If Walt Whitman were a Jewish Woman
Learn more about Muriel Rukeyser and read here poetry (click here for information and purchase)
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If Walt Whitman were a Jewish woman born in the age of documentary films and social radicalism, he might have written a little like Muriel Rukeyser. Were it not for the reclamation by Adrienne Rich and others, Rukeyser’s name and work could have been almost lost today. For her wide-ranging (from the documentary to the scientific, the mystical to the profane) and socially radical work, Rukeyser is a crucial touchstone for peace poetry.
Rukeyser, though, in contrast to the anti-war poets of the 1930s and 1960s, avoided the bloody screeds that some otherwise great poets occasionally (in both senses) produced. She hearkened back to the original meaning of poetry as poeisis, a making, when she wrote, “I will protest all my life . . . but I’m a person who makes … and I have decided that whenever I protest . . . I will make something—I will make poems, plant, feed children, build, but not ever protest without making something.” Though there are at least a dozen more dazzling poems of hers, in “Poem” we have a chronicle of an ordinary citizen trying to reclaim a space for reconciliation (“ourselves with each other, / ourselves with ourselves”) through words, in a time of perpetual and global war.
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane.
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.