Muriel Rukeyser: Selected Poetry.
Navigation

The Poet


From Theory of Flight (1935)

Effort at Speech Between Two People

:  Speak to me.		Take my hand.       What are you now?
   I will tell you all.	     I will conceal nothing.
   When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit
   who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair   :
   a pink rabbit  :  it was my birthday, and a candle
   burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

:  Oh grow to know me.   I am not happy.      I will be open:
   now I am thinking of white sails againsta sky like music,
   like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.
   There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

:  Speak to me.		Take my hand.	    What are you now?
   When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,
   fluid   :   and my widowed aunt played Chopin,
   and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.
   I want noe to be close to you.    I would
   link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

:  I am not happy.    I will be open.
   I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.
   There has been fear in my life.     Sometimes I speculate
   On what a tragedy his life was, really.

:  Take my hand.    First my mind in your hand.       What are
      you now?
   When I was fourteen, I had a dreams of suicide,
   and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping toward
      death   :
   if the light had not melted clouds and pains to beauty,
   if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.
   I am unhappy.	I am lonely.       Speak to me.

:  I will be open.	I think he never loved me:
   he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam
   that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls:
   he said with a gay mouth: I love you.      Grow to know me.

:  What are you now?    If we could touch one another,
   if these our separate entities could come to grips,
   clenched like a Chinese puzzle ... yesterday
   I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,
   and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.
   Everyone silent, moving... Take my hand.    Speak to me.


From U.S. 1 (1938)

The Book of the Dead: The Road

These are roads to take when you think of your country
and interested bring down the maps again,
phoning the statistician, asking the dear friend,

reading the papers with morning inquiry.
Or when you sit at the wheel and your small light
chooses gas gauge and clock; and the headlights

indicate future of road, your wish pursuing 
past the junction, the fork, the suburban station,
well-travelled six-lane highway planned for safety.

Past your tall central city's influence,
outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,
are centers removed and strong, fighting for good reason.

These roads will take you into your own country.
Select the mountains, follow rivers back,
travel the passes. Touch West Virginia where

the Midland Trail leaves the Virginia furnace,
iron Clifton Forge, Covington iron, goes down
into the wealthy valley, resorts, the chalk hotel.

Pillars and fairway; spa; White Sulphur Springs.
Airport. Gay blank rich faces wishing to add
history to ballrooms, tradition to the first tee.

The simple mountains, sheer, dark-graded with pine
in the sudden weather, wet outbreak of spring,
crosscut by snow, wind at the hill's shoulder.

The land is fierce here, steep, braced against snow,
rivers and spring. KING COAL HOTEL, Lookout,
and swinging the vicious bend, New River Gorge.

Now the photographer unpacks camera and case,
surveying the deep country, follows discovery
viewing on groundglass an inverted image.

John Marshall named the rock (steep pines, a drop
he reckoned in 1812, called) Marshall's Pillar,
but later, Hawk's Nest. Here is your road, tying

you to its meanings: gorge, boulder, precipice.
Telescoped down, the hard and stone-green river
cutting fast and direct into the town.


The Book of the Dead: West Virginia

They saw rivers flow east and hoped again.
Virginia speeding to another sea!
1671——Thomas Batts, Robert Fallam,
Thomas Wood, the Indian Perecute,
and an unnamed indentured English servant
followed the forest past blazed trees, pillars of God,
were the first whites emergent from the east.
They left a record to our heritage,
breaking of records. Hoped now for the sea,
for all mountains have their descents about them,
waters, descending naturally, doe alwaies resort
unto the seas invironing those lands...
yea, at home amongst the mountaines in England.

Coming where this road comes,
flat stones spilled water which the still pools fed.
Kanawha Falls, the rapids of the mind,
fast waters spilling west.

Found Indian fields, standing low cornstalks left,
learned three Mohetons planted them; found-land
farmland, the planted home, discovered!

War-born:
The battle at Point Pleasant, Corntstalk's tribes,
last stand, Fort Henry, a revolution won;
the granite SITE OF THE precursor EXECUTION
sabres, apostles of JOHN BROWN LEADER OF THE
War's brilliant cloudy RAID AT HARPERS FERRY.	
Floods, heavy wind this spring, the beaten land 
blown high by wind, fought wars, forming a state,
a surf, frontier defines two fighting halves,
two hundred battles in the four years: troops
here in Gauley Bridge, Union headquarters, lines
bring in the military telegraph.
Wires over the gash of gorge and height of pine.

But it was always the water
the powers flying deep 
green rivers cut the rock
rapids boiled down,
a scene of power.

Done by the dead.
Discovery learned it.
And the living?

Live country filling west,
knotted the glassy rivers;
like valleys, opening mines,
coming to life.


The Book of the Dead: Absalom

I first discovered what was killing these men.
I had three sons who worked with their father in the tunnel:
Cecil, aged 23, Owen, aged 21, Shirley, aged 17.
They used to work in a coal mine, not steady work
for the mines were not going much of the time.
A power Co. foreman learned that we made home brew,
he formed a habit of dropping by evenings to drink,
persuading the boys and my husband——
give up their jobs and take this other work.
It would pay them better.
Shirley was my youngest son; the boy.
He went into the tunnel.

  My heart  my mother  my heart  my mother
  My heart  my coming into being.

My husband is not able to work.
He has it, according to the doctor.
We have been having a very hard time making a living since
  this trouble came to us.
I saw the dust in the bottom of the tub.
The boy worked there about eighteen months,
came home one evening with a shortness of breath.
He said, "Mother, I cannot get my breath."
Shirley was sick about three months.
I would carry him from his bed to the table,
from his bed to the porch, in my arms.

  My heart is mine in the place of hearts,
  They gave me back my heart, it lies in me.

When they took sick, right at the start, I saw a doctor.
I tried to get Dr. Harless to X-ray the boys.
He was the only man I had any confidence in,
the company doctor in the Kopper's mine,
but he would not see Shirley.
He did not know where his money was coming from.
I promised him half if he'd work to get compensation,
but even then he would not do anything.
I went on the road and begged the X-ray money,
the Charleston hospital made the lung pictures,
he took the case after the pictures were made.
And two or three doctors said the same thing.
The youngest boy did not get to go down there with me,
he lay and said, "Mother, when I die,
"I want you to have them open me up and
"see if that dust killed me.
"Try to get compensation,
"you will not have any way of making your living
"when we are gone,
"and the rest are going too."

  I have gained mastery over my heart
  I have gained mastery over my two hands
  I have gained mastery over the waters
  I have gained mastery over the river.

The case of my son was the first of the line of lawsuits.
They sent the lawyers down and the doctors down;
they closed the electric sockets in the comps.
There was Shirley, and Cecil, Jeffrey and Oren,
Raymond Johnson, Clev and Oscar Anders,
Frank Lynch, Henry Palf, Mr. Pitch, a foreman;
a slim fellow who carried steel with my boys,
his name was Darnell, I believe. There were many others,
the towns of Glen Ferris, Alloy, where the white rock lies,
six miles away; Vanetta, Gauley Bridge,
Gamoca, Lockwood, the gullies,
the whole valley is witness.
I hitchhike eighteen miles, they make checks out.
They asked me how I keep the cow on $2.
I said one week, feed for the cow, one week, the children's
  flour.
The oldest son was twenty-three.
The next son was twenty-one.
The youngest son was eighteen.
They called it pneumonia at first.
They would pronounce it fever.
Shirley asked that we try to find out.
That's how they learned what the trouble was.

  I open out a way, they have covered my sky with crystal
  I come forth by day, I am born a second tim,
  I force a way through, and I know the gate
  I shall journey over the earth among the living.

  He shall not be diminished, never;
  I shall give a mouth to my son.


Homage to Literature

When you imagine trumpet-faced musicians
blowing again inimitable jazz
no art can accuse not cannonadings hurt,

or coming out of your dreams of dirigibles
again see the unreasonable cripple
throwing his crutch headlong as the headlights

streak down the torn street, as the three hammerers
go One, Two, Three on the stake, triphammer poundings
and not a sign of new worlds to still the heart;

then stare into the lake of sunset as it runs
boiling, over the west past all control

rolling and swamps the hearbeat and repeats
sea beyond sea after unbearable suns;
think: poems fixed this landscape: Blake, Donne, Keats.


From A Turning Wind (1939)

Elegies: First Elegy. Rotten Lake

As I went down to Rotten Lake I remembered
the wrecked season, haunted by plans of salvage,
snow, the closed door, footsteps and resurrections,
	machinery of sorrow.

The warm grass gave to the feet and the stilltide water
was floor of evening and magnetic light and
reflection of wish, the black-haired beast with my eyes
	walking beside me.

The green and yellow lights, the street of water standing
point to the image of that house whoe destruction
I weep when I weep you. My door (no), poems, rest,
	(don't say it) untamable need.
		——————————————
When you have left the river you are a little way 
nearer the lake; but I leave many times.
Parents parried my past; the present was poverty,
the future depended on my unfinished spirit.
There were no misgivings because there was no choice,
only regret fro waste, and the wild knowledge:
growth and sorrow and discovery.

When you have left the river you proceed alone;
all love is likely to be illicit; and few
friends to command the soul; they are too feeble.
Rejecting the subtle and contemplative minds
as being too thin in the bone; and the gross thighs
and unevocative hands fail also. But the poet
and his wife, those who say survive, remain;
and those two who were with me on the ship
leading me to the sum of the years, in Spain.

When you have left the river you will hear the war.
In the mountains, with tourists, in the insanest groves
the sound of kill, the precious face of peace.
And the sad frightened child, continual minor,
returns, nearer whole cirlce, O and nearer
all that was loved, the lake, the naked river,
what must be crossed and cut out of your heart,
what must be stood beside and strangely seen.
	     ——————————————
As I went down to Rotten Lake I remembered
how the one crime is need. The man lifting the loaf
with hunger as motive can offer no alibi, is
	always condemned.

There are the lines at the employment bureau
and the tense students at their examinations;
needing makes clumsy and robs them of their wish,
	in one fast gesture

plants on them failure of the imagination;
and lovers who lower their bodies into the chair
gently and sternly as if the flesh had been wounded,
	never can conquer.

Their need is too great, their vulnerable bodies
rigidly joined will snap, turn love away,
fear parts them, they lose their hands and voices, never
	get used to the world.

Walking at night, they are asked Are you your best friend's
best friend? and must say No, not yet, they are
love's vulnerable, and they go down to Rotten Lake
	hoping for wonders.

Dare it arrive, the day when weakness ends?
When the insistence is strong, the wish converted?
I prophesy the meeting by the water
	of these desires.

I know what this is, I have known the waking 
when every night ended in one cliff-dream
of faces drowned beneath the porous rock
	brushed by the sea;

suffered the change : deprived erotic dreams
to images of that small house where peace
wlaked room to room and always with one face
	telling her stories,

and needed that, past loss, past fever, and the
attractive enemy who in my bed
touches all night the body of my sleep
	improves my summer

with madness, impossible loss, and the dead music
of altered promise, a room torb up by the roots,
the desert that crosses from the door to the wall,
	continual bleeding,

and all the time that will which cancels enmity,
seeks its own Easter, arrives at the water-barrier;
must face it now, biting the lakeside ground;
	looks for its double,

the twin that must be met again, changeling need,
blazing in color somewhere, flying yellow
into the forest with its lucid edict:
	take to the world,

this is the honor of your flesh, the offering
of strangers, the faces of cities, honor of all your wish.
Immortal undoing! I say in my own voice. These prophecies
	may all come true,

out of the beaten season. I look in Rotten Lake
wait for the flame reflection, seeing only
the free beast flickering black along my side
	animal of my need,

and cry I want! I want! rising among the world
to gain my converted wish, the amazing desire
that keeps me alive, though the face be still, be still,
the slow dilated heart know nothing by lack,
now I begin again the private rising,
the ride to survival of that consuming bird
beating, up from dead lakes, ascents of fire.


Reading Time : 1 Minute 26 Seconds

The fear of poetry is the
fear : mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the 
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son's head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down. And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended. And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof. That strikes long after act.

They fear it. They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet's shot.
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.


Correspondences

"...the primary purpose here being
 simply to indicate that, whatever
'free play' there may be in esthetic
 enterprise, it is held down by the
gravitational pull of historical necessities..."
		——KENNETH BURKE, in Attitudes toward History.

	Democritus Laughed

Democritus laughed when he
saw his whole universe
combined of atoms, and
the gods destroyed——
He killed the ghostly 
vengeance deep at the source,
holding bright philosophical sand
up for a threat——
laughing his soldier laughter
with ages of troops after
who grin with reason in
the trenches of
metaphysics, astronomy, disease,
philosophy, the state, and poetry,
the black-and-white war on sin,
the dead wars, the impossible dark wars,
the war on starve, the war on kill, the war on lovem
the war on peace.

	
	Tree of Days

I was born in winter when
Europe heard the early guns,
when I was five, the drums
welcomed home the men.

The spring after my birth
a tree came out of the lake,
I laughed for i could not speak;
the world was there to learn.

The richest season in
the headlines fell as I was ten,
but the crazies were forgotten,
the fine men, the bravest men.

When I had reached fifteen,
that pliant tree was dark,
breadlines haunted the parks——
the books tricked-in that scene.

No work in any town
when I was twenty, cured
the tin and desperate poor
from being forced alone.

Clear to hald a brain
in a blind man's head,
war must follow that tide
of running milk and grain.

Now China's long begun,
that tree is dense and strong,
spreading, continuing——
and Austria; and Spain.

If some long unborn friend
looks at photos in pity,
we say, sure we were happy,
but it was not in the wind.

Half my twenties are gone
as the crazies take to the planes,
the fine men, the bravest men,
and the war goes on.


	1/26/39

When Barcelona fell, the darkened glass
turned on the world an immense ruinous gaze,
mirror of prophecy in a series of mirror.
I meet it in all the faces that I see.

Decisions of history the radios reverse;
storm over continents, black rays around the chief,
finished in lightning, the little chaos raves.
I meet in all the faces that I see.

Inverted year with one prophetic day,
high wind, forgetful cities, and the war,
the terrible time when everyone writes "hope."
I meet it in all the faces that I see.

When Barcelona fell, the cry on the roads
assembled horizons, and the circle of eyes
looked with a lifetime look upon that image,
defeat among us, and war, and prophecy,
I meet it in all the faces that I see.


	Correspondences

Wars between wars, laughter behind the lines.
Fighting behind the lines. Not children laughing,
but the trench-laughter of the wounded, of radios,
of animal cartoons, the lonely broadcast
on the taxi dashboard, behind the wrecking crew
lit by a naked bulb——to the forgetful bars
prisms and amber shaken with laughter, to the ships at sea.
TO the maleficent walls of cities, and an old actress
trying against the trying wind under the skyscrapers,
blind ageing face up, still the look of the lioness,
walking close to the buildings, along the wall,
she licks her lips in panic of loneliness.
She understands the laughter that rides around the streets,
blowing the news to the stone-lands, the swamp-lands, the dust
where omens of war, restless in clouds of dust,
mean dust is never an anachronism
and ruin's news.

The actress knows. Laughter takes up the slack,
changes the fact, narrowing it to nothing,
hardly a thing but silence on a stage.
Crack of laughter. Walls go white, and the plain open note
talks in a houseful of noise. Reply : Now hide!

Over the air, the blindfold answer, the news of force,
the male and hairless hand of fear
in a shiny leather sleeve
armed.

The radiations of harm : black grooves in photographs,
blackness in spokes playing from Hitler's head.
A head with one nightmare.
Expect failure of plans, the floodgates closing,
failure of traffic-control, loss of voice, fog.
Wires dead, defection of your central power-plant.
A code : Laughter. What alphabet are they using?

Many wished for little.
Many asked unity.

We had our characters as we had our cities,
or as a lyric poet has his voices, audible
as separate lives, maturing in poise, and symbols
coming to their "great period," too big to kill,
able to batter at the jetties of hell.

Rites of initiation of our lives:
by filth in childhood,
by wealth in the middle,
by death at the end.
We knew the dear, the enemy, we saw the spy
whisper at ear, the agency suggest,
and where no secrecy and treason were
we saw the novelist, pimp of character,
develop the age so ti be understood
to read like his book, a city of the dead.

But the century had its rites, its politics,
machineries whose characters were wars.
Ceremonies of further separation. And now, our backs to bricks,
war closes in, calling us to the guns
to make accounting how our time was spent.
And the planes fall. Soon the whole incident is
over, all but the consequences.

Laughter, and childhood; and laughter; and age; or death.
Call to the male puppet, Croak,
and to the female puppet, Shriek,
and turn on me your gun for luck.

Take us our sacrifices, a wish for the living,
this foil of thought, this soil from which we sprang.
fugal music of peace, the promises well-kept,
the big and little diaries of the dead.
The song of occupations and the ghosts,
the historian, pimp of centuries, the general, pimp of wars.
the Floating Man, gentle above the cities,
afraid to touch, a cloud before his head,
laughing the laugh of a man about to be drafted,
the flier, mock-protagonist of his time,
refugees who reserve a final condemnation
and see a richer horror in the sky.

Humor, saliva of terror, will not save the day
or evern one moment when the cities are
high in a boneyard where clowns ride up and down
and a night crew works quickly before morning;
while news arrives of the death of others,
laughter of brother and the brother wars,
works of an age among such characters.

Violent electric night! and the age spiralling past
and the sky turning over, and the wind turning the stars.

Site Index | Home | AS@UVA | 1930's Website
Comments


Navigation