KR Reviews

On The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser

Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2018. 144 pages. $17.99.

In her introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader (1993), Adrienne Rich expressed the hope that “more of her books will soon be back in print.” A wish deferred, unfortunately—and a problem that has bedeviled Rukeyser’s legacy. The first stand-alone edition of Rukeyser’s landmark early sequence, The Book of the Dead, changes this. Until now, access to the poem was limited to abridgements, except in Rukeyser’s Collected Poems (2005), the comprehensive scale of which renders it more an instrument of access than discovery. No longer limited to grainy photocopies, it has already transformed the way I teach the poem—and how my students, mostly freshmen who are unlikely to take another course on poetry, encounter her work. They often tell me they had no idea a poem like this existed: innovative and sometimes difficult yet never inaccessible, crafting verse from legal documents and interviews rather than emotional inscape. Rukeyser guides them to a world they know nothing about, the shanty mining towns of Depression Era Appalachia. Unlike the directions their smartphones offer, so specific they render geography unnecessary, Rukeyser’s map-like poem doesn’t navigate this world for them. Instead, it offers a sense of place and history, the recognition that “these roads will take you into your own country.”

Maps were on Rukeyser’s mind in the late 1930s. Her second collection, 1939’s U.S. 1, draws its title from the American highway system—specifically, the route running from Key West, Florida, to the Canadian border at Fort Kent, Maine. Even amid the Depression, the rate of American car ownership continued to rise; by 1939, more than 26 million were on the road. Highways themselves became enterprises as automotive road maps, a burgeoning genre of Americana, guided drivers to the roadside motels, gas stations, and attractions that paid to advertise on their pages. The Book of the Dead first appeared in U.S. 1, a poet’s challenge to the maps of sight-seeking tourists. Rukeyser points us to what’s been overlooked: not “The World’s Largest Teapot,” but the nation’s largest industrial mining disaster, in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia.

Rukeyser had to create her own map when she set out from New York in 1936—literally, we learn: the first item in this volume is her previously-unpublished sketch of “Gauley Bridge & Environs.” In 1930, Union Carbide began work to divert the nearby New River to a factory-powering hydroelectric dam. In 1932, the lawsuits started. Workers—mostly African American migrant laborers—were dying from or suffering the effects of silicosis, a chronic lung disease caused by dust inhalation and tissue scarring. Of the approximately 3,000 who worked on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, contemporary estimates suggest 746 died from silicosis or related illnesses. Union Carbide fought its responsibility, but basic safety precautions (wetting rock before drilling, access to masks and ventilation for miners) could have mitigated or even prevented the outbreak. At the beginning of 1936, the House Labor Subcommittee opened hearings into the incident, spurred by articles in Time and Newsweek that followed a New Masses exposé.

Those hearings became the raw material for Rukeyser’s poetry and the impetus for her trip, taken with the photographer Nancy Naumburg. The two friends intended to collaborate on a multimedia volume in the vein of James Agee and Walker Evans, documenting the disaster’s lingering effect on Gauley Bridge. For reasons still unknown, their collaboration never appeared. Indeed, all of Naumburg’s photographs were believed lost until two resurfaced recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Shacks and Railroad Tracks in Vanetta” and “George Robinson’s Kitchen,” together with Rukeyser’s map and Naumburg’s portraits of Rukeyser and the Hawk’s Nest Dam appear alongside the poem for the first time. These images transform the poems that gaze on the same images as Naumburg’s camera, highlighting Rukeyser’s reflections on the fine line between advocacy and disaster tourism. It’s one thing to read a poem like “Gauley Bridge” and recognize her invocation of “the camera eye” through which she gazes on the town and its inhabitants. It’s quite another to recognize the self-implication contained in the poem’s closing lines: “What do you want—a cliff over a city? / A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses? / These people live here.” Rukeyser and Naumburg can’t wholly remove themselves from the act of aestheticizing what they record. After all, that’s the point of poetic and photographic documentation. But aestheticization risks trivialization: “Eyes of the tourist house, red-and-white filling station, / the eyes of the Negro, looking down the track, / hotel-man and hotel, cafeteria, cameraman.” Though their work resists and challenges the genres of road map, tourism, and sightseeing, that resistance is an ongoing balancing act. Failure, slipping even for an instant, renders the person a symbol, just another souvenir.

This awareness enables The Book of the Dead to teach readers to navigate their own reactions. In this, Rukeyser draws on the legacy of a very different kind of map—the poem’s namesake, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, portions of which were on display at the Met in 1936. Neither simple spell books nor straightforward narratives, books of the dead offered roadmaps to the afterlife through descriptions of the journey the soul would take and by equipping the dead with the knowledge, skills, and mindset successful navigation required. Rukeyser never clarifies for whom her guide is intended: the dead of Gauley Bridge? Their survivors? Or us, her readers, who believe ourselves comfortably alive? Perhaps all three. “These are the roads to take,” she declares in nearly identical lines in the sequence’s opening and closing poems, “when you think of your country.” As the living set out to discover America and learn to live justly in it, they cross the same roads that carry others—overlooked and nameless because of their class, because of where they live, because of their race—into death.

This map, Catherine Venable Moore makes clear in her excellent introduction, extends to our own moment in time. Gauley Bridge and the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster aren’t just historical snapshots, sad things to remember because it is right to remember them. Rukeyser’s poems draw together encounters with the countryside, industrial disaster, environmental degradation, the exploitation of labor, sexism, media technology, the procedures of law and politics, and systemic racism. Using the poem as a literal and metaphoric map to Gauley Bridge, five miles from her hometown, Moore tracks down the descendants of the townspeople who speak in Rukeyser’s poem, searching for records, gravestones, and names while the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2016 presidential election, the burgeoning opioid crisis, and devastating summer floods that killed 26 West Virginians hum in the back of her mind. Like much of Rukeyser’s poetry, The Book of the Dead is politically driven. But it speaks to more than the circumstances of its publication year or West Virginia alone. The issues at stake in Gauley Bridge, Rukeyser discovered, weren’t inseparable from those in New York City. Nor is 1939 inseparable from 2019. The poetry that emerges continues to lead us into our own country.