Poetically Speaking: Myth by Muriel Rukeyser

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “Myth” by Muriel Rukeyser:

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the
roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was
the Sphinx. Oedipus said, “I want to ask one question.
Why didn’t I recognize my mother?” “You gave the
wrong answer,” said the Sphinx. “But that was what
made everything possible,” said Oedipus. “No,” she said.
“When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
Man. You didn’t say anything about woman.”
“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you include women
too. Everyone knows that.” She said, “That’s what
you think.”

Sometimes the entire payoff for a poem is in the last line. I’ve been thinking about that “That’s what you think.” ever since I read this poem. Rukeyser really brings the flaw of male default thinking (as detailed in Invisible Women) to the forefront here and, furthermore, highlights its prevalence in all arenas–including history and classical literature. Hat tip to Laura Amy Schlitz for direction me to this poem when she mentioned it in her novel Amber & Clay.