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Muriel Rukeyser's recently uncovered novel tells the story of a young woman coming of age—politically, sexually, intellectually—in a country at war.
by Muriel Rukeyser
The Feminist Press, $16.95 (paper)
This year marks the centenary of Muriel Rukeyser’s birth. It’s also the first time Savage Coast has been published. The manuscript, along with the rejection letter from Rukeyser’s editor, languished in a misplaced file in the Library of Congress until my colleague and friend Rowena Kennedy-Epstein recovered it. As I remember it, Rowena’s joy and astonishment upon first encountering the manuscript were mixed with dismay at the fact that the novel had remained unrecovered for so long. Along with other publications and events celebrating the Rukeyser centenary, Savage Coast should draw renewed attention to Rukeyser’s life and work.
• • •
Although Rukeyser’s work is included in the most recent editions of the Norton Anthology of Poetry and the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry—two heavily relied upon texts for high school and undergraduate English classes—I first encountered Rukeyser’s poems in graduate school. I read her long poem “The Book of the Dead,” which appeared in her second book of poems, U.S. 1, published in 1938. (Rukeyser had already won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book Theory of Flight.) “The Book of the Dead” provides an account of the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster, in which laborers digging a tunnel for a hydroelectric project in West Virginia were exposed to silica the power companies heading the project knew was there. The laborers, most of them African Americans who had traveled to West Virginia in search of work during the Depression, were effectively inhaling glass. Hundreds died of silicosis.
“The Book of the Dead” opens and closes with lyric sections, framing itself with what most readers would recognize as poetry. Within this frame are transcripts of Congressional hearings, testimonies, and conversations. Polyvocal and polygenred, the poem suggests that the restrictions of traditional lyric poetry—in which a single speaker sings in a singular voice—can be loosened to accommodate writing that is political as well as musical, documentary as well as imaginative. By linking working-class and racial oppression to environmental damage, “The Book of the Dead” also illustrates Rukeyser’s conviction that poetry can be held responsible for social and environmental justice. When Rukeyser speaks of “a landscape mirrored in these men” she means it both literally and figuratively. Silica makes glass, which makes mirrors. Like the earth they dug into, the men digging the tunnel were destroyed from the inside.
• • •
Savage Coast also underscores the impact of an environment on the people who inhabit it. In the opening scene of the novel, which is set during the first five days of the Spanish Civil War, the American protagonist, Helen, travels from France to Spain by train. From her sleeper car, she muses: “Now she could gather herself firmly in, twist in the sleeper, lie with her eyes washed over by black countryside pouring past, streaming over her as she stared out.” The year is 1936. Helen is a writer in her early twenties on her way to Barcelona to report on the People’s Olympiad, an international athletic event organized in protest of the Olympic Games to be hosted in Hitler-run Germany later that year. Helen’s story is the story of the place she allows to stream over and shape her. The result is a novel about what it feels like to be an emerging political, intellectual, and oftentimes romantic woman in a country at war. Like “The Book of the Dead,” Savage Coast is formally radical, weaving lyric poetry, transcripts, documents, radio broadcasts, and lists into the texture of the novel. In the same way that Rukeyser pushes poetry to hold a complexity of voices, she pushes realist fiction to draw on all of its documentary powers to tell a modern story.
Besides being documentary, experimental, and political, Savage Coast is also autobiographical. Like her protagonist Helen, Rukeyser was sent by a literary journal to Barcelona in 1936 to report on the People’s Olympiad and ended up reporting on the first days of the Spanish Civil War instead. (She published a number of essays about this experience. One of them, “We Came For Games,” appeared in Esquire and is reprinted at the back of Savage Coast.) Rukeyser wrote the novel soon after returning from Spain, but when she submitted it to the editor who would publish her poetry collection U.S. 1, he cruelly rejected it. What most likely made the novel objectionable in 1937—its blurring of fact and fiction, its complicated narrator, its open structure, its formal gambles—should make it particularly exciting to scholars, poets, and readers of contemporary novels such as, say, Sheila Heti’s much-talked-about How Should A Person Be? (2012), a loosely-plotted book that includes e-mail correspondence, essays, sections written as a play, and transcripts of conversations. Heti’s novel reads as much as autobiography as anything else: her “characters” are her real-life friends, and her protagonist is also named Sheila. A recent college graduate in present-day Toronto, Sheila is anxious to establish herself as a writer and, as the book’s title indicates, a person. But the coming-of-age climate for a college-educated woman like Helen, who is single, Jewish, liberal, and traveling alone in Europe, would have been more charged in 1936 than in 2012. (The Introduction to Savage Coast reminds us that by 1936 Rukeyser “had traveled to report on the Scottsboro trial and was jailed for ‘fraternizing’ with African Americans in 1933.”) Helen’s serendipitous presence in Spain radicalizes her—politically, sexually, and intellectually. She thinks, “I’ve been wanting a country like this for a long time; I thought perhaps there was none.”
Helen arrives in Europe self-consciously single and adrift, frustrated she has yet “to build up a coordinated life for herself.” When rail workers join a general strike protesting the military coup—leaving her train stopped indefinitely at Moncada, a Catalan town just north of Barcelona—she is overcome by the violent and transformative promise she senses in Spain:
Helen snapped the light off. As she shut her eyes, knowing the train lay dead in a dead station, she felt a powerful muscular motion around her: the train, the secret hills, the country, the whole world of war rushing down the tracks, headfirst in conflict like a sea, unshakable, the momentum adding until the need burst through all other barriers: to reach the center, to will continuance.
In this passage and elsewhere, Rukeyser’s prose often gives way to the lyricism and fragmentation of poetry. While the abstraction of phrases like “to reach the center, to will continuance” will exasperate some, the novel asks us to understand them as evidence of Helen’s attempt to express in language an experience she has never considered possible. Her line of thought twists, elongates, stalls, and elongates again as she fumbles for the words adequate to her experience.
Helen’s desire for language is both authorial (what writer hasn’t agonized over finding just the right word?) and practical: she doesn’t speak Spanish. At one point, “She lost every bit of language. God, she thought! Why should I care about speech this much?” Later, she laments, “No speech, no words to reach any of this.” Helen even needs to reacquaint herself with one hideous English word she already knows: “War! In a slow admission, Helen took the word finally. Yes. This is it.” Juxtaposed against Helen’s grappling with speech are arresting descriptive passages that remind us of Rukeyser’s gifts as a poet. For instance, on the train: “The compartment was a thin crate of heat, tranced by the sun.” And when Helen is walking through Moncada at night: “Up the street a cock crowed, a syllabled call. The night was changed by it, split like a black unearthly melon, opened, revealed, and utterly dark.” Even traces of violence are made uneasily beautiful by Rukeyser’s prose: “There was a spick round hole in the windshield. The heavy glass caught sunlight in the hole-rim; bright stripes of light ran outward in a sunburst.”
In Moncada, Helen finds herself in a makeshift community of fellow travelers, many of them, like her, headed to Barcelona for the People’s Olympiad. This group includes Americans, Hungarians, French, Belgians, and Germans, but not Spaniards, who leave the train to find accommodations in town. Helen sticks closest to a young American couple, Peter and Olive, who share her political sympathies with the Republic, and avoids painfully American (foolish, conservative, xenophobic) tourists including a crew of Hollywood executives and a woman from Peapack, New Jersey to whom Helen only ever refers as “Peapack.” In general, the novel’s many characters are lightly delineated and flash in and out of scenes. This lack of characterization on Rukeyser’s part may be a political choice: it suggests Helen’s ethical responsibility is to the group—whether it be the group of foreigners on the train or the Republicans fighting the Fascists—rather than to isolated individuals. It also reflects the momentum of the world in which Helen has become swept up, a world ill suited to more conventional modes of long-form character development. Things happen quickly in Savage Coast, after all, often with little or no preparation. In a bold move for a 1930s novel written from a woman’s point of view, Helen sleeps with a German athlete whose name, Hans, she learns only after they spend the night together.
Sex is just one of the totality of encounters that make Helen think of her experience in Spain as an apex: “Everything contributed to this—if this was real, it was because it was nearer the sum of everything that had happened before it than anything had ever been.” The everything-ness of her experience demands from her and from the novel a radical openness. In a quiet café where Helen is allowed a rare moment of reflection, the novel modulates from prose through song lyrics to poetry:
The train had cracked, nobody could be trusted on it, the town was engrossed in war, the roads impassable.From the high shadow over a doorway, the radio repeated its announcement.“Aquí emisora EAJ-15 de la Radio Catalana. Barcelona!”The click and fizzle followed, and the distant victrola bellowed jazz:You, you’re driving me cra-zyWhat did I do?What did I do?and it was five maybe six years agoto the three of them in a speaka dancehall a moviehouse a streetin a college town in the cold flawedDecember which followed the crashand Manhattans and the soakedcherries the icy olives the inevitablekiss came back riding on a hotgust through the air and the fliescirculated over the lemonademy tears for you, make everything ha-zywhere are those skiesofblueand the sharp faces the raccooncoats, the lion lip of the dark girlthe one who died the pale squarebeautiful face of the blonde mostpersistent most invading thedim-toned bricks of a college towerivy and furs and a dash more ginplease because the bankrupt sky
After the radio announcement assures listeners that the Catalonian Republic still controls the airwaves, a love song plays and spurs Helen’s recollection (rendered in poetry) of getting drunk with two other girls and kissing one of them. This rebellious college escapade is made more poignant because one of the participants has since died of obscure causes. The elements of anarchy in Helen’s memory—daring to go out after the Stock Market Crash, drinking at a speakeasy during Prohibition, kissing a member of the same sex, and knowing (in hindsight) that someone young would die—now seem tame compared to what she’s experienced in Spain: the execution of Fascists, boys carrying guns, bomb explosions, looting of churches and homes, and passionate, casual sex with Hans the night before. Later, Helen remarks to herself, “My God, college! the level liberal days. How far have I come? . . . Never mind, she followed. I know where I am.”
With Hans, Peter, and Olive, Helen takes a harrowing ride in the back of a pickup truck to Barcelona, where the signs of violence are everywhere: barricades rise in the streets, blood stains the backseat of a car that Helen rides in, and a list of the dead repeatedly interrupts the prose of the novel. In war-mobilized Barcelona, some characters from the train reappear, while some, like poor Peapack, are never seen again. Helen, meanwhile, has become politically radicalized and dedicated to the Republican cause. It is part of the subdued drama of Savage Coast that Helen herself doesn’t realize she has changed until late in the novel, which shows her abandoning the self-consciousness of her former life for the assurance of political action. In the final scene, she and Hans join other participants in the People’s Olympiad to march in a parade alongside Spanish Republicans. Helen knows she will be evacuated to the United States in a matter of days; Hans will stay and fight. He disappears into the crowd, his face becoming the faces of many: “The long sea of faces was all one face, repeated always over the entire square and into the fingers of streets stretching away from it, one face always, set in vigor and effort.” Helen is left with the knowledge that she has become a fully formed, radical woman: “Life within life, the watery circle, the secret progress of a complete being in five days, childhood, love, and choice.” The accent here appropriately falls on the word “choice,” for that is what Helen has finally won: the choice to speak, the choice to love and have sex with whomever she likes, the choice to fight for a cause that spreads beyond Spain, beyond Europe. If there is a love story here, it isn’t between Helen and Hans; it’s between Helen and the woman she becomes in Spain.
• • •
Savage Coast is not a perfect book. Nor is it a finished book. (One chapter is unfinished, and there is no way of knowing whether Rukeyser felt the rest of the novel was done.) And it is not a conventional book about the Spanish Civil War, which Rukeyser knows. In the very first line of the novel, she declares: “Everybody knows how that war ended.” She is announcing that hers will be a book about how the war began, how it demanded a new style of novel, and how it shaped one young woman’s life. Helen is not Rukeyser, of course; we can only speculate what Helen went on to accomplish in her lifetime after she returned from Spain. Rukeyser, meanwhile, went on to publish dozens of books—including poetry, memoir, biography, criticism, and even children’s books—and remained a feminist and political activist for the rest of her life.
Photograph: flickr/Dayna Bateman
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