Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Elegies’

9780811221061She’s a poet I’d read about a lot. For some reason, I thought she was more recent than she is – that she had begun writing more in the fifties and sixties, but the poems that make up Elegies were written in the late thirties and the forties. They are not, strictly speaking, war poems (but, really, how can anything in poetry be definitely said to be anything, strictly speaking; even forms like the sonnet and haiku have been reimagined so that I question whether anything in poetry should be defined strictly), but are inspired (depressed?) by the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.

I guess that to her contemporaries, she was considered a ‘difficult’ poet, but to the modern ear, it’s hard to hear. She seems quite direct by comparison to much contemporary poetry (which is not a criticism of contemporary poetry; I find J.H. Prynne nearly impossible to suss out, but find his poetry amazing, nonetheless).

There is a strong current of melancholy running through it, which you might expect from an elegy, but they’re not really elegies. They’re dedicated to her lover, who she only knew briefly, before the Spanish Civil War separated them. He died in 1938, but she didn’t know until 1943.

And it’s not a melancholy towards the ravages of war. Or, at least, not exactly (not ‘strictly speaking’).

The first elegy, Rotten Lake. It reminds me of Tolkien. Specifically, the mood behind the end of Return of the King. Not the one you saw in the movie, but the one in the book, where the hobbits return to the Shire and find that Saruman and Wormtongue have turned the beautiful fields and hills of the Shire into an industrial wasteland. A not subtle statement about how Tolkien perceived returning to English country life after the First World War. Rukeyser isn’t mourning pastoralism, but she is saddened by the coarsening, by the decline of a place where memories are strong.

I wanted to quote this bit from the fourth elegy, Refugees:

We bear their smile, we smile under the guilt,
in an access of sickness, “Let me alone, I’m healthy!”
cry. And in danger, the sexually witty
speak in short sentences, the unfulfilled.
While definition levels others out.

What a great phrase, ‘the sexually witty.’ Can’t you visualize it? Powerful, virile, venal, sad.

The sixth, River Elegy, may be my favorite. And not just because it’s the shortest. There is a theme of water (and water being symbolic of sex), but the river comes across in this great propulsivity of language. No formalism here, just thick stanzas of desperate desire, movement, and fear of loss. I would be curious to know when it was written, what was happening in the wars? The elegies that follow are more melancholy, looking over the loss of wars, but this one seems to be still holding out hope. Was it written before she knew for certain her lover had died? After, but digging deep to pull out some hope, or not hope, but desperation. Like a shark, keep moving or the hope dies, but secretly just moving out of fear of stopping. Because the later elegies are more… stopped. In the eight elegy, she writes: I see it pass before me in parade

She is still and the world is moving.

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