Yearning for My Grandmother Muriel Rukeyser (and Grappling With Her Legacy)

muriel rukeyser

I saw my grandmother on Twitter again today. She died five years before I was born, but pictures of her face and extracts from her work are continually being posted.

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.

Even you’ve never read Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry—I hadn’t touched it, until earlier this year—you’ve probably encountered bits and pieces. The stanza above, from her Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars), surfaces on particularly hideous news days. Another line repeats in times of women’s bravery in the face of acute misogyny: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

Muriel was unruly: a queer, Jewish, feminist, single-mother-by-choice whose work “engaged with technology, mythology and religion, science, art—visual and musical, labor activism, Judaism, the struggles of international writers, and always history.”[1] Adrienne Rich, who dubbed her “Muriel, mother of everyone” described her as a “poet, first and foremost; but [also] a thinking activist, biographer, traveler, explorer of her country’s psychic geography.”[2] She was a contradictory woman. This was a fact my father (Muriel’s son) repeated, sometimes with considerable pride and sometimes darkly.

As a child I grew to know Muriel through familial relics and reminiscences: here’s her collection of vaguely sinister brooches, here’s a snippet of doggerel in bad French she liked to repeat, here’s how she used to make oblique insults (“I’ve never seen anything like it!”). I had inherited, my father apologized, taking off his socks, the deformed Rukeyser feet.


At home, we kept our family albums in Muriel’s old writing desk. A photo of a six-year-old Muriel looks adorably similar to a photo of a six-year-old me. This thrilled me.

The similarities became eerier as I grew older: I had Muriel’s eyebrows, legs, expression, shoulders, Muriel’s wide face. Everyone commented on it, especially when I decided I wanted to be a writer. This was less thrilling. I was a young adult; I didn’t want to be reduced to being Muriel’s reincarnation.

Everyone who has tried to write a biography of Muriel has ultimately given up.

Didn’t I want to read my grandma’s work? No, I was ferociously intent on not doing that. If I had to look exactly like her and, exactly like her, love writing, I thought, the most sensible thing I could do was insulate myself from her influence.

It wasn’t until this year that I started reading Muriel Rukeyser. And when I started, if I’m going to be honest, I was looking not for kinship but a lack of it, proof of my individuality and an assertion of alterity.


Muriel’s life was forged in opposition to her parents and their housecat sensibilities bred of privilege and affluence. But I was keenly aware that becoming a writer would be, for me, just one more step along a familial path.

Muriel conceived my father with the very dashing, very alcoholic son of poet Robinson Jeffers. Only while reading through scholarly articles to research this essay did I realize that Muriel withheld the identity of my grandfather—Donnan Jeffers—from my father until he was all of twelve.

When I asked my father about this, he said that Muriel sometimes “had a fraught relationship with the simple declarative sentence.”


My father is the executor of Muriel’s literary estate, which is not a terribly lucrative role. One summer during my childhood we received, in lieu of royalties, inordinate quantities of Celestial Seasonings Tropical Fruit Cool Brew Iced Tea, because Muriel’s most famous quote—”The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” a declarative sentence—was printed on the inside flap of the package.


I still wrote: fiction, never poetry. I got into graduate school. When I thanked a professor who’d written me a letter of recommendation, he replied wow awesome news, hey you have Muriel’s spirit help too.

 My father helped me move to Iowa. We talked about my becoming a writer. During a long stretch of the drive, somewhere in the mountains before Denver, he told me to remember to be happy.


If there was a spirit helping Muriel along, it was that of Rabbi Akiba. Muriel’s mother told a young Muriel that her family was directly descended from Rabbi Akiba, the 1st Century Talmudic scholar famous primarily for two things: insisting the frankly erotic “Song of Songs” enter the canon, and dying a triumphant martyr. While being flayed alive by Romans he shouted the Shema Yisrael to the heavens, thus establishing the tradition that every Jew must go to sleep and go into death reciting the Shema.

This disclosure of a hereditary link not only to poetry but to poetry that upheld the holiness of carnality, not only to acts of resistance but acts of resistance that were accompanied by indelible literary recitations was deeply affected young Muriel. She referred to it as an “extraordinary gift to give a child […] a treasure that I believe has a great deal to do with the kind of poetry I think of as unverifiable fact.”


“When I say unverifiable fact,” said Muriel in her 1986 Scripps College Lectures, “it is that ‘partly known’ that we each hold for every other person.” [3]

It’s a statement shot through with the yearning to connect, but it also, I thought, hints at an appreciation for our mutability and our secrets and all that keeps us all only partly known.

Ebullient academics approached me to ask if I had read my grandmother’s work and marveled, over and over, how I looked just like her.

Yes, I was reading Muriel as the daughter of a man whose life was shaped by Muriel’s mutability and secrecy. But I was also reading to find the character of Muriel, and I was finding her elusive. The experience of Muriel is looking outward at the world, rather than at her reflection. Eric Keenaghen writes, “No matter how close readers feel to this woman reading her poetry, they cannot avoid the fact that they don’t really know her.”

The arrogance of kinship took over and I became suddenly, cheerfully scornful. Okay, Eric, I thought. I’ll do it. I’ll read Muriel’s poetry and I’ll really know her.

I was only slightly cowed by the fact that, although there has been great interest and more than a few attempts, everyone who has tried to write a biography of Muriel has ultimately given up.


In 2013, my father and I attended a Eastern Michigan University program titled “Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive.” A celebration of Muriel’s 100th birthday, it was a warm, raucous event.

“Let me tell you,” Laura Passin wrote of the centennial,[4] “you have not really experienced academia until you’ve found yourself at a conference where you realize that everyone is secretly a fangirl as well as a scholar.”

Photos of Muriel’s face were everywhere; my own was an echo. Ebullient academics approached me to ask if I had read my grandmother’s work and marveled, over and over, how I looked just like her. They looked at me with startled, searching glances, full of love for Muriel. “It’s like seeing a ghost!” one of them said.

One of the things the centennial was celebrating was the publication of Muriel’s novel Savage Coast. It’s a heavily autobiographical work: when Muriel was twenty-two she took on an assignment to cover the People’s Olympiad, a protest and alternative to Hitler’s Berlin Games, in Barcelona. [5] But the People’s Olympiad was cancelled because of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, an event Muriel bore witness to.

This was the turning point, she recounts in The Life of Poetry. Suddenly, there was responsibility: a voice tells her to “go home, tell your people what you have seen.” On the evacuation boat bound for the French town of Sète, Muriel speaks in the first person plural: the memory of the refugees is collective, as are their love and fear. What has been seen in Spain was seen with “our eyes.”

Savage Coast,” writes editor Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, “is the most complete rendering of Rukeyser’s experience during the war, but the novel remained unpublished in her lifetime.” It was rejected in a “withering and sexist reader report,”[6] in part because its protagonist Helen was deemed “too abnormal for us to respect.”


One of the reasons it was hard for me to isolate Muriel’s character is the fact that her poetic address moves fluidly between first- and second person. This can be interpreted as echoing the exhortation on that evacuation boat to Sète: by moving between the pronouns “I” and “you,” Muriel’s poetry not only tells the people what she’s seen, it implicates them in the witnessing.

In The Life of Poetry, Muriel begins her recounting of her familial Akiba myth saying, “Before your birth, your parents knew the smaller cities.” In the next paragraph: “Behind my mother, the simple Yonkers childhood, the years of clerical work, the ancestors.”

In “Trinity Churchyard: For My Mother & Her Ancestor Akiba” the word “you” refers to both Mother and the speaker of the poem, presumably Muriel. The word “I” refers to both: Mother and the speaker the poem, presumably Muriel.

This brought back the old resentment: I’m not Muriel.

In discussing “Akiba,” Catherine Gander explains how Muriel “aligns her poetics with Martin Buber’s theory of the meeting of I and Thou [which] establishes the self-other relation in terms of a meeting of consciousness, whereby ‘the I of man is twofold: I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou.‘”[7]

I mention this to my father. “As I recall,” he said,  “Grandma talked about Buber a lot with her Jungian analyst.”


My father was born with the name Laurie. It may have been a hereditary hat-tip—his maternal grandfather was Lawrence. In any case, he disliked it.

At age seven, he had one of his first major literary encounters in the school library: a Little Golden Book called Brave Cowboy Bill. He returned home and announced to his mother that his name, henceforth, was Bill. And Muriel, to her credit, didn’t fight this name change.


An email from a graduate school buddy:

you sold your novel — congratulations! I’m curious about the deets, not least because I’ve impressed a senior Whitmanist who’s also writing heavily about your grandmother at present, merely by knowing you. […] Relatedly, every time you post a picture of [my fiancé] I think of Muriel’s relationship to Otto Boch.

This brought back the old resentment: I’m not Muriel. Although it’s a verifiable fact that both my fiancé and Otto Boch, a People’s Olympiad athlete Muriel had a five-day affair with in Barcelona, were born in Bavaria.


In “The Education of A Poet,” Muriel continues to be playful with “I” and “you”:

It’s difficult to make the equivalent of an experience, to make a poem that is so full of the resources of music and of meaning, and that allows you to give it to me, me to give it to you.


Muriel continually crafted poems that are the equivalent of experiences. This, to borrow Muriel’s language about the disclosure of her ancestor Akiba, is an extraordinary gift to give a reader.

But in the dogged, single-minded pursuit of a granddaughter trying to get a sense of her grandmother—I had forgotten about proof of alterity by this point, I just wanted proof—it was like discovering that Muriel’s photo albums contained only pictures taken by her, none taken of her.

I remembered Savage Coast and Helen, the “abnormal” protagonist, set aside Muriel’s poetry and tracked down a copy of her novel. I hadn’t been able to get a sense of Muriel’s character within her poetry. But I was certain everything would change once I was in the familiar territory of fiction.

The first chapter made me elated. In Muriel’s descriptions of Helen—who’s “carried away by the excitement of it but still locked into herself,” “conscious of herself years ago as the white, awkward child and later as the big, angry woman”—I felt the pleasant, dull chime of recognition again and again.

I reminded myself that I’d felt affinity with plenty of angry fictional women not modeled on my grandmother, and that comprehensive, exacting characterization is one of the many joys of the third person point of view. And also that, when it comes to close reading, you can easily find what you seek.

But still, I felt smug until I turned back to read the author’s note at the beginning of Savage Coast:

This tale of foreigners depends least of all on character. None of the persons are imaginary, but none are represented at all photographically; for any scenes or words in the least part identifiable, innumerable liberties and distortions may be traced.

What Muriel is saying to the reader is: you don’t get to reject the novel’s fiction and you don’t get to reject its basis in reality. You don’t get to assign its characters real-world corollaries—not even Helen for Muriel—and you don’t get to assume they’re entirely fabricated. This novel and its characters exist within the realm of unverifiable fact.

The “partly known” I get from my grandmother is this: an anger at the dismissal inherent in being characterized as. From what I can tell, she’d reject the idea of anyone—even her granddaughter—being her echo, because it assumes an understanding of the exact demarcations of her character.

And that, of course, is something we have in common.


[2] Introduction: A Muriel Rukeyser Reader
[3] “Biocracy: Reading Poetic Politics through the Traces of Muriel Rukeyser’s Life-Writing,” Eric Keenaghen, Journal of Narrative Theory, Volume 43, Number 3, Fall 2013 pp. 258-287
[7] Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection: The Poetics of Connection, C. Gander, 2013

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