on The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser

Admirers of Muriel Rukeyser have been waiting for a reprint of The Book of the Dead, long out of print, and West Virginia University Press’s new edition does not disappoint. Of course, it’s exciting to have Rukeyser’s seminal hybrid poetic work of social justice in its own affordable softcover volume (with French flaps!), but the great surprise for fans and scholars of Rukeyser is Catherine Venable Moore’s extended introductory essay, which comprises the first half of this volume.

A quick sketch: Muriel Rukeyser, born in 1913 in New York City, wrote The Book of the Dead in 1938 about miners in West Virginia who sued their employer, Rinehart and Dennis Company, a contractor for Union Carbide, for the deadly conditions they worked in while drilling a tunnel under Gauley Mountain. The company’s criminal negligence and the large number of resulting casualties became popularly known as the “Hawks Nest Incident” or the “Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster.” In her book, Rukeyser combines lightly edited texts of the testimony given by the miners during the trial with her own descriptions of the people and the land. Perhaps Rukeyser’s background as a journalist—she had previously covered the Scottsboro case in Alabama and conflict preceding the Spanish Civil War—is what allows her to seamlessly weave the facts of the case with the humanity of the witnesses and descriptions of the area. 

According to Moore, the text was intended to be even more “hybrid,” illustrated with photographs by Rukeyser’s travel companion, Nancy Naumburg (also known as Nancy Naumburg Goldsmith). Thankfully, Moore has unearthed some of these photographs and reproduced them in her introduction; although we don’t know where the author and photographer would have placed them within the poem, we get a sense of what Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, looked like in the 1930s. Moore also provides Rukeyser’s hand-drawn map of the area. These additional layers give us a sense of what it was like to travel to and inside the physical lives of the witnesses, contributing to the rich intertextuality of Rukeyser’s work. The Book of the Dead bears witness through documents that would become archival (i.e., court testimony), and Moore’s recovery of Naumburg’s photographs and Rukeyser’s map harmonizes with the original text.

Moore’s introduction performs multiple functions. First, she provides necessary background:

Beginning in June of 1930, three thousand men dug a three-mile hole through a sandstone mountain near the town of Gauley Bridge for the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation. . . . By some reports, conditions were so dusty that the workers’ drinking water turned white as milk, and the glassy air sliced at their eyes. Some of the men’s lungs filled with silica in a matter of weeks, forming scar tissue that would eventually cut off their oxygen supply; others wheezed with silicosis for decades. . . . The death toll was an estimated, though impossible to confirm, 764 persons, making it the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history.

Then, like Rukeyser, Moore weaves her own contemporary experience of traveling through south-central West Virginia (Gauley Bridge lies about an hour southeast of Charleston), talking to people who remember the Hawks Nest Incident, just as Rukeyser once talked to their forebears. Moore describes the present-day environs and how they’ve changed since Rukeyser traveled there, inscribing her new research over our experience of the poem and making us more cognizant of what we bring to the poem as we read it eighty years later. Moore draws together many threads, including stories of how things were and how they are, stories from survivors and text from those who didn’t survive, quotes from Rukeyser and biographical data on her, and facts about West Virginia. Moore’s fluid writing demonstrates how good scholarship can draw together facts, literature, photographs, raw data, and personal narrative into a readable but well-researched and densely insightful analysis.

The second half of the book is the original text of The Book of the Dead. Writing at the same time that many other poets composed stories of America through the WPA’s American Guide Series (Rukeyser’s contemporaries Lorine Niedecker and Louis Zukofsky were hired for similar work), Rukeyser mimics the travel guide and its elevated language: 

These are roads to take when you think of your country 

and interested bring down the maps again, 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  

Past your tall central city’s influence,

outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,

are centers removed and strong, fighting for good reason. 

 

These roads will take you into your own country.

Rukeyser maps the drive down U.S. Route 1 from Manhattan to West Virginia. She glosses West Virginia’s state history as a textbook or guide might (and as parts of Niedecker’s Lake Superior do), then inserts the testimony against Union Carbide. The statements are reproduced almost verbatim within the poetry, though with Rukeyser’s chosen line breaks; they don’t need any further treatment to be “poetic,” and they are naturally devastating:

This is the X-ray picture taken last April. 

I would point out to you : these are the ribs;

this is the region of the breastbone; 

this is the heart (a wide white shadow filled with blood).

Here, one witness describes the X-rays of one of the workers who is dying of silicosis due to his exposure to silica dust in the mines. As in the travel-guide-style writing at the beginning of the poem, Rukeyser maintains a detached, almost clinical voice and lets the facts speak for themselves.

Rukeyser does not avoid the clear racism underlying the case: the black workers literally turned white, inside and out, by the fine crystal dust until it kills them, slashing their lungs like tiny pieces of glass. Seeking to increase profit, the white managers of Rinehart and Dennis have not provided any protection to the black workers, not even face masks. The long poem, split into titled sections, contains many pieces of the puzzle of this injustice. Rukeyser describes the workers and their living conditions, shows us true and false testimonies, and reproduces letters written from the workers to the company as well as medical reports. She also, as Moore points out, planned to include photographs of the area and of the workers’ living conditions. All of this allows—or forces—the reader to synthesize the history of what happened without simplifying it. Rukeyser doesn’t merely tell us but also shows us the evidence and demands that we witness the Hawks Nest Incident for ourselves. 

In contemporary poetry, reproducing media reports as-is and presenting them in the space normally inhabited by poetry to call attention to social problems can be extremely controversial, with some attempts successful and others problematic. Under the first category we might file Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014), which like The Book of the Dead uses multiple genres and inserts snippets of public and private conversation to describe the everyday violence of racism in America. Rankine, herself subject to racism, incorporates many voices and timbres of racist language to show its incessance: like white noise, it takes up every frequency. Under the second category we might file Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual poetry performance of reading from Michael Brown’s autopsy report at Brown University in 2015. As poet and critic C. A. Conrad recounts on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet the Blog:

In March 2015, just a little over a week after the U.S. Department of Justice cleared Officer Wilson of all charges of Brown’s death (therefore approving before the world of putting six bullets into an unarmed young black man), poet Kenneth Goldsmith participated in the Interrupt Conference at Brown University where he read a document which he calls “The Body of Michael Brown.” Goldsmith says of his conceptual poetry practice of taking pre-existing texts and remixing them, “I always massage dry texts to transform them into literature. . . .” In the case of “The Body of Michael Brown” he slashed and cut into county autopsy reports, essentially the language representing the bone and flesh of the slain young black man. Goldsmith’s rearrangement of his chopped and hacked pieces of Michael Brown’s body ends with the young man’s genitals.

Taking up another frequency on the radio of racism, Goldsmith’s use of found nonfiction material as poetry plays differently than Rankine’s. As a socially privileged white man, Goldsmith does not experience racism as Rankine does, and his interpretation of Brown’s death registers as inhumane and grotesque. But Rukeyser’s text is about the suffering of black people, and she is not black. The difference seems to be that Rankine and Rukeyser either directly experienced the suffering of their subjects or attended to that suffering “on the ground.” We feel the humanity of Rukeyser’s reportage differently than we feel Goldsmith’s because she enters into the wider “text,” or frame, of the event, not separating the human from its context. To succeed in reusing media for poetry, one must do so with empathy, entering gently into the shared social space rather than performing from a distance.

Like Citizen, The Book of the Dead is a social text. It starts with a katabasis, or gradual descent into an interior landscape: Rukeyser descends into New River Gorge in West Virginia, taking the reader with her into the very precise landscape: 

Touch West Virginia where

the Midland Trail leaves the Virginia furnace,

iron Clifton Forge, Covington iron, goes down

into the wealthy valley, resorts, the chalk hotel.

The land, its industry, and its wealth are bound together, and Rukeyser also gives us a sense of its history:

John Marshall named the rock (steep pines, a drop

he reckoned in 1812, called) Marshall’s Pillar,

but later, Hawk’s Nest.

This first poetic act, the introductory descent, draws the reader down into the intimate space between West Virginian hills. We are with Rukeyser as she comes to “a scene of power” at the site of river rapids. The speaker enters the space personally, but by juxtaposing the scenery with its history, Rukeyser creates a special space for the speaker, the reader, and the human element of the region. Carolyn Forché defines this space in Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness:

Poetry of witness presents the reader with an interesting interpretive problem. We are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between “personal” and “political” poems. . . . The distinction between the personal and the political gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important
enough. . . . We need a third term, one that can describe the space between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal. Let us call this space “the social.” . . . It is the sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice.

Now that we have all arrived in the forgotten chasms of West Virginia, we can begin to bear witness to what has happened there. We have come with the speaker on her personal journey, but we have retained the sense of the politics Rukeyser called the “war-born” place. 

The first witness whose words Rukeyser interpolates is, like Rukeyser, a woman from New York, not a miner from West Virginia. Philippa Allen testifies that “when I was doing social work down there [in West Virginia], I first heard of what we were pleased to call the Gauley tunnel tragedy.” Allen shares a similar subject position to the author and is asked by Rukeyser, “You have met these people personally?” She responds, “I have talked to people; yes.” She then relays the facts she knows of the Hawks Nest Incident. Allen was not directly affected by the working conditions at Union Carbide, but the reader is brought closer to the misery of the workers through this witness. Katabasis drills down to intimacy. 

Rukeyser tightens the scope to describe the small town of Gauley Bridge and then zooms in on “The Face of the Dam: Vivian Jones,” the first mine worker we meet, whose individual humanity represents the hundreds like him who died of silicosis. Rukeyser introduces the issue of racism in chiaroscuro: “O proud O white O water” and “precious in the rock the white glass showed” appear against “the Negro woman.” Here the text is organized in quatrains, the rhyme enhancing the contrast between black and white, powerless and powerful, “precious” and “curse[d].” Jones is a character, not a witness, and Rukeyser draws his humanity in the punctum of when “he pulls his heavy collar up” against the cold. 

The following section, “Praise of the Committee,” explains how a group of workers and their families came together to sue Union Carbide, and how the defense lawyers operate to try to deflect blame while being faced with “the most barbarous example of industrial construction that ever happened in the world.” As Rukeyser describes, “almost as soon as work was begun in the tunnel / men began to die among dry drills. No masks”; eventually “Every man is ill.” The committee sees that Union Carbide made the men work in increasingly disastrous conditions even though “Dr. Harless, a former / company doctor,” “saw too many die.” 

We return to a single man, another worker affected by silicosis, Mearl Blankenship. He describes the trauma of his work-related illness: 

I wake up choking, and my wife

rolls me over on my left side;

then I’m asleep in the dream I always see:

the tunnel choked

the dark wall coughing dust.

When the workers breathed in, silica dust cut their lungs with tiny tears, forming scar tissue and limiting lung capacity and eventually affecting the lymph nodes. Blankenship’s testimony is followed by the words of a Mrs. Jones, who lost three adult sons to silicosis—the youngest only eighteen—despite their getting early medical care from the company doctor, the aforementioned Dr. Harless, who later testified against Union Carbide. Mrs. Jones speaks on behalf of her family: “I shall give a mouth to my son.” 

In examination style, the next section, “The Disease,” has two voices, one that sounds like a doctor or expert witness and one like a lawyer. The doctor describes X-rays of lungs from the beginning stage—“this lung’s mottled, beginning, in these areas. / You  ’d say a snowstorm had struck the fellow’s lungs”—to the end—“And now, this year—short breathing, solid scars / even over the ribs, thick on both sides. / Blood vessels shut. Model conglomeration.” The doctor confirms that the illness is fatal.

Another person of color takes the stand, and the style shifts again in the section “George Robinson: Blues,” which comprises stanzas of three lines in ABB rhyme scheme. Robinson posits:

Did you ever bury thirty-five men in a place in back of your house,

thirty-five tunnel workers the doctors didn’t attend,

died in the tunnel camps, under rocks, everywhere, world without end.

Emphasizing the seemingly interminable deaths with a biblical phrase that promises immortality, Rukeyser’s antiphrasis emphasizes the total hopelessness the man feels. Rukeyser’s chiaroscuro also reaches a climax in Robinson’s speech:

Looked like somebody sprinkled flour all over the parks and groves,

it stayed and the rain couldn’t wash it away and it twinkled

that white dust really looked pretty down around our ankles.

 

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,

with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.

The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.

The white dust is unquestionably a metaphor for white power. The black bodies live in it, are covered up by it, are poisoned by it until they suffocate from it. Robinson’s testimony is in the center of Rukeyser’s poem, and the description of the black person so covered with sinister, sparkling white dust that he looks white, while that white dust creates dark red bloody lungs inside him that slowly lose their function, is the image that has stuck with me most clearly since I first read The Book of the Dead twenty years ago.

George Robinson is followed by Juanita Tinsley, more expert medical witnesses, and descriptions of the tunnels that, while part of the testimony, also continue Rukeyser’s katabasis before the text begins to surface. The committee formed to investigate Union Carbide reports its findings and submits “The Bill,” and The Book of the Dead ends with its titular section. This ending mirrors the opening section, “The Road,” by telescoping back out of the specific West Virginian landscape to depict the dead miners as light-bearers for a better future. 

Between Catherine Venable Moore’s introduction and Rukeyser’s text lies a startlingly simple table of raw data: seven pages listing the names, ages, races, and burial places of those who died as a result of Rinehart and Dennis’s unethical labor practices. Because of the collage-like poetic texts that surround the list, the social context Moore and Rukeyser provide is gut-wrenching. This list, in its grim nest, is what good conceptualism can be: inseparable from our shared mortality, it shocks us with the reality that each of these names represented a human life, opening a space where we can grieve. 

Muriel Rukeyser’s text has stood as a witness to one of the worst industrial tragedies in American history, and Moore’s new analysis in this edition, along with her inclusion of the memorial list of the dead, heightens the power of the original text for old fans and new readers alike.

 

_____

The Book of the Dead. By Muriel Rukeyser, with a new introduction by Catherine Venable Moore. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018. 125 pp. $17.99, paper.

 

Jessica Smith, a founding editor of Foursquare Magazine, name magazine, and Coven Press, teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She received her BA, MA, and MLS from SUNY Buffalo, where she participated in the Poetics Program; she is now pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Miami University in Ohio. She is the author of numerous chapbooks and two full-length books of poetry, most recently Life-List (Chax Press, 2015). Her third, How to Know the Flowers, is forthcoming from Veliz Books.