Thursday Poems: Ballad of Orange and Grape by Muriel Rukeyser

Okay, we’re back on schedule (just), and I’m excited to share this incredibly powerful, wonderful poem, which bears the simple title: Ballad of Orange and Grape. It is by American poet Muriel Rukeyser, a political activist whose literary career spanned several decades. Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of her, and that is why this initiative of finding different poems each week is so very important; it’s a self-continuing education that continues to yield just rewards.

Onto the Ballad, which begins:

After you finish your work
after you do your day
after you’ve read your reading
after you’ve written your say –
you go down the street to the hot dog stand,
one block down and across the way.
On a blistering afternoon in East Harlem in the twentieth
    century.

Immediately, you are drawn into the easy rhythm, into the scene. Note the select details, growing from generalities applying to all – that feeling of ending your work day – into specifics that bring the poem’s location to life. We’re at the hot dog stand one block down, it’s hot in East Harlem, and we have a timeframe, too. No longer ephemeral, we’re locked into a concrete place, and it into us.

Onward now, and those juicy details come hard and fast, absorbing our focus:

Most of the windows are boarded up,
the rats run out of a sack –
sticking out of the crummy garage
one shiny long Cadillac;
at the glass door of the drug-addiction center,
a man who’d like to break your back.
But here’s a brown woman with a little girl dressed in rose
    and pink, too.

What I love about this poem is the ease of the language, the casual conversational tone; all we’re getting is the setting of the scene and yet the effortless flow, combined with the peppering of sharp description, keeps the poem engaging and fresh, even now, so many years after it was written. It could be about anything. It could be about everything. So simple, these two stanzas, yet so very strong for just that reason.

It goes on to talk about such a heavy subject matter, one that lies at the very core of society, and yet never breaks that soft-treading stride, never pushes too hard, or puts on too much weight. Later, and I’m being general now, Rukeyser uses repetition just about as powerfully as I’ve seen it utilised.

This is a poem that illustrates the dark with breathless simplicity; it holds our hand and takes us down a street in East Harlem, just an ordinary street, on an ordinary day, using ordinary words, and does what every poet of every colour and every creed strives to do best: it makes you see clearly. It opens your eyes.

And the magical thing about this signature act is that once opened, you cannot close your eyes to it again. Head on over to the Poetry Foundation to read it for yourself. Go on – tell me I’m wrong.

I dare you.

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