Saturday, 22 October 2011

New Wolf/Muriel Rukeyser

 The new Wolf is out, well up to scratch and full of substance. Good to see an old aquaintance from a poetry workshop, David Barnes, in there with both a poem and an essay: his Pound piece is enthralling and impressively researched, debunking quite a few shortsighted commonplaces about the inexhaustible yet woefully under-read Cantos.
    Niall McDevitt on Ashbery's Rimbaud versions also offers a pithy critique, especially good on foregrounding the London contexts of Illuminations - slight shame he had to posit a 'mystery woman' and turn the sequence into some kind of encrypted hetero-love-poem - a gauche literalisation which John Ashbery would surely not assent to.      
    Sandeep Parmar on Daljit Nagra I also loved - timely corrective to the uncritical and largely ethno-tokenistic praise DN has all too often garnered. As I think is the case with the hugely-overrated Salman Rushdie, priggish white reviewers seem to baulk at an honest appraisal for fear of being imputed un-PC or not down with multiculturalism.
    Marilyn Hacker, in the Wolf interview, has a few interesting things to say but (sorry to be pernickity) she's wrong to suggest that Muriel Rukeyser had nothing to do with the Objectivists- as Andrew AcAllister shows in his Intro to the Bloodaxe Anthology The Objectivists, Rukeyser was "on the fringes of Zukofsky's group, and it is clear now that (her) work stands alongside the core of Rakosi, Reznikoff, Zukofsky and Oppen".
   Rukeyser is a marvellous poet, unpindownable and ambitious but at a slant to the masculine "grand projects" of Modernism. Her parallel vocation as a political activist informs both the atypical form and searching content of the work. A quick trawl through Amazon suggests that there are no English editions of any of her books: scandalous. Here's a typically fierce and wonderful poem of Rukeyser's, its title a caustic challenge to the "time-poor" frivolousness of consumerism ( off the cuff I'm just wondering whether the phrase "mystery and fury" in the 2nd line could have been the source for Rene Char's  1948 volume-title Fureur et Mystere) :


The fear of poetry is the
fear     :      mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the 
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son's head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down.     And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended.     And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof.     That strikes long after act.

They fear it.    They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet's
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.


  1. I object to this glib dismissal of my epic reading of Illuminations, one of the first to shed serious light on a much misunderstood book. The woman/women are there for all to see in the prose poems, as are the goddesses. There is nothing literal about examining them, following a lead given by Verlaine himself. Dixon insinuates I'm trying to reclaim Rimbaud for the heterosexuals, but it's not a kindergarten either/or scenario. The facts of Rimbaud's life indicate a bisexual. His two great loves were Verlaine and the Abyssinian maid. John Ashbery - contrary to Dixon's false assumption - loved my review. Readers who care about Rimbaud should see for themselves: http://www.wolfmagazine.co.uk/25review.php

    1. Hi Niall,
      I'm not sure you could call what I wrote about your very interesting review a "glib dismissal" since I'm mostly positive about it and just call one aspect of it a "slight shame". With a book as multi-layered and elusive as 'Illuminations' it's inevitable that there will be almost as many interpretations as there are readers. Of course you're right to say that "the facts of Rimbaud's life indicate a bisexual" and I never suggested you were trying to "reclaim Rimbaud for the heterosexuals", just that you had made a reading that differed from my own.
      I apologise if my blog-posts don't always attain the level of thoroughly-considered, objective criticism as they are often off-the-cuff personal responses to things that grab my interest, as your review certainly did.

  2. P.S. Another false assertion is that there are no English editions of Rukeyser. Try the poetry library. I've read her there.

  3. Again a slapdash sentence: what I meant to say that there were no English editions of Rukeyser's poems in print at that time, which as far as I'm aware was true. This situation was changed by the publication of Bloodaxe's Selected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser in 2013.

  4. Thanks for the replies. The phrase 'gauche literalisation' is itself gauche. My take on Illuminations is a considered, mature interpretation based on following the streets he wrote it in, as well as really looking at the poems. It situates Illuminations in the mainstream of European mystical love poetry, with Dante/Shakespeare et al before him, Yeats and co. after; but also in the marginal tradition of European mystical dissent, with Free Spirit, Ranters etc. before him, anarchists after. Beware of identity politicians and their one-dimensional Rimbauds. The ever-recurring females and goddesses cannot be ignored away, whether by those for whom Rimbaud is a gay icon or those for whom he is a Marxist. (It's a funny Marxist who never once mentions Marx anywhere in his writings).The layers you mention are fourfold and the poems are mostly about love, revolution, London and Rimbaud. Most commentators are lazy and haven't a clue what Illuminations is about, using its seeming obscurity as an excuse to say anything goes. It was assumed City was about the city, Metropolitan was about a train ride, and Workers was about the proletariat etc (with Rimbaldian riff-offs therefrom) but it took me to notice how he keeps reintroducing the female figure and the tragic romance into each of these explorations: 'notre active file et servants, un Amour deseperee', and 'Le matin ou avec Elle', and 'ma femme' respectively. And in many others. Thus Rimbaud links what is disconnected.