"Akiba": A Poem by Muriel Rukeyser

[Please see Rukeyser's own notes on the origins of the poem, and my notes about it, both at the end of the poem itself. --  Arthur Waskow]

Lives *
By  Muriel Rukeyser

The Way Out

The night is covered with signs. The body and face of man,
with signs, and his journeys.      Where the rock is split
and speaks to the water;              the flame speaks to the cloud:
the red splatter, abstraction, on the door
speaks to the angel and the constellations.
The grains of sand on the sea floor speak at last to the noon.
And the loud hammering of the land behind
speaks ringing up the bones of our thighs, the hoofs,
we hear the hoofs over the seethe of the sea.
All night down the centuries, have heard, music of passage.
Music of one child carried into the desert;
Firstborn forbidden by law of the pyramid.
Drawn through the water with the water-drawn people
Led by the water drawn man to the smoke mountain.
The voice of the world speaking, the world covered by signs,
The burning, the loving, the speaking, the opening.
Strong throat of sound from the smoking mountain.
Still flame, the spoken singing of a young child.
The meaning beginning to move, which is the song.
Music of those who have walked out of slavery.
Into that journey where all things speak to all things
Refusing to accept the curse, and taking
For signs the signs of all things, the world, the body
Which is part of the soul, and speaks to the world,
All creation being created in one image, creation.
This is not the past walking into the future,
the walk is painful, into the present, the dance
not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.
We knew we had all crossed over when we heard the song.
Out of a life of building lack on lack:
The slaves refusing slavery, escaping into faith:
An army who came to the ocean: the walkers
Who walked through the opposites, from I to opened Thou,
City and cleave of the sea. Those at flaming Nauvoo,
The ice on the great river: the escaping Negroes,
Swamp and wild city: the shivering children of Paris
And the glass black hearses: those on the Long March:
all those who together are the frontier, forehead of man.
Where the wilderness enters, the world, the song of the world.
Akiba rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death
By his disciples carried from Jerusalem
in blackness journeying to find his journey
to whatever he was loving with his life.
The wilderness journey through which we move
Under the whirlwind truth into the new,
The only accurate. A cluster of lights at night:
faces before the pillar of fire. A child watching
while the sea breaks open. This night. The way in.
Barbarian music, a new song.
Acknowledging opened water, possibility:
Open like a woman to this meaning.
In a time of building statues of the stars,
Valuing certain partial ferocious skills
While past us the chill and immense wilderness
Spreads its one-color wings until we know
Rock, water, flame, cloud, or the floor of the sea,
The world is a sign, a way of speaking. To find.
What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.
Ways to discover. The song of the way in.
For The Song of Songs

 However the voices rise
They are the shepherd, the king,
The woman; dreams,
Holy desire.
Whether the voices
Be many the dance around
Or body led by one body
Whose bed is green,
I defend the desire
Lightning and poetry
Alone in the dark city
Or breast to breast.
Champion of light I am
The wounded holy light,
The woman in her dreams
And the man answering.
You who answer their dreams
Are the ruler of wine
Emperor of clouds
And the riches of men.
This song
Is the creation
The day of this song
The day of the birth of the world.
Whether a thousand years
Forget this woman, this king,
Whether two thousand years
Forget the shepherd of dreams.
If none remember
Who is lover, who the beloved,
Whether the poet be
Woman or man,
The desire will make
A way through the wilderness
The leopard mountains
And the lips of the sleepers.
Holy way of desire,
King, lion, the mouth of the poet,
The woman who dreams
And the answerer of dreams.
In these delights
Is eternity of seed,
The verge of life,
Body of dreaming.
 The Bonds

In the wine country, poverty, they drink no wine –
In the endless night of love he lies, apart from love –
In the landscape of the Word he stares, he has no word.
He hates and hungers for his immense need.
He is young. This is a shepherd who rages at learning,
Having no words. Looks past green grass and sees a woman.
She, Rachel, who is come to recognize.
In the huge wordless shepherd she finds Akiba.
To find the burning Word. To learn to speak.
The body of Rachel says, the marriage says,
The eyes of Rachel say, and water upon rock
Cutting its groove all year says All things learn.
Me learns with his new son whose eyes are wine.
To sing continually, to find the word.
He  comes to teaching, greater than the deed
Because it begets the deed, he comes to the stone
Of long ordeal, and suddenly knows the brook
Offering water, the citron fragrance, the light of candles.
All given, and always the giver loses nothing.
In giving, praising, we move beneath clouds of honor,
In giving, in praise, we take gifts that are given,
The spark from one to the other leaping, a bond
Of light, and we come to recognize the rock;
We are the fire acknowledging water, and water
Fire, and woman man, all brought through wilderness;
And Rachel finding in the wordless shepherd
Akiba who can now come to his power and speak:
The need to give having found the need to become:
More than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to give suck.
Akiba Martyr

When his death confronted him, it had the face of his friend
Rufus the Roman general with his claws of pain,
His executioner. This was an old man under iron rakes
Tearing through to the bone. He made no cry.
After the failure of all missions. At ninety, going
To Hadrian in Egypt, the silver-helmed,
Named for a sea. To intercede. Do not build in the rebuilt Temple
Your statue, do not make it a shrine to you.
Antinous smiling. Interpreters. This is an old man, pleading.
Incense of fans. The emperor does not understand.
He accepts his harvest, failures. He accepts faithlessness,
Madness of friends, a failed life; and now the face of storm.
Does the old man in uprising speak for compromise?
In all but the last things. Not in the study itself.
For this religion is a system of knowledge;
Points may be one  by one abandoned, but not the study.
Does he preach passion and non-violence?
Yes, and trees, crops, children honestly taught. He says:
Prepare yourselves for suffering.
Now the rule closes in, the last things are forbidden.
There is no real survival without these.
Now it is time for prison and the unknown.
The old man flowers into spiritual fire.
Streaking of agony across the sky.
Torn black. Red racing on blackness. Dawn.
Rufus looks at him over the rakes of death
Asking, "What is it?
Have you magic powers? Or do you feel no pain?
The old man answers, "No. But there is a commandment saying,
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy
 soul and with all thy might.
I knew that I loved him with all my heart and might.
Now I know that I love him with all my life."
The look of delight of the martyr
Among the colors of pain, at last knowing his own response
Total and unified.
To love God with all the heart, all passion,
Every desire called evil, turned toward unity,
All the opposites, all in the dialogue.
All the dark and light of the heart, of life made whole.
Surpassing the known life, day and ideas.
My hope, my life, my burst of consciousness:
To confirm my life in the time of confrontation.
The old man saying Shema.
The death of Akiba.
The Witness

 Who is the witness? What voice moves across time,
Speaks for the life and death as witness voice?
Moving to night on this city, this river, my winter street?
He saw it, the one witness. Tonight the life as legend
Goes building a meeting for me in the veins of night
Adding its scenes and its songs. Here is the man transformed,
The tall shepherd, the law, the false messiah, all;
You who come after me far from tonight finding
These lives that ask you always Who is the witness –
Take from us acts of encounter we at night
Wake to attempt, as signs, seeds of beginning,
Given from darkness and remembering darkness,
Take from our light given to you our meetings.
Time tells us men and women, tells us You
The witness, your moment covered with signs, your self.
Tells us this moment, saying You are the meeting.
You are made of signs, your eyes and your song.
Your dance the dance, the walk into the present.
All this we are and accept, being made of signs, speaking
To you, in time not yet born.
                                             The witness is myself.
                                                                                 And you,
The signs, the journeys of the night, survive.

* Note [by Rukeyser]: These two "Lives" [the other is about Kaethe Kollwitz] are part of a sequence. Akiba is the Jewish shepherd-scholar of the first and second century, identified with the Song of Songs and with the insurreection against Hadrian's Rome, led in A. D. 132 by Bar Cochba (Son of the Star). After this lightning war, Jerusalem captured, the Romans driven out of the south, Rome increased its military machine; by 135, the last defenses fell, Bar Cochba was killed, Akiba was tortured to death at the command of his friend, the Roman Rufus, and a harrow was drawn over the ground where Jerusalem had stood, leaving only a corner of wall. The story in my mother's family is that we are descended from Akiba –-- unverifiable, but a great gift to a child.

Notes about the poem, by Rabbi Arthur Waskow: 

I think this is one of the great poems of the 20th century -- surely the greatest American Jewish poem. I encourage that it be read during Passover (it begins with a celebration of the Exodus) and perhaps during the all-night Torah study for Shavuot, and I hope it will increasingly be understood as a sacred text rooted in Jewish tradition but reaching far beyond it to the whole of Humanity -- which indeed it celebrates.

This version corrects what is clearly a scribal error in every printed copy of the poem I have seen. The line "More than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to give suck" shows up in printed versions as "More than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to give such."  This "such" is a vague and meaningless word -- terrible poetry --  and the line as printed here echoes a teaching of Talmud that is a metaphor for teachers wanting to teach more than students want to learn. I have urged editors of Rukeyser's work to correct the error, but so far to no avail.

References in the poem that may be obscure to many readers today: "Nauvoo" was a town in Illinois where the early Mormon community settled until (1844) suffering violence at the hands of mobs and resettling in Salt Lake City. The "Long March" was the trek of the early Chinese Communist Party all across China to build a political base in Yenan province. "The shivering children of Paris" is probably about the creation of a workers' commune in Paris in 1870, which governed itself by direct socialist democracy until it was brutally destroyed by the invading Prussian army.

The passage "Akiba rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death/ By his disciples carried from Jerusalem" seems to be talking about Yokhanan ben Zakkai, not Akiba. Poetically, the "mistake" has power, even if historically it is impossible for Akiba, who lived long after the destruction of the Temple, to have lived this action. Did Rukeyser know, and for poetic power's sake choose to use this image anyway? Or was it a simple mistake? Perhaps both: According to a review of Rukeyser's work by Michael Schwartz, "Rukeyser noted her mistake in the serial publication of “Akiba” in American Judaism (1960–61), but failed to revise the poem for subsequent publications."  What was originally a mistake, later came to seem a poetic truth?

Rukeyser lived  from 1913 to 1980. I heard her read from her poetry at the Library of Congress in Washington DC in the '70s. When she invited our requests for her reading, I asked her to read "Akiba," but she laughed and said it was too long.

I also recommend her brief poem "Miriam."

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