The Collected Poems
Muriel Rukeyser’s work suggests what might have happened to Whitman’s had he lived in her own day. To begin with, one of the main resources of her poetry is social and political idealism, and whereas Whitman’s work sanctioned freedom and the abundant energies of America in the mid-1800’s, Rukeyser’s documents the absence of freedom and the deterioration of these energies in the twentieth century. Rukeyser substitutes a Freudian view of motive and a Jungian view of history for Whitman’s transcendentalism, but both poets are breathless to affirm that all things are useful, to which Rukeyser adds an enthusiasm for what she calls “new beginnings.” Finally, like Whitman, Rukeyser passionately identifies the history of her own meanings with that of the world’s at large; there is, in fact, a Whitmanesque thrust in her work to translate the world and herself into each other.
Impending war concerns Rukeyser’s earlier work, as in “Night Flight: New York,” where airplanes become “a swoop of bare/fatal battalions.” In “For Fun,” she accuses herself of not speaking out when the omens of war are clear, even in the violence of nature itself (“Correspondences”). In her later “Delta Poems,” she speaks of children and adults burned to death in the Vietnam War, and, as in her earlier work, she remembers in her later poetry “that core of all our lives”—the Spanish Civil War (“Neruda, the Wine”).
Throughout her career Rukeyser has attacked political oppression. In her early “Three Sides of a Coin,” the guests make light of political issues at a cocktail party, but Rukeyser chastizes this indifference and the status quo that supports it. The list of the heroes of rebellion she praises is long, and includes figures such as Marx, Ann Burlak, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. “The Lynchings of Jesus” shows how “sweet generous rebels” are destroyed in the name of law, and “Breaking Open” shows how man puts on in the name of reason the various guises of the torturer. Yet beyond man’s cruelty and for its victims, Rukeyser finds hope.
Modern life, often in the name of progress, thoughtlessly disrupts locales and maims people. “Sand-Quarry with Moving Figures” sees, beyond the mere clearing of land to build houses, “the land ruined,/exploded, burned away, and the fiery marshes bare.” The lives of coal miners are brutalized by their work (“The Tunnel”), and in a series of poems, many in the form of reports and witness statements, Rukeyser presents hundreds of mine workers in the “Gauley Tunnel” slowly dying of silica poisoning, the hard time they have getting even minimal compensation, and the power of nature turned against itself and man by technology. Observing city life itself, Rukeyser points out that it blights us by telling us to want what it has to sell and by bullying us into behaving as though nothing were wrong with our times.
Social ills are also imposed on people in the form of Freudian disjunctions in childhood: “the parents quarrel,” treating each other like “favorite” children, until their real children see the mother as a father and grow up yearning for a mother (“The Victims, a Play for the Home”). In this climate of injury, one ends up either “gasping into a pillow/. . . to nobody anywhere” (“Burning Bush”) or using sex as a sort of sleeping pill. One’s need, in fact, becomes so great it frightens him and he cannot accommodate it (“First Elegy. Rotten Lake”). As for fear itself, Rukeyser says we grow up with it, fearing first authority, then sexual rejection, and finally “the overarching wars and poverties” (“The Gates,” X).
There is, however, below the Freudian stratum where we are “broken,” a mythic stratum where we feel complete and find, Rukeyser suggests, “the symbols of worship” which help to rescue us from guilt (“The Key”). Even war has this mythic aspect in...
(The entire section is 1,464 words.)