Muriel Rukeyser’s memory, or, the ends of poetry

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Johanna Winant and Bradley Wilson at the WVU Press–WVU Humanities Center launch for The Book of the Dead.

On February 1, the WVU Humanities Center cohosted an evening to help launch WVU Press’s lovely new edition of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, with a powerful introduction by West Virginia writer Catherine Venable Moore. The evening featured an interdisciplinary panel to talk about the poems, the history, and the global context of the poems and the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster that the poems remembered. While the centerpiece of the evening was Moore’s reading from her essay of the same name, the panel also included historical context from Hal Gorby (History), who presented moving primary documents from those who advocated on behalf of the Hawk’s Nest workers. Bradley Wilson (Geography) put the disaster into Union Carbide’s global history of environmental disasters, noting that the Gauley Bridge Committee of advocates may have been among the first environmental justice activists in the US. Johanna Winant (English) gave the talk presented below, which asks, “What are the ends of a cycle of poems that calls itself a ‘Book of the Dead’? And indeed, what are the ends of poetry?”

This post is the first of many that we hope will be a long and fruitful exchange of ideas between the Humanities Center and WVU Press in this space. Like the rich evening of discussion that first presented this book to the public and prompted Winant’s essay, this post is an apt beginning to an intellectually exciting partnership.—Ryan Claycomb

I’m Johanna Winant, an assistant professor in the Department of English, and I’m glad to be at this interdisciplinary event celebrating this important book. Catherine’s wonderful introduction to The Book of the Dead situates it geographically and historically. I’m going to try to follow her by situating it in literary geography and poetic history.

In Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, readers will encounter some words they don’t usually see in poems; to name a few: foreman, blueprint, turbine, silicosis, affidavit. They’re actually lovely words. Foreman and blueprint are compound nouns that in their Germanic roots almost remind me of Anglo-Saxon kennings, like how the ocean was called “whale road” in Beowulf.

But these are lovely words only if we hear them as music, not meaning. Because of course, in The Book of the Dead, foremen and affidavits, blueprints, turbines, and silicosis, are not only euphonious images but actual people and objects that lead to and are the results of disaster.

I’m identifying a tension here, not simply between beautiful sound and horrible sense, but between a poem and the real world, and how poetry inevitably aestheticizes reality – it can’t not. Poems are and always will be aesthetic objects.

Modern poems, in particular, welcome and wrestle with that transformation of life to art, the messy and ugly business of reality on one hand and the deliberate ordering of language on the other.

For example, one generation before Rukeyser, the modernist Ezra Pound wrote “In a Station of the Metro,” which reads, in its entirety: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/petals on a wet black bough.” This couplet, or haiku, depending on whether you count the title, works on the juxtaposition between the beautiful aesthetic object traditional to art – petals on a wet black bough – and the pale faces of busy commuters in the dim light of a subway station. The poem stretches between their similarities, but as it stretches, it highlights their differences. But even this is too simple, because in describing the grayed out faces of commuters underground as “apparitions,” Pound is calling attention not just to their reality, but to the way that usually when one sees washed out faces beneath the earth, one is seeing not real people, but unreal ones: ghosts and shades. A trip through hell has long been a subject of the Western poetic tradition, all the way back to Orpheus, the first poet, seeking Eurydice in Hades. Pound is here remembering that millennia-long tradition in this tiny poem, and bringing together the unpoetic commute on the subway with the very origins of poetry.

Rukeyser also wrote a poem about the underworld, both literally and figuratively. The Book of the Dead is also a journey through Hell, through the tunnel of pure silica in Gauley Bridge, and through the hell of the men who temporarily survived it only to find themselves without breath or justice. We journey there with her as she brings together the stuff of life – blueprints, turbines – and the skills of art.

In this talk, I’m going to focus on the latter – the skills of art, Rukeyser’s aesthetics, not documentation but creation, and how this poem is in conversation with other poems about what poetry can and must do.

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The Book of the Dead was also celebrated at White Whale Books in Pittsburgh.

Rukeyser’s poem is modern in its vocabulary and to a large extent in its form, but in other ways it is deeply traditional. Its engagement with the past makes it more modern, not less, though. Pound wrote that art should “Make it new.” This injunction is not just an order for artists to invent, but also to recycle and remember. Don’t throw out the old – make it new. “In a Station of the Metro” makes the old – petals, Hades – new again as we read them with and against the subway.

Similarly, Rukeyser is making poetry new.

The earliest poems in the Western tradition include a visit to the dead; they invoke labor and they invoke loss. It is hard work trying to reclaim your new bride, Eurydice, from Hades. You have to have a reason to go through Hell.

Labor, first: The word “versus,” from which we get “verse,” alludes to the action of turning a plow to make furrows in a field. Looking at a poem in verse, the white page is the field, the black lines are the marks of labor.

Rukeyser wrote poems about labor, honoring labor. Not the song of the single yeoman farmer inscribing the topsoil, but the polyvocal expressions from far beneath the ground. We don’t see here the poetics of the field but the tunnel, or rather, since I tell my students that one way of recognizing the transition into modernity is seeing the agrarian peasant class transform into an industrial working class, we see the poetics of capitalism.

The workers in The Book of the Dead, when they speak, use shorter lines, more abrupt enjambments than those who haven’t gone into the tunnel. One gets the sense that they are breathless. For example,

My name is Mearl Blankenship.

I have Worked for the rhinehart & Dennis Co

Many days & many nights

& it was so dusty you couldn’t hardly see the lights.

I helped nip steel for the drills

& helped lay track in the tunnel.

The verse here echoes labor not in its steady rhythm, not the even lines of the plow, but the lack of steadiness. Labor has made even speech impossible, as silica dust clogs the lungs of the speakers.

Now: loss. Since poetry records loss by remembering it, for the remainder of this talk, I’ll ask what the ends of memory are – its goals and its limits. The Book of the Dead insists on remembering, but leaves its memorializing open-ended.

Poetry, in the Western tradition, has always invoked memory. Mnemosnye, the goddess of memory, is the mother of the muses, and, as the poet and scholar of classical poetry Anne Carson writes, “memorable language is the function of poetry.” Carson is writing about poetry’s elegiac powers in particular. And usually, when poetry remembers people who have been lost, when it memorializes, those poems fit comfortably into the category of elegy.

But I don’t think The Book of the Dead is an elegy, exactly. An elegy offers a mourning process that ends in reconciliation, resolution, or even resurrection. But Rukeyser’s book, while memorializing the many hundreds of dead workers at the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster, refuses closure. It ends, but only sort of. Here are the last four stanzas in the book:

Voices speak to us directly. As we move.

As we enrich, growing larger motion,

This word, this power.


Down coasts of taken countries, mastery,

Discovery at one hand, and at the other

Frontiers and forests,


Fantastic cruel legend at our back and

Speeding ahead the red and open west,

And this our region,


Desire, field, beginning. Name and road,

Communication to these many men,

As epilogue, seeds of unending love.

The Book of the Dead ends by promising a continuation. It ends with the penultimate word “unending.” So in thinking about how these poems remember, I stopped thinking of them as elegies.

Trying to categorize The Book of the Dead is not just an academic question. I mean, it’s an academic’s question, since it’s mine, but this question about their genre is a question about how we understand the goals of its texts. By wondering about The Book of the Dead’s ending, I’m examining its ends. Texts are often categorized into genres based on how they end. We know that Hamlet is a tragedy because everyone dies at the end, even though there are many funny parts of that play. But the way Hamlet finishes results in particular effects: catharsis, moral instruction, and so on. In poetry, genres have particular techniques of closure that coincide with their goals as well: for example, conventionally, a sonnet offers an argument about love in 14 lines.

If The Book of the Dead is not an elegy because it offers us no closure, what is it? One alternative, the one I like best, is to understand it as an epic. Epics are not just travel narratives of adventure, they are also the foundational texts of their civilizations that often outline how the civilization was founded, but always offer an account of its values. (I’m leaning on Hegel here.) So, for example, the Odyssey is not just about Odysseus, it’s about what it means to be Greek, to organize one’s life around honor, to revere the relationship of xenia between guest and host, and so on.

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Discussion at the Humanities Center launch.

The Book of the Dead, like an epic, tells us how we got here but more importantly, it tells us who we are. It tells us what – and who – we value as a civilization, as a culture, and what – and who – we do not. Like other epics, the voices of many people, each telling their own story, get braided together. And that section of the ending that I read before makes it clear that our speaker adventures on – “As we move,” she writes. “Name and road.”

But rather than the Odyssey, the epic closest in spirit to The Book of the Dead may be Dante’s Inferno. Is Rukeyser remembering this other story of the subterranean when she channels her voices of the dead?

Dante’s form in the Divine Comedy is terza rima, a form that itself models echoing memory. Terza rima works in interlocked three-line stanzas where the first and third lines rhyme but the second line rhymes with the first line of the next stanza. When reading The Book of the Dead, I was actually first reminded of Dante because of Rukeyser’s use of this form.

Tercets – three-line stanzas – frequently appear throughout The Book of the Dead. Sometimes the first and third lines rhyme, as when Juanita Tinsley speaks:

Even after the letters, there is work,

Sweaters, the food, the shoes

And afternoon’s quick dark


Draws on the windowpane

My face, the shadowed hair,

The scattered papers fade.


Slow letters! I shall be

Always – the stranger said

“To live stronger and free.”


I know in America there are songs,

Forgetful ballads to be sung,

But at home I see this wrong.

Dante’s form is more complex, as the B rhyme of one stanza becomes the A rhyme of the next. But Rukeyer’s form here is remembering his.

And Dante’s poem, despite being populated by ghosts, is not at all elegiac. He’s not concerned with grief but rather, justice. Values. So too is Rukeyser.

Many of the figures in Dante’s Hell were people he knew or knew of from real life, people like Farinata and Filippo Argento, who were on the other side from Dante’s family in the feuds that divided medieval Florence and led to Dante’s years in exile. Some of them, like Fra Alberigo, were still alive when Dante set the Inferno. Dante the narrator of the Inferno asks the people he meets why they are in Hell, but Dante the poet is the one who judged them and put them there. So too Rukeyser shares with us the voices of the damned – those condemned to death by silicosis as they worked beneath the ground, but also those who will surely find themselves in Hell.

Dante shares the memories of the damned with us so that we readers avoid their fate. The dead have received their justice and are being justly punished. Rukeyser here asks us to remember the damned precisely because they have not received justice. Memory is the means, justice the end.

The Book of the Dead is, of course, for the living. It asks us to join in the labor of memory, which, if we keep moving on – down name and road, holding on to the past to bring it into the present – will lead us in the direction of that justice.

Thank you.

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