Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1464
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 that it illuminates, and connects us with, perennial cycles of struggle, death, and birth (“Endless”). Rukeyser’s ontology also says that “all exists in all. We hold/All human history” (“The Wards”); when she talks about the “collective unconscious,” she sees it as this history surfacing in us asleep or awake, and she calls for it to be articulated (“Breaking Open”).
From the beginning Rukeyser’s work has upheld the power of self to deal with, not hide from, the world’s incredible energies and the antipodal nature of form itself; after all, “we bloom upon this stalk of time,” she says in “Night Flight: New York,” exposing thereby an optimism equal to Whitman’s, and moving toward an ethic which charges us to “Rebel against torment” (“Night-Music”), go out to offered love, and oppose and work to cure social ills. When she insists in “Born in December,” “There is an entrance we may always find,” she echoes what she wrote much earlier in “Eighth Elegy. Children’s Elegy”: “The new world comes among the old one’s harms,” for the children of victims remake the world for themselves. In such a world as Rukeyser would have it, disguises and old dogmas are scrapped, women (because they are adept in the forms of suffering) would exceed the roles historically imposed on them “sex and spirit” would be the same (“The Six Canons”), men and women would nourish one another, people would be guided by their deepest inclinations and concepts, and self (a la Whitman) would go beyond the limits with which mere identity afflicts it.
To work toward this condition we must, Rukeyser admonishes, take risks. Failure may imbue and death conclude all that we are and do, but there are no changes, no “new beginnings,” without them. Her prescription for human behavior comes down to a life which makes use of everything in it (including fear), lets go when it ought to, and intimately knows itself as a process.
Besides a mode of social testament, Rukeyser’s poems are also records of the archetypal episodes of her own life. She leaves home (“This House, This Country”); she goes through a spiritual illness that nothing outside her can cure (“Panacea”); she finds herself her own worst enemy (“Clouds, Airs, Carried Me Away”) and, in a later change in her life, “without resource” (“A Birth”); she bears a child, hungers for an absent lover, and wakes to herself as “a violent woman in the violent day/Laughing” (“Waking This Morning”); she feels death taking hold of her (“Desdichada”) and remembers her parents “never touched” her (“More Clues”); she loses her parents and a sister, leaves one husband and takes another (perhaps a lover) who is a “dark outlaw” (“Double Ode,” IV); she hangs on to sex and life after a stroke (“Resurrection of the Right Side”); she even goes to prison (“Breaking Open”).
It is through discomforts and damages like these that Rukeyser feels joined to the human world in general and justified in her description of it. The ultimate tone she applies to her own case, however, (as she does to existence itself) is uplift. In her first book (1935), she says, “I will be open” (“Effort at Speech Between Two People”), and in her last (1976), she says, “my young look still blazes from my changing” (“Poem”). Nature and the direction through it may not have her name on them, but she is impelled to give herself generously to them just the same (“Then I Saw What the Calling Was”). Often seeing herself reflected in the “newborn,” she is willing to start over again, unhampered by used-up directions and undismayed by the opacity of new ones. She trusts that the pieces in her will come together of their own accord (“The Poem as Mask”), and she is alert to the genesis she cannot control: “Something again/is beginning to be born./A dance is/dancing me” (“Recovering”).
Wanting, as she says in her Preface, to excise nothing from the observations, feelings, decisions, and growth she has set down lest she betray them in the name of art, Rukeyser defends the sprawl and clutter of her book—which includes mostly free but often premodern formats and an array of genres under single titles and multiple subtitles, from the journalistic report and the biomythical narrative to the epistle and the lyric. It may be hard to sit still for the impassioned redundancies, and sometimes hard to sort out the details this abundance makes for, but as with Whitman one must be willing to wait for the best moments in Rukeyser’s poetry; two such moments are “St. Roach,” which shows a sense of humor mostly absent from her work, and “Ms. Lot,” which exchanges the almost Wagnerian density of much of her work for an undecorated, idiomatic style affording new life to an old theme.
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