On the Darkening Green
The Father and Other Stories
The Rich Pay Late
The Day the Call Came
If I put The Orgy at the head of the list it is less from a conviction of its overriding merit than from a simple desire to get it out of the way quickly; it is a book whose ambiguous status makes me very uncertain about how to handle it. The reason why is to be found at the very beginning, in the discreet little note that reads: “The goat is real; Puck Fair is real; the orgy is real. All the characters and the acts of this book, however, are—of course—a free fantasy on the event.” In other words, it should not be regarded as an autobiography, since a good deal of it is “free fantasy,” and it isn’t a novel, since most of what Miss Rukeyser writes about is “real.” This, assuredly, is playing both ends against the middle in fine style. In fact, the “real” parts are the best, and the reader would be well advised to start with the notes at the back, in which Miss Rukeyser thoughtfully provides quotations from Margaret Murray and J. M. Synge, describing the Puck Fair which is the central topic of The Orgy. This is an annual event at Killorglin in West Kerry, in which a goat, called the Puck, is ritually adorned and crowned and then presides over three days of festivities before being released: Margaret Murray saw it as a modern survival of the cult of the Horned God. Such a curiosity seems, on the face of it, worth a book, whether a fairly superficial travelogue or a more serious anthropological account. Miss Rukeyser, however, is more concerned with the subjective reverberations of the event in her narrator—who is presumably a “free fantasy” on Miss Rukeyser herself—and a handful of other characters. In effect, this merely clouds the narrative and makes it hard to understand what is going at the Fair itself. There are, admittedly, passages of good atmospheric writing; not for nothing is Miss Rukeyser a distinguished poet. Even so, I found some of her more ambitious stylistic flights too much for me:
The whole scene becoming a world entire, a romantic who considers annihilation, some dreaming Alexander who must conquer himself or go mad—not “conquer” the world or himself, that is the madness, but move as a man approaches dread Everest, makes peace with the dread white forces, prays, climbs, swears and goes, breathless, unable to think of words, dragging this foot, that foot, and bleeding, his head a world and populated by visions, his heavy feet two worlds, into the winds and freezing plumes of crystals: his hands are planets, and he goes, Climb and be with the forces.
Rather less “free fantasy” and rather more humility before the concrete event would have made The Orgy a better book.
Not, of course, that one wants to banish fantasy or imaginative exuberance: there is quite a lot of it in On the Darkening Green, a sprawling but lively first-person narrative by a twenty-seven-year-old author…
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