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.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.
From The Speed of Darkness.
See a video of this poem
Muriel Rukeyser was active in progressive politics throughout her life. At age 21, she covered the Scottsboro case in Alabama, then worked for the International Labor Defense, which handled the defendants’ appeals. She wrote for the Daily Worker and a variety of publications, including Decision and Life & Letters Today, for which she covered the People’s Olympiad (Olimpiada Popular, Barcelona), the Catalan government’s alternative to the Nazis’ 1936 Berlin Olympics. While she was in Spain, the Spanish Civil War broke out, the basis of her book Mediterranean. Most famously, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to investigate the recurring silicosis among miners there, which resulted in her poem sequence The Book of the Dead. During and after World War II, she gave a number of striking public lectures, published in her The Life of Poetry.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Rukeyser presided over PEN
‘s American center and her feminism and opposition to the Vietnam War
drew a new generation to her poetry. In 1968, she signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest
” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.