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Re: Waterlily Fire Sound Poem

Beginning with an excerpt from an interview with Muriel Rukeyser, the sound poem enters into an exploration of “a language of water.” Rukeyser’s repetition of the word “water” is juxtaposed with the sounds of her gasping for air to generate a slight sense of anxiety leading into “The Burning” of “Waterlily Fire.” I’ve taken an almost 20 minute audio recording of Rukeyser reading Waterlily Fire and have turned it into an 8 minute sound poem. This is one of my favorite pieces of Rukeyser’s writing and so I was being mindful in the condensing process. I thought this recording of her reading was so lovely and I was trying not to distort everything while still trying to use sound manipulation to bring new life to parts of the poem that, in reading, I found particularly enthralling or intriguing.


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April 9, 2013 · 5:36 am

Rukeyser Constructing Women as Sources of Power in The Book of the Dead


I’m going to be talking about the ways Muriel Rukeyser constructs women as sources of power in The Book of the Dead. The prominent female voices in the poem come from two women, Philippa Allen and Mrs. Jones. Both Philippa Allen and Mrs. Jones were actual women who were involved in the fallout from the disaster at Gauley Bridge. These two women are implicated in this event through both history and Rukeyser’s poem.

The third poem “Statement: Philippa Allen” is drawn entirely from the transcript of Philippa Allen’s testimony at the hearing before the House subcommittee. Allen was a social worker assigned to Gauley Bridge and the surrounding areas. This is why she was called to testify. Philippa Allen was, in fact, the first of twelve witnesses to testify before congress on the Gauley Bridge incident.

It makes sense then, that within The Book of the Dead, Philippa Allen is the first voice to speak of the disaster at Gauley Bridge. Rukeyser entrusts Allen’s voice with the task of delivering to the reader the poem’s first encounter of the backstory of the disaster.

Allen testifies, “During the summer of 1934, when I was doing social work down there, I first heard of what we were pleased to call the Gauley tunnel tragedy, which involved about 2,000 men.” She is then questioned, “Have you met these people personally?” To which she answers, “I have talked to people; yes.” Philippa Allen, real life woman and social worker, had an actual connection to the conditions of the workers. She had a personal relationship to the events. And Rukeyser’s collaging of Philippa Allen’s testimony reflects a seemingly purposeful stress on Allen’s credibility through her first-hand knowledge of the events. There is an authority in Philippa Allen’s telling.  Rukeyser is constructing Allen as a narrative authority. Perhaps, Rukeyser constructs her this way to reflect the role the “real life” Philippa Allen “played.” In the poem, Allen’s section ends with her voice telling, “I am now making a very general statement as a beginning. There are many points that I should like to develop later, but I shall try to give you a general history of this condition first….” By ending this way, Rukeyser effectively establishes Philippa Allen as a privileged narrator within the poem. This becomes an important contrast to the way Rukeyser establishes other voices within The Book of the Dead. Think, for example, of the doctors later on.

In poem titled “Absalom,” we’re given the narrative of Mrs. Jones, a mother who has lost her three sons to silicosis. This section is comprised of the testimony provided by Mrs. Jones, Philippa Allen, and Mr. Jones. Additionally, “Absalom” includes lines translated and interpreted from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Here, Rukeyser weaves together the Gauley tunnel tragedy with a mythical framework to shape Mrs. Jones’s experiences into a myth of regeneration and vindication that is based in maternal love. In Mrs. Jones’s narrative the stress is placed on her active role in the process of seeking justice. Mrs. Jones’s first line reads, “I first discovered what was killing these men.” Further down she says, “When they took sick, right at the start, I saw a doctor.” and when she couldn’t get the money the doctors required she “went on the road and begged the X-ray money.” “The case of [her] son was the first of the line of lawsuits.” Mrs. Jones represents the strong mother’s struggle to survive amongst a dying family. She represents the many women whose lives were influenced by the Gauley tunnel tragedy, as they became the physical survivors of the violence that was inflicted. Mrs. Jones’s role in the poem is defined by her activity. She actively seeks justice and compensation for her dead sons and this makes her a source of energy within the poem.

Both Mrs. Jones and Philippa Allen represent the powers of witness. In The Book of the Dead Rukeyser constructs these women in a way that reflects each of them as being agents of history. In this light, perhaps we can think of Rukeyser’s construction of Mrs. Jones and Philippa Allen as reflecting Rukeyser’s notion that poetry can extend the document.

The final poem, “The Book of the Dead,” includes the image of the Carthaginian sculpture of a woman. These stanzas read:

In the museum life, centuries of ambition

yielded at last a fertilizing image:

the Carthaginian stone meaning a tall woman

carries in her two hands the book and cradled dove,

on her two thighs, wings folded from the waist

cross to her feet, a pointed human crown.

Rukeyser chooses not to draw upon American history for finding an exemplary female hero; instead she turns to Egyptian mythology for her representation of female authority and agency. Within the context of the poem’s entirety, the image of this sculpture can be read as allusion to the mother goddess Isis. Notably, in Rukeyser’s poem Isis does not bear the child she is often associated with, but rather she carries a book. This evokes notions connecting women to civilizations as having roles of guardians. This sculpture also carries a cradled dove, which is a representation for being anti-war. Rukeyser’s use of the mythic Isis, while representing motherhood as not being tied to a child, allows for a female symbolic power that is more active, more mobile, and more representative of a woman being an agent in history. 

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Waterlily Fire by Muriel Rukeyser

Waterlily Fire is quite different from the other poems of Muriel Rukeyser we’ve read this semester. Especially so, syntactically. After our class, where we had an engaging discussion about the associations with the words “waterlily” and “fire,” I began thinking about the juxtaposition of these associations. There seems to be a sense of transformation within the poem and perhaps within the juxtaposition of “waterlily” and “fire.”


Take a look at the poem’s first line (in THE BURNING):


Girl grown woman


Here, in three words, Rukeyser has succeeded in creating a sense of natural transformation. There is the implied sense of a span of time as well. This first stanza points to time in a grand sense as well as in a specific sense. The entire stanza reads:


Girl grown woman      fire      mother of fire

I go to the stone street turning to fire.      Voices

Go screaming       Fire       to the green glass wall.

And there where my youth flies blazing into fire

The      dance      of sane and insane images, noon

Of seasons and days.       Noontime of my one hour.


Here, we can see Rukeyser pointing attention to the units of time that include seasons, days, and hours. I have to think there is significance in Rukeyser establishing a sense of time that is both vast and specific in the very first stanza of the poem.


Even the titles of the sections of Waterlily Fire indicate transformation, of some kind. We move from BURNING to THE ISLAND to JOURNEY CHANGES to FRAGILE to THE LONG BODY. I’m starting to read aspects of this poem as resonating (a bit) with the phoenix rising from the ash situation. We begin with fire, we move to isolation, then a journey that changes, then to fragility (possibly infanthood?), and finally to a long body. Just another bit to think on from this ultimately lovely poem.

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Who Runs Through Electric Wires?

How wonderful is the timing of that string of questions at the end of “Praise of the Committee?”

Who stands over the river?

Whose feet go running in these rigid hills?

Who comes, warning the night,

shouting and young to waken our eyes?

Who runs through electric wires?

Who speaks down every road?

My second reading of Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead went a whole lot smoother than my first. Last semester, Rukeyser came at a time when our Documentary poetics class had fallen a couple of weeks behind. In an effort to fit everything in, we were powering through a number of readings. The Book of the Dead fell into that machine. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think we were able to even spend so much as an hour talking about this piece. I remember liking The Book of the Dead; it was intriguing. I also remember feeling a general sense of confusion about the way the poem was constructed. The movements, from section to section, were puzzling to me. Especially when it shifts from “Arthur Peyton” to “Alloy.” It’s like something has changed in the poem and I’m acutely aware this is not in fact, simply a poem that is witnessing. It’s witnessing and it’s commenting. The commenting Rukeyser is participating in feels thought-through. At times the feeling is prophetic (her comments on environmental impact of industrialization). I think it would be fair to say The Book of the Dead is a didactic piece of writing.

I really like the way Rukeyser is working with place. The way she handles nature is really exciting. She seems, at times, to be pushing against romanticized notions surrounding the role of nature in poetry. Nature in The Book of the Dead is infected, essentially. The water makes people sick. The cornfield is a makeshift cemetery. The mouth of the tunnel chokes on silicate dust. And obviously, so much is described as being “glassy” or relating to glass in some kind of way (silica being a main component in manufacturing glass).

I had to Wikipedia the Egyptian Book of the Dead in order to begin to understand a connection between the two. Apparently, the Egyptian Book of the Dead can be translated into either the Book of Coming Forth by Day or the Book of emerging forth into the Light. In relation to Rukeyser’s poem I like Book of emerging forth into the Light. This translation seems to directly be articulating what Rukeyser establishes as her purpose for writing this poem at the very end.

“Carry abroad the urgent need, the scene,

to photograph and to extend the voice,

to speak this meaning.”

Oh, the answer: power!

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Research Report: A Poetical Essay H.D.’s Trilogy as Witness

Though untraditional in its approach, Trilogy is a poetry of witness. While a more traditional approach to this genre focuses its attention, at least in part, on the act of recounting perception factually, Trilogy seems to be concerning itself with the act of recounting perception conceptually. Conceptualization is a form of interpretation. To conceptualize is to form a concept out of observations, experiences, and interpretations. It’s obvious that Trilogy does not fall into the more recognizable categories of poetry of witness. However, Trilogy is witnessing London during the Second World War. The references to war and the physical surroundings may be obscured, but the obscurity speaks volumes. There is something to be learned from an understanding of why H.D. interpreted the cultural landscape surrounding London during World War II through a cast of mythological characters and esoteric symbols.


Gaining this kind of understanding of Trilogy is not easy. I’m beginning to think the problem has something to do with categories. Poetry that is conceptual in nature is not necessarily conceptual poetry. Does that mean we can’t use some of the same techniques and tactics that are used in an analysis of conceptual poetry when approaching an analysis of poetry that is conceptual in nature? Conceptual poetry is analyzed in some very unique ways because conceptual poetry is unique. As is poetry that is conceptual in nature. These are pieces of writing that amplify the imagination and its interpretive capabilities. I can’t help but think it’s possible Trilogy gets short changed because it’s difficult to figure out how to make those amplifications sing.


Conceptual poetry is not a term used lightly in the contemporary literary landscape. Loosely defined, conceptual poetry is a piece of writing in which “the idea or the concept is the most important aspect of the work,” (LeWitt 1). Essentially, conceptual poetry “prioritizes an understanding of the ‘general concept’”  (Dworkin ii). This means that for conceptual pieces of writing the concept is considered more important than the writing. The concept is also considered more important than ever reading the text (seriously). For this reason, among others, let me be clear in saying that I do not mean to suggest H.D. is a conceptual poet or that Trilogy is conceptual poetry. What I do mean to suggest is that an attempt to understand the idea or ideas H.D. was working with while writing Trilogy might prove beneficial in our understanding of why Trilogy is considered poetry of witness.


An analysis of a conceptual piece of writing involves articulating the writer’s purpose and aim. This would involve an explanation of at least these three factors: the idea(s) behind the writing (the why), the procedure that was involved in its creation, and the framework in which the piece of writing exists.

The framework in which Trilogy was written has everything to do with the year and the place. H.D began composing Trilogy in 1942. She was living in London and the Second World War was officially in its third year. During the early 1940’s, H.D. was a part of London’s literary community where “eschatological themes colored literary debates” (Acheson 189). In Literature eschatology is a thought or belief concerned with questioning: what happens after death or the end of the world and life as we know it? (Murfin 152). There was so much interest in this apocalyptic mode of thinking that a group of writers banned together and called themselves poets of the New Apocalypse. Through poetry “they attempted to formulate a response to the war that addressed what they thought to be the underlying evils of the age that had led to it” (Acheson 189). H.D. never identified herself as a poet of the New Apocalypse, though she did share their apocalyptic thinking and neo-romanticism aesthetic. The difference between H.D. and the poets of the New Apocalypse can be seen throughout the pages of Trilogy. Within the writing there is “the construction of a better world” that exists post war (Acheson 189-190). Trilogy is a piece of writing that is constantly revising an orthodox understanding of the relationship between the past, present, and future. It’s important to understand this in light of the fact that H.D. lived in London during the Blitz bombing attacks and she never fled. The Blitz bombings took place on and off for fifty-seven days (Pyle). Reflecting on the framework of her life in London perhaps answers why there are so many empty tombs, old ruins, and references to Atlantis within the pages of Trilogy. I would argue this sense of apocalypse surrounding her writing in Trilogy is in itself a form of witnessing. 


Trilogy is not just apocalyptic. It is also full of constructed mythologies and forward thinking. Forward thinking is referring to the tone of the writing. Looking at the tone brings us to another of analysis borrow from conceptual poetry: thinking about procedure. This forward-thinking tone is often seemingly speaking to the future. For example, in Poem [4]: be firm in your own small, static, limited / orbit and the shark-jaws / of outer circumstance / will spit you forth: / be indigestible, hard, ungiving (9). When this tone arises in Trilogy it’s working against the apocalyptic scenery, in that it is creating a forward movement, the same way an apocalyptic image creates a backwards movement. As readers, we experience these movements (if at all) subconsciously.


 With that in mind, I think Trilogy is quite special in the ways in which it uses temporality and language. H.D. is using language and temporality as tools for creating poetry in which apocalypses and constructed futures do not only coexist but also bleed into one another. This intermixing fuels a poetic landscape that is really quite complicated. The perspective Trilogy provides does not fear the end of life but instead relishes in this beautiful mash-up of past, present, and future all the while concerning itself with constructing something better for the future. H.D.’s use of the female characters is an example of her efforts at constructing something better for the future.


Temporally, Trilogy is quite interesting. By managing to avoid establishing time in a linear fashion H.D. opens the poem to the possibilities of the past, the present, and the future. Though there are cycles that occur within Trilogy’s temporal landscape the text itself is not merely cyclical. H.D. creates a temporality that is entirely open to the past all the while continuing to move forward. Thinking about this openness to the past and forward movement in regards to being a piece of poetry of witness is quite interesting. The witness perspective provided in Trilogy is unique, but I certainly leave feeling as though I’ve witnessed something. 

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The Walls Do Not Fall Palimpsest Image

The Walls Do Not Fall Palimpsest Image

Includes (from the text):

be indigestible, hard, ungiving

Rare as radium, as healing;
my old self, wrapped round me

The Christos-image
is most difficult to disentangle
form its art-craft junk-shop
paint-and-plaster medieval jumble
of pain-worship and death-symbol
that is why, I suppose, the Dream
deftly stage-managed the bare, clean
early colonial interior,
without stained-glass, picture
image or colour,
for now it appears obvious
that Amen is out Christos.

Now my right hand,
now my left hand

healing potions for the dead

its tide and ebb

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February 2, 2013 · 2:06 pm

Why Poetical Activity?

And why not, say, journalism? Why write poetry instead of a news article? Why write poetry instead of a novel? 

Here are the best responses I have to the question: Why poetical activity?


1) Because all other genres come with a set of conventions that take away or degrade. Those genres have sly ways of allowing the writer a heightened sense of authority.

2) Poetical activity resists the artifice of narrative and closure and unity.

3) Poetical activity self-interrogates its own format.

4) (My favorite) Poetical activity makes the un-relatable perceptible by skirting codified forms of knowledge.

5) Poetical activity challenges authority.

6) Poetical activity challenges authoritative knowledge.


Explaining the “how” of many of these statements can be an exhausting exercise. If there is a particular number that is of interest, let me know, and I’ll be more than willing to engage further. 


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