Even without the simple biographical facts to shoehorn into a reading—of the poet's own charged experience of waking out of anesthesia after a cesarean birth and being told of the hysterectomy also performed on her, without her consent, at the same time—the poem reads explosively, with the famous masks and mythologies still flashing their exclamation points like stoplights. Through memory, the mortally wounded psyche is healed and rescued with the child, and the god lifts his hand as if Stravinsky himself had orchestrated it, in a new and even stronger and more disturbing mythic rite, this time from the deliberately female vantage point of that cleft speaker, regathered as Orpheus, maenad, and mother.
The poem is embedded in my own twentieth-century history as well as Rukeyser's, part of a seventies movement primed for sisterhood, but not quite ready for mothers, especially if they were ours. Reprinted in 1993, first released in 1973, Florence Howe's anthology of feminist poetry, No More Masks! chooses Rukeyser's negation of the practice of masking for its blazon. "The Poem as Mask," however, performs a series of much more complicated maneuvers of recognition and retrieval, maneuvers that hardly dismiss the adoption of masks or personae. And the famous exclamations seem more a question of which persona, rather than a dismissal of all personas: "No more masks! No more mythologies!" is one moment in Rukeyser's poem.
In an interview published in 1972 by William Packard, when asked specifically about this line, Rukeyser agrees that when it is spoken, "the myth begins again." The lifted hand becomes an acceptance of myth both paradoxical and necessary that occurs "[a]s soon as the refusal is made" (129). By the time actual memory confronts myth through the reality of the birthing female, exile from the self is undone, and under the baton of the god's lifted hand, the shattered fragments of the self enact a literal movement of recollection and raise "their own music." And their own new mythology.
. . . Her makeover of the Orpheus legend clearly had two aims: one, to reconnect poetry to its older roots in prophecy and wisdom literature, crippling discourse in favor of image; two, to provide a poetics that would acknowledge the full range of female experience as not incidental to poetry, but essential to it. Over many years, Rukeyser strove to take a male myth of the genesis of poetry and recover it for women, thereby to ground herself both theoretically and practically as woman and poet, with neither category ever to subtract energy from the other. . . . another creation myth is germinating inside the story of the origins of the female poetic voice. It is a myth that may worry the anti-essentialist feminist. In "The Poem as Mask" Rukeyser proposes the founding moment of a female self-recognition, and her simultaneous rejection of Orpheus and acquisition of her own voice, as the moment of a violated childbed, when her fertility is attacked in the instance of its expression. And yet, the female splits; gives birth; and suffering, acquires voice. In a split that also heals the gap between writing and living—between poetry and life—the poem couples or splices an "actual" autobiographical memory with a fictive or mythic recognition. But Rukeyser bears down on female memory or authentic experience as that which gives rise to the new myth, in which a newer god lifts his—and it is still his—enabling hand. In "The Poem as Mask" Orpheus may be a woman finally with the right mask on, clutching the right mythology, but the deity hasn't changed his pronoun.
I can imagine critical responses rejecting the implied pronatalism of this Orpheus myth, its potentially coercive suggestion that the catalyst of female creativity be childbirth, in a remake of Freud's movie Anatomy as Destiny, this time as produced and directed by a feminist. Yet Rukeyser's imagery can also be read nonprescriptively, and as generated from the context of a particular life and history that may not be pared away from a reading of the poems. Rukeyser in the postwar years is not just scorched, but fired by the experience of birthing and raising a son in the teeth of convention and through ambiguous paternity; fighting for her right even to have this child, she rewrites her creation myth: in "The Poem as Mask" both mask and mythology are cast aside, only to be retrieved and re-shaped.
But the recuperative role that motherhood plays is clear: the self split open in self-mothering is the cloven female body, despite the male's appropriation of midwifing and control over procreation, and despite the wound to her fertility that the poet undergoes in her hysterectomy, on the way to a deliverance both psychic and actual. The new myth is this female body whose wounds produce the Orphic song, its emblem the poet-mother and child. Against the surgical knife of male cancellation, body and family become female: first mother, then tentatively, then more and more strongly, bisexual or lesbian. And perhaps a shouldering aside of the male, except as son, becomes a necessity for a strong woman poet who has just undergone four years of a global conflagration in which militarism sidelined or dismissed or victimized women.
[Editor's Note: Excerpted from a much longer essay. See the original book for the full text]