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Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"Orgy" by Muriel Rukeyser

From The Speed of Darkness (1968) as found in Collected Poems (2005)

"Orgy" is found on PoemHunter.com [link], but there is an error in the text there (see below)
 

First lines:
There were three of them that night.
They wanted it to happen in the first woman's room.

 

a reading of poetic eroticism

 

Taking a look this time at Muriel Rukeyser's "Orgy," presenting a reading of the verse.

But first a word first about Rukeyser's work in general. I purchased her Collected Poems two years ago, not because of any previous familiarity with Rukeyser but almost entirely on repeatedly coming across "you should know this person's work" mentions, and seeing a verse of hers (which I always enjoyed) here and there. Before purchasing the book I had read far more about her than by her. I'm not going to say I read through the whole of it one sitting. (It's a big book.) I still haven't read through it all, even after many sittings. But then it is normal for me with new collecteds to read at best half at first purchase (that half not necessarily being the first half) and saving the rest for future visits. I actually think it's a poor habit – at least for me – to read a large collected straight through. A collected is (usually) a gathering of multiple volumes, and when I read it through the latter parts of the book begin to loose the freshness of the first sections: that certain 'freshness' that can exist even at the tenth time of re-reading a book, if you but come to it clear of mind.

I am going to say, however, that you should know Rukeyser's work. It did not take much reading for me to be convinced of her talent, her skill, and her sophistication. After reading a decent chunk of the book – and I did a lot of hopping around, looking up texts I found mentioned online – I was ready to set Rukeyser on my very short list of major U.S., twentieth-century poets. Nothing I have read since has given me reason to bump her from that spot, and my confidence in keeping her there has only grown.

So I will pass it on to you: if you are serious about verse (about the best of U.S. poetry) you should know Muriel Rukeyser. Odds on, you will do far better spending money on her collected than you will on three or five or fifteen contemporary books.

 

Now to "Orgy." It's been put up on the Poem Hunter site but there the text is missing a line, so I am going give the full text of the verse here.

There were three of them that night.
They wanted it to happen in the first woman's room.
The man called her; the phone rang high.
Then she put fresh lipstick on.
Pretty soon he rang the bell.
She dreamed, she dreamed, she dreamed.
She scarcely looked him in the face
But gently took him to his place.
And after that the bell, the bell.
They looked each other in the eye,
A hot July it was that night,
And he then slow took off his tie,
And she then slow took off her scarf,
The second one took off her scarf,
And he then slow his heavy shoe,
And she then slow took off her shoe,
The other one took off her shoe,
He then took off his other shoe,
The second one, her other shoe,
A hot July it was that night.
And he then slow took off his belt,
And she then slow took off her belt,
The second one took off her belt . . .

If you want to keep the Poem Hunter site open for reference, the missing line is "And then she slow took off her shoe" at the place where they take off their first shoe. (When it next comes to the second shoes the text does skip the first woman.) I don't know if "Orgy" is (or was) one of Rukeyser's more well known pieces. (Does a bit of verse end up on a site like Poem Hunter because of its history or simply because someone likes it?) I came upon it by randomly opening the book and was rather taken with it. (People who know me will laugh at that point.) I bring it here because there is much to talk about with it. And to be clear, I don't think there is merely something interesting about it: this is a very well-constructed poem.

Let's begin with general structure. The first line tells you what is going on.

There were three of them that night.

Remember, you already know the title is "Orgy." The second line tells us where it is happening.

They wanted it to happen in the first woman's room.

From that point on the text is almost entirely action, though in two stages. First is the assembling together. The second, which begins at or around the line "A hot July it was that night," is the action of the orgy itself – and I argue the poem ends within the orgy, not still in prelude, even though at the end of the verse they have barely begun to undress.

The second part of the action is marked by being in strict (and somewhat lively) iambic quadrameter. That iambic rhythm is hinted at early on:

THERE were THREE of THEM that NIGHT
They wanted it to happen in the first woman's room.
The MAN called HER; the PHONE rang HIGH.
THEN she PUT fresh LIP-stick ON.

Though I would say that the degree you put stress on the "There" of the first line and the "Then" of the fourth depends on how much you pull the iambic rhythm of the later lines back into the beginning lines. For me, the first two lines read most naturally as free verse (which fits a structure that builds up to strict rhythms and repetitions). The next two lines begin to speak of the coming iambic, with line three, because of that semi-colon, nearly establishing it. Then comes the complete, rhythmic break of line 6,

She dreamed, she dreamed, she dreamed

which breaks not only in being only three stresses but also in being a much slower line. After that there is the coupling via rhyme of lines 7 and 8, and we find ourselves fully captured by iambic quadrameter.

She SCARCE-ly LOOKED him IN the FACE
But GENT-ly TOOK him TO his PLACE.

And if you still aren't sure how you should be reading it, the slightly plastic construction of line 9 should make it clear.

And AF-ter THAT the BELL, the BELL

There is one reason to repeat "the bell" in what has been till now a rather casual text: to firmly establish the rhythm that governs every line from there on out. And once established, Rukeyser is willing to construct the lines so as to constantly reaffirm that strict rhythm. Notice how the "-ly" is missing from the adverb "slowly." Notice also how writing the line

A hot July it was that night

rather than as

It was a hot July that night

begins the line with an adjective and a noun, and an adjective ending in a hard consonant, rather than with three small words, the second of which ends in a sibilant. By this she begins the line in strength, and with that strength reinforces the meter.

Rhythm and repetition is partly why I say the orgy proper begins in the text of the poem, specifically at or after the line "A hot July it was that night." From there on out our three characters are in a dance, and the verse, in the strict meter, in the tripling of each step of the action, and in the repetition within each step of the action, pulls us, aurally, into that dance.

Without letting it fall into clunky repetitions. Once the primary action starts, the lines are written in repeating triplets of iambic quadrameter.

And he then slow took off his tie,
And she then slow took off her scarf,
The second one took off her scarf,

And he then slow his heavy shoe,
And she then slow took off her shoe,
The other one took off her shoe,

And then comes a brilliant moment in aural control. The text does not simply drone on in continuing triplets. It successfully varies the material aspect of the text without varying the ideational aspect

He then took off his other shoe,
The second one, her other shoe,

This does not mean the first woman was skipped. The continued tripling of the action is implied using only two lines. But for rhythm's sake the text still needs to sustain the tripling of the lines. So a line from earlier on is repeated:

A hot July it was that night,

which does not add anything new to the now established dance but which, in its being a repeated line, re-emphasizes the atmosphere of it all. After which the tripling of lines is quickly re-established with one more trio. After which the text knows it has done enough, and there need only be a trailing of periods to imply the rest. I'll write it out so you can see the whole of it at once:

And he then slow took off his tie,
And she then slow took off her scarf,
The second one took off her scarf,

And he then slow his heavy shoe,
And she then slow took off her shoe,
The other one took off her shoe,

He then took off his other shoe,
The second one, her other shoe,
A hot July it was that night.

And he then slow took off his belt,
And she then slow took off her belt,
The second one took off her belt . . .

I love it. Magnificent control of the text. I think it is quite important to the success of the structure that the text in that third triplet does not bring in a new line but repeats the line from the beginning moments of the dance. It does not introduce a new sound. You have heard this line before, just as with all the triplets you are hearing greatly the same line being repeated. But there is also the ideational aspect already mentioned: it reaffirms; it does not bring in something new, it does not upset the tripling by telling us something new about but one of the persons. And I like how, when varying from the strict tripling, the line chosen for repetition pulls all the way out to the farthest context (the time and weather), a neutral (as regarding the three persons) context. In sum, there is variation – that keeps the text from falling into monotonous repetition – but variation without disruption. The dance moves right through the variation without missing a step.

 

Let's go back to the beginning and look at ideation. One of the interesting ideational moves the text makes is it gives the first woman primacy without letting the text become solely about her.

There were three of them that night.
They wanted it to happen in the first woman's room.

The verse opens with the three of them in equal standing. They, the "three of them," decided to have the event happen in the first woman's room. It was a group decision. Now it might be argued that the only reason primacy is given to the first woman is that it occurs in her room, so it is natural to have the action pivot, if only at first, and if only as concerns the material aspects of what is going, around her. But there does come that sixth line:

She dreamed, she dreamed, she dreamed.

We are fully in the mind of the first woman. Which, though, does not mean that it cannot also be said that the man or the second woman did not also dream and dream and dream.

But the first woman has primacy, not only in the telling but also in the action.

But gently took him to his place.

She's the one that's got everything organized; indeed, she's the one presently in control. And keep in mind, this is a verse about an orgy; it is erotic. When she dreams, she is dreaming about sex. And she doesn't just dream:

She dreamed, she dreamed, she dreamed.

a line, as already pointed out, that both stands apart because of the break from the building quadrameter and because it is a very slow line to read and to speak, very different from the running rhythms of the coming triplets. It is arguably the most important line in the text, and to be read correctly must be read within the erotic:

She dreamed about sex, she dreamed about sex, she dreamed about sex.

But I don't believe that that goes quite far enough.

It is my reading that the man and the first woman are already a couple. That he calls her first, and that he is the first to arrive gives evidence to that there is already a relationship, a sexual relationship, of some degree between them. It is implied also in the first line. "There were three of them that night" – as opposed to when there was normally two.

But notice this:

Pretty soon he rang the bell.
She dreamed, she dreamed, she dreamed.
She scarcely looked him in the face
But gently took him to his place.

The ringing of the doorbell is the beginning. Someone is here, it has begun. And because of it she dreams and dreams and dreams. But because of that dreaming, as I read it, she can "scarcely look[] him in the face." She shows a touch of embarrassment for her dreaming. Not because she is dreaming about sex with him (though maybe in part) but more so because she is dreaming about sex also with the second woman. Compare the above lines to what follows.

And after that the bell, the bell.
They looked each other in the eye,
A hot July it was that night,
And he then slow took off his tie,

There is an opposition. The second woman is here, and now they can look each other in the eye. But I think there is also an ambiguity present.

And after that the bell, the bell.
They looked each other in the eye,

Though the second line there ends in a comma, and is the beginning of a thought that will run right into the beginning of the dance, implying that all three are looking each other in the eye, the two sentences when read as a pair and when read in contrast to the previous ringing (and answering) of the bell imply that the first woman is specifically looking the second woman in the eye, and the second woman back at her. When the man comes to the door she cannot look him in the face. But when the second woman comes to the door she can look her right in the eye. For that I think that to read

She dreamed, she dreamed, she dreamed

correctly, you must read it with a primacy – a primacy equal to how the first woman has primacy but not dominance in the narrative – given to sex between the women. For the first woman, this is not simply a experimental three-way, nor is this acting out a male fantasy: this is opportunity for desired sex with another, presumably desired woman, who, presumably, desires her back. To read line 6 correctly, then, it should be read with the idea

She dreamed of sex, she dreamed of sex with the man, she dreamed of sex with the second woman.

Which gives some more rational to why she could not look the man, ostensibly a man she's already in a relationship with, in the face. She is dreaming about sex, yes, but greatly dreaming about sex with the second woman. And for it there is a touch of – perhaps embarrassment is not quite the correct word. It may merely be that she is having thoughts that does not necessarily in that moment include him.

But again, this is only a primacy given to the first woman. As said, there's no reason to believe the man and the second woman are not also dreaming. But having the first woman dreaming about the second woman gives a balance to the trio. So when the erotic dance begins, when the orgy begins,

And he then slow took off his tie,
And she then slow took off her scarf,
The second one took off her scarf,

There is an equality between the three sides of the triangle. There is desire along every line. Which increases the eroticism of that dance, even though that dance, in the text, never goes beyond, except in its pointing forward,

The second one took off her belt . . .

The three are not taking off their clothes step by step because of bashfulness or an unsurety of what to do. They are acting the way they are acting because of mutually shared desire. The dance – a dance that exists also in the material rhythms of the text – is an erotic dance. Thus why I say the orgy begins in the poem, not after it.

 

Final thought. But not the least thought. With this we get to why this verse is so good. Though, I will only state it here and leave it to you, in rereading, to explore. Greatly the art of "Orgy" lies in how the text develops its eroticism. It generates quite a bit as I read it. But most importantly, it does so without ever stating anything explicitly in regards to what people are thinking or feeling. Except, perhaps, for that one, wonderfully performative line.

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