Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Muriel Rukeyser and Monet Light Up

More on Monet’s Waterlilies. I’ve always loved Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Waterlily Fire,” never realizing it refers to an actual fire at MOMA in 1958 that destroyed the large “Waterlilies,” (below) which the museum had acquired a year before. The cause, as reported in the Times, was construction workers smoking near paint and sawdust.
Rukeyser’s Endnote for “Waterlily Fire”
The time of this poem is the period in New York City from April, 1958, when I witnessed the destruction of Monet’s Waterlilies by fire at the Museum of Modern Art, to the present moment.

The two spans of time assumed are the history of Manhattan Island and my lifetime on the island. I was born in an apartment house that had as another of its tenants the notorious gangster Gyp the Blood. Nearby was Grant’s Tomb and the grave of the Amiable Child. This child died very young when this part of New York was open country. The place with its memory of amiability has been protected among all the rest. My father, in the building business, made us part of the building, tearing down, and rebuilding of the city, with all that that implies. Part II is based on that time, when building still meant the throwing of red-hot rivets, and only partly the pouring of concrete of the later episodes.

Part IV deals with an actual television interview with Suzuki, the Zen teacher, in which he answered a question about a most important moment in the teaching of Buddha.

The long body of Part V is an idea from India of one’s lifetime body as a ribbon of images, all our changes seen in process.
The “island of people” was the group who stayed out in the open in City Hall Park in April of 1961, while the rest of the city took shelter at the warning sound of the sirens. The protest against this nuclear-war practice drill was, in essence, a protest against war itself and an attempt to ask for some other way to deal with the emotions that make people make war.

Before the Museum of Modern Art was built, I worked for a while in the house that then occupied that place. On the day of the fire, I arrived to see it as a place in the air. I was coming to keep an appointment with my friend the Curator of the Museum’s Film Library, Richard Griffith, to whom this poem is dedicated.
The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Janet Kaufman and Anne Herzog (Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), p. 620

Waterlily Fire
for Richard Griffith

Girl grown woman     fire     mother of fire
I go to the stone street turning to fire.     Voices
Go screaming     Fire     to the green glass wall.
And there where my youth flies blazing into fire
The     dance     of sane and insane images, noon
Of seasons and days.     Noontime of my one hour.

Saw down the bright noon street the crooked faces
Among the tall daylight in the city of change.
The scene has walls     stone     glass     all my gone life
One wall a web through which the moment walks
And I am open, and the opened hour
The world as water-garden     lying behind it.
In a city of stone, necessity of fountains,
Forces water fallen on glass, men with their axes.

An arm of flame reaches from water-green glass,
Behind the wall I know waterlilies
Drinking their light, transforming light and our eyes
Skythrown under water, clouds under those flowers,
Walls standing on all things stand in a city noon
Who will not believe a waterlily fire.
Whatever can happen in a city of stone,
Whatever can come to a wall can come to this wall.

I walk in the river of crisis toward the real,
I pass guards, finding the center of my fear
And you, Dick, endlessly my friend during storm.

The arm of flame striking through the wall of form.


Born of this river and this rock island, I relate
The changes : I born when the whirling snow
Rained past the general’s grave and the amiable child
White past the windows of the house of Gyp the Blood.
General, gangster, child.     I know in myself the island.

I was the island without bridges, the child down whose blazing
Eye the men of plumes and bone raced their canoes and fire
Among the building of my young childhood, houses;
I was those changes, the live darknesses
Of wood, the pale grain of a grove in the fields
Over the river fronting red cliffs across—
And always surrounding her the river, birdcries, the wild
Father building his sand, the mother in panic her parks—
Bridges were thrown across, the girl arose
From sleeping streams of change in the change city.
The violent forgetting, the naked sides of darkness.
Fountain of a city in growth, and island of light and water.
Snow striking up past the graves, the yellow cry of spring.

Whatever can come to a city can come to this city.
Under the tall compulsion
                                                   of the past
I see the city
                          change like a man changing
I love this man
                               with my lifelong body of love
I know you
                        among your changes
                                                                  wherever I go
Hearing the sounds of building
                                                          the syllables of wrecking
A young girl watching
                                              the man throwing red hot rivets
Coals in a bucket of change
How can you love a city that will not stay?
I love you
                       like a man of life in change.

Leaves like yesterday shed, the yellow of green spring
Like today accepted and become one’s self
I go, I am a city with bridges and tunnels,
Rock, cloud, ships, voices.     To the man where the river met
The tracks, now buried deep along the Drive
Where blossoms like sex pink, dense pink, rose, pink, red.

Towers falling.     A dream of towers.
Necessity of fountains.     And my poor,
Stirring among our dreams,
Poor of my own spirit, and tribes, hope of towers
And lives, looking out through my eyes.
The city the growing body of our hate and love.
The root of the soul, and war in its black doorways.
A male sustained cry interrupting nightmare.
Male flower heading upstream.

Among a city of light, the stone that grows.
Stigma of dead stone, inert water, the tattered
Monuments rivetted against flesh.
Blue noon where the wall made big agonized men
Stand like sailors pinned howling on their lines, and I
See stopped in time a crime behind green glass,
Lilies of all my life on fire.
Flash faith in a city building its fantasies.

I walk past the guards into my city of change.


Many of us     Each in his own life waiting
Waiting to move     Beginning to move     Walking
And early on the road of the hill of the world
Come to my landscapes emerging on the grass

The stages of the theatre of the journey

I see the time of willingness between plays
Waiting and walking and the play of the body
Silver body with its bosses and places
One by one touched awakened into into

Touched and turned one by one into     flame

The theatre of the advancing goddess     Blossoming
Smiles as she stands intensely being in stillness
Slowness in her blue dress advancing standing I go
And far across a field over the jewel grass

The play of the family stroke by stroke acted out

Gestures of deep acknowledging on the journey stages
Of the playings the play of the goddess and the god
A supple god of searching and reaching
Who weaves his strength     Who dances her more alive

The theatre of all animals, my snakes, my great horses

Always the journey     long     patient     many haltings
Many waitings for choice and again easy breathing
When the decision to go on is made
Along the long slopes of choice and again the world

The play of poetry approaching in its solving

Solvings of relations in poems and silences
For we were born to express     born for a journey
Caves, theatres, the companioned solitary way
And then I came to the place of mournful labor

A turn in the road and the long sight from the cliff

Over the scene of the land dug away to nothing and many
Seen to a stripped horizon carrying barrows of earth
A hod of earth taken and emptied and thrown away
Repeated farther than sight.     The voice saying slowly

But it is hell.     I heard my own voice in the words
Or it could be a foundation     And after the words
My chance came.     To enter.     The theatres of the world.


I think of the image brought into my room
Of the sage and the thin young man who flickers and asks.
He is asking about the moment when the Buddha
Offers the lotus, a flower held out as declaration.
“Isn’t that fragile?” he asks.     The sage answers:
“I speak to you.     You speak to me.     Is that fragile?”


This journey is exploring us. Where the child stood
An island in a river of crisis, now
The bridges bind us in symbol, the sea
Is a bond, the sky reaches into our bodies.
We pray : we dive into each other’s eyes.

Whatever can come to a woman can come to me.

This is the long body : into life from the beginning,
Big-headed infant unfolding into child, who stretches and finds
And then flowing the young one going tall, sunward,
And now full-grown, held, tense, setting feet to the ground,
Going as we go in the changes of the body,
As it is changes, in the long strip of our many
Shapes, as we range shifting through time.
The long body : a procession of images.

This moment in a city, in its dream of war.
                                              We chose to be,
Becoming the only ones under the trees
                                                                            when the harsh sound
Of the machine sirens spoke. There were these two men,
And the bearded one, the boys, the Negro mother feeding
Her baby. And threats, the ambulance with open doors.
Now silence. Everyone else within the walls. We sang.
                               We are the living island,
We the flesh of this island, being lived,
Whoever knows us is part of us today.

Whatever can happen to anyone can happen to me.

Fire striking its word among us, waterlilies
Reaching from darkness upward to a sun
Of rebirth, the implacable.     And in our myth
The Changing Woman who is still and who offers.

Eyes drinking light, transforming light, this day
That struggles with itself, brings itself to birth.
In ways of being, through silence, sources of light
Arriving behind my eye, a dialogue of light.

And everything a witness of the buried life.
This moment flowing across the sun, this force
Of flowers and voices body in body through space.
The city of endless cycles of the sun.

I speak to you     You speak to me

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