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Reviewed by:
  • The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser
  • Michele S. Ware
Kaufman, Janet E. and Anne F. Herzog , eds. with Jan Heller Levi . 2005. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. $37.50 hc. xli + 670 pp.

The resurgence in the last decade of critical attention to Muriel Rukeyser and her important place in twentieth-century American poetry alone warrants the publication of this new annotated scholarly edition of The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Yet this impressive collection makes Rukeyser's extensive body of work available and accessible, for the first time in years, to the general reader as well. Long out of print, the 1978 Collected Poems, published by McGraw-Hill, suffered from serious omissions and errors, which Kaufman and Herzog correct in this volume. The result is a welcome and necessary contribution to contemporary Rukeyser scholarship that reveals the poet's persistent, career-long dedication to the poetry of witness, her wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, and her powerful, inclusive, and generous vision.

Of particular interest are Rukeyser's numerous translations and the full text of Wake Island (1942), inexplicably omitted from the 1978 Collected Poems. By using Rukeyser's individual volumes of poetry as their copy texts, the editors have restored her important translations of Octavio Paz to the poems in The Green Wave (1948) and Body of Waking (1958). Rukeyser's affinity with Paz is obvious in these beautiful lyric poems, and the textual notes and annotations, including Rukeyser's original notes and commentary from 1978, offer a glimpse of the poet's process. Her passion for translation demonstrates the "vast reach" (xxv) of her poetic explorations, extending to such disparate sources as Northern/Eskimo poems and rari love-chants, among many others. Kaufman and Herzog speculate in their "Editors' Notes" that limited space may have been the rationale for excluding such an integral part of Rukeyser's oeuvre, but the omission of Wake Island is more suspicious, especially since its critical reception was so negative and cruel. This long poem celebrating the heroism of embattled and doomed Marines in the Pacific was mistakenly perceived as Rukeyser's naïve and nationalistic endorsement of American military will during World War II, for which she was attacked both personally and professionally. The poem's significance, however, according to James Brock (in "The Perils of a 'Poster Girl': Muriel [End Page 199] Rukeyser, Partisan Review, and Wake Island"), lies in its function as an early example of Rukeyser's global political preoccupations. Here again, the editors offer several plausible explanations for the poem's earlier exclusion (Rukeyser's failing health, self-censorship) and wisely include it. Wake Island is somewhat uneven, but as Kaufman and Herzog note, "it is consistent with her lifelong vision that poetry should respond to questions of social justice and freedom, as well as to the historical moment, not only within her own country but globally" (xxvi).

In many ways, the new Collected Poems is a sensitive and thoughtful work of restoration, a concerted effort on the editors' part to discern Rukeyser's artistic sensibilities and intentions and at the same time do justice to a complex and massive body of work, a difficult task when the poet's intentions are unclear or contradictory. For example, Rukeyser resisted breaking up One Life, her experimental biography of Wendell Willkie, to excerpt poems for the 1978 Collected Poems. "The arrangement is the life" (xxvi), she insisted. Yet the selections she made from One Life to include in that volume are "virtually inscrutable taken out of the context" (xxvi). To correct the problem, the editors have here reduced the excerpts to eighteen poems later chosen by Rukeyser for publication in Body of Waking, thus fulfilling their purpose (to collect all the poems) while respecting the integrity of Rukeyser's art. She was intensely vigilant about the order, spacing, and punctuation of her poems in their published forms, and Kaufman and Herzog have taken care to attend to these matters. For example, they based their decision to reorder into a single unit Rukeyser's elegies, a series of ten related poems that originally appeared in three different volumes of poetry, on her later publication...


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pp. 199-201
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