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Poem out of Childhood

I

Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry    :
Not Angles, angels    :     and the magnificent past
shot deep illuminations into high-school.
I opened the door into the concert-hall
and a rush of triumphant violins answered me
while the syphilitic woman turned her mouldered face
intruding upon Brahms.         Suddenly, in an accident
the girl’s brother was killed, but her father had just died    :
she stood against the wall, leaning her cheek,
dumbly her arms fell, “What will become of me?”    and
I went into the corridor for a drink of water.
These bandages of image wrap my head
when I put my hand up I hardly feel the wounds.
We sat on the steps of the unrented house
raining blood down on Loeb and Leopold,
creating again how they removed his glasses
and philosophically slit his throat.
They who manipulated and misused our youth,
smearing those centuries upon our hands,
trapping us in a welter of dead names,
snuffing and shaking heads at patent truth . . . .
We were ready to go the long descent with Virgil
the bough’s gold shade advancing forever with us,
entering the populated cold of drawing-rooms;
Sappho, with her drowned hair trailing along Greek waters,
weed binding it, a fillet of kelp enclosing
the temples’ ardent fruit    :
Not Sappho, Sacco.
Rebellion pioneered among our lives,
viewing from far-off many-branching deltas,
innumerable seas.

II

In adolescence I knew travellers
speakers digressing from the ink-pocked rooms,
bearing the unequivocal sunny word.
Prinzip’s year bore us    :    see us turning at breast
quietly while the air throbs over Sarajevo
after the mechanic laugh of that bullet.
How could they know what sinister knowledge finds
its way among our brains’ wet palpitance,
what words would nudge and giggle at our spine,
what murders dance?
These horrors have approached the growing child;
now that the factory is sealed-up brick
the kids throw stones, smashing the windows,
membranes of uselessness in desolation.
We grew older quickly, watching the father shave
and the splatter of lather hardening on the glass,
playing in sandboxes to escape paralysis,
being victimized by fataller sly things.
“Oh, and you,” he said, scraping his jaw, “what will you be?”
“Maybe    :    something    :    like    :    Joan    :    of    :    Arc . . . .”
Allies Advance, we see
Six Miles South to Soissons.      And we beat the drums.
Watchsprings snap in the mind, uncoil, relax,
the leafy years all somber with foreign war.
How could we know what exposed guts resembled?
A wave, shocked to motion, babbles margins
from Asia to Far Rockaway spiralling
among clocks in its four-dimensional circles.
Disturbed by war we pedalled bicycles
breakneck down the decline, until the treads
conquered our speed and pulled our feet behind them,
and pulled our heads.
We never knew the war, standing so small
looking at eye-level toward the puttees, searching
the picture-books for sceptres, pennants for truth;
see Galahad unaided by puberty.
Ratat a drum uppon the armistice,
Kodak As You Go    :    photo    :    they danced late,
and we were a generation of grim children
leaning over the bedroom sills, watching
the music and the shoulders and how the war was over,
laughing until the blow on the mouth broke night
wide out from cover.
The child’s curls blow in a forgotten wind,
immortal ivy trembles on the wall:
the sun has crystallized these scenes, and tall
shadows remember time cannot rescind.
 
III

Organize the full results of that rich past
open the windows     :     potent catalyst,
harsh theory of knowledge, running down the aisles
crying out in the classrooms, March ravening on the plain,
inexorable sun and wind and natural thought.
Dialectically our youth unfolds     :
the pale child walking to the river, passional
in ignorance     in loneliness     demanding
its habitation for the leaping dream, kissing
quick air, the vibrations of transient light,
not knowing substance or reserve, walking
in valvular air, each person in the street
conceived surrounded by his life and pain,
fixed against time, subtly by these impaled      :
death and that shapeless war.        Listening at dead doors,
our youth assumes a thousand differing flesh
summoning fact from abandoned machines of trade,
knocking on the wall of the nailed-up power-plant,
telephoning hello, the deserted factory, ready
for the affirmative clap of truth
ricochetting from thought to thought among
the childhood, the gestures, the rigid travellers.

—Muriel Rukeyser

Linda Gregerson reads and discusses Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem out of Childhood”

Transcription of Commentary

My name is Linda Gregerson and I’m going to be reading “Poem Out of Childhood” by Muriel Rukeyser.

In The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser describes the “first public day” she remembers: crowds of people filling the streets of New York, confetti and crying, kissing and noise.  Which prompted young Muriel to take out her drum and beat it.  The day was April 28, 1918.  False Armistice Day.  “The war was not yet over.”

“Poem Out of Childhood” is the very first poem in Rukeyser’s first book, Theory of Flight, and it features, front and center, the political manifesto from which she would never depart. “Not Angles, angels,” “Not Sappho, Sacco.”  Rukeyser had no patience for the artificial sequestrations of poetry and politics, private imagination and collective history.  She was six months old when Gavrilo Prinzip shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo; she always considered herself to have been born under the sign of war.  We are creatures of history, she believed; we take it in as we take in air and milk.  And, although there is ignorance aplenty, some of it deadly, there is no such thing as perfect innocence, if to be innocent means to be untouched. Rukeyser was fierce in her insistence that the world was one: a tsunami born in Asia moves across the waters to North America; a shooting in Sarajevo means slaughtered millions from the Caucasus to France; the dividends paid to pensioners by Union Carbide are just a little larger because miners in West Virginia have been allowed to die of silicosis.

“Not Angles, angels”:  a musical logic, and one that appears on the surface to be choosing the life of the spirit.  But the phrase derives from a famous story told by the Venerable Bede.  When Pope Gregory, writes Bede, observed a consignment of fair-skinned, fair-haired slaves in the market in  Rome one day, he asked his companion who they were.  “Angles,” said his companion.  “Non Angli, sed angeli,” replied the Pope.  Not Angles, angels.  A story the English construed for centuries as a sign that they were a chosen people.  The lovely, bell-like echoes of a pun are taken to reflect the stamp of heavenly favor, beneath which lies – just barely beneath – a double-sided story of enslavement and racial privilege.

“Not Sappho, Sacco.”  The notorious trials and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti played out for seven years of Rukeyser’s early life, calling into question the very foundations of justice and political tolerance in America, throwing a harsh light on class and ethnic divisions.  So when the poet, fresh out of her privileged education at Vassar, claims a muse, she refuses to stay within the proper, decorous lyric boundaries.

And yet. The “not” in Rukeyser’s alliterative formulations has to be taken with a grain of salt,  I think: the wit and the music rely upon the yoking of terms, after all, not upon the occlusion of one by the other.  “Not only” is how I hear it.  Not only Sappho, but also Sacco.  There is no such thing as a separate realm of the aesthetic.

“See us turning at breast,” she writes, and the “throbbing” over Sarajevo keeps time with the milky rhythms of a nursing child.  The brain’s “wet palpitance” is ripe for the insinuations of “sinister knowledge.”  The tenors and textures of our era make us what we are. No “membrane” of innocence separates the home front from the battlefront: the factories are boarded up; the kids throw stones.  Polio lurks outside the sandbox.

Rukeyser was only twenty-one when Theory of Flight won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, but her artistry was as fully formed as was her moral and political sensibility. Take, for example,  the indented four stanzas that constitute the bulk of section two in “Poem Out of Childhood.” A  flexible pentameter is repeatedly cut off at the knees in the seventh line of an eleven line stanza.   The joyful alliterations of a child’s early lessons in reading harden into wartime headlines:  Six Miles South  to Soissons.  The seductive unfoldings of image and phrase give way to intimations of in-the-wings or in-the-margins violence.  A fugitive end rhyme (finds/spine, palpitance/dance, glass/paralysis) settles into something firmer (be/see, circles/bicycles, treads/heads, over/cover, wall/tall) and suggests a system of sinister concordances that history’s children cannot escape and time cannot  “rescind.”

The fourth of these stanzas begins with the regressive rhythms of tin drum and advertising jingle, then modulates into something so tempered with disillusionment (“a generation of grim children”) that the reader, or this reader in any case, comes to think she can trust the new, more comprehensive momentums (“the music and the shoulders and how the war was over”) until these too come up against the shock of new violence: “the blow on the mouth broke night / wide out from cover.”  I don’t know to what extent that blow on the mouth is meant to suggest a “merely” domestic cruelty and to what extent it is meant as a reference to the crushing revelation that news of the armistice had been mistaken: its ability to resonate on both the larger and the smaller scale is surely part of its power.  In the ordinary way of thinking, night is something that provides cover.  But here it is the ghastly, underlying reality that hides under cover of the ordinary and is always about to break out.

The child who “breathes-in experience” is born not merely into death, as all that lives is born into mortality, but also into the surfeit of death that human beings visit upon one another. Throughout the course of her poetic career, with passion and unflinching acuity, Rukeyser would document the infinite varieties this surfeit assumes: death-by-violence, death-by-poverty, death-by-indifference, death-by-greed.  And precisely because she refuses to “edit out” the ghastliness and the systems that sustain it, she writes the most life-affirming poetry I know.

“Poem Out of Childhood” by Muriel Rukeyser.

Copyright © 2005 by Muriel Rukeyser.

Reprinted by permission of ICM Partners.

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Linda Gregerson

Linda Gregerson

Read “The Resurrection of the Body” by Linda Gregerson

Linda Gregerson (1950- ) is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Prodigal: New and Selected Poems (2015); The Selvage (2012); The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, which was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Prize and The Poets Prize; Magnetic North, which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award; and Waterborne, which won the 2003 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Her awards and honors include the Levinson Prize, the Consuelo Ford Award, the Isabel MacCaffrey Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2015, Gregerson was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She teaches American poetry and Renaissance literature at the University of Michigan. Photo credit: Nina Subin.

Muriel Rukeyser

Muriel Rukeyser

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) was born in New York City and attended Vassar College and Columbia University. She is the author of more than 20 collections of poetry, including Theory of Flight (1935), which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. For her work, Rukeyser was awarded the first-ever Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, the Copernicus Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. A social activist, Rukeyser witnessed the Scottsboro trials, visited suffering tunnel workers in West Virginia, and went to Hanoi to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. She served as president of PEN’s American Center, and died in 1980. Photo credit: Rollie McKenna.