Muriel Rukeyser: Daring to Live for the Impossible

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While listening to the Writer's Almanac this morning, I was reminded that today is the birthday of poet Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) who lived to "breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry."

I'd never actually heard of Muriel Rukeyser until I began working at the Jewish Women's Archive over two years ago. Since that time, however, I have become quite a fan of her work. I am struck by the deep social consciousness that characterizes Rukeyser's writing, similar to the social consciousness and moral compass of Adrienne Rich (who commented upon Rukeyser's "range of reference and generosity of vision"). In "Letter to the Front," which first appeared in Rukeyser's book Beast in View (1944), Rukeyser presented the social challenge of modern Jewish identity:

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.
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.

I'm captivated by both the honesty and the complexity of this piece. For me, being Jewish is a really messy thing, full of joys and struggles that are constantly in conversation, and always evolving ... which begs the question: How much of a gift is it to be a Jew (or a Jewess) in the 21st century? How much do we "dare to live for the impossible?"

We have Muriel Rukeyser to thank for keeping these questions alive.

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