On Marilyn Krysl and the Burning Vow

Every day my task is before me: to remember—to feel–that I’m not separate from the creation.  That is my religion. –Marilyn Krysl, from Every God Will Leave Us

Yesterday, I read in the New York Times that according to a PEN American Survey of writers around the world in countries considered “free” to “not free,” 75%-84% of those surveyed were “deeply concerned with government surveillance,” enough so that they avoided controversial topics in their writing or social media presence.

That would not be Marilyn Krysl⎯poet, storyteller, essayist, and humanitarian.

A professor emeritus of the University of Colorado at Boulder and nationally acclaimed poet and short story writer, Marilyn has been publishing work for over four decades that is not afraid to confront with clear-eyed vision the political pathos of a world that can “swing from destruction to creation and back”:

Destruction and the blossom: let me
say it another way: that soldier, burning
to become fabulous, torches the thatch (see blossomy
flame) of the enemy’s hospital: cut to my body,

clay taking shape in your hands. Body by body,
war piled on war: when will the heart break
all the way open?

(from Warscape with Lovers)

Her extensive nursing and humanitarian work for Peace Brigade International in Sri Lanka, Mother Theresa in Calcutta, and the Center for Human Caring in Denver illuminates the tender-edged blade of her work as she bears witness for those fragile, silenced ones, those “disappeared,” who cannot speak themselves:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              She sees

that spill of light across the floor, pearls
the sun lays down as though she’s some god’s daughter.
Zinn again: war is always war
against children. We’re good at making broken

(from Bhagdad: The Disappeared Girls)

What makes Marilyn’s work so astonishing, (and why Women Write the West chose Marilyn for its debut column exploring the plethora of excellent women writers in the west who are too often unremarked), is the complexity and richness with which she approaches the “controversial.”

Her political engagement is not mere extremist rhetoric. In an interview with Farideh Hassanzedeh, Every God Will Leave Us, Marilyn says, “ Violence and love are each in their way extreme, and war highlights their complex interweaving. In places of great violence and great love I’ve felt I was in the presence of gods.” (http://www.marilynkrysl.com/krysl/books.html) Within the atrocities of war and human suffering lies, too, the body, wanting and sensual:

My breast, that heap
of wheat Solomon sang. Bangalore’s heaped
hand, my breast a hill where swallows sleep
as though they’ve drunk some sweet elixir. Sun
burnishes the sea, I close my eyes, lean
into his long fingers. Listen, I’ve read
The Song.

(from Carpe Diem: Time Piece)

Adding to that “complex interweaving” of the political and the sensual, is the overlay of formal structure, most striking in the sestinas that populate Marilyn’s Swear the Burning Vow: Selected and New Poems. Besides humanitarian, besides political activist, besides simply “writer extraordinaire,” Marilyn is a master craftsman, propelling the reader through the intricacies of pattern into, always, sweet surprise despite formal inevitability:

The refugees make a break
For the fence, running for their lives, crossing this burning,
broken, blossoming Century. They’ve already
paid our dues. Sweetheart, let me show you how.
Hand on the body’s book: swear the burning vow.

(from Warscape with Lovers)

In her interview with Hassanzedeh, Krysl says: “When you can say precisely what you think and feel, you’ve developed your power as a human being to the highest potential. Thought is by nature elusive, fragmentary, fuzzy, and inherently contradictory. If we—all Americans—don’t command our language we won’t think clearly, we won’t feel deeply, and we’ll be exploited by slanted media reporting and by unscrupulous or deluded politicians. Democracy exists only so long as millions of articulate citizens defend it.”

Women write the Rockies. Women write the World. Women write the Difficult. Women write the Forbidden. Join us for the New Year as we begin our exploration of women writers in the Rockies.
Marilyn’s newest publications are Sestina in the 21st Century edited with Carolyn Beard Whitlow (Dartmouth College Press) and Yes, There Will Be Singing (University of Michigan Press), a collection of essays on the healing power of poetry.


About womenwritetherockies

Literary women writing in the shadow of the Rockies: a community of like-minded women sharing news, readings, publications, and reviews.
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One Response to On Marilyn Krysl and the Burning Vow

  1. This is such a beautiful comment on Krysl’s writing. I love her focus on precise language and emotional honesty.


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