keep the literary scholars out
and stick to the original writing

                                --Charles Simic

                                  

So was headed the introduction to the Ploughshares anthology American Poetry Now, published in 2007. There’s that familiar sniff of dismissal of the literary scholar’s labors. After all, it’s “the original writing” that readers come for.

But the fact is that in recent years, literary scholars dedicatedly mining archives have made discoveries of immense relevance to women poets’ published “original writing,” as well as brought to light much of their original writing we had no idea existed.

Rowena Kennedy-Epstein’s Unfinished Spirit, Muriel Rukeyser’s Twentieth Century, is itself a work of bold originality and personal, passionate scholarship. It’s fitting that Rukeyser’s work modeled those qualities when critics were dismissing them as inappropriate, even offensive in a woman writer.  In her acknowledgments, Kennedy-Epstein professes the deep connection she has forged with her subject: “Writing about Rukeyser has helped me think through our political, humanitarian, and environmental crises and to remain, as she models, a ‘vulgar optimist.’”

Kennedy-Epstein offers readers a cache of Rukeyser’s original writing, long buried in several archives as a result of the gendered, political, and aesthetic dismissals and rejections of Cold War publishing. Knowledge of those unfinished manuscripts and abandoned projects –and the reasons therefor–is essential to understanding the work of a major poet of the last century, whose influence on generations of feminist and activist poets is continually acknowledged.

Rukeyser’s archival writing also provides an invaluable perspective on our times and a guide to moving forward (particularly in our era of revived book banning) with her characteristic belief in possibility, in process and potential. Her life and work are an example as we try to keep our increasingly distracted lives from being “shredded,” one focus from another. Her entire oeuvre is of a piece, based on the work of the imagination to hold in awareness our never-ending wars and their refugees; “the Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,” who continue to pave the way in art, science, politics, exploration; the indigenous ways of seeing and living; the despised and forgotten among us; and, in Kennedy-Epstein’s words, “a radical future” where bodies – especially women’s bodies —  “can exceed their boundaries and desire whoever they want.”

***

Kennedy-Epstein’s description of finding the manuscript of Savage Coast, Rukeyser’s account of witnessing the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war just as she arrived in Spain, sets the tone of the book – that of excited discovery as the fruit of meticulous, personally engaged archival search. Rukeyser’s story introduces Otto Boch, the antifascist German athlete she fell in love with, who was to become a powerful, recurrent symbol in her work of the fight for freedom and against all forms of tyranny.

Kennedy-Epstein frankly describes her shock at never having heard of Rukeyser, despite moving to Barcelona “to study the legacy of the Spanish Civil War on contemporary anarchist movements.” Her prose bristles with contained outrage: “she was in no canon that I ever encountered in classrooms, though I was taught Orwell and Hemingway and Auden.” In the book’s last fiery passages, she’s not afraid to characterize as “infuriating” the attitudes that for years kept Rukeyser’s work invisible.

But she exults that with the passage of time and the loosening of gendered strongholds, “a woman would encounter another woman’s work and have the authority to deem it valuable.”  That took almost three quarters of a century, but as Kennedy-Epstein walked into Rukeyser’s archive and found the manuscript of Savage Coast, she thought “yes, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for.”

The archives reveal that Rukeyser’s manuscript was rejected by a reviewer (ironically, her mentor), because he just didn’t get it, even though Rukeyser’s “text defies and remakes the artistic, political, and gendered categories of twentieth-century modernism.”  Kennedy-Epstein’s account treats us to the thrilling somatic experience of a twenty-first century literary scholar discovering in a box marked Misc. a manuscript that “made my hands clammy as I began, hunched over the long desk under the ugly lights. I read the entire thing right there.”

Reading Unfinished Spirit I am reminded of a reviewer’s comment on Rukeyser’s first book, Theory of Flight, which won the Yale Younger Poets prize.  “When you hold this book in your hand, you hold a living thing.”

And, curiously, I also hear Rukeyser’s poem “Then”:

                         When I am dead, even then,
                         I will still love you, I will wait in these poems,
                         . . .
                         I will still be making poems for you 
                         out of silence;
                         silence will be falling into that silence,
                         it is building music. 

Indeed, Rukeyser’s original unpublished work has been waiting for K-E and the “community of scholars” mining the silence of her archives, who are generously cited in the introduction. Reading her poems in light of these scholars’ revelatory findings, the music builds to a wonderful crescendo.

***

K-E begins her study by detailing the unfinished and rejected works in the archives as examples of the “waste” produced by prejudiced (one can’t but think also ignorant) judges of women’s writing. How could they have failed to recognize that “theoretically ambitious, multigenre, sometimes collaborative, these texts continued the radical avant-garde project of modernism and traced a polyphonic American tradition that challenged an increasingly hegemonic Cold War culture”?

These writings present an “alternative vision of the twentieth century.” What a waste that those of us born in and living through that century did not have them to guide us both in our studies and our lives! I think how enlightening it would have been for women like me, of last century’s postwar Silent Generation — followed by those sunny California conservative Reagan years – to have read about the earlier collaboration between Rukeyser and Berenice Abbot during the Cold War. The two “shared a similar goal: to develop new methods for demonstrating the uses of and relationships between the arts and sciences.”

Abbott invented a camera that produced an exceptionally detailed image. K-E explains the collaborators believed the camera “produces a photograph that can actually expose to us the ‘essence’ of a thing that we fail to see ordinarily but know to be there” as well as startling correspondences. Who can fail to recognize a vagina in Abbott’s photo of an apple sliced in half, reproduced in K-E’s book? “It’s hard not to read their project as one partly about lesbian desire,” she writes, quoting the social theorist Avery Gordon about “visible invisibility.” Abbott and Rukeyser at one point “had probably been lovers,” K-E notes.

 “Today science needs its voice,” Abbott wrote in a letter seeking funding for their proposed book, to be entitled So Easy to See. Science needs “the warm human quality of imagination added to its austere and stern disciplines. . .to speak to the people in terms they will understand.” Rukeyser, for her part, had been since the mid-Thirties “already practicing this ‘unity of imagination’ through a series of collaborative projects and multiform experiments,” notably with the photographer Nancy Naumberg in The Book of the Dead (1938), about miners dying of silicosis in West Virginia, in one of the worst industrial disasters in the US. Incredibly, the book was not published with photos until 2018.

Alas, they were women. A 2014 article by Rebecca Onion in Slate is among those that document – surprise! — how women in scientific fields during the Cold War were disparaged, undervalued, and underpaid, discrimination that continued for decades. Kate Zernike in The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science, published just this year, revisits the groundbreaking public 1996 report – featured in the 2020 documentary Picture a Scientist — that showed how MIT marginalized its women scientists. The situation has improved for women in STEM fields. But it is useful to consider the past when the temptation is to think no more progress need be made. When it comes to attitudes toward women who don’t fit the mold, Rukeyser’s experience illustrates: plus ça change.

 As K-E observes, Abbott’s and Rukeyser’s was “a relationship between two of the twentieth century’s most versatile artists that has been, for the most part, relegated to the archives.” K-E has retrieved their experience and perspective for us as we seek to move beyond the obstacles of our own time.

***

It was Rukeyser’s study of indigenous culture, following the traces of Franz Boas, called the father of American anthropology, that cultivated her belief in  embracing process as the crucial  lesson for the individual and the species, although – again — the irony is that her major project in this regard was rejected and left unfinished.  As K-E writes, Rukeyser was “the first researcher to begin to collect and catalogue Boas’s material history, from Germany to the Pacific Coast, constructing a narrative of his life as well as the lives he recorded,” and the materials for her biography now form “an archive inside the larger Boas collection in the American Philosophical Society Library.” But in published works showing how Boas’s ideas have influenced our own thinking, “Rukeyser herself is not cited as an intellectual or authorial source, only the collection, as if the material aggregated itself.”

This after decades of work on the book, including traveling with her son, not quite two years old, to live among and interview the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples on Vancouver Island, more than 50 years after Boas; the loss of a publisher targeted for being a Communist; and failure to obtain funding for the book, “not even from the American Philosophical Society itself, where the Boas papers were stored, because, as Catherine Gander notes, she had an ‘unscientific background.’”

But as Rukeyser wrote, “waste. . . is never waste.” K-E explains how “Rukeyser’s work on Boas and cultural anthropology gave her new ideas to think with: the lives of the obscure and anonymous, the bodily life that has been denigrated in Western culture, that has ‘separated ourselves from ourselves’ – especially birth, sex, and death.” Rukeyser’s poems about birth, sex, and motherhood bear the influence of indigenous “artistic and cultural practices which emphasize a ‘language of process.’” Always, she defended “dark beginnings” and “most human giving.” It is this language and vision – of possibility, process, interconnectedness, that can save us. “The seeds of all things are blessed.”

K-E shows how Rukeyser repurposed the ideas of her rejected and unfinished manuscripts into formats including radio programs, films, plays, magazine articles, mystery stories, even a proposed additional chapter of The Life of Poetry “while at the same time attempting to preserve her radical vision.” In an interview two years before her death in 1980, Rukeyser says, “What I care about in Whitman is the extreme fight to keep my skin together, the extreme contradictions. I don’t turn my back. The violence, shamefulness, willfulness are in myself. I wish to make music of them.” Hers was the voice of continual engagement with the ideals and contradictions she encountered as a young woman in Spain.

Rukeyser calls out June Jordan, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde as examples of what K-E identifies as “a prescient vision of an intersectional, bisexual feminist poetics [that] underscores her consistent effort to connect social justice movements for racial and gender equality within American literary and artistic traditions and to show the ways in which those intersections can engender transformative thinking and being not confined by patriarchal nationalism.”

A brief review like this one clearly does not do justice to the myriad ways the original scholarship of Unfinished Spirit draws out the connections between Rukeyser’s lifelong discoveries, as documented in the archives, and the development of American modernity.  And as K-E writes, Rukeyser’s vast archive is as yet untapped. But reading this book is an introduction to her transformative ideas, to the “emergency” that confronts us amid the “waste and ruins” of our own time, and how engagement “is embodied. . .it is felt and experienced in oneself – it makes you hot, your heart beat fast.


Cite this article in MLA, 8th edition: Louise Kertesz. “‘Review of Rowena Kennedy-Epstein’s Unfinished Spirit: Muriel Rukeyser’s Twentieth Century.” Murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/2023/07/12/louise-kertesz-review-of-unfinished-spirit-muriel-rukeysers-twentieth-century/.

Bio: Louise Kertesz is the author of The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser (Louisiana State University Press, 1980). After receiving her doctorate and teaching  for several years, she became a business journalist, reporting from Detroit on the auto industry and from Los Angeles and Chicago, covering developments in health insurance and health care delivery. More recently, she was a freelance copy editor for the University of Chicago Press. Louise’s 2021 keynote address, “’My Untamable Need’: Reading Rukeyser’s Elegies in Light of Some of Her Later Poems” is available here. For more information about Louise Kertesz read our blog post: A Visit with Louise Kertesz–Pioneer of Rukeyser Studies.