“Effort at Speech Between Two People”
Rukeyser was only 21 when she won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize for her first book, Theories of Flight, but this poem from that collection demonstrates just how fully formed her poetic vision already was. For Rukeyser, poetry really is speech between people—even her most abstracted, experimental work genuinely attempts to connect readers and writer, to employ verse not only as a means of expression and transformation but also of listening. At once intimate and anthemic, urgent and quiet, this poem repeatedly asks “what are you now,” inviting us to find ourself
Rukeyser was a master portraitist, capturing figures ranging from the composer Charles Ives to Jewish sage Akiba over the course of her career. This poem from the “Lives” section of The Speed of Darkness pays homage to another portraitist, Käthe Kollwitz, whose paintings and prints depicted “the faces of the sufferers / in the street, in dailiness.” Its five sections are often ekphrastic, drawing on the German artist’s expressionist images of weavers. But Rukeyser was also interested in the artist herself, whose frank ideas about artistic process, sexual desire, and gender fluidity mirrored Rukeyser’s own.