For Memorial Day: “Elegy in Joy”

Today is Memorial Day, a date set aside to remember those who have died while serving in the United States military. Since the great majority of those men and women lost their lives while engaged in armed conflict, I think it is also a good time to reflect on the meaning of war and it horror.

And remembering should not consist only of mourning, but also healing. When we leave wounds unhealed, we fail to adequately honor the memory of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Rukeyser2Below is an excerpt of a poem by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980). An exceptional poet whose work reflected the themes of feminism, social justice, and Judaism. At one time she was also a reporter. As literary editor of Student Review, the leftist undergraduate magazine of Vassar College, she covered the 1932 Scottsboro trial in Alabama. Later, she supported the Spanish Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War; was jailed in Washington for demonstrating against the Vietnam War; and went to South Korea in the 1970s to protest the death sentence of poet Kim Chi-Ha, which resulted in one of her last poems, “The Gates.”

“Elegy in Joy” was part of a collection, Elegies, published by New Directions in 1949. The publisher says that the poem were “written over a seven year period from the end of the Spanish Civil War, through World War II, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, to the start of the Cold War.” It is a poem about healing, and about peace.

Alice Walker, best known for the critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple, once said “Muriel Rukeyser loved poetry more than anyone I’ve ever known. She also believed it could change us, move the world.”

Elegy in Joy [excerpt]
by Muriel Rukeyser

We tell beginnings: for the flesh and the answer,
or the look, the lake in the eye that knows,
for the despair that flows down in widest rivers,
cloud of home; and also the green tree of grace,
all in the leaf, in the love that gives us ourselves.

The word of nourishment passes through the women,
soldiers and orchards rooted in constellations,
white towers, eyes of children:
saying in time of war What shall we feed?
I cannot say the end.

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.
Not all things are blest, but the
seeds of all things are blest.
The blessing is in the seed.

This moment, this seed, this wave of the sea, this look, this instant of love.
Years over wars and an imagining of peace.  Or the expiation journey
toward peace which is many wishes flaming together,
fierce pure life, the many-living home.
Love that gives us ourselves, in the world known to all
new techniques for the healing of the wound,
and the unknown world.  One life, or the faring stars.

Copyright © 1949 by Muriel Rukeyser.


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