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Muriel Ruykheyser's The Underground

In Muriel Ruykheyser’s poem The Underworld we get a sense of an underworld from a female perspective. However, it is an underworld once described that seems to resemble life on earth for a woman who lives in a society that is controlled by males and oppressive. We see this quite clearly when the speaker says, “Rankness at my breasts, / Over my flank / Giggle and stink / They have taken little knives / My skin lifts off / I go in pain colored black / Trying to find.” In other words, this appears to be an allusion to the fact that women are often oppressed in society and their sex is objectified by a male power structure that slight by slight lifts the personality out of their being like the little knives lift off the speaker’s skin and like her breasts and flanks have been made rank. Further, she goes to find something in pain colored black which might be a reference to the fact that many women conceal black tears over the struggle to find a voice in a repressed environment.

We also see examples of allusion to oppression by the way in which the speaker in the beginning of the poem is a “high queen / Starting in the air” but one whose queenly proscenium arch quickly “shuts down like December” as “They have reached above [her] head / And taken off [her] gown.” This could be a reference to the fact that in a repressive and oppressive society women, who have a natural (i.e., “Royal”) right to call the world their stage, often find their windows of expression and opportunity coldly and quickly shut down.

The poet’s version of the underworld continues in this vein. For example, the speaker says “I walk into there asking Where is he…They take off my eyes / My lips no more / The delicate fierce places / Of identity / Everywhere / Taken.” The speaker’s reference to asking where he is might be an allusion to the fact that in a repressive and oppressive society the rol


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Muriel Ruykheyser's The Underground. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 23:03, August 07, 2020, from