"Beauty confronts us with the requirement that we place ourselves among...the redeemers, the leaders in the protection of life. Once you have seen the bush on fire, you are not going to get out of the assignment unless you close your eyes to the beauty.... [You] either have to close your eyes or go back to Egypt and set the people free." - Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, "Rising to the Challenge of Our Times"

Monday, December 12, 2011

"No more masks!"

This week on December 15th is the birthday of the late Muriel Rukeyser, who Adrienne Rich described as one of the 20th-century's greatest integrators of personal and social themes in poetry (from the Introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, Jan Heller Levi, ed., Norton, 1994). If she is not as well known to readers as that commendation ought to suggest, it may be partly because her work was not only controversial, inviting scathing hostility and huge appreciation during her lifetime, but also (as Rich points out) extremely difficult to categorize. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Meg Schoerke at San Francisco State University for my introduction to Rukeyser when I took her 20th-century American poets course in 1998.  I owe another debt of gratitude to the universe for the excellent coincidence of later having Muriel's grandson Jacob Rukeyser as a law school classmate.

I have to forego my impulse to speak with formality to and of my elders (and to Jacob's, in this case) and give in to the deeper urge to just call her Muriel. I don't think this indulgence is unjustified. In the introduction to her Reader, editor Jan Heller Levi says everyone (with the exception of Levi herself) - friends, strangers, former students - called her Muriel. It is impossible to read Muriel's work and not be pulled into a kind of intimacy with her and her subjects.  She insists.  For example:

The Poem as Mask
by Muriel Rukeyser

When I wrote of the women in their dances and 
      wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone
      down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from
There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,
the fragments join in me with their own music.

So you get the idea, hopefully, of what I mean by 'insisting.'

Happy (what would be 98th) birthday, Muriel, with love and gratitude for your fearless, insistent voice.