Originally published in The Gates (1976)
O for God’s sake
they are connected
They look at each other
across the glittering sea
some keep a low profile
Some are cliffs
The bathers think
islands are separate like them
© Muriel Rukeyser
Originally published in The Gates (1976)
O for God’s sake
they are connected
They look at each other
across the glittering sea
some keep a low profile
Some are cliffs
The bathers think
islands are separate like them
© Muriel Rukeyser
Originally published in The Speed of Darkness (1968)
Horizon of islands shifting
Sea-light flame on my voice
burn in me
flows from the water from sands islands of this horizon
The sea comes toward me across the sea. The sand
moves over the sand in waves
between the guardians of this landscape
the great commemorative statue on one hand
—the first flight of man, outside of dream,
seen as stone wing and stainless steel—
and at the other hand
banded black-and-white, climbing
the spiral lighthouse.
Floor over ocean,
avalanche on the flat beach. Pouring.
Indians holding branches up, to
placate the tempest,
the one-legged twisting god that is
a standing wind.
Rays are branching from all things:
great serpent, great plume, constellation:
sands from which colors and light pass,
the lives of plants. Animals. Men.
A man and a woman reach for each other.
Wave of the sea.
Sands have washed, sea has flown over us.
Between the two guardians, spiral, truncated wing,
history and these wild birds
Bird-voiced discoverers : Hariot, Hart Crane,
the brothers who watched gulls.
“No bird soars in a calm,” said Wilbur Wright.
Dragon of the winds forms over me.
Your dance, goddesses in your circle
sea-wreath, whirling of the event
behind me on land as deep in our own lives
we begin to know the movement to come.
Sunken, drowned spirals,
Shifting of islands on this horizon.
The cycle of changes in the Book of Changes.
Two islands making an open female line
That powerful long straight bar a male island.
The building of the surf
between the pale flat Sound
and ocean ever
birds as before earthquake
winds fly from all origins
the length of this wave goes from the great wing
down coast, the barrier beach in all its miles
road of the sun and the moon to
a spiral lighthouse
to the depth turbulence
lifts up its wave like cities
the ocean in the air
spills down the world.
A man is walking toward me across the water.
From far out, the flat waters of the Sound,
he walks pulling his small boat
In the shoal water.
A man who is white and has been fishing.
Walks steadily upon the light of day
Coming closer to me where I stand
looking into the sun and the blaze inner water.
Clear factual surface over which he pulls
a boat over a closing quarter-mile.
Speak to it, says the light.
Speak to it music,
voices of the sea and human throats.
Origins of spirals,
the ballad and original sweet grape
dark on the vines near Hatteras,
tendrils of those vines, whose spiral tower
now rears its light, accompanying
all my voices.
He walks toward me. A black man in the sun.
He now is a black man speaking to my heart
crisis of darkness in this century
of moments of this speech.
The boat is slowly nearer drawn, this man.
The zigzag power coming straight, in stones,
in arcs, metal, crystal, the spiral
in sacred wet
schematic elements of
cities, music, arrangement
spin these stones of home
under the sea
return to the stations of the stars
and the sea, speaking across its lives.
A man who is bones is close to me
drawing a boat of bones
the sun behind him
is another color of fire,
the sea behind me
rears its flame.
A man whose body flames and tapers in flame
twisted tines of remembrance that dissolve
a pitchfork of the land worn thin
flame up and dissolve again
draw small boat
Nets of the stars at sunset over us.
This draws me home to the home of the wild birds
long-throated birds of this passage.
This is the edge of experience, grenzen der seele
where those on the verge of human understanding
the borderline people stand on the shifting islands
among the drowned stars and the tempest.
“Everyman’s mind, like the dumbest,
claws at his own furthest limits of knowing the world,”
a man in a locked room said.
Open to the sky
I stand before this boat that looks at me.
The man’s flames are arms and legs.
Body, eyes, head, stars, sands look at me.
I walk out into the shoal water
and throw my leg over the wall of the boat.
At one shock, speechlessness.
I am in the bow, on the short thwart.
He is standing before me amidships, rowing forward
like my old northern sea-captain in his dory.
All things have spun.
The words gone,
I facing sternwards, looking at the gate
between the barrier islands. As he rows.
Sand islands shifting and the last of land
a pale and open line horizon
With whose face did he look at me?
What did I say? or did I say?
mover to the change.
These strokes provide the music,
and the accused boy on land today saying
What did I say? or did I say?
The dream on land last night built this the boat of death
but in the suffering of the light
moving across the sea
do we in our moving
move toward life or death
Hurricane, skullface, the sky’s size
winds streaming through his teeth
doing the madman’s twist
and not a beach not flooded
stability of light
my other silence
and at my left hand and at my right hand
no longer wing and lighthouse
no longer the guardians.
They are in me, in my speechless
life of barrier beach.
As it lies open
to the night, out there.
Now seeing my death before me
starting again, among the drowned men,
desperate men, unprotected discoverers,
and the man before me
Stroke by stroke drawing us.
Out there? Father of rhythms,
deep wave, mother.
There is no out there.
All is open.
Open water. Open I.
The wreck of the Tiger, the early pirate, the blood-clam’s
ark, the tern’s acute eye, all buried mathematical
instruments, castaways, pelicans, drowned five-
strand pearl necklaces, hopes of livelihood,
hopes of grace,
walls of houses, sepia sea-fences, the writhen octopus and
those tall masts and sails,
marked hulls of ships and last month’s plane, dipping his salute
to the stone wing of dream,
turbulence, Diamond Shoals, the dark young living people:
“Sing one more song and you are under arrest.”
“Sing another song.”
Women, ships, lost voices.
Whatever has dissolved into our waves.
I a lost voice
moving, calling you
on the edge of the moment that is now the center.
From the open sea.
© Muriel Rukeyser
Originally published in Theory of Flight (1935)
Whether it is a speaker, taut on a platform,
who battles a crowd with the hammers of his words,
whether it is the crash of lips on lips
after absence and wanting : we must close
the circuits of ideas, now generate,
that leap in the body’s action or the mind’s repose.
Over us is a striking on the walls of the sky,
here are the dynamos, steel-black, harboring flame,
here is the man night-walking who derives
tomorrow’s manifestoes from this midnight’s meeting ;
here we require proof in solidarity,
iron on iron, body on body, and the large single beating.
And behind us in time are the men who second us
as we continue. And near us is our love :
no forced contempt, no refusal in dogma, the close
of the circuit in a fierce dazzle of purity.
And over us is night a field of pansies unfolding,
charging with heat its softness in a symbol
to weld and prepare for action our minds’ intensity.
© Muriel Rukeyser
Originally published in The Speed of Darkness (1968)
THE WAY OUT
The night is covered with signs. The body and face of man,
with signs, and his journeys. Where the rock is split
and speaks to the water; the flame speaks to the cloud;
the red splatter, abstraction, on the door
speaks to the angel and the constellations.
The grains of sand on the sea-floor speak at last to the noon.
And the loud hammering of the land behind
speaks ringing up the bones of our thighs, the hoofs,
we hear the hoofs over the seethe of the sea.
All night down the centuries, have heard, music of passage.
Music of one child carried into the desert;
firstborn forbidden by law of the pyramid.
Drawn through the water with the water-drawn people
led by the water-drawn man to the smoke mountain.
The voice of the world speaking, the world covered by signs,
the burning, the loving, the speaking, the opening.
Strong throat of sound from the smoking mountain.
Still flame, the spoken singing of a young child.
The meaning beginning to move, which is the song.
Music of those who have walked out of slavery.
Into that journey where all things speak to all things
refusing to accept the curse, and taking
for signs the signs of all things, the world, the body
which is part of the soul, and speaks to the world,
all creation being created in one image, creation.
This is not the past walking into the future,
the walk is painful, into the present, the dance
not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.
We knew we had all crossed over when we heard the song.
Out of a life of building lack on lack:
the slaves refusing slavery, escaping into faith:
an army who came to the ocean: the walkers
who walked through the opposites, from I to opened Thou,
city and cleave of the sea. Those at flaming Nauvoo,
the ice on the great river: the escaping Negroes,
swamp and wild city: the shivering children of Paris
and the glass black hearses; those on the Long March:
all those who together are the frontier, forehead of man.
Where the wilderness enters, the world, the song of the world.
Akiba rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death
by his disciples carried from Jerusalem
in blackness journeying to find his journey
to whatever he was loving with his life.
The wilderness journey through which we move
under the whirlwind truth into the new,
the only accurate. A cluster of lights at night:
faces before the pillar of fire. A child watching
while the sea breaks open. This night. The way in.
Barbarian music, a new song.
Acknowledging opened water, possibility:
open like a woman to this meaning.
In a time of building statues of the stars,
valuing certain partial ferocious skills
while past us the chill and immense wilderness
spreads its one-color wings until we know
rock, water, flame, cloud, or the floor of the sea,
the world is a sign, a way of speaking. To find.
What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.
Ways to discover. The song of the way in.
FOR THE SONG OF SONGS
However the voices rise
The are the shepherd, the king,
The woman; dreams,
Whether the voices
Be many the dance around
Or body led by one body
Whose bed is green,
I defend the desire
Lightning and poetry
Alone in the dark city
Or breast to breast.
Champion of light I am
The wounded holy light,
The woman in her dreams
And the man answering.
You who answer their dreams
Are the ruler of wine
Emperor of clouds
And the riches of men.
Is the creation
The day of this song
The day of the birth of the world.
Whether a thousand years
Forget this woman, this king,
Whether two thousand years
Forget the shepherd of dreams.
If none remember
Who is lover, who the beloved,
Whether the poet be
Woman or man,
The desire will make
A way through the wilderness
The leopard mountains
And the lips of the sleepers.
Holy way of desire,
King, lion, the mouth of the poet,
The woman who dreams
And the answerer of dreams.
In these delights
Is eternity of seed,
The verge of life,
Body of dreaming.
In the wine country, poverty, they drink no wine—
In the endless night of love he lies, apart from love—
In the landscape of the Word he stares, he has no word.
He hates and hungers for his immense need.
He is young. This is a shepherd who rages at learning,
Having no words. Looks past green grass and sees a woman.
She, Rachel, who is come to recognize.
In the huge wordless shepherd she finds Akiba.
To find the burning Word. To learn to speak.
The body of Rachel says, the marriage says,
The eyes of Rachel say, and water upon rock
Cutting its groove all year says All things learn.
He learns with his new son whose eyes are wine.
To sing continually, to find the word.
He comes to teaching, greater than the deed
Because it begets the deed, he comes to the stone
Of long ordeal, and suddenly knows the brook
Offering water, the citron fragrance, the light of candles.
All given, and always the giver loses nothing.
In giving, praising, we move beneath clouds of honor,
In giving, in praise, we take gifts that are given,
The spark from one to the other leaping, a bond
Of light, and we come to recognize the rock;
We are the rock acknowledging water, and water
Fire, and woman man, all brought through wilderness;
And Rachel finding in the wordless shepherd
Akiba who can now come to his power and speak:
The need to give having found the need to become:
More than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to give such.
When his death confronted him, it had the face of his friend
Rufus the Roman general with his claws of pain,
His executioner. This was an old man under iron rakes
Tearing through to the bone. He made no cry.
After the failure of all missions. At ninety, going
To Hadrian in Egypt, the silver-helmed,
Named for a sea. To intercede. Do not build in the rebuilt Temple.
Your statue, do not make it a shrine to you.
Antinous smiling. Interpreters. This is an old man, pleading.
Incense of fans. The emperor does not understand.
He accepts his harvest, failures. He accepts faithlessness,
Madness of friends, a failed life; and now the face of storm.
Dow the old man during uprising speak for compromise?
In all but the last things. Not in the study itself.
For this religion is a system of knowledge;
Points may be one by one abandoned, but not the study.
Does he preach passion and non-violence?
Yes, and trees, crops, children honestly taught. He says:
Prepare yourselves for suffering.
Now the rule closes in, the last things are forbidden.
There is no real survival without these.
Now it is time for prison and the unknown.
The old man flowers into spiritual fire.
Streaking of agony across the sky.
Torn black. Red racing on blackness. Dawn.
Rufus looks at him over the rakes of death
Asking, “What is it?
Have you magic powers? Or do you feel no pain?”
The old man answers, “No. But there is a commandment
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
with all thy soul and with all thy might.
I knew that I loved him with all my heart and might.
Now I know that I love him with all my life.”
The look of delight of the martyr
Among the colors of pain, at last knowing his own response
Total and unified
To love God with all the heart, all passion,
Every desire called evil, turned toward unity,
All the opposites, all in the dialogue.
All the dark and light of the heart, of life made whole.
Surpassing the known life, day and ideas.
My hope, my life, my burst of consciousness:
To confirm my life in the time of confrontation.
The old man saying Shema.
The death of Akiba.
Who is the witness? What voice moves across time,
Speaks for the life and death as witness voice?
Moving tonight on this city, this river, my winter street?
He saw it, the one witness. Tonight the life as legend
Goes building a meeting for me in the veins of night
Adding its scenes and its songs. Here is the man transformed,
The tall shepherd, the law, the false messiah, all;
You who come after me far from tonight finding
These lives that ask you always Who is the witness—
Take from us acts of encounter we at night
Wake to attempt, as signs, seeds of beginning,
Given from darkness and remembering darkness,
Take from our light given to you our meetings.
Time tells us men and women, tells us You
The witness, your moment covered with signs, your self.
Tell us this moment, saying You are the meeting.
You are made of signs, your eyes and your song.
Your dance the dance, the walk into the present.
All this we are and accept, being made of signs, speaking
To you, in time not yet born.
The witness is myself.
The signs, the journeys of the night, survive.
© Muriel Rukeyser
Originally published in Breaking Open (1973)
For that you never acknowledged me, I acknowledge
the spring’s yellow detail, the every drop of rain,
the anonymous unacknowledged men and women.
The shine as it glitters in our child’s wild eyes,
one o’clock at night. This river, this city,
the years of the shadow on the delicate skin
of my hand, moving in time.
Disinherited, annulled, finally disacknowledged
and all of my own asking. I keep that wild dimension
of life and making and the spasm
upon my mouth as I say this word of acknowledge
to you forever. Ewig. Two o’clock at night.
While this my day and my people are a country not yet born
it has become an earth I can
acknowledge. I must. I know what the
discknowledgement does. Then I do take you,
but far under consciousness, knowing
that under under flows a river wanting
the other : to go open-handed in Asia,
to cleanse the tributaries and the air, to make for making,
to stop selling death and its trash, pour plastic down
to let this child find, to let men and women find,
knowing the seeds in us all. They do say Find.
I cannot acknowledge it entire. But I will.
A beginning, this moment, perhaps, and you.
Death flowing down past me, past me, death
marvelous, filthy, gold,
in my spine in my sex upon my broken mouth
and the whole beautiful mouth of the child;
shedding power over me
if I acknowledge him.
in my own body
at last in the dance.
© Muriel Rukeyser
At the frontier getting down, at railhead drinking
hot tea waiting for pack-mules, at the box with
three levers watching the swallows … The fatty
smell of drying clothes, smell of cordite in a wood,
and the new moon seen along the barrel of a gun.
The words at the end of a poem, the slogan shouted, the headline for gray industrial scenes, waterfront blue-gray, the black even in the air over mines, the dark sidewalks before factories, covered with lines of gray parading people. Words printed, painted out, broadcast in handbills. Not like this.
She looked about the platform.
There, the young pregnant blonde turned, and began her slow walk toward the head of the train, weighted, undisturbed; the Hungarians began to talk at top speed in their own language, a very beautiful one with heavy eyebrows, the grasping printer, the manager, Toni staring, and the anonymous rest; the boys called out from the yellow trees; the pavement was fairground, distinguished and made serious only by the guards near each door of the train. The near guard came closer to the team, and nodded yes in answer to their question.
“Huelga General,” he substantiated.
And the scene was intensely foreign, it was a new world indeed, with these words true.
The train, the frontier.
Now the train was held, as surely as if the tracks before and behind had been blown up, as one rumor said; as surely as if the engineer had refused ever to move again, as Peapack must be thinking; or as if the searching party had found, not photographs, but spy incriminations; more surely.
The anonymous passengers!
“What will you do?” Helen asked Toni.
“The team must decide,” he told her. The printer was talking to the manager, repeating the whole story of what the mayor had told him, had told the American who had been outraged, it seemed, at the mention of the words.
“Not the lawyer,” the manager said. “Better find him. He speaks seven languages, too.”
“I’ll tell the family,” Helen suggested to Toni, thinking of the grandmother.
They were already wrapping the rest of the sausage in the newspaper, pulling down the great wicker hamper again, preparing to move. The news had come through.
“Where will you go?” she asked them.
“We’ll find places in the town,” the father said. “Come with us, it won’t be good to sleep on the train.” He looked around the compartment, at the stiff wooden benches, the walls, the metal heat of sun on still wood.
She thanked them. “But I’d better find the others,” she insisted, “the American woman is alone, too, and they tell me there are other Americans here.”
“Yes,” said the grandmother. “You’ll have to find them. We’ll ask at the café about a place to sleep, and, if you want us, the café will know where we went. Here—” she plucked at her son’s elbow. He reached for the heavy black suitcase, and set it on the bench.
“Better go up to first,” he advised, the slow unshaven smile channeling his cheeks. “There are cushions there, anyway.”
They were ready to leave.
The fair-haired boy took the package of food and slung it over his shoulder. He was still eating almonds, and his pointed teeth glittered. As he took his grandmother’s hand, he turned suddenly to Helen, with a volunteer look in the startling iodine eyes. “Good-bye,” he said rapidly, trying the word in English.
SHE KICKED THE suitcase before her through the connection between the cars, kicking it against the feet of a stranger whose thick glasses seemed over-smooth and blazing on his heavily pitted face.
He dodged to the side, escaping apologies.
“Are you American?”
“No,” he answered, still in French. “I am Swiss. There is a Swiss team on the train, but I’m not with it. Are you looking for the Americans who are going to the Olympics in Barcelona?”
She was speaking eagerly, the words falling on each other. If only I were fluent, now, she thought, I need words now!
“They’ve been looking for you, too,” the Swiss told her. “They heard there were two more Americans on the train. You must be the other woman . . .”
“Do you know about the General Strike?”
“Really?” the Swiss exclaimed, his look of surprise sunk deep in the pockmarked forehead. “Is that what it is?”
He picked her suitcase up easily, and turned.
“Come on through,” he said, “I’ll show you where they are. They’ll want to hear.”
He led the way through the empty corridor of the first-class car. Voices came from one of the doors, half rolled back on its little groove. He swung it back all the way.
“May I introduce the American lady?” he said, with mock-formality. “And the news: it’s General Strike!”
“WE JUST HEARD,” the man answered, pronouncing in careful French, his mouth shaded by the brown mustache on the long, sensitive lip. He sat against one window, his head thrown back against the antimacassar, his hand stretched out over the clasped hands of the woman who was next to him. “Hello!” he said, in English, to Helen. “Nice day.” And grinned. “We’ve been looking for you.”
“Yes,” the dark woman beside him agreed. “They’ve given us at least five different descriptions of you, and none of them fit. Her cheeks caught shadow, her curly hair turned over her forehead, the broad planes of her face missed being Negroid because of the sharp mouth.
“I was in third,” Helen said, looking at the two other women who sat across from the couple.
One was tall, and the red blouse she wore pulled, with its color, at the pointed collarbones, the greenish throat and face; the other shrank, rather sickly, beside her, with her head on one side, listening.
“Wait a minute, I can’t hear,” interrupted the tall one nearest the window, “the radio’s started again.”
A tremendous voice, like a voice in an airplane, started to expound. It seemed sourceless, deity; it said a few peremptory phrases, came to a violent close, and the music started again, a soft Spanish dance played from a recording.
They waited until the music started. “There, that’s news of the battle,” said the man. “The government’s sound!”
“God, it has to be,” exploded Helen, forgetting tact, forgetting their strangeness. “What is this all anyway, a putsch of some kind?”
“Why, hello!” said the man, realizing her. “Is that how you feel? Well, for Christ sake, come and sit down.” The Swiss, not understanding, made a sign; he had to leave. The man went on. “It looks like a Fascist putsch; but the radio says it’s failing in Barcelona. It’s the government radio, of course; but it’s good news, just the same, good news for all of us.”
“Are you going to the Games?” Helen asked him.
“Certainly,” the woman beside him said, in her low, reedy voice; “and if you want the Party line on the radio, and the frontier, and the armed guards, Peter’s the man to give it to you, aren’t you?” she mocked. But the seriousness, the intimacy was very evident. When she spoke to him, the women across were shut out, there was actual closeness.
“Communist?” Helen asked.
“Yes,” he answered, “and gladder of it right now than about any time. Where are you from?” he asked her, and (through the Spanish music) they knew, New York, a matter of blocks between them, a matter, perhaps, of missing each other by moments in theater lobbies, at lectures, on streets.
“Organization?” asked Peter.
“None,” she answered, “but I’ve been in the American Student Union, and I’ve done some work for the I.L.D.” She looked past them to the platform. She could see the gray-haired man with the mourning band, surrounded by the Hungarian team: he must be the mayor—the armed workers, the town, alert, faces leaning from the row houses. “I wish now, for the first time, that I were really active,” she said, slowly.
The two women beside her brightened. “We’re in the Teacher’s Union,” said the sickly one. “We’ve been reading up.”
Peter pointed to a yellow pamphlet in the tall one’s hand. “How’s that?” He burst into laughter, and the woman beside him laughed, as at an old joke. “She’s been reading a French pamphlet on the problems of the Spanish Revolution ever since the train was stopped!” Helen laughed, a full, happy laugh from the lungs. “You should have seen the faces of the girls who searched for photographs!”
Helen was trying to remember. “I didn’t see you at Port Bou,” she said.
“We saw you, though,” said the dark woman.
“Yes, Olive saw you get on,” Peter told her.
“We were in the next car—got on first of all, I guess. We’d been swimming in Port Bou—came down from Carcassonne yesterday, so that we could have the night at the border. How’s that for perfect timing?”
“That’s how Peter felt,” Olive said to Helen. “That poem about never getting to Carcassonne made him go, I swear.”
“Such a bad poem, too,” Peter was apologizing. “But an amazing city. Preserved, so that the old houses and walls, which should be dead, are full of the living. It was a good prelude to this.” He waved at the window.
Helen looked down at her suitcase. The benches were upholstered here in the first-class gray. “Next car! Were you in third, too?” Peter followed her look. “Don’t be class conscious when it’s irrelevant. We took possession of this compartment. It was quite empty—most of first was empty—and we have to be able to take
over, you know.”
“All right,” said Helen. “I’m beginning to.”
“I have even put my feet up, on occasion,” Peter went on. His eyes were almost black, seen with the light brown hair.
Olive shook her head, smiling. “And took them down again. Hollywood disturbed us,” she explained. Hollywood?
“Haven’t you met our magnates?” She leaned back. “The three gentleman from Paramount who occupy the Pullman car: item, one executive; item, two newsreel men.”
“Arrogant bastards, too,” said Peter, sighing.
“They’re the prime reason for that search of the train.”
“Except it was good common sense,” said the tall schoolteacher. “Our countrymen!” Olive exclaimed. “And it looks as though we’ll be seeing our countrymen, too. It’s lucky you turned out all right,” she said to Helen, “we were worried.”
“You sound like Peapack. She was worried,” Helen saw, flash, the green metal compartment of the French express.
“Peapack?” said Peter, sitting up.
“She comes from there, New Jersey,” Helen told him. “Five suitcases, didn’t know there were going to be Games in Barcelona, means to proceed to Milan and Berlin, asks why anti-fascist . . .”
“Well, the English can take care of her. We won’t.” Peter was firm. “Have you met the English?”
“No,” said Helen. “I’ve been with some Catalans, and the Hungarian team.”
“Well, the English are prepared to do their duty,” Peter said. “There seem to be at least three couples, all first, and they’re hav ing a meeting now. And there’s the chorus; seen them? Six swell platinum blondes, and a self-effacing manager; oh, and some sort of traveling salesman—I can’t think of any others. Then there are a few assorted people we ran into: three Frenchman, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were spies, and a German-looking family who’ve moved up to first, and Olive saw another German get on at Port Bou, didn’t you?”
“A fine one,” said Olive.
“Well, we met the others while we were trying to get coffee,” Peter went on. “They closed the dining car while we were in the middle; locked it up, and put a sign, ‘Not Running,’ on the door.”
“You might go and see whether the water is, Peter,” Olive was reminded.
“Oh, no, that’s definitely out,” he said. “The water gave out on the train a half hour ago. We’ve been talking to the engineer. He’s sitting on the steps of the cab, being bawled out for a dirty slacker by the Hollywood guys. They think he’s refused to run the train.”
“They act as if he was a mule,” said the sickly woman.
“Well, the chocolate’s good, anyhow,” said the other.
“Yeah, they got a supply in Paris,” Peter said. “Lucky we ran into you . . . Imagine, we hadn’t seen them in three years, and there they were drinking coffee in the diner on this train . . .”
“Of all places,” finished Olive. If we’d got a supply of something like that in Paris—”
“Oh, it was fine,” Peter said. He was talking to Helen, in exuberance. “We were there, Bastille Day. A million people on that march, past the Mur des Fédérés, through Père Lachaise through the entire city . . .”
“What’s that?” said the sickly woman, sharply, her head on one side.
Peter stopped a moment. He put his lower lip out; he heard nothing. “Don’t look now,” he cracked, “there’s a revolution in the next car.”
“Aren’t the children beautiful in this town?” Peter said sud- denly. “Remember that boy, Olive? I wish we had a child like that boy.” Her face was darkened and sad; some meaning Helen did not understand fell across it.
“Oh, shut up for a moment!” the woman said vehemently.
In the air, the music was changing. From the Spanish dance, the needle of some distant phonograph scratched for a moment, and then, familiarly, the words began:
St. Louis woman
with her diamond rings,
got my man . . .
They laughed nervously, and stopped to listen again.
“There!” said the woman.
Rapid and thin, the high frail sound clapped out between the hills. It could not be the record. That went on:
. . . by her apron strings,
wahn’t for diamonds . . .
Crazy and American in this town. Moncada. There, the sound again, high and unmistakable. They had been to too many movies to mistake it.
“Rifles!” cried Peter.
Peter’s lip straightened suddenly, vibrated like wire; Olive’s face took on an amazing beauty.
“Maybe it’s only backfire,” said the tall woman weakly.
From up the car, a calling grew. A woman’s voice went past as the woman ran loosely down the corridor, shrieking.
“The guns! The guns!”
“CAN YOU TELL where the sounds come from?” Helen asked.
“I don’t think John Reed could tell, in these hills,” Peter smiled whitely. “We could be in the middle of a thing like that, I’ll bet, and not know what was going on.”
“Well, he was always at the bottom of a flight of stairs when something was happening at the top, wasn’t he?”
“And the story of the waiter—he was asked where he was during the Revolution, and he said, ‘It was during the special dinner, sir.’”
The sounds had stopped. Only the radio was still singing blues.
“But this isn’t revolution!” the sickly woman said. Her words came trembling. “This is nothing like that!”
“We can’t just sit here,” Peter was saying sharply. “I want some coffee. Come and find some coffee; I want to find out what this is all about!” He stood up, and the two other women stood with him. “All right,” they said, under their breath.
Olive and Helen wanted to stay. Helen could not have moved. To see the gun, the threat, to fear the plane, to feel the radio emerge, meant one thing; but the clap of sound in the hills, the voice shrieking through the corridor!
“Don’t go far,” Olive said pleading; and, then, looking at his face, “sorry.”
His look changed. “No, you’re right,” he said, and kissed her, bending over her, his hair falling forward as he leaned. “You’re right; I’ll be right back, I’ll just go up to the place where the truck left from.”
The women were waiting outside. Then they were gone.
“IT WAS SO tragic, to hear that gun,” Olive said slowly. “No matter what it signifies. I don’t belong to any party.” She stopped a moment, looking out the window. “I wish he hadn’t said that about the child.”
“He looked as if he wanted a child, very much,” Helen answered.
“He does—I don’t know why I should be telling you this,” she said, shy then, abrupt. “Except that this train makes you feel that you’re not in—oh, I don’t know—in Europe, in society. Don’t let me get whimsical,” she mocked herself.
“You get angry at that idea?”
She turned her face away. She knew which idea. “All this war,” she said after a minute.
War! In a slow admission, Helen took the word finally. Yes. This is it.
“We’ve had our heads out of the window,” Olive said. “Peter’s been talking to some of the men. They talk about having to win, and their look goes bright. Do you feel the fate here? They tell us this is death unless the country is won in this war.” She spoke in a rush of feeling, sudden and fatalistic, that made Helen turn in on herself even more, not liking to face the romanticism of the words “fate,” and “death” in the bright sun, with Olive’s eyes swung on her, firing up steadily.
“It doesn’t seem political, even,” she said. She was speaking flatly, hating her self-consciousness.
“Marx, in these hills?” Olive laughed.
“No, not like that, this is what I mean.” Helen leaned forward, beginning to relax in the effort of explanation. The fact. The story of one or two people. She told about the Catalan family. The story of Toni. She was speaking fast now, wanting to be finished. “It seems more a question of the presence of belief, of feeling.”
“That’s what gets me angry,” Olive said slowly, and her eyes lengthened. They were dark. There was sun.
“Not theirs—only that I can’t feel it myself. It was that way in France, too. I can’t make myself feel it.”
Helen’s hand came out in a push of denial. “Don’t be one of those,” she said vehemently. “I hate them most, and I know plenty of them in New York. The spoiled, brutal girls with the disappointed faces, trying for all they’re worth to make themselves feel.”
Olive looked sharply at her.
“Why should you feel; who are you that you should push any- thing on yourself?” Helen said, in a loss of control. “Let yourself alone; my God!” Olive was staring at her. Surprise and regret, until the jealousy passed. The look pulled Helen in. She was quiet, and went on evenly.
“Don’t feel anything,” she said. “That’s not so terrible. Only don’t try so.”
“And what about you, does everything hit you hard?”
Helen sat back against the lace, against the gray upholstery. “Oh, that, it’s the last thing that counts, anyway, the way we are. We’re to be quiet, and stay in the train. Tourists! To look out the window!”
She repeated the names of the lace border, with pain, and with a certain sarcasm that drew the two women together more quickly than any talk about emotions could. The pattern ran straight over all the lace edges.
THE AFTERNOON WAS deepening, and the population of the station platform was growing continually.
From the street behind the station, automobiles could be heard.
They must go down the street very slowly—their horns were blowing, a harsh triplicate blowing, One-Two-Three down the road. One of them swung into sight, pulled down the half-street to the station, and stopped. On its side was painted, in white, scrawling letters, “C.N.T.,” and the long, new car behind it was lettered “F.A.I.”
“What does that mean?” Helen asked.
“I wonder where Peter is,” said Olive.
From the car, armed men were hurrying to the train. Two of them stopped at the back of the station house, and the others broke into a half-run, heading up toward the engine.
After a few minutes they ran back to their cars, got in, and with a screeching of tires, the cars pulled off.
The horns went One-Two-Three the length of the village, seemed to turn, and faded.
“I’ve got to get Peter,” Olive repeated, and stood.
Peter was at the door.
“Look,” he said gaily, “I lost them. They went back to their compartment,”
“What do you know?” Olive asked.
“Oh, it’s complicated,” he answered. “So many Anarchists, too. But not like ours—here, they’re different, they’re in the majority, and it’s natural anarchism: they’ve never seen any party that didn’t rob them, the state is always the church and the generals and the other landowners, and it looks as though those are the people who have attacked this government. It’s a liberal government, too, voted in OK, nothing particularly left-wing about it—not last night, anyhow,” he added with a grin.
“And the cars?” Helen remembered initials.
“That’s what gets me,” he said, puzzled. “I know some of the let- ters. C.N.T.—that’s Confederación Nacional del Trabajo; F.A.I.— Federación Anarquista Ibérica; and then the other big trade union group (there are more cars in town), U.G.T.: Unión General de Trabajadores. Those are the three great labor unions in Spain . . . Oh, and here’s a present,” he added, fishing a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “Bisontes; they must be made by the Lucky people, they’re packed like Luckies; one peseta fifty, and the English are stocking up on them. You ought to see their providence and foresight,” he waved his hand, “bread, Vichy, candles—they’re setting up house on the train. I don’t know what they think we’re in for; they’ve bought enough to last a week.”
“What about guns?” Olive asked him.
“I think the whole town’s armed,” he answered. “I didn’t see a man without a gun; and civilians are guarding the road up there, stopping every car that goes through. I heard the story about two regiments in Barcelona, and then someone said four—one thing’s certain, this is all over Spain. Somebody said the tracks were blown up; somebody else said there was a train stopped in every station all along the line.”
“When do you suppose the train will move?”
“Can’t say. But they’ll let us know. The town’s all right,” he said violently. “Know what they’re doing? Feeding the whole darn Olympic crowd, at their own expense!”
He sat down and opened the pack of Bisontes.
“I met some more people, too,” he said. “There’s a stunning South American woman with the English, who told me that about the food—that’s the mayor’s order; and your friend from New Jersey, Helen,” he told her, “She’s looking for you all over the platform.
“No, leave your bag here,” Peter went on, “You’ll be staying with us.” They looked at her, with their intent grave looks. She had come to rely on them already.
“See you in a few minutes,” she said.
PEAPACK WAS HUDDLED in her corner still. “God,” she was muttering, “what have I let myself in for?” She sprang up when she saw Helen. “It’s war,” she cried, “but the Fascists are going to rescue us, I mean the Anarchists—oh, do you know what’s happening?”
Helen sat down with her.
“No,” she said, “I won’t move, Helen, I won’t leave this compartment, I can’t bear it. Did you hear the Belgian woman rush down the train? She came in here and said that noise was guns. It did sound like backfire, didn’t it? Who’s that?
Toni was at the window, calling Helen. She leaned out. He was an old friend, his face was immensely, touchingly familiar, the purple lips darkening in the half-light, his gay dark eyes. He wanted her to come to dinner, she was with the Olympics, the town was standing them all dinner.
“Go ahead, I’ll see you later,” she promised.
Peapack was behind her, pulling her arm.
She turned to the older woman, the whitened harassed face, sunken with fear.
“Don’t leave me, Helen,” she demanded, “don’t leave me alone. It sounds like war, I can’t bear it, we’ll never get out of this, don’t go, only don’t go!”
Evening was coming down. The radio was very loud.
© Muriel Rukeyser
Originally published in Beast in View (1944)
1 THE JOURNEY
Came in my full youth to the midnight cave
Nerves ringing; and this thing I did alone.
Wanting my fullness and not a field of war,
For the world considered annihilation, a star
Called Wormwood rose and flickered, shattering
Bent light over the dead boiling up in the ground.
The biting yellow of their corrupted lives
Streaming to war, denying all our words.
Nothing was left among the tainted weather
But world-walking and shadowless Ajanta.
Hallucination and the metal laugh
In clouds, and the mountain-spectre riding storm.
Nothing was certain but a moment of peace,
A hollow behind the unbreakable waterfall.
All the way to the cave, the teeming forms of death,
And death, the price of the body, cheap as air.
I blessed my heart on the expiation journey
For it had never been unable to suffer.
When I met the man whose face looked like the future,
When I met the whore with the dying red hair
The child myself who is my murderer.
So came I between heaven and my grave,
Past the serene smile of the voyeur, to
This cave where the myth enters the heart again.
2 THE CAVE
Space to the mind, the painted cave of dream.
This is not a womb, nothing but good emerges:
This is a stage, neither unreal nor real,
Where the walls are the world, the rocks and palaces
Stand on a borderland of blossoming ground.
If you stretch your hand, you touch the slope of the world
Reaching in interlaced gods, animals, and men.
There is no background. The figures hold their peace
In a web of movement. There is no frustration,
Every gesture is taken, everything yields connections.
The heavy sensual shoulders, the thighs, the blood-born flesh
And earth turning into color, rocks into their crystals,
Water to sound, fire to form; life flickers
Uncounted into the supple arms of love.
The space of these walls is the body’s living space;
Tear open your ribs and breathe the color of time
Where nothing leads away, the world comes forward
In flaming sequences. Pillars and prisms. Riders
And horses and the figures of consciousness,
Red cow grows long, goes running through the world.
Flung into movement in carnal purity,
These bodies are sealed – warm lip and crystal hand
In a jungle of night. Color-sheeted, seductive
Foreboding eyelid lowered on the long eye,
Fluid and vulnerable. The spaces of the body
Are suddenly limitless, and riding flesh
Shapes constellations over the golden breast,
Confusion of scents and illuminated touch –
Monster touch, the throat printed with brightness,
Wide outlined gesture where the bodies ride.
Bells, and the spirit flashing. The religious bells,
Bronze under the sunlight like breasts ringing,
Bronze in the closed air, the memory of walls,
Great sensual shoulders in the web of time.
3 LES TENDRESSES BESTIALES
A procession of caresses alters the ancient sky
Until new constellations are the body shining:
There’s the Hand to steer by, there the horizon Breast,
And the Great Stars kindling the fluid hill.
All the rooms open into magical boxes,
Nothing is tilted, everything flickers
Sexual and exquisite.
The panther with its throat along my arm
Turns black and flows away.
Deep in all streets passes a faceless whore
And the checkered men are whispering one word.
The face I know becomes the night-black rose.
The sharp face is now an electric fan
And says one word to me.
The dice and the alcohol and the destruction
Have drunk themselves and cast.
Broken bottles of loss, and the glass
Turned bloody into the face.
Now the scene comes forward, very clear.
Dream-singing, airborne, surrenders the recalled,
The gesture arrives riding over the breast,
Singing, singing, tender atrocity,
The silver derelict wearing fur and claws.
O love, I stood under the apple branch,
I saw the whipped bay and the small dark islands,
And night sailing the river and the foghorn’s word.
My life said to you: I want to love you well.
The wheel goes back and I shall live again,
But the wave turns, my birth arrives and spills
Over the breast the world bearing my grave,
And your eyes open in earth. You touched my life.
My life reaches the skin, moves under your smile,
And your throat and your shoulders and your face and your thighs
I am haunted by interrupted acts,
Introspective as a leper, enchanted
By a repulsive clew,
A gross and fugitive movement of the limbs.
Is this the love that shook the lights to flame?
Sheeted avenues thrash in the wind,
Torn streets, the savage parks.
I am plunged deep. Must find the midnight cave.
4 BLACK BLOOD
A habit leading to murder, smoky laughter
Hated at first, but necessary later.
Alteration of motives. To stamp in terror
Around the deserted harbor, down the hill
Until the woman laced into a harp
Screams and screams and the great clock strikes,
Swinging its giant figures past the face.
The Floating Man rides on the ragged sunset
Asking and asking. Do not say, Which loved?
Which was beloved? Only, Who most enjoyed?
Armored ghost of rage, screaming and powerless.
Only find me and touch my blood again.
Find me. A girl runs down the street
Singing Take me, yelling Take me Take
Hang me from the clapper of a bell
And you as hangman ring it sweet tonight,
For nothing clean in me is more than cloud
Unless you call it. — As I ran I heard
A black voice beating among all that blood:
“Try to live as if there were a God.”
5 THE BROKEN WORLD
Came to Ajanta cave, the painted space of the breast,
The real world where everything is complete,
There are no shadows, the forms of incompleteness.
The great cloak blows in the light, rider and horse arrive,
The shoulders turn and every gift is made.
No shadow fall. There is no source of distortion.
In our world, a tree casts the shadow of a woman,
A man the shadow of a phallus, a hand raised
The shadow of the whip.
Here everything is itself,
Here all may stand
On summer earth.
Brightness has overtaken every light,
And every myth netted itself in flesh.
New origins, and peace given entire
And the spirit alive.
In the shadowless cave
The naked arm is raised.
Interlaced, and gods
Interlaced, and men
I stand and am complete.
Crawls from the door,
Black at my two feet
The shadow of the world.
World, not yet one,
Enters the heart again.
The naked world, and the old noise of tears,
The fear, the expiation and the love,
A world of the shadowed and alone.
The journey, and the struggles of the moon.
© Muriel Rukeyser
“My love, my love, my love,
why have you left me alone?”
If I could write : Summer waits your coming,
the flowers are colored, but half-alive and weak,
earth sickens, as I sicken, with waiting,
and the clouds print on the dull moon a dark and blotting streak.
If I could write : no energy is kinetic,
storm breaks nor foot falls until you arrive,
the trees thrive, but no fruit is born to hang
heavily : and the stale wind continues to drive
all pausing summer before it into the distance
from which you, shining, will come . . . . But summer lives,
and minds grow, and nerves are sensitized to power
and no winds wait, and no tree stands but gives
richly to the store of the burning harvest :
the door stands open for you, and other figures pass,
and I receive them joyfully and live : but wait for you
(and sometimes secretly watch for wrinkles, in my glass).
© Muriel Rukeyser (originally published in Theory of Flight, 1935)