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Muriel: In Memoriam

February 11, 2014
by Helen Engelhardt Rukeyser 31. You left us in February You left us two days before Valentine’s. In the morning I heard myself say, “No more. Do not call me anymore.” I listened to your lifetime. In the afternoon I was warned: “Saturn is slipping into Libra. Do not alter your alliances. Mars is conjunct Jupiter.” You were the teacher I never had The poet who wrote my poems before I thought of them In the evening I stared at the eastern sky and dared the two spots of light to harm me. December wrapped children have the secret sealed in their bones: the earth does not die — it only seems to. I suppose you taught me that in a poem I cannot find again. In the middle of the night I was awakened by those unblinking eyes one orange one blue I covered my skin I averted my face. The next evening I learned of your death from a newspaper over a delegate’s shoulder. 2. She said: The silence at home. The river to which I have just come back and didn’t realize how much I needed. The Bible. Blake. Keats. Donne She said: The poems get into one before one has language She said: I find returns very romantic in all things. I love the coming back at different times of all things, including sounds, including words. She said: I mean recurrence in all things. What they call repetition. With a poem, with a dream, you have to take it back into life to see what it becomes. She said: The poem is a meeting place just as a person’s life is a meeting place. It isn’t that one brings life together. It’s that one will not allow it to be torn apart. She said: These are the rhythms most to be alive: writing poetry, lovemaking, bringing to birth. There is extreme joy. She said: It seems to me that the awful poems are written from someplace into which the poet has not dived deep enough. She said: I am perfectly willing to give or offer or sell them, but I don’t like to submit, although I am willing to submit to many things. 3. “. . . Past the line of memory along the long body of your life.” —Muriel Rukeyser Child of Akiba Child of Akibaborn at the end of the year Child of Akibabefore the year the first Child of AkibaWorld War ignited traveling to witness Child of Akibaalong U.S.1 deep into her own discovered country Child of Akibainto the silica mines of West Virginia Child of Akibato the miners dying of the pure white dust Child of Akibato the company on trials on a voyage to the sea of war Child of Akibato the antifascist Olympic Games Child of Akibato France from Barcelona in a small boat Child of Akibaevacuated with the athletes five days after Child of Akibathe war broke open keeping vigil before the gates of prison Child of Akibain the mud and rain of Korea Child of Akibabeside the poet in solitary, Kim Chi Ha Child of Akibain Vietnam after the war Child of Akibaseeking the writers who survived teaching us all Child of Akibathe vision of the poet and the scientist is one Child of Akibaa clear voice opening the obstacles Child of Akibato fulfill Wordsworth’s prophecy: “a birth of human Child of Akibaunderstanding.” Midwife of the transfiguration 4. The Recalling Confidence murmured in my ear when you entered the lounge “She wanted a child, but she didn’t marry to have one!” The walls were properly covered with books a fire in its place, we in ours, the warmth of all ideas so politely exchanged in Sarah Lawrence at a seminar in autumn The windows steamed over. My ears burned. St. Mark’s Church. 24 hour poetry marathon reading to end the war to end our patience. Every pew packed, hungry to be heard mostly men lined the walls. A space cleared around you quiet came to take its turn. You stood alone in Cooper Union’s Great Hall on a Friday night in the early ‘70s. You called up to us The Ballad of the Orange and the Grape, The Conjugation of the Paramecium, The Speed of Darkness. You left the microphone and walked to the edge of the stage to talk to us. Said the man behind me, “She stands tall.” The women gathered in Loeb Student Center in November 1979, poets, storytellers, anti-nuclear activists. You were present in your absence. Each woman read one of your poems before she read her own. 5. “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” —Muriel Rukeyser One Life 1957 The Life of Poetry 1949 Doors, gates, locks The Speed of Darkness 1968 shut in, she broke open. The Speed of Darkness 1968 Her silent mother taught her The Speed of Darkness 1968 ‘you can’t leave home, you belong here.’ The Speed of Darkness 1968 She hid under a chair. She was told to be The Speed of Darkness 1968 happy. It was her birthday. She burnt her finger. The Theory of Flight 1935 Her mother lived in fear. Her father poured concrete. The Speed of Darkness 1968 The rest of the family was all about money. The Speed of Darkness 1968 She was disobedient. She wrote poetry. She was The Speed of Darkness 1968 disinherited. A Turning Wind 1939 She dreamed of suicide. She stood at a window at The Speed of Darkness 1968 sunset. The Speed of Darkness 1968 The light held her back. The dream recurred The Speed of Darkness 1968 throughout her life. Somehow each time she found The Speed of Darkness 1968 out how to get to the next step. The Beast in View 1944 She drove south to Scottsboro and Spain The Speed of Darkness 1968 core of all our lives The Speed of Darkness 1968 “to carry and spread and daily justify” The Speed of Darkness 1968 The gypsy in her the anarchist united in her then Body of Waking 1958 She chose to have a child. They were almost lost The Speed of Darkness 1968 to the whirlpool. The doctors rescued them to each The Speed of Darkness 1968 other. The Orgy 1966 She sought the “wild good.” “Almost every day The Speed of Darkness 1968 for a moment there was happiness.” The Speed of Darkness 1968 She didn’t turn her back. She wished to make music The Speed of Darkness 1968 out of her violence, out of her contradictions The Speed of Darkness 1968 “So much is possible for everybody.” Breaking Open 1973 Sienna and blinding white light…a dead woman was The Speed of Darkness 1968 lying beside her. The Speed of Darkness 1968 Darkness arrives/splitting the mind open The Speed of Darkness 1968 Something again/is beginning to be born The Speed of Darkness 1968 Her heart. Her mouth. Her heart. The Gates 1976 When I am dead, even then The Speed of Darkness 1968 I will still love you. I will wait in these poems NOTES “Muriel: In Memoriam” is based on Rukeyser’s own tribute to Kathe Kollwitz in her sequence of Lives. Each of these five sections attempts to serve an equivalent function and to recall the rhythms of the original. Part 1 The central image, that of two planets in conjunction, coincidentally appears as a sign in the lower left hand corner of every numbered page in The Speed of Darkness. Part 2 All quotations are from an interview with MR in The Craft of Poetry, William Packard, Ed., Doubleday, 1974. Part 3 The epigraph is from “Waking This Morning.” The biographical incidents are from an article by Louise Bernikow, “Muriel at 65: Still Ahead of Her Time,” January 1979, a recording made at a Day in Honor of Muriel Rukeyser, December 9, 1978 at Sarah Lawrence College and broadcast on WBAI; from The Speed of Darkness & U.S. 1. Part 5 Epigraph from “Poem Out of Childhood.” Louise Bernikow’ article; MR’s poems, “Effort at Speech Between Two People,” “Recovering,” and “Then,” American Poetry Review vol. 3 #3, 1974. Because Rukeyser chose to describe nine self-portraits by Kollwitz, I selected nine self-portraits from Rukeyser’s life in her own words or in paraphrase. The titles of her books are in chronological order (except for the first two titles). Helen Engelhardt is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents. She is the author of The Longest Night: A Personal History of Pan Am 103 (2013). The audio version of the book was an Audie Finalist for Original Work in 2010. A poet, writer, storyteller, and independent audio producer, she wrote most recently for us about “The Jewish Connections of Käthe Kollwitz.”
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