Muriel Rukeyser

At the Church of the Transfiguration

by Gerald Stern

I was reading Muriel Rukeyser, along with Roethke, Lowell, Berryman, and Thomas for years, and I went to her readings when I was in New York, but I never met her until we gave a reading together at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, in 1976. She was, at the time, sixty-three years old—and “famous”; I was fifty and just starting to gather a reputation. She was there with her friend, Monica McCall, and greeted me with a huge smile and careful observation of my clothes and my companions, my wife Pat and my eighteen-year-old daughter Rachael. She made a comment about the elbow patches on my wool jacket—in this case, as I pointed out to her, sewed on by Pat to cover the holes—and proceeded to call me “Mr. Poet.” I accepted the nomenclature, as I explained the patches and kissed her on the forehead. As if to test me, she insisted she would read first, which I dismissed outright by a shake of the head and a gesture of the arm.

The room we read in was on the top floor of the building. It was long and narrow—very long, I remember—and held an overflow audience of, I would guess, over two hundred people. She kept dropping the sheets of paper in which her poems were typed and rather than pick them up she just went on, impromptu. They asked us questions afterwards and one well-dressed fool kept pestering me about my “Jewish vision,” as he called it. I said—after a while—sotto voce, “I don’t want to be mean,” to which Muriel, standing beside me, said, “be mean, be mean”—which I did. Which I was.
I met Muriel the next spring—1977—at the Roethke Poetry Festival at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, an hour and a half from New York. Roethke had taught at Lafayette—his first teaching job, in the thirties. He was also the college tennis coach. He used to drive down the Delaware River to visit Stanley Kunitz on his farm near New Hope, Pennsylvania where they read their poems to each other. The festival was named for him, certainly in ironic memory of his short tenure there. I was teaching a poetry workshop at the time at Lafayette and each year I was responsible for choosing the poets for the festival. The others that spring were David Ignatow, Etheridge Knight, and C.K. Williams. I remember the gorgeous reading Muriel gave, her talk, and the hour we spent alone. She and Ignatow got on a bus together in front of the Easton Hotel for the trip back to New York.

Jonathan Galassi, my editor then, had asked Muriel to write a blurb for Lucky Life, published in the fall of 1977, and I made a trip to New York (from Easton) to release her from that burden, given the state of her health; but sitting at her kitchen table over a cup of tea she told me, word for word, what she was going to say. I wrote a poem called “Rukeyser” detailing that visit, especially her nurse’s anger when she came back from shopping and saw Muriel out of bed, only a thin shawl covering her shoulders, and talking—heatedly—as she did.

The last time I saw her was at the group reading of Kit Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” at the Church of the Transfiguration on lower Fifth Avenue, which Galway Kinnell organized and years later wrote about in his gorgeous poem “Jubilate.” We each read a section from Smart’s poem. Allen Ginsberg, James Wright, Philip Levine, Jane Cooper, Etheridge Knight, Grace Paley, myself, and ten others. Muriel, the last reader, fell slowly down at the microphone, a mini-stroke, dizziness, confusion. She had been sick for almost fifteen years, and would die soon after. Galway related, in his moving—and comic—lines, how she sank slowly to the floor, still reading, and insisted only on a chair, refusing both doctor and ambulance, reciting the last lines of her portion from a prone position, the wires and the microphone in a heap on top of her.

It was 1978, two years after the publication of her last book, The Gates, containing her narrative of the visit to Seoul to stand vigil—as president of pen America—at the gates of the prison where the Korean poet Kim Chi-Ha was confined, without papers or pen, for speaking up against the South Korean government. For writing. The Gates also contains her poem, “St. Roach,” the unbelievable reaching out to “the other,” in this case the disgusting and the filthy, as we commonly perceive it, a poem whose greatness, in terms of content as well as music, is still to be fully realized. She was groundbreaking, earth-shaking, stubborn, and visionary. It was a great honor to have known her.

Originally Published: April 2, 2012

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This prose originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2012

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Gerald Stern has been called an “American original,” “a sometimes comic, sometimes tragic visionary,” and, by his friend Stanley Kunitz, “the wilderness in American poetry.” Over dozens of books, and decades of teaching and activism, Stern has emerged as one of America’s most celebrated and irascible poets. “If I could choose one poem of mine to explain my stance,” Stern told Contemporary Poets, “it would be ‘The One Thing in . . .

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