Where I come from. Part One: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) or The Interconnectedness of Everything - blog by BluePoppy

 



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Where I come from. Part One: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) or The Interconnectedness of Everything
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Posted 15-Mar-2015 at 03:32 AM (03:32) by BluePoppy
Updated 22-Mar-2015 at 09:25 PM (21:25) by BluePoppy



Muriel Rukeyser: I remember distinctly the first time I heard her name – at graduate school in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts in 1993. The Five Colleges were the best place for me to get an education in liberal arts and American thought. The consortium Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith College as well as the University of Massachusetts to this day offers the best in higher education and identity formation for young adults.

I was lucky enough to work as an assistant at The Five Colleges Women’s Studies Research Center. For the second anniversary of the Center a special guest was invited and I was starstruck: Adrienne Rich (1929-2012). My favorite poet! Not only would I get to meet her in person, but follow her around for an afternoon and evening as part of my job. How awesome was that?

Poems such as ‘The Fact of a Doorframe’ and ‘Necessities of Life’ had kept me sane at times when my life had been less than perfect. Poetry to me never felt like a luxury.

In ‘Necessities of Life’, Rich describes the process that she believes is integral for regenerating a strong sense of identity. While the lyrical self of the poem can be identified with Rich, the poem itself is not openly autobiographical. The fragmented structure of the lyric mirrors the persona’s fragmented sense of self, while the untraditional form reflects the influence of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), a poet whom Rich strongly admired and who was an Amherst native. I will write about both Rich and Dickinson in separate posts, but essentially the triad of Dickinson, Rukeyser and Rich is one that has intrigued me ever since.


A most priced possession: The poster announcing Adrienne Rich at
Mount Holyoke College moved already three times with me across the Atlantic.

The keynote delivered by Rich that night at Mount Holyoke left me with chills. In her soft yet firm voice she read from her newest work at the time: What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (Norton, 1993). Rich shaped her verse and prose into a passionate cry for justice – even when justice seemed no longer a possibility. Her poetic voice was one of incredible passion, intelligence and integrity. Standing ovations in the auditorium, packed with an almost exclusive female audience made up by America’s finest young women were another goosebump moment.

At the time Rich already suffered visibly from rheumatoid arthritis using a cane and being able to sign books only for a short time. I was thrilled when I finally held my very own signed copy of What is Found There in my hands. It became my bible of sorts for years to come.

In it Rich writes about Rukeyser whose name I had heard for the first time only a few weeks before. I didn’t know her work nor was I familiar with her biography. Like Rich herself, Rukeyer was a major and prolific American poet and writer, as well as, through most of her adult life, a political and cultural activist. Muriel Rukeyser’s “breadth of concern with the world was large, her issues and literary techniques many, and she refused to compartmentalize herself or her work, claiming her right to intellect and sexuality, poetry and science, Marxism and myth, activism and motherhood”, Rich writes in 2004.[1]

During the past few years I have co-written the biography of German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) that is due out in Germany at the end of the month.[2] In the spring of 2014 I went to see Hildegard Bachert of Galerie St. Etienne in New York City, the gallery that had been instrumental in making Kollwitz’ work known in the US. Preparing a taped interview with Bachert, we came to speak of Rukeyser and she reminded me of her poem on Kollwitz.

It is a long poem, yet, due to its open form, I encourage you to take a chance on reading it in full. Essentially it is a poetic short bio of the artist.

Quote:

Käthe Kollwitz

Originally published in The Speed of Darkness (1968)

1
Held between wars
my lifetime
among wars, the big hands of the world of death
my lifetime
listens to yours.
The faces of the sufferers
in the street, in dailiness,
their lives showing
through their bodies
a look as of music
the revolutionary look
that says I am in the world
to change the world
my lifetime
is to love to endure to suffer the music
to set its portrait
up as a sheet of the world
the most moving the most alive
Easter and bone
and Faust walking among flowers of the world
and the child alive within the living woman, music of man,
and death holding my lifetime between great hands
the hands of enduring life
that suffers the gifts and madness of full life, on earth, in our time,
and through my life, through my eyes, through my arms and hands
may give the face of this music in portrait waiting for
the unknown person
held in the two hands, you.

2
Woman as gates, saying :
“The process is after all like music,
like the development of a piece of music.
The figures come back and
again and again
interweave.
A theme may seem to have been put aside,
but it keeps returning—
the same thing modulated,
somewhat changed in form.
Usually richer.
And it is very good that this is so.”
A woman pouring her opposites.
“After all there are happy things in life too.
Why do you show only the dark side?”
“I could not answer this. But I know—
in the beginning my impulse to know
the working life
had little to do with
pity or sympathy.
I simply felt
that the life of the workers was beautiful.”
She said, “I am groping in the dark.”
She said, “When the door opens, of sensuality,
then you will understand it too. The struggle begins.
Never again to be free of it,
often you will feel it to be your enemy.
Sometimes
you will almost suffocate,
such joy it brings.”
Saying of her husband : “My wish
is to die after Karl.
I know no person who can love as he can,
with his whole soul.
Often this love has oppressed me;
I wanted to be free.
But often too it has made me
so terribly happy.”
She said : “We rowed over to Carrara at dawn,
climbed up to the marble quarries
and rowed back at night. The drops of water
fell like glittering stars
from our oars.”
She said : “As a matter of fact,
I believe
that bisexuality
is almost a necessary factor
in artistic production; at any rate,
the tinge of masculinity within me
helped me
in my work.”
She said : “The only technique I can still manage.
It’s hardly a technique at all, lithography.
In it
only the essentials count.”
A tight-lipped man in a restaurant last night saying to me :
“Kollwitz? She’s too black-and-white.”

3
Held among wars, watching
all of them
all these people
weavers,
Carmagnole
Looking at
all of them
death, the children
patients in waiting-rooms
famine
the street
the corpse with the baby
floating, on the dark river
A woman seeing
the violent, inexorable
movement of nakedness
and the confession of No
the confession of great weakness, war,
all streaming to one son killed, Peter;
even the son left living; repeated,
the father, the mother; the grandson
another Peter killed in another war; firestorm;
dark, light, as two hands,
this pole and that pole as the gates.
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open

4 SONG : THE CALLING-UP
Rumor, stir of ripeness
rising within this girl
sensual blossoming
of meaning, its light and form.
The birth-cry summoning
out of the male, the father
from the warm woman
a mother in response.
The word of death
calls up the fight with stone
wrestle with grief with time
from the material make
an art harder than bronze.

5 SELF-PORTRAIT
Mouth looking directly at you
eyes in their inwardness looking
directly at you
half light half darkness
woman, strong, German, young artist
flows into
wide sensual mouth meditating
looking right at you
eyes shadowed with brave hand
looking deep at you
flows into
wounded brave mouth
grieving and hooded eyes
alive, German, in her first War
flows into
strength of the worn face
a skein of lines
broods, flows into
mothers among the war graves
bent over death
facing the father
stubborn upon the field
flows into
the marks of her knowing—
Nie Wieder Krieg
repeated in the eyes
flows into
“Seedcorn must not be ground”
and the grooved cheek
lips drawn fine
the down-drawn grief
face of our age
flows into
Pieta, mother and
between her knees
life as her son in death
pouring from the sky of
one more war
flows into
face almost obliterated
hand over the mouth forever
hand over one eye now
the other great eye
closed
–Muriel Rukeyser
It is a crucial poem in the body of Rukeyser’s work as well as her life “in the first century of world wars”. Wars that furthermore mark horrific events in Kollwitz’ biography when she loses her son Peter during the first weeks of World War I and her grandson by the same name in World War II.

At points throughout the poem Rukeyser portrays Kollwitz in her own words, using speech marks:

“The process is after all like music,
like the development of a piece of music.
The figures come back and
again and again
interweave.
A theme may seem to have been put aside,
but it keeps returning—
the same thing modulated,
somewhat changed in form.
Usually richer.
And it is very good that this is so.”

The quotes are directly related to writings by Kollwitz. This one from a published letter by Kollwitz to her son on November 12, 1912:
Quote:
The process is after all like composing a piece of music. The fugues come back and interweave again and again. A theme may seem to have been put aside, but it keeps returning – if only in a somewhat changed and twisted form, usually richer. And that is truly very good.
Here the original text in German[3]:
Quote:
[Nochmal möchte ich übrigens kaum meine Jugend wieder durchleben, wohl aber die Jahre des Heraushebens aus dem Leidenszustand, des klar Empfindens meiner Kräfte.] Schließlich aber geht das ähnlich wie bei einem Musikstück. Die Fugen greifen immer wieder durcheinander. Wenn man meint, einThema ist beiseitegelegt, dann kommt es doch immer wieder zum Vorschein, nur freilich in etwas veränderter und abgebogener Gestalt , meist reicher. Und das ist ja auch sehr gut so.
Halfway through the poem, Rukeyser poses the question [I]‘[w]hat would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?‘[/B] and answers it immediately with the line, ‘[t]he world would split open.’ It has since been quoted many times in feminist and queer thought as well as on postcards, posters and coffee mugs. To me, however, it is about a true understanding of Kollwitz’ life and work. “The Weavers”, a landmark of class-conscious art, which depicts, in a series of prints, the plight of the worker and his age-long struggle to better his lot; “Death as a Friend”, showing a person (is it a man or a woman?) greeting death as an old friend, with an emotional mixture of joy and terror – all these characterize the work of Käthe Kollwitz who in her art simply portrayed the suffering of mankind. She has been called a propagandist, a crusader, Mrs. Dismal – yet her work is essentially apolitical. Or as her granddaughter Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz pointed out in an interview “incorruptible when it came to artistic quality”.[4] For Kollwitz art wasn’t a matter of feminist, socialist or any other propaganda. Foremost it had to stand the test of time. Which brings me back to the Pioneer Valley. On my research trip to the US last spring I also revisited Smith College. For reasons not entirely clear to art historians, one of the earliest acquisitions of a work by Kollwitz in the US dates back to 1913, the year Rukeyser was born. It is a beautiful sheet that indeed has stood the test of time.

Probably the most profound part of the poem that once more links the triad Dickinson, Rukeyser and Rich on a deeply personal level relates to the awakening of female sexual identity. Once more Rukeyser quotes Kollwitz:

She said : “As a matter of fact,
I believe
that bisexuality
is almost a necessary factor
in artistic production; at any rate,
the tinge of masculinity within me
helped me
in my work.”

In what Kollwitz called her “prosperous decade” she, like many of her Bohemian contemporaries, explores the notion of “free love”. Already a married woman with two sons and a devoted husband, she hints on having an affair with a woman she travels with in Italy. The freedom associated with this tender confession laid the ground for generations of women fighting for their self-determination. While it was not intended as a political nor a feminist statement, it acknowledged the sexual continuum which to date has not been fully understood. It also gave permission to explore – new ways of life and love.


[1] Preface to Muriel Rukeyser, Selected Poems, ed. Adrienne Rich, American Poets Project (New York: Library of America, 2004)
[2] Kollwitz – Die Biografie. Yury & Sonya Winterberg (München: Bertelsmann/Random House, 2015)
[3] Käthe Kollwitz: Briefe an den Sohn, 1904 bis 1945, Hg. Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz (Berlin: Siedler, 1992)
[4] Interview with Dr. Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz in Cologne/Germany, April 2, 2014


Note: Part Two of my post (soon to be published) will look at Rukeyser’s life in New York City and my personal link to 9/11.

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