, are the poems of Muriel Rukeyser reliably concerned with social justice. It is the richly detailed natural setting of “The Outer Banks” that is untypical of Rukeyser’s verse.

Rukeyser’s “The Outer Banks” may seem something of an anomaly as a “nature” poem among poems with more direct things to say about political and social issues as well as about individual artists whose progressive attitudes have reshaped art and helped to reshape social and political attitudes. But “The Outer Banks” is not just a “nature” poem. In its treatment of the human history of the region and in its sense of the region as a margin where the seemingly impossible becomes possible, the poem touches on many of the themes common to the other poems in The Speed of Darkness and in Rukeyser’s whole body of work.1

This observation by Martin Kich is from his 2005 essay in North Carolina Literary Review, which celebrates the Outer Banks by reprinting, with commentary, two poems devoted to the region, Rukeyser’s and one by W.D. Ehrhart. The poems are attractively presented, with photos, other graphic design enhancements, and sidebar commentary by Kich, including the quote above.2

Rukeyser’s poem is packed with vivid figures of speech. Like the poems of Octavio Paz, some of which Rukeyser translated, and those of Pablo Neruda, “The Outer Banks” includes many romantically extravagant images. Some are synesthetic, as in the line, “Sea-light flame on my voice” mixing visual, thermal, and auditory senses. Some are zoomorphic, e.g., “Sea has flown over us” treating the ocean as a bird. There are numerous anthropomorphisms, attributing human abilities to something inanimate: “Speak to it, says the light;” “And the sea, speaking across its lives;” “Voices of the sea;” and “And the sea, speaking across its lives.”

The sound imagery in this poem is unusual. There are perhaps a dozen references to auditory phenomena, but most of them are imagined, rather than being literally apprehended by the narrator, in the poem’s present tense. The words “speechless” and “speechlessness” occur several times. There is repeated concern for “lost voices,” and most references to human speech are set in opposition to the notion of silence or “speechlessness” — as if speaking were a difficult and exceptional undertaking. So, on these lovely, largely unpopulated beaches, where other poets might describe the cries of gulls or the crashing surf, Rukeyser is instead preoccupied with imagined human voices, mainly from the past, such as the voice of Wilbur Wright or those of civil rights protestors. When the poet does mention a natural sound, it is a metaphor for human speech: “bird-voiced discoverers.” As noted earlier, the sea is repeatedly described as “speaking,” but always in an abstract sense; the literal pounding of waves upon the shore is never described. This is, perhaps, one of Rukeyser’s departures from the usual devices of “nature poets,” who would typically describe the natural sounds of the place before, or while associating human concepts with those sounds.

There is no olfactory description in the poem, and but a single indirect reference to taste, “the ballad and original sweet grape / dark on the vines near Hatteras.” The very few evocations of the sense of touch are indirect, as here:

I walk out into the shoal water
and throw my leg over the wall of the boat

We are not told if the water is cold, or if the poet is barefoot and feels the sandy bottom with her toes, nor if the sea breeze caresses her face and arms. In short, the necessity of touch can be inferred, but is not described.

Much attention is paid to the interplay of sand and ocean. Earth is normally the most solid, heavy, and stable of the classical four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. However, the Outer Banks are notorious for their shifting sands and their precarious existence at the margin of the deep ocean. Daily tides and wind-driven ocean surges continuously reshape the slender barrier islands. Rukeyser observes that not only does water move ceaselessly over sand, but each of those elements also moves upon itself: avalanche-like, surface water moves over deeper waters, and surface sand moves upon deeper layers of sand.

Sea comes toward me across the sea.

The sand moves over the sand in waves

Flood over ocean, avalanche on the flat beach. Pouring.

The Banks are grounded not on solid earth, but upon a fluid medium — grains of sand – which also forms the floor of the surrounding seabed. Sand and water behave very much alike: “Sands have washed, sea has flown over us.” A man can be “walking toward me across the water,” just as he might walk on sand.

Rukeyser observes that the winds, clouds, and sunlight of the Banks add dynamism to what initially appears to be a monotonous landscape when she speaks of “sands from which colors and light pass” and of “the light moving across the sea.” The constant interplay of these elements is made possible by the extreme openness of the landscape. In the final two sections of the poem, openness is repeatedly stressed:

They are in me, in my speechless
life of barrier beach
As it lies open
to the night, out there.

There is no out there.
All is open.
Open water. Open I.

On the edge of the moment that is now the center
From the open sea.

To Martin Kich’s observation that the Outer Banks are “a margin where the seemingly impossible becomes possible,”3 we might add that, to Rukeyser, the spectacular openness of the barrier islands seems to suggest the necessity of openness to enable human social progress. Just as sand, sunlight, wind, and waves interpenetrate one another in marvelous and unexpected ways on the Banks, so can openness to variability and change be a liberating experience for humans.

Geographically, The Banks are not merely at the margin of the sea, they’re some miles off the mainland, a thin arc of sandspits and barrier islands rising from the sea, beyond Currituck Sound, Albemarle Sound, and Pamlico Sound. Thus precariously placed, they are far more open, on all sides, than the coastal margin of the mainland. It was here, on this improbable strip of land, that man first took flight; and here that Rukeyser found inspiration for one of her most effective, albeit underappreciated poems. Characteristically, Rukeyser stressed the social history (Native Americans, European exploration, slavery) and the history of technology (shipwrecks, airplane flight) of the region, weaving those human concerns into her verse. But, exceptionally among her longer poems, here the poet also immersed herself in details of the natural landscape as fully as would any “nature poet.” Rukeyser’s deep engagement with the physical geography of the Banks enabled her to craft a work in which the human and the natural are envisioned in a rare equilibrium, each illuminating the other.

  1. Martin Kich, “’The Outer Banks:’ Poems of Muriel Rukeyser and W.D. Ehrhart.” NCLR: North Carolina Literary Review (2005): 31-37.
  2. Aside from Kich’s article, there is little published commentary on the poem. Louise Kertesz briefly discusses “The Outer Banks” in The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State, 1980. 315-17), while Catherine Gander, in her recent monograph, Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: the Poetics of Connection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), does not reference the poem at all. The poem receives only two glancing references in Kaufman and Herzog’s Gedenkschrift-like collection of tributes to Rukeyser, How shall we tell each other of the poet?: The life and writing of Muriel Rukeyser (New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1999). The poet herself composed some concise notes on “The Outer Banks,” which can be found in the Annotations section of The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), p. 624.
  3. Kich, p. 32.