All Clear Ahead: Muriel Rukeyser’s "Savage Coast"
By Leah FalkMay 21, 2013
Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser
UNFINISHED LITERATURE. In some cases, it’s a stack of notes for 10 more chapters, lying on the dead author’s desk. In others, a manuscript full of red-inked circles and unclear arrows. If an editor decides to guess at the endpoint of the arrow, the gist of the notes, the intended closure, and publish, it’s usually with a gamble that public appreciation of the author’s genius (see: David Foster Wallace, Nabokov) will allow a work to thrive despite its lack of polish.
But in the case of Muriel Rukeyser’s early, recently recovered, genre-bending novel Savage Coast, which sees the light of print on May 21, the unfinished quality wasn’t due to death or distraction. In 1937, after she’d won acclaim for her first book of poems, Theory of Flight, her publisher rejected the Savage Coast manuscript, calling Rukeyser’s autobiographical protagonist “too abnormal for us to respect” and the novel “a waste of time.” Rukeyser continued to work on it during the Second World War, but it eventually turned up misfiled in an unmarked folder in the Library of Congress, readied for publication that never happened. Unlike The Love of the Last Tycoon or The Original of Laura, Savage Coast, as both a novel and an episode in Rukeyser’s life, has an ending; it was finished. What Rukeyser’s readers can see now is the sense of beginning and direction the work gave her career. The poet was unsinkable: she made up for the suppression of her early novel by infusing everything she wrote thereafter with its theoretical and emotional essence.
In July of 1936, when Rukeyser was only 22, she was sent to cover the People’s Olympiad, an event staged in Barcelona to protest Hitler’s Olympic Games in Berlin. On her second day in the country, a general strike was announced, the strike that was the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. By the time she arrived in Barcelona, fighting had spread to the plazas there and in Zaragoza. The novel is not only her documentary account of the war’s beginnings, but a record of her transformation from foreigner to political activist, from sexual naïf to mature woman, and from isolated individual to one who defined herself by her relationships: “a person moving toward other persons, or a person moving away from other persons, or a person moving against other persons,” as she would put it in 1949 in The Life of Poetry.
In the introduction to that later work, she describes American cultural resistance to poetry. “The angry things that have been said about our poetry have also been said about our time,” she wrote. “They are both ‘confused,’ ‘chaotic,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘obscure.’” At the time of that writing, Rukeyser had already spent more than a decade — since her arrival in Spain — building a poetics that drew together poetry and feminism, with the emotional complexities implicit in both. She seems to have begun considering these relationships in Savage Coast. Some of the accusations she saw lobbed at poetry — that it was “unmusical,” “willfully obscure,” “sexually suspect,” “inapplicable to the position in which [one] finds himself” — are accusations not unlike those used reject Savage Coast for publication, and not unlike those used to condemn its protagonist.
Helen, the protagonist in question, is a journalist and pointedly Rukeyser’s alter ego. Her “abnormality” comes from a way of absorbing the world that was Rukeyser’s hallmark. Helen begins her journey on a train down the Costa Brava (the title’s “Savage Coast”) from France to the anti-fascist Games in Spain, and her perceptions are filtered primarily through images, litanies of what surrounds her as she moves through a new landscape. On the train, as Helen looks out the window:
The hills dipped into green valleys, climbed steeply up, balanced tiny white houses with tile roofs on their edges, broke again, and rose into mountains. The Pyrenees produced their little churches and donkeys, plaster and stucco houses, enormous sweeps of green forests and bone-thick rock. Fiery dark cypresses sprang up along the slopes, urging them up. The spread of the mountains was wing-spread, white and terrible, or tawny, as if blood were beneath.
The noun, the accurate name, is primary for Helen, as it was for Rukeyser. Consider her later poem “The Ballad of Orange and Grape,” where she interrogates a hotdog stand owner’s labeling error: “How can we go on reading / and make sense out of what we read? / How can they write and believe what they’re writing, / the young ones across the street, / while you go on pouring grape into ORANGE / and orange into the one marked GRAPE?”
And so, here are the Pyrenees, the cypresses. Whatever painterly qualities these objects possess is deceptive; just as, perhaps, Rukeyser’s early, Yale Younger Poets lyricism was. The beauty of the landscape images in that list, shuttling past the train, is contained until the modified verb makes it move: “climbed steeply up,” and “broke again.” Over and over, observing Spain for the first time, Helen composes lists that leap into motion. These accumulations make up the new, meaningful self that she desperately seeks.
On the train, Helen hears secondhand about the revolt in Morocco that will set off the civil war. For the moment, “all was quiet in Spain,” but suddenly the train halts in a small town, and the general strike is announced. Helen’s fellow American, a woman from Peapack, New Jersey, known only as Peapack, begins to panic. Helen defines herself in contrast to Peapack, a caricature of 1936’s ugly American: named only by the small place she comes from, traveling extravagantly with “five rawhide suitcases,” to Helen’s one, and ignorant of the reasons for staging anti-fascist Olympics.
Helen is also, for the moment, a fish out of water, particularly when it comes to language. When she meets a group of Spaniards on the train and introduces herself, “she could catch, in a rush of comment, the words for Olympic, American, committee, week. Everything else was lost. The barrier had sprung up immense in a moment; here were friends, and she could not reach over.” Language — Helen’s painstaking alphabetical search in a dictionary, her roaming attention to scraps of Spanish and French — becomes a marker of her struggle to support the Republican cause as an outsider.
The contrast between the images that compose her emerging awareness and her stutters in other languages allows Helen to communicate what it means to join a movement. To care for others because of the integrity of their ideas means making oneself uncomfortable, showing concern through a willingness to appear unsophisticated. Although the novel hints at Helen’s leftism and burgeoning Communist sympathies, this is no Jews without Money, where the face of a drama gives way to manifesto. Rukeyser’s honest depiction of Helen’s struggle to belong — which doesn’t follow a party line — is what her publisher might have meant when he said he could not imagine Rukeyser having set down “even one sentence” with confidence. He mistook for authorial meekness her unwillingness to misrepresent Helen’s difficulties and her learning.
In fact, Helen’s meditation on the revolution and her place in it is anything but meek — it is searching, not shrinking. As Helen looks for a way to act, Rukeyser puts her in conversation with D.H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod, the book she carries with her, “to produce an equation, / to bring an answer.” Here we encounter some of Rukeyser’s genre-blending, the poetic line answering the paragraph:
“Yes,” she cried. “Don’t you hate it, the house we live in — London — England — America! Don’t you hate them?”
“I don’t like them. But I can’t get much fire in my hatred. They pull on me rather,” said Lilly.
“Ay,” said Aaron, suddenly stirring in his chair.
Lilly and he glanced at one another with a look of recognition.
“Still,” said Tanny, “There’s got to be a clearance some day or other.”
A wagon marked LLET going down a
small pale street followed by a
machine gun mounted in a produce truck,
a shot spat against a stucco wall,
a handful of almonds whose shells
are rubbed off between the fingers
five slit throats and a red-bound wound
a red-bound book on a stopped train
with the track All Clear Ahead
She clapped the book shut.
Like the accumulations of images, these interactions between Helen and a text — Aaron’s Rod, but sometimes also a popular song, the words of a handbill — let Helen make her experience real, and her own. Reading Lawrence, she processes the general strike in terms of and against Lawrence’s characters, who cannot seem to get “fire in their hatred” enough to act, though they want to “feel [they] were doing something.” Composing these moments in response to a nearby text — one that sometimes, given the language barriers, is her only glimmer of fluency — allows Helen to write herself a very personal prescription for action, one best suited to a poet. And reading Lawrence, she seems to grant his characters what they lack, rather than the other way around: “clearance,” which for Rukeyser translates into permission to see and tell, to witness.
Rukeyser would make witnessing the central directive of her poetics throughout her life, perhaps best embodied by her 1945 sonnet “To Be a Jew in the 20th Century.” “To be a Jew in the 20th century is to be offered a gift,” she wrote, at a time when it did not seem like much of a gift at all. Indeed, to be human was not looking so good. But, she went on,
The gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.
Helen’s progress — a romance with a German athlete, a decision to circulate a letter announcing solidarity with the Spanish, her response to the texts and languages around her — build toward Rukeyser’s fervently held belief that the responsibility to see and transmit was the price paid, or the gift given, for experience. Suffering in isolation, as Helen’s foil Peapack does, was not the path to action, would not grant “full life. Full agonies,” as the poem puts it. It must have seemed radical of Rukeyser to call Jews, many of them individually suffering, to collective action after the Holocaust, just as it seems radical to Peapack to join a cause in a foreign country. Both measures call for the use of the self — even the unprepared, confused, hurting self — for the benefit of a group and an idea.
Helen, like Rukeyser, is Jewish, but curiously, although other characters are known by their nationalities and other demographic affiliations, the only acknowledgment of Helen’s Jewishness is an interaction she has with a Jewish athlete, a “tall, Semitic-looking girl.” The athlete effectively outs Helen, who until that point has merely been “from New York.” “Oh my goodness,” the athlete exclaims, “Are you Jewish?” The girl hasn’t eaten “for three days” because the food served at the Olympiad is not kosher. “But, God,” Helen responds, “you’re in a different world now. You’d better eat!” Their conversation announces a priority in Helen’s political awakening: tribal comforts and particulars are rejected in favor of a more universal shared experience. Peapack distances Helen from American isolationism, and the Jewish athlete steps in, briefly, to occasion a disclaimer against Jewish — or any other — cultural particularism guiding or inhibiting Helen’s political growth.
In the end, it’s Rukeyser’s formal experimentation that lets us know Helen has reached a place of confidence. As she and her traveling companions draw closer to the heart of Barcelona, Rukeyser merges Helen’s lyrical call-and-response, the litany she has been using as an instrument of her self-determination, with a different kind of list:
LAS VÍCTIMAS DE LA TRAGEDIA
Partial list of identified
bodies and those wounded
in the insurrection:
Grau Martinez, Juan Parisis, Celestino
Criado y Aguiar, Juan Pecus y Torelló,
Francisco Herrera y Santiago.
Antonio Agulló Santiago, Domingo Capuja,
Germinal Vidal, Ramón Jover Brufau,
Luciano Padua Jornet.
The Rambla was spick, the sun cleared everything, the debris of burned cars and broken wood was scarcely to be seen behind the trees, the marching people; the white truce flags hanging from the fine apartment houses were gay, twinkling against the fretted iron of balconies.
As they march through the streets with fighters on their way to Zaragoza, Rukeyser interrupts their progress with the names of the dead, lists that occupy the same stanzaic columns as Helen’s responses to Lawrence and other texts. The víctimas de la tragedia and the description of the march become a set of almost musical questions and answers. Helen’s gathering of images has made this moment real and her life significant; her lyric interjections have empowered her to take action. The lists of names in right-justified blocks, then, announce a collective identity in motion, one of which Helen is finally a part. “The long sea of faces was all one face, repeated always over the entire square and into the fingers of streets stretching away.”
Is it lucky to be forced to leave the site of one’s coming of age? Helen cannot stay in Spain. Boats evacuate one group of foreign nationals after the next; Helen’s past catches up with the present. “And in all this, where is there a place for poetry?” someone asks Helen as they depart. “I know some of it now,” Helen replies, “but it will take me a lifetime to find out.” For Rukeyser, the failure to publish Savage Coast in its own time was almost a blessing: it seems to have jump-started her “lifetime” — and a lifetime, indeed — of discovering and spreading her answer to that question. An older and wiser Rukeyser, retelling the story in The Life of Poetry, leaves out Helen’s response and writes instead: “Then I began to say what I believe.”
Leah Falk is a poet and book critic based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her nonfiction won a Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan and she is a recipient of the Beullah Rose Poetry Prize from Smartish Pace. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Kenyon Review, Smartish Pace, Haaretz Books, and elsewhere.
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