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“‘Whose fires would not stop’: Muriel Rukeyser and the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1976”

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 43, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 384-414 | 10.1353/jnt.2013.0013

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“We Came for Games”

In the same year that “Hitler’s Leni Riefenstahl”2 appeared, all legs, skiing across the cover of Time magazine—an eerie premonition of her voluptuous propaganda film Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Olympics—the Jewish American left-wing poet Muriel Rukeyser was sent to report on the Olimpiada Popular, scheduled to take place July 19–26, 1936, in Barcelona, Spain. Meant as protest and alternative to Hitler’s Berlin games, the People’s Olympics, organized by the Second Spanish Republic, was an international event to which twenty-two countries were sending athletes.3 But instead of reporting on the games, Rukeyser documented the outbreak of civil war, as the fascist-backed military coup plunged Spain into violence two nights before the People’s Olympics were to begin, strategically disrupting what would have been one of the largest international anti-fascist events of that period. Only twenty-two at the time, Rukeyser’s experience as witness to the military coup and the revolutionary response in Catalonia proved transformational; she would write about Spain, its war, revolution, exiled, and dead, for over forty years, creating a radical and interconnected twentieth-century textual history.

In each of her works on Spain, the same narratives, images, and phrases proliferate, re-contextualized within her contemporary political and literary moment. In poems, reportage, memoir, essays, and fiction, and more often in experimental forms that combine these genres, she reiterates, re-imagines, and theorizes her experience as a witness to the first days of the war and to her own moment of political, sexual, and poetic awakening. Through this textual proliferation Rukeyser continually documents and recuperates the narratives of those who fought against fascism in Spain and those marginalized by what Theresa Hak Kyung Cha has called “History’s revision” (30)—women, activists, exiles, and refugees. If, as Susan Sontag has written, Riefenstahl’s film exemplifies the Nazi ideal of totalizing history, “in which the document (the image) is no longer simply the record of reality—‘reality’ has been constructed to serve the image” (7), then Rukeyser’s experimental and hybrid texts about the Spanish resistance document a multivalent reality that resists totalization, offering a dilating and dialogic representation of history inside an ever changing present.

Rukeyser’s famously neglected text about poetry in times of crisis, The Life of Poetry (1949), begins with a boat of “refugees” fleeing a Barcelona engulfed by war; in it, she describes how “we spoke as if we were shadows on that deck, shadows cast backward by some future fire of explosion” (3). In this moment of crisis, she is asked the almost apocryphal question that frames her life’s work: “And in all this—where is there a place for poetry?” She gives a partial answer in an essay, “We Came for Games,” written nearly thirty years later: “I know some of it now, but it will take me a lifetime to find it” (295). And it does. Her narrative of the first days of the Spanish Civil War appears in numerous works, spanning over forty years of Rukeyser’s oeuvre: four major essays written from 1936 to 1974, all of them uncollected, “Barcelona, 1936” (1936), “Death in Spain: Barcelona on the Barricades” (1936), “Start of Strife in Spain Is Told by Eyewitness” (1936), and “We Came for Games” (1974), as well as the recently recovered autobiographical novel Savage Coast (2013), the introduction to The Life of Poetry (1949); the unpublished poem “For O.B.” (undated); and a considerable amount of poems available in The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (2005), edited by Janet Kaufman and Anne Herzog.4

In 1936, Rukeyser was on her first trip abroad, a voyage recounted in the poem “Otherworld” (Collected 167), traveling as an assistant for the couple to whom she would dedicate Savage Coast, George and Elizabeth Dublin Marshall. They were researching cooperatives in England, Scandinavia, and Russia, but Rukeyser spent the majority of her time in the London literary scene, an experience that she recounts in “We Came for Games,” as well as in her journal (“Diary” 1:56). Robert Herring, Petrie Townshend, and Bryher, the editors and owner of Life and Letters Today (who would later...



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