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.