Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Muriel Rukeyser's Elegies

Among the various things I've been reading lately is Elegies by Muriel Rukeyser (a new edition published 2013 by New Directions; originally published by New Directions in 1949). The book is a gathering of 10 poems, each several pages in length, that Rukeyser wrote over a period of years in the 1930's and 1940's. I love Rukeyser's poetry, and it's a joy and a wonder to read this sequence of poems in its full concentration and power.

The events of the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930's were among the original sources of impulse for the poems; also, in a different way, Rilke's Duino Elegies. Rukeyser dedicated the Elegies to Otto Boch, a German man she met on her way to Spain at the outbreak of the civil war. Boch became Rukeyser's lover, and later he died while fighting against the Fascist invasion of Spain.

The poems form a remarkable and varied river of moods and tones and textures, sometimes flowing and lyrical, sometimes keenly philosophical, sometimes fervent and urging, sometimes verging on prophetic ecstasy. Here are some lines from the second elegy, which is titled "Age of Magicians":

Does this life permit its living to wear strength?
Who gives it, protects it. It is food.
Who refuses it, it eats in time as food.
It is the world and it eats the world.
Who knows this, knows. This has been said.
This is the vision of the age of magicians :
it stands at immense barriers, before mountains :
'I came to you in the form of a line of men,
and when you threw down the paper, and when you sat at the play,
and when you killed the spider, and when you saw the shadow
of the fast plane skim fast over your lover's face.
And when you saw the table of diplomats,
the newsreel of ministers, the paycut slip,
the crushed child's head, clean steel, factories,
the chessmen on the marble of the floor,
each flag a country, each chessman a live man,
one side advancing southward to the pit,
one side advancing northward to the lake,
and when you saw the tree, half bright half burning.
You never enquired into these meanings.
If you had done this, you would have been restored.'

I read these lines, and others of a similar surge in the book, and I think of the news events of our time, of this year, the rattlling of heavy guns along borders, the proud strutting of members of Congress accompanied by lobbyists from Exxon Mobil or JPMorgan Chase or Comcast... I think of the young men and woman who lured into joining the militaries of the world out of some notion of serving a "country" or because the available choices for any kind of livable future are shinking in the shadow of the ravenous mega-economies of corporate empire.

And here are some lines from the seventh elegy, titled "Dream-Singing Elegy," which evokes a world of a greatness and beauty and possibility that touches the sleeping and waking dreams of all of us, all of us who have not given up, who have not forsaken life or succumbed to the feeding frenzies of the commodity world:

When we began to fight, we sang hatred and death.
The new songs say, "Soon all people on earth
will live together." We resist and bless
and we begin to travel from defeat.
Now, as you sing your dream, you ask the dancers,
in the night, in the still night, in the night,
"Do you believe what I say?"
And all the dancers answer "Yes."

To the farthest west, the sea and the striped country
and deep in the camps among the wounded cities
half-world over, the waking dreams of night,
outrange the horrors. Past fierce and tossing skies
the rare desires shine in constellation.
I hear your cries, you little voices of children
swaying wild, nightlost, in black fields calling.
I hear you as the seething dreams arrive
over the sea and past the flaming mountains.
Now the great human dream as great as birth or death,
only that we are not given to remember birth,
only that we are not given to hand down death,
this we hand down and remember.

Brothers in dream, naked-standing friend,
rising over the night, crying aloud,
beaten and beaten and rising from defeat,
crying as we cry : We are the world together.
Here is the place in hope, on time's hillside,
where hope, in one's images, wavers for the last time
and moves out of one's body up the slope.
That place in love, where one's self, as the body of love,
moves out of the old lifetime towards the beloved.

I've been reading and rereading Elegies. I find new roads and depths in each reading.

The new edition includes a perceptive Introduction by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller, written in ten brief sections, which provides useful background on the poems, and on Muriel Rukeyser's life during the years when she was writing them.

I've written about Muriel Rukeyser's poetry previously in this blog, here.

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