Sometime in 1969, my grandmother tried to decapitate her good friend Ella Winter. My father was there; I know that. I imagine him wearing the blue corduroy suit he wore at his wedding; I’m sure he didn’t. I imagine him humiliated.
Muriel Rukeyser, so my father says, was not an accomplished drinker. But for some reason, that evening in San Francisco, shortly past the Summer of Love, she was drinking heavily.
She was at a party, among friends. But she started getting agitated, my father says, when the subject turned to Carmel-by-the-Sea. She lurched toward the hatchet in the basket of kindling when Ella Winter started mentioning the Jeffers family, who had lived in Carmel for fifty years at that point. And she grabbed the hatchet—now I’m imagining the running, and the lunge—and charged across the long-pile shag carpet, hatchet held over her head, aiming for the neck, when Ella Winter said something about Donnan Jeffers.
When my father relayed this, he didn’t mention what Muriel did after she was pulled off Ella Winter, or what she did after the hatchet was taken from her hands. She might have been contrite, or shaking with rage. He did say that Muriel had to be “forcibly restrained.” He did mention that (“luckily, luckily”) the blow was never struck.
What’s for sure is that the reason his mother ran pell-mell toward Ella Winter in the middle of the boozy camaraderie, in the decline of the 1960s, was because she heard that Ella Winter was still being friendly with the man that had impregnated Muriel back in 1946: the man who had fathered my father.
People like to introduce Muriel Rukeyser, my paternal grandmother, in a couple of ways.
They like to use lists. Muriel was, as Adrienne Rich describes her in the introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, a “poet, first and foremost; but [also] a thinking activist, biographer, traveler, explorer of her country’s psychic geography.” Her poetry: labeled, among other things, as romantic, political, feminist, erotic, Whitmanesque. Muriel: poet, novelist, biographer, playwright, filmmaker, children’s writer, bisexual, Jewish, single mother, and a tireless social activist.
“Anne Sexton,” writes Laura Passin, “called her ‘Muriel, mother of us all,’ and Adrienne Rich named her ‘our twentieth-century Coleridge, our Neruda, and more.’” Many people are introduced to Muriel through one of her most famous lines, well known even before it gained viral popularity during the #MeToo movement: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
It was not until he was in middle school that Muriel sat my father down and informed him that she’d been lying. My father’s father was not the man that Muriel had described. My father’s father was alive, not dead. He wasn’t Jewish. He had never married Muriel; in fact, he was married to another woman. He was highly unlikely ever to resurface. His name was Donnan Jeffers.
My father remembers his reaction: “And my birthday? Is it still September twenty-fifth?”
Bill Rukeyser was born on September 25, 1947. He was conceived between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve in the rowdy artistic epicenter of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Donnan Jeffers was licking his wounds from the combination of his recent acrimonious divorce, being laid off from working in his ex-father-in-law’s commercial pottery in Ohio, and the indignity of moving back in with Mommy and Daddy in his early thirties. But despite all this, Donnan was already holding sway over Carmel, drinking heavily, a malcontent bon viveur. He was already acting in the role he’d inhabit—and would make the cornerstone of his personality and his primary source of income—until his death: that of Robinson Jeffers’s son.
“I consider Jeffers the most important American poet of the western third of the country—the great poet of the West,” says former poet laureate of California Dana Gioia. He’s not alone in that sentiment. When Robinson Jeffers is remembered fondly, it’s as an ardent environmentalist, a poet who worked on a grand scale, composing epics about the California coast, where he and his family settled in 1919.
The Jeffers compound, known as Tor House, consists of a cluster of stone buildings on Carmel Point. It’s an arresting place. The movement of the gray water is reflected by the movement of the gray marine layer surging inland. Between those layers of gray are black cypress trees and boulders, also gray.
This natural beauty, this feral, blasted landscape, is what’s really credited with molding Jeffers’s poetics, his defiant preference of nature to mankind, his preoccupation with hawks. Rugged is a word used with astounding frequency to describe him: his free verse is rugged; his features are “rugged and intense.”
By 1932 he’d hit such a height of fame that his photo—rugged face against hewn stone—graced the cover of Time. It would be eighteen years before T. S. Eliot was on the cover of Time;this is how famous a poet Robinson Jeffers was in the early 1930s.
When my grandmother broke the news of my father’s lineage to him, it was Robinson’s name, not Donnan’s, that she mentioned first.
“And my mother says something like, Oh, by the way, I’ve got something to tell you. And I can’t remember the exact words but the net impact was Everything that you think you know about your parenthood is not true. Here is the real truth. Have you ever heard of the poet Robinson Jeffers? You’re his grandson.”
I was at the end of my honeymoon when I decided to go to Tor House. We’d rented a house in the Mojave Desert, spending our days floating around the pool on inflatable mattresses, looking up at the pink-and-black mountains.
My husband was born in West Germany; he’s Bavarian. I spent childhood summers in the Central Valley of California, indoors, in the air-conditioning, dreaming of living in Europe. Now that I live in Germany, things have changed. I own three prints of California landscapes. I now look at photos of the American West with such rapaciousness that I gnash my teeth. When I visit the United States, I tend to binge on it. I have become a German tourist.
“Why not,” I asked my husband, “go from the desert up to the coast? We could see Big Sur, and Santa Cruz, and”—here I started looking at the Tor House Foundation website—“check out Carmel-by-the-Sea?” I found something called the Musical Tour of Tor House, celebrating the fact that “Tor House became a magnet for the musical, artistic and literary aristocracy of the 1920s through 1940s.” I bought the two remaining tickets.
My husband said it sounded cheesy. I called my parents, who live near Carmel, in Davis. Was my mother interested in going? “That sounds horrible,” she said. Was my father? I understood that he probably wasn’t, I said, but I wanted to ask. After all, Muriel had been at Tor House in the 1940s.
“Sure,” he said. “Why the hell not?”
Here is what Muriel told my father for the first thirteen years of his life: Your father, before he died, was a Jewish schoolteacher named David Woolff. We married and then he got leukemia; it struck him fast and he was gone, just like that.
I wondered if my father grew up hearing a lot of stories about David Woolff, the nice Jewish boy with a name that essentially screams nice Jewish boy? “Actually, not too many,” says my dad. “Grandma would tend to lapse into silence, and from a very early age one of the things I learned was when to shut up.”
Muriel never publicly mentioned the name Donnan Jeffers. And it was only recently that my father did. Previously, he said simply that his mother “sought out the son of a famous poet.”
Much later he met his half siblings, including the daughter from Donnan’s failed first marriage. It was through his half sister that he first came into contact with a Jeffers scholar named James Karman, who, through inserting my father’s name in a footnote in The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers (2015),first officially announced my father’s paternity.
“I didn’t name names,” my father says, “until after Karman broke the news to a world that frankly doesn’t care.”
We drive down to Tor House the day before my father’s seventy-fourth birthday. In September, moving from the heat of the interior of California to the chill of the marine layer is shocking. As we turn onto Highway 1, my dad asks me: Do I want to let the docents know who I am and maybe get the VIP tour? My father had been to Tor House once before, in 2017 or 2018, accompanied by Karman. He’d gotten to see the entire house; everyone had been very solicitous. Or: we could be surreptitious.
I choose to be surreptitious.
One of the things I’ve been highly aware of, being Muriel’s granddaughter, is looking like Muriel’s granddaughter. We have the same wide face. Broad, perpetually tensed shoulders. A villainous arch to our eyebrows. And, as evidenced in some pictures, select old videos, a similarity in reaction: the movement of amusement across my face looks like it did on Muriel’s—as does haughtiness, as does fury.
This wouldn’t bother me quite so much, I think, if I weren’t a writer. When I speak to Muriel fans, they tend to draw parallels. I know it’s because they’re so invested in Muriel, because they see Muriel everywhere they go and not just in me, but when a Muriel scholar recently said, “Your novel is called The Seaplane on Final Approach? But that’s amazing—Muriel’s first book was Theory of Flight,also about aviation!,” my face registered, I’m sure, Muriel-like haughtiness.
My novel is not about aviation. My novel, I realize as I write this, is about destructive desire in a coastal corner of the American West.
Muriel and Robinson Jeffers first came into contact in 1944, when Muriel was staying at the home of her good friend Ella Winter, the woman she would later charge with a hatchet. The houses in Carmel-by-the-Sea are all called “cottages,” a collection of achingly sweet little homes painted the colors of Jordan almonds and named like fairy-tale ships: Sea Lure, Salt Aire, Mission Belle. Ella Winter’s cottage was called The Getaway.
Tor House isn’t painted pink or mint or baby blue. It’s gray, craggy granite, as is the adjacent structure, Hawk Tower. The legend goes that as Robinson Jeffers constructed Hawk Tower, a hawk kept daily watch over his progress. When he was finished, after he had applied the mortar and laid the last stone by hand, the hawk took flight.
In 1933, Jeffers published a book of poetry called Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems.One of his famous poems is called “Rock and Hawk.” Another of his famous poems, “Hurt Hawks,” contains the line “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.” (The poem is about him killing a hawk.)
Robinson Jeffers would rather kill a man than a hawk. This fact has something to do with the decline in his popularity in the years leading up to and during World War II. When Muriel met him, he was at a bit of a low point.
This was because Robinson Jeffers’s philosophy, which he dubbed “inhumanism,” urged people to look away from the squalor of human life and toward nature. When faced with the madness of the human world, with its murder and greed and corruption, the only even remotely sensible thing to do, for Jeffers, was to be indifferent to human struggle. He preferred the specter of a god who was aloof and radiant, who hadn’t wrought man in His image, and might resemble something other than human.
Robinson Jeffers, as a by-product of his inhumanism, was an America Firster. He didn’t want the United States to enter World War II. This fact torpedoed his popularity, and he was accused of having Fascist sympathies. The mournful newsreel voice in a Robinson Jeffers documentary intones, “Except for a small and intensely loyal Robinson Jeffers cult of close friends and admirers, his followers dwindled until he suffered almost complete obscurity.” This is when Muriel met him.
In 1936, a year after Jeffers published the volume of poetry in which “Rock and Hawk” appears, Muriel, aged twenty-two, did a few things that permanently altered the shape of her life and writing.
She drove to West Virginia to witness the aftermath of one of the worst industrial tragedies in American history, the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster at Gauley Bridge, where an estimated thousand people died of silicosis as a result of gross negligence on the part of the Union Carbide Company. She wrote a poem sequence about it—potentially her most famous, lauded work—called “The Book of the Dead.” Later that year, she traveled to Barcelona, witnessed the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and was evacuated on a fishing boat that sailed, under cover of night, to France.
This is when Muriel became a poet of witness, a term that would come to define her. “Rukeyser,” writes Natasha Trethewey in her introduction to 2021’s The Essential Muriel Rukeyser, “over the course of her long career—a life of conscientious reckoning with the self and the world—would bear witness to many of the most pressing issues of the century with the clarity and moral authority of one whose life was boldly and fully lived.”
Muriel spent part of World War II working on home-front propaganda for the Office of War Information. Then, in 1944, she met—sought out—Robinson Jeffers, hawk fan and staunch isolationist.
My father understands his conception as “like a trip to the Gap. Muriel was shopping for genes.”
His understanding of the situation is that Muriel wanted to beget a poet, or at least conceive a child with a man who had poetry somewhere, somehow, in his bloodline.
But why this particular poet? Why was Muriel, poet of witness and politics, activist, Communist, anti-Fascist, palling around with the family of Robinson Jeffers, America Firster, inhumanist, full of Fascist leanings? It’s not like Robinson was still affecting the tidal pull of absolute fame and influence. His followers, remember, had dwindled.
Ella Winter loaned her The Getaway in 1944; Muriel met Robinson. Muriel returned to The Getaway in 1945. Muriel returned, again, to The Getaway that fateful winter of 1946, going to whatever party was suggested, strains of the new Christmas novelty song “Let It Snow” rising through the floorboards, Pacific storms lashing at the windows.
In my father’s understanding of events, Muriel was filled with an unshakable confidence that her baby would have the perfect mix: a little poetry from Muriel; a little poetry, albeit once removed, from Robinson.
Muriel’s thinking at the time, according to my dad: “If we’re talking genes, creativity is inherited. Fascism is not.”
He continues, “I mean, this is one of those things where there’s so little data that I think you, Rebecca, can speculate as much as you want. And nobody can possibly definitively contradict you.”
There are no photos allowed within the fenced perimeter of Tor House, certainly none within the confines of the house. You can photograph some of the two thousand cypresses, eucalyptuses, and Monterey pines planted by the Jefferses from the vantage point outside the gate.
Our docent tells us that the Jefferses, Una and Robinson, met in a class on Goethe’s Faust at the University of Southern California. Robinson’s German was impeccable. Una was already married when she met Robinson, explains our docent. He was monosyllabic, misanthropic, lean, and—so says the docent, so says everybody—
“ruggedly good-looking.” They started an affair. It lasted six, seven turbulent years. Then, even once Una and Robinson were finally married, they were plagued by scandal, so they decided to start fresh in coastal Carmel. The docent, I can tell, loves the story.
She takes a moment to ask us where we’re from. I live in Germany. My father lives in Davis. We’re surreptitious. When asked what we do, my father says, “Retired.” I say, “I’m a teacher.” These are truthful statements, and also not, but nobody can possibly definitively contradict us.
In photos Donnan Jeffers is a louche; every time I think back I remember him wearing a cravat, but no: there’s a shirt, a tie, and a creamy scarf. He has slack, opiated lips and pale, hooded eyes.
Donnan was slight; his twin brother, Garth, was broad. He was lazy and indulgent; Garth went on cattle drives and became a forester. At one point in all this, Robinson said to Muriel, or so my father was told, “You chose the wrong twin.”
He tried a number of careers; he failed at most of them. What he ended up being, what his personal and professional identity became, was Robinson Jeffers’s son. He and his wife, Lee, lived in Tor House for the rest of his life, maintaining the property and helping establish the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, a nonprofit that preserves Tor House and runs tours, including the Musical Tour of Tor House.
Donnan’s drinking increased steadily throughout his life. He ended up dying at sixty-five, falling down the stairs at Tor House in a drunken stupor. The staircase at Tor House isn’t even very steep.
“Is that just a story?” I ask.
“I think you can take that to the bank,” says my dad.
When poet and editor Kate Daniels was attempting to write a biography of Muriel (the project was ultimately abandoned), she interviewed Donnan’s widow, Lee. She asked Lee about Muriel, and about the possibility that Donnan had sired Muriel’s son.
No, said Lee. Donnan could not possibly have slept with Muriel because Donnan would never fuck a Jewess.
My father backtracks. He wants the wording to be exactly right. Lee Jeffers might not have been so virulent or crude. The gist of it, though, was that Donnan was anti-Semitic. We all know how Donnan felt about Jews might have been what she said; impossible to father a child with one.
We all know how not just Donnan but all the Jefferses felt about Jews. We know because it’s right there in the three volumes of The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers.
In 1944, the year that poet of witness Muriel Rukeyser first met the isolationist Robinson Jeffers, she wrote a poem called “To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century,” which begins:
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
It’s a popular poem in many Reform Jewish prayer books. It was in the siddur at my synagogue when I was growing up.
On my dad’s birth certificate his father is listed as David Jefferson Woolff. This is the only clue Muriel left as to the identity of her son’s father: a tradition in the sorority of unmarried mothers claiming widowhood was to conceal the father’s real name in a fake one. It’s a simple exercise in erasure: David Jefferson Woolff cleverly concealing D. Jeffers.
David Woolff, need we explain, is the consummate Jewish American mate. Does he have some literary pedigree? No matter. He was a schoolteacher; he loved children and learning—that’s what my father needed to know. David Woolff, newly married, rejoicing at the triumph over Nazism and probably planning on building a cabin upstate for his bride and baby, would have fucked a Jewess.
The docent at Tor House explains Robinson’s philosophy of inhumanism: “We are all one. And maybe we’re of less importance than the rocks and the ocean and the plants, because we are a destructive presence on the earth.”
The poem she chooses to illustrate inhumanism is an early one, “Continent’s End.” It’s the one poem she reads aloud; the other poems she wants us, the guests at Tor House, to read aloud ourselves.
Mother, though my song’s measure is like your surf-beat’s ancient rhythm I never learned it of you.
Before there was any water there were tides of fire, both our tones flow from the older fountain.
“Mother,” the docent explains, refers to the Pacific Ocean.
If Muriel was interested in using Donnan as a sperm bank, if she was indeed “shopping for genes,” it might have had something to do with her understanding of her own ancestry. Muriel was the daughter of a former bookkeeper and a crooked cement magnate. She mentions her humble lineage often, and dismissively, throughout her work.
She also mentions a literary ancestor, one her bookkeeper mother told her she was related to: Rabbi Akiba, who is famous for including the erotic Song of Songs in the canon and for reciting the Shema Yisrael as he was being flayed by Roman soldiers.
With this, Muriel is bound by a hereditary link not only to poetry, but to poetry that exalts the holiness of carnality and the body. Her ancestor is a rabbi who martyred himself not only in an act of resistance, but in an act of resistance accompanied by indelible literary recitation.
Before the musical part of the Musical Tour of Tor House begins, before our docent starts playing on “Una’s beautifully restored 1905 Steinway” and her husband starts singing in his wavering Irish baritone, we’re led out of the back gate. Robinson, our docent explains, “had a personal relationship with the rocks and talked to them and wrote poems to them.”She wants to show us a boulder.
It’s also the rock that the Jefferses used to picnic beside before Tor House was constructed, before they’d bought the property, when Robinson and Una were living in a log cabin in central Carmel-by-the-Sea and the twin boys were still infants. It became the cornerstone of Tor House.
Robinson, naturally, wrote a poem to this rock. The docent, who has been picking people to read poems—the poem to Robinson’s dead bulldog, the poem that tells people to leave poets alone and not invite them to parties—chooses my father to read “To the Rock That Will Be a Cornerstone of the House.”
In the poem, Robinson contemplates what the rock experienced before he arrived. He brings the rock some milk and honey, some wine, and pours the offering into the moss growing from its cracked surface. He thinks of the rock’s long history and offers himself and his future: the rock is going to have the task of supporting his house, helping shelter his family.
This is the poem my dad reads, and I’m worried he might choke up. “How dear you will be to me when I too grow old, old comrade.”But my dad’s reading voice is steady and sounds, if anything, slightly mocking.
The poem “Trinity Churchyard,” subtitled “for my mother and her ancestor Akiba,” is included in Muriel’s last poetry collection, The Gates.It was published in 1976. Muriel was sixty-two years old, still thinking about the Akiba myth. It’s clear that the idea of lineage, a heritage of notable acts, was important to her. There’s a sense of reverence there, and a sense of crafted destiny.
I can see, following from the idea of her ancestor, the idea that her child’s father’s background would mold his future. That you can do more than influence your baby’s probable height or eye color or likelihood of high blood pressure when you choose your mate.
But this is also the part that upsets me: the idea of Muriel trying to beget a poet. The year of her tryst with Donnan was 1946. The atrocities in Europe had been laid bare: everyone knew about Jews being eradicated not only because we were undesirable but also because of the threat that we’d breed with non-Jews. People knew about the Nazi Lebensborn program: young, blond German women selected to conceive with SS officers, then sent to rest homes during their pregnancy to ensure they’d safely deliver strong, lusty Aryan babies. People knew about the experiments. They knew about the fetishization of a pure bloodline. They knew about the idea of building through genetic specificity, creating a child that would have the ideal traits of athleticism and industry and blondness.
Everyone knew this. So why, in 1946, did my grandmother decide—if you believe my father’s understanding that she was shopping for genes—to cook up a literary baby? Why—in this hedonistic season where I imagine, outside twinkling houses, conversations held in the dark, clutching the lapels of a coat before the black silhouette of a cypress stamping the black of the overcast sky—did she sleep with Donnan Jeffers to make this genetically fit poet?
That’s not what Muriel said she did, however. She says she simply fell in love and got pregnant.
This was a surprise to me; I had never heard this. I’d only ever heard my father’s account of the story, and I’d assumed for my entire life that his glibness—shopping for genes—was Muriel’s. I’d grown up with an image of Muriel walking around, smugly patting her pregnant belly: Look what I got here. But that, I guess, is probably not what she did.
I ask: “Did she say anything to you—I mean, your line about shopping for genes?”
My father answers: “That’s entirely my line. Basically, her line was that [Donnan] was the love of her life and it had gone wrong. And it had been a terrible and tragic disappointment when she learned that he was marrying somebody else. That was her line for the rest of her life.”
I had spent thirty-six years telling everyone that Muriel used Donnan like a sperm bank. I had never questioned my dad’s narrative, never assumed that love or heartbreak was part of the equation.
The windows are kept open during the musical part of the Musical Tour of Tor House. It gets progressively colder and I try unsuccessfully to fold my skirt double and pull my jacket down over my legs. We’re given a little revue of music from the heyday of Robinson Jeffers’s popularity: “Let the Rest of the World Go By,” Duke Ellington’s “Moonglow,” the Gershwins’ “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Between songs, the docent reads us Robinson Jeffers poems. The living room at Tor House is low-ceilinged. It’s filled with books and one wall is decorated with a large drawing of the twins, Donnan and Garth, as children. I’m feeling cynical—toward the fetishization of these Tor House parties, toward the reverence directed toward my America Firster granddad and his anti-Semitic family—but two things keep pricking through the membrane of my contempt with real and vivid emotion.
One is the view from the paned window. It’s the slope of the cliff down to the water, which is frothing against a jagged collection of low-tide rocks. From the right, the fingers of a cypress intrude. There are too many clouds to see the horizon line, so it lacks that particular tang of immensity, but there’s the swarming motion of the marine layer moving inland. It’s beautiful, and I’m homesick for it already.
Two, and this upsets me, is Robinson’s poetry. I’ve never read it before. Now that I’m hearing it, seated under a pencil sketch of five-year-old Donnan, I’m mortified to find that I deeply love Robinson Jeffers’s early poems.
Muriel made mention of Donnan in her poetry, although never by name. One example is from the first stanza of “Desdichada,” a title that translates as something like “unfortunate wretch,” from Breaking Open (1973):
For that you never acknowledged me, I acknowledge
the spring’s yellow detail, the every drop of rain,
the anonymous unacknowledged men and women.
The shine as it glitters in our child’s wild eyes,
one o’clock at night.
If we assume the poem’s speaker is Muriel—the speaker in her poems is often Muriel—she’s talking to Donnan about my father’s wild eyes. These aren’t the words of someone easily happy to have been impregnated by the handsome, soused local sperm donor. This is Muriel as a woman scorned, a woman who was abandoned while pregnant. She’s heartbroken.
Despite the chill in the room, and the citric smell of kelp the wind brings in, the docent urges us to imagine the living room filled with the kind of artistic guests Tor House attracted. She lists names—Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sinclair Lewis, George Sterling, Dylan Thomas, Martha Graham.
Imagine them in the throes of a raucous party, the kind that misanthropic Robinson would have hated.
The gas lamps are all lit. Una is playing the piano. The fire is roaring, voices are roaring above the fire. It’s too loud inside to hear the wind, or the water, or the crows, or the needles of the cypresses against the window. People cluster by the fireplace, drinking Irish whiskey. Bodies are spilling up the stairs, some into the corner with the desk referred to as “Una’s Alcove.” Someone leans against Una’s melodeon, which gives a horsey wheeze, which is echoed by laughter. A cigarette butt is thrown into the fireplace, releasing a spray of sparks; a cigarette is lit from the flame of a candle. Whiskey is dribbled down a double-breasted jacket and artfully flicked off with manicured nails. Red lipstick is reapplied by someone using the reflection on the black window, faces swim in and out of the rippled antique panes. A pair of heeled Oxfords slides on the staircase leading upstairs, an ass in a tweed skirt sits down hard, there’s a hush, she’s OK, and everyone cheers with wine-stained teeth. Una is sent for more whiskey, and someone ambushes her, kissing her underneath the mistletoe, and it’s played for laughs because Una’s old enough to be somebody’s grandmother.
My father recently confessed that he had long harbored a secret wish. Wouldn’t it have been nice, he thought, if he had actually been Robinson’s son? A son of the poet, instead of a son of a man who spent his life as The Son of the Poet? After all, Robinson had cheated on Una before.
But no—my father took a cheek-swab DNA test and the results came back: you have a half sister in England and her father is Donnan Jeffers.
When we leave Tor House, I ask my dad what he thought of the tour. He inhales. Then, with a sideways glance and a slight angling of his head, adopting a tone of serene, thoughtful diplomacy—something he does, that I’ve caught my nephew doing, and that I’ve seen Muriel do in videos, when they want to express withering scorn—he says, “I enjoyed looking out the living room window and watching the pelicans playing.”
The first stanza of Muriel’s “Desdichada” goes on:
Disinherited, annulled, finally disacknowledged
and all of my own asking. I keep that wild dimension
of life and making and the spasm
upon my mouth as I say this word of acknowledge
to you forever. Ewig. Two o’clock at night.
The disacknowledgment Muriel is referencing here: Donnan not acknowledging the existence of my father.
But then I read it again, with the sensation I often have while reading Muriel Rukeyser, something like the movement of a puck across an air hockey table: the movement of one meaning frictionlessly becoming another meaning entirely.
Disinherited, annulled, finally disacknowledged
and all of my own asking.
This line complicates the heartbreak, and Muriel’s statement that losing Donnan was losing the love of her life. All of my own asking.
I stick on this; I circle back around it. Did Muriel ask Donnan to refuse to acknowledge my father? Or the fact that they’d had a wild night together, or a full-fledged affair? Did Muriel, who grieved Donnan to the extent that she refused to speak with my father about him, shut herself within her grief and shut her child out of knowledge about his father?
The more people I talk to about Muriel’s tryst with Donnan, the more theories I hear. It could have been that Donnan provoked in Muriel the thunderclap of sudden, defenseless love. Or that she had tried to seduce Robinson and failed; that drunk Donnan was an easy conquest. Or that she told Donnan outright, I want a baby, and I want you to give it to me, and he agreed. Or that, having checked the attributes she wanted in a mate and propelled by a deluded and icky understanding of poetry as a genetic trait, she used him like a sperm bank.
But maybe, also, if she was looking for poetic genes, she didn’t acknowledge this to herself. She didn’t allow herself to think of her affair with Donnan Jeffers as anything less than an affair—of the heart, of the heart manifested in the body.
So far, two biographies of Muriel Rukeyser have been abandoned by their authors. My father’s theory is that the biographers started their projects totally smitten with Muriel but grew disenchanted. “The more they got to the original source material and interviews, the more they saw the flaws, the contradictions, the unpleasant sides of her personality. And at a certain point, you know, the facts and the myth just didn’t jibe, and if they were in love with her, they couldn’t continue.” But, he admits, “that’s a theory based on not a whole hell of a lot.”
There is something there, though: that frictionless slide, that negation, again and again. A Jew in the twentieth century, in 1946, kissing an avowed anti-Semite at a Christmas party. A young poet repulsed by political inaction, besotted by a gone-to-seed poet whose legacy is isolationism. A woman whose generosity and kindness were balanced by fits of rage, a tendency to feel perpetually betrayed. She wasn’t completely strong, was often self-pitying; she relished and then rejected herself, again and again.
Maybe Muriel was terrified by the prospect of the truth splitting the world open. She rewrote her own history frequently. She waited decades after her son’s birth to write cryptic lines about Donnan.
And, lest we forget, she grabbed a hatchet from the pile of kindling and ran drunkenly, full throttle, filled with pain and anger, full of an amount of theatricality we’ll never be able to extricate from an amount of real passion, toward Ella Winter, with one plan: to chop off Ella Winter’s head because she’d kept in contact with Donnan Jeffers.