By Elisabeth Däumer, Eastern Michigan University
Published 2012/05/10

Rukeyser composed this five-part poem over the span of four years (1958-1962) in response to a fire at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, which destroyed two of Monet’s Waterlily paintings, one of them an 18-foot long panel attached to the wall in the second-floor gallery. “As the blaze spread, the wall caught on fire, and the painting was almost completely consumed” (Life Magazine 1958, p. 56).

Monet’s 18-foot long Waterlily Painting destroyed at the Museum of Modern Art on April 15, 1958

Beloved by New Yorkers, the paintings had been acquired just three years prior, during the Monet revival that seized Europe and the United States, and that inaugurated a radical revaluation of the painter’s late work previously rejected as formless and passé. Now these same paintings, among them the waterlilies that the aging Monet had painted, again and again, over the last three decades of his life, were celebrated for the freedom of their brushstroke and a luminescent openness credited with shaping the new way of “seeing” introduced by Abstract Expressionists.1

Partial View of Monet’s destroyed Waterlily Painting

Both the acquisition of the paintings and their destruction, which provoked an outpouring of sympathy from people across the nation, was captured in two issues of Life Magazine.2 As an artist, New Yorker, and friend of a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Richard Griffith, Rukeyser was deeply attuned to the poignant story of the paintings and their loss.3

In the paintings’ dissolution of fixed forms, their attention to the changing movement of water and the play of color and light that constitutes their endless appeal, Rukeyser found a pictorial analogue to her own poetic search for a “language of water,” undergirded by a relational vision in which everything is connected in fluid, sometimes mysterious, ways.4 “Due to their openness,” as art critic Sagner-Düchtung explains, “Monet’s late paintings defined a new relationship” (59) both between nature and self and between viewer and work. In this new way of seeing, inspired by Monet’s effort to “represent the various phenomena of reality in their close interweaving with unknown reality” (29), clear demarcations between nature and self as much as between viewer and work are dissolved; the increasingly abstract and unfinished style of Monet’s late waterlily paintings creates an impression both of infinite openness and luminous unity between water, sky, flowers–a unity into which the viewer herself, deprived of the firm anchor of a stable perspective, is compelled to partake. Grasping for ways of describing the effect of Monet’s late impressionistic paintings, contemporary critics of his late work turned to Far Eastern Religions “in order to express forms of consciousness for which [they] could not find other words” (Monet and Japan 60).5 Although “Monet was no Buddhist,” art critics Virginia Sape and David Bromfield remind us, “he had been inspired by Japanese painting, whose very meaning lay in breaking down the boundaries between the self and nature” (60). That Rukeyser was deeply responsive to the painting’s implicit Bhuddist consciousness is apparent in her poem’s association of the waterlily with the lotus, the sacred flower of Buddhism, which in part of four of “Waterlily Fire” epitomizes not only enlightenment, but a dialogic ethics rooted in the non-coercive gift of language: “I speak to you . You speak to me.”6

Rukeyser’s poem brings her multiple identifications with Monet’s waterlily panels into play, immediately, when she depicts the destruction of the paintings as a life-altering event with inescapable ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual meanings: —“Noontime of my one hour”—through which “the moment walks” (CP 405-6). In addition, by relating the ravaging force of fire with the fragile beauty of the waterlily and its Asian counterpart, the lotus, the title’s surreal image of burning waterlilies is charged with the disturbing echoes of two recent historic traumas: the searing fire of the atom bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, designed to kill a people, whom President Truman, defending the atomic attack, dismissed as “savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic”; and, if more obliquely, the Shoah, the total fire that almost annihilated the Jewish people.7 In subsequent sections of the poem, the resonance of its central paradox, fusing beauty and destruction, East and West, nature and technology, women and men, extends to the terrifying specter of global nuclear disaster and the war in Vietnam.

Significantly, in Rukeyser’s panoramic poem, the eruptive fire at the museum serves as catalyst for a poetic meditation in extremis, less on the destructive violence of war than on the fragility of human boundaries, the primacy of relation, and on Rukeyser’s responsibilities as woman, poet, and activist. The poem’s movement from local event to global awareness, from female solidarity to an all encompassing humanism, and from a childhood steeped in the antagonistic history of Manhattan to an anti-nuclear protest, is accentuated by refrains of ever expanding consciousness, beginning with “whatever can come to a wall can come to this wall” in part one (CP 406), to “Whatever can come to a woman can come to me,” in part five (409); this feminist insight into our shared vulnerability as women leads to the speaker’s more expansive humanist recognition of universal relatedness, “Whatever can happen to anyone, can happen to me” (410): We are related passively, through our shared (if often denied) vulnerability to disaster and violation, but also actively, when in our willingness to embrace this recognition, we engage with each other in dialogue and communal action.

Despite her proverbial faith in language, Rukeyser never underestimated the tremendous effort required to fulfill its communicative potential, its promise of truth. “Speech between people,” as one of her early poems suggests, is an “effort,” and the fear of openness and self-revelation as strong as the longing for intimacy (CP 9). Nor does the consciousness of our existential interrelatedness facilitate the task of communicating across entrenched social and cultural divisions, whose long histories include the atrocities of racism and genocide. Thus in “Waterlily Fire,” Rukeyser’s explicit invocation of dialogue—“I speak to you. You speak to me. Is that fragile?”—becomes the subject of reflective inquiry (of a koan or puzzle) rather than solely a fact to be proclaimed, suggesting a sharpened awareness of the tenuousness of language and its stunted role in the wake of Cold War insistence on a starkly binary vision of human coexistence, according to which the demonized “other” can only be held in check by nuclear arms and compulsively erected barriers, both physical and mental.

1 See Michael Leja’s “The Monet Revival and New York School Abstraction” in Monet in the 20th Century, by Paul Hayes Tucker with George T.M. Shackelford and MaryAnne Stevens (London : Royal Academy of Arts; Boston: Museum of Fine Arts; New Haven: Published in association with Yale University Press, 1998), pp.98-108.2
2 “Old Master’s Modern Heirs,” Life December 2, 1957, pp. 94-99; “Fiery Peril in a Showcase of Modern Art, Life April 28, 1958, 53-56.
3 On the day of the fire, Rukeyser, as she recalls in the extensive footnote to “Waterlily Fire,” “was coming to keep an appointment with my friend the Curator of the Museum’s Film Library, Richard Griffith, to whom this poem is dedicated” (CP 621).
4 For a discussion of Rukeyser’s language of water see Trudi Witonsky’s essay “’A Language of Water’: Back and Forth with Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser” Women’s Studies 37 (2008): 337-366.
5 “A New and Strange Beauty. Monet and Japanese Art,” in Monet and Japan. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, ACT 2601, 2001, pp. 1-63.
6 Collected Poems of Rukeyser, ed. Janet Kaufman and Anne Herzog (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), p. 409. All further references to Rukeyser’s poetry will be marked in the text as CP.
7 Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, “1945, August 6, 10:45 a.m. The atom bomb.” A New Literary History of America, ed. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollers (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 2009), p. 781.