Learning to Breathe under Water

Considering Muriel Rukeyser’s oceanic work.

It has been almost a mantra among women poets: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.” Muriel Rukeyser put those words in the mouth of the artist Käthe Kollwitz in one of her most famous poems, and perhaps the world has in fact split open since then, as her poetic daughters (and some sons too) have endeavored to tell the truth about all our lives. Born in New York City in 1913, Rukeyser died in the same city in 1980, after a lifetime of poetry and prose-writing ranging over myth, science, history, politics, and the most intimate of lyric subjects, and a life of political activism spanning decades and continents. Her book The Life of Poetry has become a classic. Her always passionate Collected Poems, long out of print, was reissued, in a version edited with notes by Anne Herzog and Janet Kaufman, by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2005, and New Directions will reissue her 1949 Elegies this fall. As poetry in America begins to turn away from its fear of ardor, Rukeyser is more relevant than ever. This essay is adapted from a talk at the Rukeyser Colloquium, given to celebrate her centennial, at Eastern Michigan University in March 2013.

There are … two kinds of reaching in poetry, one based on the document, the evidence itself; the other informed by the unverifiable fact, as in sex, dream, the parts of life in which we dive deep and sometimes—with strength of expression and skill and luck—reach that place where things are shared and we all recognize the secrets.       

Unverifiable fact … the parts of life where we dive deep. I cherish this quote from Rukeyser’s preface to the 1978 Collected, with its image of what to do about unverifiability, when it comes to a poet whose element is the visionary. For I have asked myself: how are my arms to reach around the amplitude that is Muriel Rukeyser? I have asked: what terms, what adjectives, what syntax can be adequate to the oracular force, the sibylline intensity, the urgency, the pure mystery of Rukeyser’s poetry, her prose, her drama, the profound song, the cataract of passion, intelligence, and moral responsibility that floods everything she wrote? I ask myself as well, how do we place Rukeyser within the poetry of her time, unique as she appears to be stylistically, and spurned as she was in her time by both mainstream and left-wing critics? Where are the connections?

Some of Rukeyser’s writing is clear and direct. Much is not. I begin to read and am immediately in danger of drowning. The writing is not merely fluid; it is oceanic. It cannot be paraphrased. At the writing’s surface, I am not on the shore at ocean’s edge like Whitman in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” on solid ground listening to the birds and the sea-mother. At the writing’s surface I am already in a lifeboat, surrounded in all directions by measureless waves. The waves of language slap and surge and pull, making their music. But it is beneath the surface that the meanings wait for me. To read Rukeyser is to learn to breathe underwater. Underwater, where life on our planet begins.

Here are the first three lines of the poem “Islands,” which I like to introduce to students who may be afraid of revealing too much about themselves in their poems, afraid of being “confessional.” If you take nothing else away from this semester, I tell them, take these three lines. Rukeyser here is quite clear and direct:


O for God’s sake
they are connected

For me, these three lines are the perfect response to Matthew Arnold’s once-famous poem “To Marguerite,” which insists that each human being is an island:

Yes: in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.

Arnold describes the islands as yearning for connection, “For surely once, they feel, we were / Parts of a single continent”—but the poem insists that “a god” has ruled that separation and alienation are inescapable, and his poem ends with a beautiful and devastating image of alienation: “The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.”

Now look again at Rukeyser’s three lines and their depth of reply and of challenge. That first line seems to be an exclamation of irritation and impatience, as if to say to Matthew Arnold, how can you be so stupid, so oblivious to the obvious truth. But that first line is simultaneously an utterance of exaltation—“for God’s sake” is to be taken literally as an invocation of holiness. Connection, not estrangement, is what God wants, or what God has actually created. “They are connected” for an instant seems contrafactual, and then we get that simple final line, “underneath.” When I say these lines to a group, I see eyes widen and faces light up in recognition. Islands are all connected at the sea floor. And we are all, all islands connected at the level of our unconscious, or unspoken, or unspeakable deep selves. This is what makes poetry possible. This is what makes poetry necessary.

Adrienne Rich’s breakthrough poem “Diving into the Wreck” is a sister-poem to Rukeyser’s “Islands.” “You breathe differently down here,” says Rich; and it is here, below the surface, that “the damage … and the treasures” are to be found, and that the poet can become the androgyne “I am she: I am he,” which then melt into the collective “We are, I am, you are …” At a memorial for Rukeyser, Jane Cooper quoted her as saying, shortly before her death, “I hold to the streams below the streams.” “The emotional obstacle is the real one,” Rukeyser says, describing the resistance to poetry in The Life of Poetry. But on the ocean floor there is no obstacle.

Water is very important to Rukeyser. The Life of Poetry begins on shipboard, “a boat on which I sailed away from the beginning of a war … over the deep fertile sea of night.” Much of “The Amistad Mutiny” takes place on or near water. One of her volumes of poetry (a book of self-rescue) is titled The Green Wave. It is no coincidence that her description of Whitman’s cadences, like “water at the shore, not beginning nor ending, but endlessly drawing in, making forever its forms of massing and falling among the breakers, seething in the white recessions of its surf, never finishing, always making a meeting-place” so fully describes her own cadences.

A second poem I would like to look at is similar to “Islands” in some ways, but a little more difficult. How do we read the Vietnam-era poem called “Poem”? Rukeyser wrote many poems responding to war. This one opens,

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

I once walked the distance between the Bowery Poetry Club and St. Mark’s Church in the East Village with a group of poets handing copies of this poem to passersby and sitters at sidewalk cafes, some of whom nodded in recognition, some of whom were puzzled. Where does this poem take us; where does it leave us? It finds us “more or less insane,” invaded by the knowledge of suffering, battered by consumerist media whose technology is simultaneously blessing and curse. Yet a community exists in time present: “my friends.” There is the hope that the poems one makes can reach “others unseen and unborn.” We may think immediately of Auden’s great, gloomy poem “September 1, 1939,” written on the brink of World War II, with its “ironic points of light” that “flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages.” Like Auden, Rukeyser wants to “[s]how an affirming flame,” but she goes further than Auden in her idea of how to do this.

To begin with, she does not invoke Auden’s capitalized abstraction, “the Just.” For Rukeyser, the signal-senders are that much humbler thing, “my friends … those men and women.” Then there is an actual program: trying to imagine an alternative “way of living, of almost unimagined values.” To imagine the unimagined, “to construct peace, to make love”—here she is claiming that love is something we can actually create, build, construct, and then comes the great speculative hope of reconciliation that is the opposite of war. Here the meaning begins to be less precise as it becomes more urgent. Trying to reconcile “waking with sleeping,” I think, might mean that we can draw the dream life into daylight. Reconciliation of “ourselves with each other, / Ourselves with ourselves” recognizes that conflict exists not only out there in Europe but also between us and deep within us, and that we can deal with conflict by an “almost unimagined” method. Here I remember another sister-poem, Marianne Moore’s very Rukeyser-like World War II poem of agony and conscience, “In Distrust of Merits,” in which Moore says, “I must / fight till I have conquered in myself what / causes war, but I would not believe it. / I inwardly did nothing.” Pushing past even that formulation, the struggle with oneself, Rukeyser and her friends try “by any means” to transcend themselves.

I have puzzled over these lines. By what means do we reach our limits and then even beyond ourselves and our circle of friends? In her case, by making poetry, art, film, science; teaching the young; becoming a burning witness of high and mighty wrongdoing by traveling as a teenager to the trial of the Scottsboro boys, to Spain at the opening of the Spanish Civil War, to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where miners were dying of preventable silicosis due to Union Carbide’s failure to provide masks and breathing equipment, and, as president of PEN 40 years later, to North Korea to lie on the ground protesting the imprisonment of another poet and activist? By bringing all of this into language? By having sex with both men and women, becoming a single mother in 1947, going to jail as an antiwar activist, accumulating a 40-year-long FBI file … what? Then, after all this, “To let go the means, to wake.” What can “to wake” mean? Asked by a well-meaning teacher what his plans are, Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man declares his intention to wake from the nightmare of history. All mystics see our ordinary lives as a kind of sleep. “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” says Wordsworth. In Buddhist thought, awakening has many meanings, including the sudden achievement of enlightenment, which is liberation from bondage to karma.

So there is an exalted moment of imagined, anticipated, hoped-for freedom, the freedom of pure unfiltered consciousness. Then a pause. Then that devastating final line: I lived in the first century of these wars. Like a blow to the chest—I lived in the first century of these wars. So these wars, the poem implies, will continue and continue for centuries. O my God, I think whenever I reach that pause and final line, how can we bear this? It feels like despair, the blunt force of despair. But maybe not. Maybe I can also read this ending as telling me what of course I already know: that wars will go on and on, but also that the struggle, the personal political struggle toward wholeness, is a worthy way of living one’s life. When Rukeyser says of art “It will apply to your life; and it is more than likely to lead you to thought or action, that is, you are likely to want to go further into the world, further into yourself, toward further experience,” it is our despair that she speaks to.

Rukeyser’s insistence on freedom to connect and therefore hope, where connection is culturally forbidden or impossible, finds its apex in such poems as “St. Roach” and “Despisals,” late poems in which respect is demanded for the cockroach, for the body’s ghetto, the asshole, the useful shit that is our clean clue, and the speech of the clitoris; and we are asked to vow, as the poet commands herself, never to despise the other, the it—“to know that I am it.” Rukeyser may or may not have read Buber when she wrote “Despisals,” but you see how close her concept of the “it” is to Buber’s concept. I imagine if the author of “I and Thou” and the author of “Despisals” were to meet in heaven, Buber might bow his head gently like a grandfather to Rukeyser and say, “You took the concept further, bubbeleh.

Perhaps the most radical realm at the sea floor of our minds is the realm of pregnancy and childbirth. When I began writing about pregnancy and childbirth in the early 1960s, I had never read another poem on this subject. I wondered why not, since we were always told that poetry is “universal,” and surely pregnancy and childbirth are experiences as universal as love and war. Ultimately I realized that the topic was taboo. That Rukeyser wrote “Nine Poems for the Unborn Child” in 1947 is astonishing. She wrote of nursing as well, and the erotics of nursing. In “The Speed of Darkness,” the poet is “I bastard mother” to whom “ends of the earth join tonight / with blazing stars upon their meeting” while “these sons,     these sons / fall burning into Asia,” and “water goes down to tomorrow / making its children     I hear their unborn voices.” She addresses a mysterious “big-boned man young and of my dream,” who

Struggles to get the live bird out of his throat.
I am he am I?    Dreaming?
I am the bird am I?     I am the throat?

A bird with a curved beak.
It could slit anything, the throat-bird.

Drawn up slowly.    The curved blades, not large.
Bird emerges     wet     being born.
Begins to sing.

These lines are mysterious to me; I cannot pretend I understand them in any rational way, but I wish I had a dollar for every time Rukeyser uses the verb “begin.” Has any scholar noticed the centrality of this verb? “Then I began to speak what I believe,” she says in the opening scene of The Life of Poetry. “Your presences,” she says in the very late poem “Double Ode,” “allow me to begin to make myself.” Over and over the collective presence of the verb “begin” speaks to us on the ocean floor of our minds. We reply that beginning again is too hard; we won’t do it. She looks us in the eye, looks me in the eye, me with all my fears and despairs, my depression and sense of inferiority (like yours! or yours!), and commands: Begin.

The last poem I want to discuss is one that thoroughly confuses me—a late poem, “Desdichada,” published in 1973, while we were still deeply in Vietnam, in a book saturated by sex and politics. The title means sorrow or unhappiness. In the poem she is addressing an unnamed “you” who has failed to “acknowledge” her. The “you” might be parent or lover or critic—perhaps it is the father of her son. The poem begins:

For that you never acknowledged me, I acknowledge
the spring’s yellow detail, the every drop of rain,
the anonymous unacknowledged men and women.
The shine as it glitters in our child’s wild eyes,
one o’clock at night.   This river, this city,
the years of the shadow on the delicate skin
of my hand, moving in time.

Responding to a hurt we are to understand as devastating, the poet releases this flood of images she acknowledges, not to be paraphrased but to be felt—encompassing microcosm and macrocosm, raindrops, river and city and the skin of a hand, an instant of time and a span of years. To be treated ungenerously makes her need to be generous. In the next stanza she goes further, in lines grammatically and rationally a bit incomprehensible on their surface:

While this my day and my people are a country not yet born
it has become an earth I can
acknowledge.   I must.   I know what the
disacknowledgment does.   Then I do take you,
but far under consciousness, knowing
that under under flows a river wanting
the other :  to go open-handed in Asia,
to cleanse the tributaries and the air, to make for making,
to stop selling death and its trash, pour plastic down men’s throats,
to let this child find, to let men and women find….

Deep moving water is a way to say that love takes place beneath consciousness, is universal, and wants not possession (which is implied by “wanting / the other”) but that “the other” should come to the aid of life. If you are loved, you become able to love. If you feel acknowledged, you feel able to acknowledge others. But what if you are rejected, and you die a little each time that happens—are you doomed to reject others? Auden says, “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.” I think what Rukeyser is doing in this poem is trying to work out what she wrote about so many years earlier—living by “almost unimagined values.” Not to do evil in return—not to reject—instead to acknowledge the beauty of the world. And more than that—not to disacknowledge the one who has disacknowledged her. There’s a struggle here. “I do take you”—what does that mean? I take you for my lawful wedded husband? I take you for a fool? As if bitterly answering the question “What do you take me for?”

Doesn’t it sound aggressive—I take you? I grab you by the hair and try to drown you? But then comes under under, as if to say “underneath my hurt and anger and your indifference there is something else….”

Well, all this is speculation. When I read this poem, to others or to myself, I am touched somewhere very deep within, somewhere where I both hurt and hope, and can’t explain. Even more at the end: what can I make of the last stanza of “Desdichada”? It is even more mysterious than its first two stanzas, as it shifts from a “you” to a “him” who may be the lover, or death, and a set of images perhaps too ambiguous to untangle:

Death flowing down past me, past me, death
marvelous, filthy, gold,
in my spine in my sex upon my broken mouth
and the whole beautiful mouth of the child;
shedding power over me

if I acknowledge him.
Leading me
in my own body
at last in the dance.

In what sense does death flow past the poet? In what sense is death “marvelous, filthy, gold”? In what sense is the mouth broken? If I “acknowledge,” instead of rejecting, the one who has hurt me, am I a masochist? Does this mean death?  Do I want to choose death? Is death a dance, as in the medieval woodcuts and the close of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal? I find it impossible to answer any of these questions, yet my ocean-floor self experiences the poem as one of conviction and determination.

Connection is not only one of Rukeyser’s great themes, it is one of her great strategies as a maker of poems—one that allows her to be free in form as well as content. Hybrids of poetry and prose, lyric and documentary mingle in “The Book of the Dead,” as a ”she-poet” relentlessly bridges the distances between woman and man, white privilege and black labor, poetry and public discourse, poetry and technology. Science and poetry become seen as twins, not opposites. The personal inextricable from the political. The political tied to the sacred, the mythic “belief in the love of the world, / woman, spirit and man.” As Jan Heller Levi reminds us in her introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, we need to “imagine poetry and life as an interdependent, interconnected reality.”

This is not a fashionable view today. Yet it retains a perennial appeal that has little or nothing to do with the judgments of critics or the supposed distinction between “mainstream” and “avant-garde,” but emerges simply from human need. The first Rukeyser poem I ever read was “Effort at Speech Between Two People.” I’m not sure, but I think it was in an anthology that someone had given me, maybe edited by Louis Untermeyer, and I think I was not yet 11 years old when I read it, this almost-hopeless dialogue of the deaf, one speaker saying—with spaces between the phrases—“Speak to me.   Take my hand.   What are you now?” and the other saying “Oh grow to know me.   I am not happy.   I will be open.” Each speaker offering snippets of his or her inner life, and each craving love. The poem baffled me; I didn’t understand why it looked so different from other poems, or what most of its lines meant. At the same time, I distinctly remember, I understood it completely; my deep self understood that it was about my mother and father, me and other children, and everyone, and that this was unspoken speech and the urgency and desperation of it, and that the yearning in it was almost hopeless but not entirely. The words open, know, touch one another, take my hand somehow conveyed hope in the midst of despair.

Hope and despair, despair and hope: this is a question alive for us, as it was for her. I can think of nobody writing today who enters and demonstrates these two alternatives as clearly, fully, and powerfully as Rukeyser does. We still need her.

Originally Published: June 12th, 2013

Poet, critic, and activist Alicia Ostriker was born in 1937 in New York City. She earned degrees from Brandeis and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Twice a finalist for the National Book Award, Ostriker has published numerous volumes of poetry, including Waiting for the Light (2017), which awarded the Berru Award...

  1. June 18, 2013
     Katie Byrum

    I always think about Rukeyser's poem “Breathing Landscape”-- “Silence hangs in the air. / Nothing speaks but the sound / of certain rivers continuing underground.” Waiting/listening at a watery crossroads, a meditative quiet that hangs like a mist: (“nothing speaks”) – a pause – and then asks us to go further down, to visit what’s submerged.
    That river: you can hear it all the time whether you’re conscious of it or not, but it takes practice to really listen. It's everywhere underneath Rukeyser's work. I think of “Wooden Spring” in which “the ghosts swim, lipless, eyeless, upward” – they’re swimming up from this collective river of minds from all time, following the way back through the sense-organs of the body, and surfacing again at the human level, where they can be heard by the living.
    When Rukeyser alludes outright to this river, this unconscious plane, it feels slightly transgressive, slightly conspiratorial. She’s pulling the curtain back to reveal something secret and marvelous that we aren’t supposed to know about, as an invitation to step deeper into our own lives by listening, by dreaming. “Deeper than sleep but not so deep as death / I lay there dreaming and my magic head / remembered and forgot” (“Night Feeding”).
    It’s our job as readers to follow her down to these rivers; I always have the sense that her poems wait patiently for us to meet her there. That's the place where the writer reaches out a hand, through time, and places it palm to palm with yours, so close you can feel the energy radiating outward and penetrating across great time and distance. It’s because of this sense of breathing stillness among all the currents of movement, an aliveness that’s preserved by all these layers, that her work stays relevant, stays alive as a “meeting-place.”

  2. June 24, 2013
     Elaine Edelman

    Thank you to Alicia Ostriker for bringing Muriel Rukeyser to the surface again in such a searching and loving way. I was lucky enough to be one of MR's undergraduate students at Sarah Lawrence and I never stop having the sound of her voice - both physical and virtual - in my ear. I think we need to designate one poet every 10 years to rediscover Rukeyser's vision and music for the rest of us again - and on, into perpetuity. We are her meeting-place, we need to keep her alive.