Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rukeyser: The Book of the Dead


Comparing Muriel Rukeyser's "The Book of the Dead" with Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," I think the approach to the relationship between poet and reader differs between the two. The "you" Whitman refers to in his poem includes spring and the thrush, but mostly is death itself, while the "you" of "The Book of the Dead" seems to be fellow Americans, and particularly young, working, western Americans, such as in the lines "you workers and hope of countries" and "you young, you who finishing the poem / wish new perfection and begin to make."

Rukeyser elicits personal memories with godlike authority as she addresses Americans, invoking "all your influences, your home river, / constellations of cities, mottoes of childhood, / parents and easy cures, war, all evasion's wishes." The relationship to the reader is initially much more direct in this poem, but I think that the reader of "When Lilacs..." is meant to identify with the "I" more than with the "you," and assuming this, the feeling of a personal connection to the events described is possible, and the two poems are not unrelated in their vision of national identity and loss.

Both "The Book of the Dead" and "When Lilacs..." appear to come to some version of resolution or hope in the aftermath of national tragedy. In the last stanzas of "When Lilacs...," Walt is finally able to leave the door-yard and cease his song, having journeyed with death and appreciated its place in life and even its own beauty. He is comforted somewhat by his memories and by the assurance that he is not alone in mourning. I am less confident of the presence of resolution at the end of "The Book of the Dead" because it seems in part to depend on the remembrance of the story; forgetting and silence "can never be done." Rukeyser's choice to end the poem with "seeds of unending love" in honor of the dead, however, presents the potential for healing.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Collective Loss: "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and the poems of September 11, 2001

Browsing through this collection of 9/11 themed poems, my first impression is that none of them can match the sheer vast scope of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"--that comforting universal quality Whitman has of digesting everything that comprises reality and imagination at once into a beautiful order of disorder. It's not fair to dismiss other poets simply for not being Whitman, but poem after poem I click on strikes me as barely comparable to "When Lilacs...," usually because the speaker is using a modest sort of first-person, recounting something very specific. I expect that with more time and attention I will find more appropriate contenders, and I'm still digesting "When Lilacs..." too, but so far only Adam Zagajewski's "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" echoed something of Whitman's approach. At first I balked at writing about "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" because I can only read it in translation, but since it still stands out in my memory after twenty or so other poems, it's worth considering. Here is the text as translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh:

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

The significance to me of this poem in relation to "When Lilacs..." is that both of them present the natural environment as infused with loss, and include vivid images which are both personal and communal. I imagine the presence of the thrush in both poems is not a coincidence. This poem was not written on the same scale as Whitman's, but perhaps it is a comparable contemporary approach to collective grief. It seems that Whitman was also praising the mutilated world when he wrote "Prais'd be the fathomless universe / For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious / And for love, sweet love--but praise! praise! praise! / For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death."