Revisiting Rukeyser: Contemporary Environmental Relevance of Theory of Flight
Essay by Tayve Neese


Consider the impending views on global warming. Consider the degradation of the various ecosystems, from air to earth to water. Civilization's hunger for progress and the technological methods used to achieve such sought after results, has created catastrophic situations that are likely to impact our means of survival. Indeed, Muriel Rukeyser, during the beginning of her career as a poet, was witness to such disregard for the natural world and realized the urgencies of such behaviors in the early 1920's and 30's. Consider just how altered our world has become since her earlier witness when her first book, Theory of Flight was released in 1935. The reverence of nature that transcendental writers found essential to humanity's spirituality, Rukeyser must also have embraced, as much of her imagery focuses on the earth and the suffering caused by way of the destructive and irresponsible actions of humanity.

During the time period of Theory of Flight, Rukeyser's attentiveness to the quickly altering world, and its other pressing moral imperatives, led her to deeply ponder their impact on society and the individual as well as the natural world. Like Carl Sandburg's poetry on industrialization of modern society, Rukhesyer's work also reveals humanity on a precipice. Technology, industry, and science have continued at an accelerated pace to alter the world we all inhabit 77 years after Theory of Flight's first publication

It is in the first section of her book, "Poem out of Childhood," the earth is the central image as she defines the problem of its destruction. Here it is described in various forms throughout, as if from an elevated view, as in "In a Dark House" where there are "…narrow fields shaven towns and tiny stones freckled brown." In "Breathing Landscape" the reader is shown the serenity that the speaker feels through connection with the landscape of hills where "lying here so still/ an egg might slowly hatch in this still hand." However, the speaker of "Sand Quarry with Moving Figures" is far from serene as she states "and I saw the land ruined, / exploded, burned away, and the fiery marshes bare." She also reveals how "the wealth of the split country" drove the speaker and her own father "farther apart." Rukeyser's speakers consistently hold points of views that differ drastically from society's norms of the time, and even oppose the families within her poems. In "Four in a Family," Rukeyser's speaker denies not only the father, but the family in its entirety, saying, "Strange father, strange mother, who are you, who are you?/ Where have I come?" In "This House, This County," Rukeyser reveals the speaker's departure from her family, which the reader can assume is Rukeyser's own experience. "I have left forever/ house and maternal river/ given up sitting in that private tomb," the speaker says of her mother, and, "I see they grow older/ their vision fails." Here, the speaker reveals loss of vision associated with aging, but also loss of the old cumbersome visions of a society. The descriptions of the family are simultaneously the descriptions of how the speaker feels about the country. They seem to be one in the same, or interchangeable authorities that the grown speaker has chosen to reject.

Rukeyser's opposing views of society's norms are found throughout the book and are indicative of her own life-experience. Many of the feminine speakers identify themselves with the earth, as in "Letter, Unposted" where it is revealed that the "earth sickens," that "the trees thrive, but no fruit is born to hang." A direct link between the feminine psyche and the condition of the earth has often been eluded too throughout myth and literature. The symbiotic relationship of earth as mother and humanity as child is explored briefly in the poem "Mother and Child" in the third section, The Blood is Justified. Here, there is a human mother and child, and comforting provided by a feminine voice whose:

"Seashores of centuries
all cosmic whisperings
ripple on this beach,
listen until she sings
lullaby to all sudden
and grievous things.

The fact that the speaker of "Sand Quarry with Moving Figures" defines herself against her father, who is the owner of the quarry and the perpetrator of such destruction, supports that the cause is masculine in its source. In addition to gender, Rukeyser crosses even political lines when she implores that the degradation stop. In "Three Sides of a Coin," the speaker alludes to the communist slogan in her plea "Workers of the world:/ we've worked the world for all the damn thing's worth." Rukeyser's view of "working the world" is not an issue of political or philosophical belief, but an issue of technology and humanity's drive for progress. Today, our overworking of the world had exceeded the scale Rukeyser exposed in 1935, and we are now frantic for solution.

In the two following sections of her book, Theory of Flight, and The Blood is Justified, Rukeyser expands on the sources and causes of such geological destruction. She writes in "Eccentric in Motion":

"This is not the way
to save the day
Get up and dress and go
nobly to and fro
Dashing in glass we race
New York to Mexico"

She records how technology changes the daily structures of living, how "energy travels along the veins of steel" in "Study in a Late Subway," and how "world hissing over cables, shining among steel strands/ plucking speech on a wire, linking voice" in "Speak to Me" changes our ability to communicate and travel.

Motion is of primary focus. The invention of the airplane and the experience of flight are central to Rukeyser's view of new technologies and their impact on the world and humanity. As the first section of the book is focused on earth, the second section is focused on sky. In "Preamble" Rukeyser writes, "We know sky overhead, earth to be stepped/ black under toes, rubble between our fingers." The speaker in "The Lynching of Jesus" calls for "Earth, include sky; air, be stable to our/ feet, which have need of stone and iron stance;" While sky seems to be longed for, the act of flight itself often has conflicting perspectives. The same speaker in "The Lynching of Jesus" entreats "bird be no more a brand upon the sky/ no more a torch to which earth's bodies burn." Again, in "The Structure of the Plane," Rukeyser explores this technology of flight, writing, "Kitty Hawk is a Caesar among monuments," and "In Holy Dying" she expands saying, "Upon what skies are these ambitions written/ Across what field lies scattered the young wish, beneath what sea to all those fallen dreams." The speaker in "The Tunnel" also calls to the mythic Icarus whose desires brought disaster. "O Icarus accurate white into the sea/ the wax support too trusted." the speaker entreats, and compares the mythic to modern technology of her time that will "go down, plane, to the water's eagerness/ engulfed and plunging." The speaker is direct in the poem "Theory of Flight," revealing that, "Flight is intolerable contradiction." It is this "intolerable contradiction" that Rukeyser grappled with trying to make sense of how technology alters foundations of life, both positively and negatively. She questions even the basic desire of flight in "Speak to Me," where "skyscrapers stand, pure without meaning, single/ in desire rising to touch the sky."

Still, it seems that Rukeyser's solution is flight. This however, is not flight of the technological sense, but rather, flight of the mind. She concludes each poem in the second section of her book with the directive to "FLY." In "The Structure of the Plane," she writes, "food to the mouth, tools to the body, mind/ to the bright mind that leaps in necessity/, go answering answering FLY" It is not only the body that needs flight, but the mind as well. In the poem "Theory of Flight," Rukeyser urges:

"Now we arrive to meet ourselves at last
we cry beginnings
the cries in the midnight streets call dawn;
respond respond
you workers poets men of science and love"

The answers are in the unification of all aspects of life linking political, personal, and scientific events. Lines are blurred and Rukeyser sees the interdependency of all events. Their relevance to each other is the source of solution for the natural world.

The changes caused by technology during Rukeyser's early life must have been both terrifying and liberating at the same time, bringing new ways of thinking about order and foundations of society. It is important to consider our own accelerations that totally alter daily life. The acceleration of the Computer Age is sure to remake many foundations of our society, for both the good and bad. It has the power to both remove us further from the natural world and the power to assist in its repair. Rukeyser reminds us, it is important to look at "Three Sides of the Coin." She was a visionary for her time. Perhaps, more so than ever, it is her vision we need.