LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Muriel Rukeiser “Islands”

O for God’s sake / they are connected / underneath // They look at each other / across the glittering sea / some keep a low profile // Some are cliffs / The bathers think / islands are separate like them

from A Muriel Rukeiser Reader, edited by Jan Heller Levi (Norton 1994)

FRAME OF REFERENCE The artwork is a wording of the between, an aesthetic wording of the between—metaxological in the literal sense of an aesthetic logos of the metaxu. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal 86

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) is not a household name, even in poetic households. She was a member in good standing in “the exact generation” (Rexroth); a Vietnam Nam War activist; above all an inspiration: Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Marilyn Hacker, Grace Paley. And so on. Her sense of form was hybrid. A hardworking freelancer she possessed a hard-won, intimate feel for the English language that broke genre-barriers in honor of her wide variety of subjects. She’s a model writer.

This little poem exemplifies Rukeyser’s lyric craft. The sound recalls the Tudor plain style. Abrupt speech, short lines, energetic economy— the madrigal dance, lutes and drums. And a “moral poem,” a land/seascape lit by the light of truth. It opens with the force of discovery of the context of the obvious — distance, alienation— and proceeds through figures of speech before descending to the real subject: human stupidity. As an image however the poem radiates faith in the possibility of communication.

Lyric is a demanding form. Always at odds with the givens of the language, always seeking a fullness beyond mere thinking, it finally points beyond itself. Rukeyser’s political rage had the purity of prophecy. While it speaks out of immediate passion it sings the intimate universal. Not the “universal proposition” or commonplace pointed to in the opening outburst (the geographical facts), but the aesthetic intimate universal communicated by the direction of the poem toward a unity of human – and – world expressiveness: landscape ANDinscape. The bathers, self-obsessed, project their solipsism onto the wider truths of their existence. They are in this together — this “between,” this metaxu, they just don’t know it.

The poem speaks to a whole that transcends the oblivion of human participants. Fierce and rather tender, “Islands” has a voice that speaks well for its maker.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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