The Shortest Way Home

Muriel Rukeyser

There was no place on that plain for a city,

no city can break through the blank of the Black Prairie,

its stiff grass tufted grey and aluminum birds;

a province whose design holds fertile seasons,

black earth, basis for growth; travellers whose approach

bends daylight through ghosts, the reasonable dread,

frontier familiar form, through color without water.

There was no place on that prairie for relief,

until the Blue Marl Lands, relics of ancestors

passed us, belted by rocks, the tribal poles;

tourist, we hunt the past as the farmer hunts rain,

as the manic depressive in tired hunt for equilibrium

hunts sleep, swarm up the totems for a view,

see older beds outcropping, dipping seawards and blue.

There was no room on that road for a shadow.

Far off the sand-hills blew, domes over rock salt blowing

echo slant fields in the colors of winter still,

we pass white obelisks of pioneers, the square hero women

and also settlers who control the language,

riding the continent tilting seaward, seeing

the coastal plain stand faithful as a wall.

Down-lying, the drowned valleys, the captured streams, the fall

of barrier beach and hills embayed, the red, the orange,

the chocolate, the sulphur, the cuesta yellow.

Profile of waves, a jaw of sand, surface of breakers,

and there the end of the trip, and the five swimmers

finding, dive like spread hand into the lit water

steaming the ocean with silver. Tantrum of light on water.

The ladies watch whose jewels sparkle as they breathe,

the stander in wet boat, his net flinching with fish,

the city at the lagoon, surfboat and speedcar

see the whole country: Snow Mountain, under which leaps the rose,

the tops of rangers where no lazy are,

through Black, Marl, Salt, to coast land, vein to vein.

Down-lying, prophetic, the long veins of this land

passing into the sea without a change of slope.

Vein of this land, feed on your rest again,

eat central freshness, the white implacable root.

Each birth was earned with convulsions, each traveller’s birth

spoke its word every time the tilt was changed.

But the ruined mills, but the ghost-towns, but the gaunt adolescent

short-sleeved, torn-trouser, before the final beach!

Pathological self-illumination turns to prose,

broken and jarring forms to peace.

A fugue of landscapes resolved, the hunt

levelled on equilibrium, that totemic head seeing

a natural sleep, a place for people and peace.

Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980) was an American poet, essayist, biographer, and political activist. Her work includes The Life of Poetry and The Book of the Dead.
Originally published:
October 1, 1939


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