"IT ISN"T THAT one brings life together -- it's that one will not allow it to be torn apart," Muriel Rukeyser once told an interviewer. And now at last we have The Collected Poems, a major literary event for many reasons, most simply because now all the books of poems, many long out of print, can be read in sequence. Here is the great curve, still being completed, of a superb poet's accomplishment and the deep organ music of her experience.
The "Preface to the Reader" speaks of the "film strip of a life in poetry" and the Asian idea of the "long body" -- "one's lifetime body" (as she wrote elsewhere) seen as a "ribbon of images, all our changes... in process." "Film," "long body," "ribbon" -- these words tell us how the work can be approached. It has been a work difficult to quote in short snatches, therefore always difficult to anthologize fairly. For one thing, there is its sheer amplitude. Then, from the very first book, Theory of Flight (1935), long poems and sequences have been central. (Why, oh why do we think of poetry as only the short lyric?) Finally, this is a poetry of faith, and faith convinces us most by its organic nature, underground repetitions, the refusal ever to let the sources of energy and forms of communication tear apart.
Sources of energy? Muriel Rukeyser's have been many and diverse. Like the Thomas Hariot she wrote about in prose, the scientific genius of Raleigh's second Virginia Expedition, she has "met the headlong force of every current of the time." "Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry," declares the first line of Theory of Flight, with amazing authority, and so begins The Collected Poems. Already in this first book her imagination was ranging wide and deep. Poems out of childhood, family struggles, literary references, efforts at speech between lovers, here open onto the technology of flight and politics of mining, Kitty Hawk, Scottsboro. Again and again one wants to use an imagery of discovery. Going to Hanoi years later, during the Vietnam War, she wrote in her journal, "We will now explore further ways of reaching our lives."
The life itself used as a means of discovery and also as the new world awaiting our discovering. The "Preface" speaks of "two kinds of reaching in poetry," through "document" and through "unverifiable fact, as in sex, dream," where we dive deep and sometimes "reach that place where... we all recognize the secrets." She has dived into herself as one woman in history, as a physical body in its relations, as a psychic mystery whose myths and images can, with trust and daring, be rescued and brought back up to the conscious world. At the same time, she has never not been in touch with that world. How much of it, in fact, she seems always to have known! She has loved science and history and modern technology, enjoying their puzzles and solvings much as she enjoys the puzzles and solvings of poetic form. She has learned film technique, pored over the records of exemplary (often apparently lost) lives, asked what it means to be a Jew, an American. She has had a passion for human freedom and acted on that passion, and written out of it, from her first trip to Scottsboro at 19 to the recent trip to Korea, as president of American P.E.N., to intercede for the life of imprisoned poet Kim Chi Ha -- a mission whose record is the last poem in this big book, "The Gates."
Not to tear a life apart. At the same time, not to refuse to be a specialist. When will somebody write a full-length piece on the craft of Muriel Rukeyser, on her "poured" forms? "Do I move toward form," she asks in a recent splendid poem, "do I use all my fears?"
The best thing the publication of The Collected Poems can do is to right a balance, to set the work of Muriel Rukeyser where it belongs, at the center of the poetry of her generation written in America. Once again now we can read all the poems of that first dazzling decade and understand why they were celebrated. Can we also manage to understand why, in the 15 or so years between the end of World War II and the publication of Waterlily Fire, the work came to be neglected, even disparaged?Our health depends on this understanding, too. My guess is that the New Criticism set up exactly the wrong standards by which to measure a poet of Muriel Rukeyser's concerns. In the McCarthy era her political material was suspect. Was her very openness to the truths of her inner experience, "as in sex, dreams," equally suspect? What did people want from a poet in the 1950s, especially from a woman poet?
Starting with Waterlily Fire (somewhat displaced chronologically in the present collection), the poems move in clear procession through the last four books, generous, rugged even, delicate also, speaking for the necessity of accepting the whole human being, speaking for non-violence, speaking for the child. It is these poems that, since the '60s, have been welcomed and deeply comprehended by the young, by younger feminist critics in particular. But the stream of the work is still larger, and so is the potential audience for The Collected Poems. As usual she leaves us with questions that open toward the future: How shall we venture home? How shall we tell each other of the poet? ... How shall we free [the poet]? How shall we speak to the infant beginning to run? All those beginning to run?