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A Heart of Grief: A Sliver of Beauty

Strawflower: Hope in Orange
Strawflower: Hope in Orange.  Photo by Wayne Stratz.

This last strawflower in our garden caught my eye, as autumn fades, a beacon of hope in orange.  My heart feels brittle like the dead leaves, with the grief of this world.  To notice remnants of beauty is a hopeful act.  To offer my sliver of beauty from my studio is what I will do right now, even as I continue to pay attention to the grief, to notice what I see and what I don’t see.  Muriel Rukeyser’s poem the Ballad of Orange and Grape stays with me:

Ballad of Orange and Grape

After you finish your work
after you do your day
after you’ve read your reading
after you’ve written your say –
you go down the street to the hot dog stand,
one block down and accross the way.
On a blistering afternoon in East Harlem in the twentieth
century.

Most of the windows are boarded up,
the rats run out of a sack –
sticking out of the crummy garage
one shiny long Cadillac;
at the glass door of the drug-addiction center,
a man who’d like to break your back.
But here’s a brown woman with a little girl dressed in rose
and pink, too.

Frankfurters frankfurters sizzle on the steel
where the hot-dog-man leans –
nothing else on the counter
but the usual two machines,
the grape one, empty, and the orange one, empty,
I face him in between.
A black boy comes along, looks at the hot dogs, goes on
walking.

I watch the man as he stands and pours
in the familiar shape
bright purple in the one marked ORANGE
orange in the one marked GRAPE,
the grape drink in the machine marked ORANGE
and orange drink in the GRAPE.
Just the one word large and clear, unmistakeable, on each
machine.

I ask him : How can we go on reading
and make sense out of what we read? –
How can they write and believe what they’re writing,
the young ones across the street,
while you go on pouring grape in ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE –?
(How are we going to believe what we read and we write
and we hear and we say and we do?)

He looks at the two machines and he smiles
and he shrugs and smiles and pours again.
It could be violence and nonviolence
it could be white and black women and men
it could be war and peace or any
binary system, love and hate, enemy, friend.
Yes and no, be and not-be, what we do and what we don’t
do.

On a corner in East Harlem
garbage, reading, a deep smile, rape,
forgetfulness, a hot street of murder,
misery, withered hope,
a man keeps pouring grape into ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE,
pouring orange into GRAPE and grape into ORANGE forever.

 

Muriel Rukeyser, “Ballad of Orange and Grape” from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Copyright © 2006 by Muriel Rukeyser. Reprinted by permission of International Creative Management.

Source: Breaking Open (Random House Inc., 1973)

 

 

 

 

Tree of Life Mosaic by Nutmeg Designs

Green Tree of Grace and Widest River of Despair: Muriel Rukeyser on War

Tree of Life Mosaic by Nutmeg Designs
Tree of Life Mosaic by Nutmeg Designs based on a drawing by our client, glass, millefiori, gold smalti on slate, 10×14 inches.

 

 

Elegy in Joy [excerpt]
by Muriel Rukeyser

We tell beginnings: for the flesh and the answer,
or the look, the lake in the eye that knows,
for the despair that flows down in widest rivers,
cloud of home; and also the green tree of grace,
all in the leaf, in the love that gives us ourselves.

The word of nourishment passes through the women,
soldiers and orchards rooted in constellations,
white towers, eyes of children: 
saying in time of war What shall we feed?
I cannot say the end.

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.
Not all things are blest, but the
seeds of all things are blest.
The blessing is in the seed.

This moment, this seed, this wave of the sea, this look, this instant of love.
Years over wars and an imagining of peace.  Or the expiation journey
toward peace which is many wishes flaming together,
fierce pure life, the many-living home.
Love that gives us ourselves, in the world known to all
new techniques for the healing of the wound,
and the unknown world.  One life, or the faring stars.

See more at poets.org

Originally published by New Directions Press in 1949.

 

Remembrance Day in Canada in the 1970’s

R is For Muriel Rukeyser: To Reach Beyond Ourselves

R is For Muriel Rukeyser: To Reach Beyond Ourselves

The Universe is Made of Stories

In college, I took a class on the history of the American Labor movement in the first part of the 20th Century, and learned of tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where women workers died because the fire doors were chained shut by the company to prevent theft.  Being a poet, I came upon the idea of writing a paper about poetry of the labor movement, and this introduced me one of my favorite poets, Muriel Rukeyser.  She wrote a powerful poem series, The Book of the Dead(1938), about the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster in West Virginia, where Union Carbide had mostly African American workers tunnel through pure silica without any masks, and many died from silicosis of the lungs. She writes about a black man in George Robinson: Blues, who testified at the hearings about the tunnel:

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.

In Absalom, she writes of a mother looking for the cause of her sons’ deaths:

The oldest son was twenty-three.
The next son was twenty-one.
The youngest son was eighteen.
They called it pneumonia at first.
They would pronounce it fever.
Shirley asked that we try to find out.
That’s how they learned what the trouble was.

 

       I open out a way, they have covered my sky with crystal
       I come forth by day, I am born a second time,
       I force a way through, and I know the gate
       I shall journey over the earth among the living.

 

       He shall not be diminished, never;
       I shall give a mouth to my son.
Poem” from 1968, describes living in the first century of World Wars, of news pouring out of various
devices, of the despair, but also hope, and sounds very much like it could be from today:

Poem

By Muriel Rukeyser 1913–1980
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 values.
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.