Muriel Rukeyser, The Orgy (Paris Press, 1997)

Every year at Killorglin on the 10th, 11th and 12th of August, the residents of County Kerry hold Puck Fair. One of Ireland's oldest festivals, it begins with the crowning of a goat, King Puck, rumored to represent either a rambunctious 17th century he-goat who protected Killorglin from pillaging Roundheads or an 1808 British law that made it illegal to levy tolls at cattle, horse and sheep fairs but not goat fairs. Yet the traditional celebration goes back much further: the charter for the fair in Killorglin was granted by James I in 1603, and though most of the locals won't discuss it, the celebration likely descends from pagan harvest rites celebrating the Puck as a fertility god.

Officially, the fair offers farmers and craftsmen an opportunity to display and sell their goods while providing entertainment and competitions for amateur athletes, street vendors and children. Unofficially, it offers a boost to the local economy as homes and stores transform into inns and pubs.  Unlike many of the reinvented festivals elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, which now exist primarily for tourists, musicians and artisans, Puck Fair has not been sanitized. When poet Muriel Rukeyser visited in 1958 to do research for a documentary film, she discovered that the whiskey flowed freely, the streets were covered in cow dung, and the sexual laughter usually confined to private spaces could be heard around the bridge.

The Orgy is Rukeyser's tale of self-discovery, originally published as a novel to protect the privacy of individuals and the political ramifications of her revelations (particularly the presence of I.R.A. supporters). The current publisher, Paris Press, has "corrected certain names," "amended some inaccuracies," and changed the book's designation from fiction to memoir.  Yet the author notes on the first page, "All the characters and acts of this book...are -- of course -- a free fantasy on the event," and during the story explains that there are certain things she "could never set down in writing."

This is an intensely personal, impressionistic view of Puck Fair, told via stream-of-consciousness narration with shifting tenses, always with the understanding that the storyteller comes from halfway around the world, from a different culture and perhaps a different era. "I came to that coast," Rukeyser begins, then interrupts herself: "But what kind of a book is this? That place I did not know, the wildness turned loose in the crowd looking up at the goat on his blue tower, that penitential landscape with its sea and its praying crags...I don't know what it is saying to me."

She is accompanied by ghosts -- her absent son, a lover who has forsaken her, a father who died estranged from her. She introduces the people she meets, many of whom will become her companions for the three-day fair when the man who is supposed to meet her cancels his plans. Among them are an English psychiatrist who wants to connect her with her reasons for attending the fair, a man who desires her in an awkward, nervous fashion, a police sergeant who warns her that people will answer her questions but they will be lying. A pay phone marked OUT OF ORDER becomes a metaphor for her contact with the world outside -- her world before.

Though The Orgy is a short book, the writing is so richly poetic that it must be read slowly. Ribbons of peeling paint become snakes hanging from ships, crystal is described as "water itself halted, and shadow, in glass."  Readers looking for an erotic orgy may be disappointed, for this is an orgy of all the senses -- the taste of alcohol in glasses and on breath, the smells of earth and manure, the feel of ankles twisting on filthy stones, the unexpected glimpse of a bright painted phoenix, the too-loud music from loudspeakers and the crunch of a man's foot as he kicks a poor woman out of his shop. Though Rukeyser structures the book chronologically -- the chapters, "Gathering Day," "The Day of the Fair," and "Scattering Day," name the festival's own subdivisions -- she recalls events out of order, telling and retelling them as she searches for new meanings.

Thousands of tiny details, described in language that brings them to life, give the story a compulsive immediacy even though it's set nearly fifty years ago in someone else's psyche. There's the unspoken tension of a husband who resents his wife's flirtations at the fair, played out entirely in the way she smooths her skirt and his mocking questions about harassment in the streets. There's the desperate tinker woman who begs to read the narrator's face, promising good fortune for coins or beads. There are children, dressed up as Queen of the Fair or squatting in puddles to relieve themselves, running barefoot through filthy streets to see a dolphin miraculously taken from the sea to a bathtub.

And above it all the goat, whose testicles are so enormous, "a double bulge robed in the smoothness of white fur, hidden and trumpeting, open and recondite, worlds creating worlds," that the narrator laughs at herself for thinking at first that there must be something wrong with them. The people around her alternate between thrill and embarrassment at being caught up in Puck Fair -- one can't tell whether they drink so that they may enjoy the experience or forget the experience. Though she partakes in the Guinness, the narrator's lapses in clarity come not from drink but a sense of falling into a place of loneliness and death, where she wonders whether "we have turned into our opposites."

Notes from Rukeyser's own life ground the events: we hear of her poetry, her film work, associations with other writers, suffering at the hands of family members. She is drawn to men and women, she identifies with animals, with tinkers, she fears the overindulgence of all the senses, but she does not shirk from any of them. What she learns if anything at The Orgy is not to be afraid of feeling fully the things that happen to her, and not to be afraid to choose them.

[Michelle Erica Green]

Information on Muriel Rukeyser can be found here.
And here's a Web site for Puck Fair.