It is fitting that New York City's Library Walk has a plaque honoring Muriel Rukeyser. New York City was home to her birth and it is where she breathed her last in 1980. In between, Muriel Rukeyser raised cane poetically against the injustices of war, racism and inequalities affecting humankind.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Muriel Rukeyser's birth — December 15, 1913 — we visit Library Walk and the poem — The Speed of Darkness — that is quoted upon her plaque.
Published at the height of the Viet Nam War in 1968, The Speed of Darkness: Poems was Muriel Rukeyser's 15th published volume of poetry. Her first volume, Theory of Flight from 1935 won Rukeyser the coveted Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition.
Rukeyser's poetry was defined by her sense of justice and much of her poetry could be read as documentaries of her times and experiences from New York's Seventh Avenue to South Korea. That sense of justice is reflected in one of her last poems — The Gates — written in support of the imprisoned Korean poet Kim Chi Ha.
The Speed of Darkness
Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis
Whoever despises the penis despises the cunt
Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child.
Resurrection music, silence, and surf.
No longer speaking
Listening with the whole body
And with every drop of blood
Overtaken by silence
But this same silence is become speech
With the speed of darkness.
Stillness during war, the lake.
The unmoving spruces.
Glints over the water.
Faces, voices. You are far away.
A tree that trembles.
I am the tree that trembles and trembles.
After the lifting of the mist
after the lift of the heavy rains
the sky stands clear
and the cries of the city risen in day
I remember the buildings are space
walled, to let space be used for living
I mind this room is space
this drinking glass is space
whose boundary of glass
lets me give you drink and space to drink
your hand, my hand being space
containing skies and constellations
carries the reaches of air
I know I am space
my words are air.
the man : act exact
woman : in curve senses in their maze
frail orbits, green tries, games of stars
shape of the body speaking its evidence
I look across at the real
vulnerable involved naked
devoted to the present of all I care for
the world of its history leading to this moment.
Life the announcer.
I assure you
there are many ways to have a child.
I bastard mother
there are many ways to be born.
They all come forth
in their own grace.
Ends of the earth join tonight
with blazing stars upon their meeting.
These sons, these sons
fall burning into Asia.
Time comes into it.
Say it. Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.
blazing beside me
you rear beautifully and up—
your thinking face—
erotic body reaching
in all its colors and lights—
your erotic face
colored and lit—
not colored body-and-face
but now entire,
colors lights the world thinking and reaching.
The river flows past the city.
Water goes down to tomorrow
making its children I hear their unborn voices
I am working out the vocabulary of my silence.
Big-boned man young and of my dream
Struggles to get the live bird out of his throat.
I am he am I? Dreaming?
I am the bird am I? I am the throat?
A bird with a curved beak.
It could slit anything, the throat-bird.
Drawn up slowly. The curved blades, not large.
Bird emerges wet being born
Begins to sing.
My night awake
staring at the broad rough jewel
the copper roof across the way
thinking of the poet
yet unborn in this dark
who will be the throat of these hours.
No. Of those hours.
Who will speak these days,
if not I,
if not you?
— Muriel Rukeyser
In 1996, the New York Public Library, the Grand Central Partnership and the New Yorker Magazine convened a panel of esteemed lovers of the written word and came up with a collection of quotations from the never-ending oeuvre of literature.
These quotes were cast in bronze by New York sculptor Gregg LeFevre and then laid out as sidewalk plaques on E 41st Street in 1998. In 2003, the stretch of E 41st Street from the New York Public Library entrance on Fifth Avenue to Park Avenue was renamed Library Way.
Whether it be a birth day, anniversary or publication date of a seminal work, the Bar None Group will revisit these 40+ quotations from time to time — quotations that inspire one to write, read, explore and embrace literature. We last visited Dylan Thomas.