January 5, 2017KR OnlinePoetry

The Dream-singing Elegy

From the Kenyon Review, Winter 1944, Vol. VI, No. 1

Darkness giving us dream’s black unity.
Images in procession start to flow
among the river-currents down the years of judgment
and past the cities to another world.

There are flat places. After the waterfall
arched like the torso of love, after the voice
singing behind the waterfall, after the water
lying like a lover on the heart,
there is defeat.

And moving through our spirit in the night
memories of these places.
Not ritual, not nostalgia, but our cries,
the axe at the heart, continual rebirth,
the crying of our raw desire,
young. O many-memoried America!

• •

In defeat there are no prophets and no magicians,
only the look in the loved and tortured eyes
when every fantasy restores, and day denies.
The act of war debased to an act of treason
in an age of treason. We were strong at the first.
We resisted. We did not plan enough. We killed.
But the enemy came like thunder in the wood,
a storm over the treetops like a horse’s head
reared to a great galloping, and war
trampled us down. We lost our young men in the fighting,
we lost our homeland, our crops went under the frost,
our children under the hunger. Now we stand
around this fire, our black hills far behind us,
black water far ahead, a glitter of time on the sea,
glitter of fire on our faces, the still faces—
stillness waiting for dreams
and only the shadows moving,
shadows and revelations.

In the spring of the year, this new fighting broke out.
No, when the fields were blond. No, the leaves crimson.
When the old fighting was over, we knew what we were
seeing as if for a first time our dark hills masked with green,
our blond fields with the trees flame-shaped and black
in burning darkness on the unconsumed.
Seeing for a first time the body of our love,
our wish and our love for each other.
Then word came from a runner, a stranger:
“They are dancing to bring the dead back, in the mountains.”

We danced at an autumn fire, we danced the old hate and change,
the coming again of our leaders. But they did not come.
Our singers lifted their arms, and a singer cried,
“You must sing like me and believe, or be turned to rock!”

The winter came, but the dead did not come back.
News came on the frost, “The dead are on the march!”
We danced in prison to a winter music,
many we loved began to dream of the dead.
They made no promises, we never dreamed a threat.
And the dreams spread.

But there were no armies, and the dead were dead,
there was only ourselves, the strong and symbol self
dreaming among defeat, our torture and our flesh.
We made the most private image and religion,
stripped to the last resistance of the wish,
remembering the fighting and the lava beds,
the ground that opened, the red wounds opening,
remembering the triumph in the night,
the big triumph and the little triumph—
wide singing and the battle-flash—
assassination and whisper.

In the summer, dreaming was common to all of us,
the drumbeat hope, the bursting heart of wish,
music to bind us as the visions streamed
and midnight brightened to belief.
In the morning we told our dreams.
They all were the same dream.

Dreamers wake in the night and sing their songs.
In the flame-brilliant midnight, promises
arrive, singing to each of us with tongues of flame:
“We are hopes, you should have hoped us,
“We are dreams, you should have dreamed us.”
Calling our name.

When we began to fight, we sang hatred and death.
The new songs say, “Soon all people on earth
will live together.” We resist and bless
and we begin to travel from defeat.
Now, as you sing your dream, you ask the dancers,
in the night, in the still night, in the night,
“Do you believe what I say?”
And all the dancers answer” Yes.”

• •

To the farthest west, the sea and the striped country
and deep in the camps among the wounded cities
half-world over, the waking dreams of night
outrange the horrors. Past fierce and tossing skies
the rare desires shine in constellation.
I hear your cries, you little voices of children
swaying wild, nightlost, in black fields calling.
I hear you as the seething dreams arrive
over the sea and past the flaming mountains.

Now the great human dream as great as birth or death,
only that we are not given to remember birth
only that we are not given to hand down death,
this we hand down and remember.

Brothers in dream, naked-standing friend
rising over the night, crying aloud,
beaten and beaten and rising from defeat,
crying as we cry: We are the world together.
Here is the place in hope, on time’s hillside,
where hope, in one’s image, wavers for the last time
and moves out of one’s body up the slope.
That place in love, where one’s self, as the body of love,
moves out of the old lifetime towards the beloved.

We look at the many colors of the world
knowing the peace of the spaces and the eyes of love,
who resists beyond suffering, travels beyond dream,
knowing the promise of the night-flowering worlds
sees in a clear day love and child and brother
living, resisting, and the world one world
dreaming together.


Author’s Note
After 1870, the American Indians of the West faced their defeat. As among many deprived groups, their reaction to defeat took the form of fantasy and religious revival. This movement was expressed in the Ghost Dance, dream singing, and other expressions of ritual symbolism. I have used some of the Indian material in this poem, and especially a paper by Philleo Nash, “Revivalism on Klamath Reservation,” included in Social Organization of North American Tribes. This material appears to me to have certain connections with expression in the over-run countries of our own time.

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Growing out of Muriel Rukeyser’s experience during the Spanish Civil War, the elegy evokes both hope and skepticism about dreaming in a time of defeat. The title alludes to nineteenth-century customs practiced by starving Native Americans, who found hope in ecstatic dancing, anticipating reunions with their dead—customs which, as Rukeyser noted, “have connections with expression in the overrun countries of our own time.” “The Dream-singing Elegy” was later republished as the seventh in a cycle of ten poems (Elegies, 1949). A quotation from it appears in Doctor Atomic, John Adams’ 2005 opera about the Manhattan Project, sung by the skeptical Kitty Oppenheimer.