Contextualizing Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead”

In ENG 132, we’re reading Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” a documentary poem about the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster (also known as the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster) in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Below is Part 1 of 3, providing context for the historical event and commentary on the use of poetry to ensure its legacy.

When I first encountered Muriel Rukeyser’s work, I was an undergraduate student in my last semester, which is when English majors at EMU take the senior seminar. Elisabeth Däumer, my professor, brought us “St. Roach” to read and discuss. Another one of Rukeyser’s poems we looked at was “Ballad of Orange and Grape.” I have always loved poetry, especially poetry that subverts expectations. I like confessional poets, like Sylvia Plath who defies the lines that determine what is appropriate for good company, and I like rebel poets, like Sherman Alexie who uses sarcasm and satire to expose Indian stereotypes and the systems that keep these stereotypes alive. I like Claudia Rankine, who writes about everyday encounters with racism. And I like Muriel Rukeyser, who not only wrote poems, but wrote what is essentially a manifesto on the resistance to poetry, the fear of poetry, and the need for poetry in a time of crisis (which is, if you look at American history, nearly all the time).

Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” or BotD from here on out, was originally meant to be a radio play. It documents the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster that occurred in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Poems like BotD are considered documentary poetry. In 1936, Rukeyser, at 22 years old, traveled with a photographer friend, Nancy Naumberg to West Virginia to witness and document the deaths of miners from silicosis, a disease that was not yet recognized nor fully understood (or perhaps it was, and great efforts were made to downplay the consequences because silica was considered a valuable commodity at that time).

Rukeyser’s first collection of poetry, Theory of Flight, was published just one year prior, in 1935. BotD appeared in U.S. 1 in 1938. From the introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, she was…

…beyond her time – and seems, at the edge of the twenty-first century, to have grasped resources we are only now beginning to reach for: connections between history and the body, memory and politics, sexuality and public space, poetry and physical science, and much else. She spoke as a poet, first and foremost; but she spoke also as a thinking activist, biographer, traveler, explorer of her country’s psychic geography (xi).

In addition to BotD, other poems by Rukeyser written in similar style (long poems, poems that document) include “Waterlily Fire” about the fire that destroyed Monet’s Waterlily series at the Museum of Modern Art in 1958, and “Willard Gibbs,” part of a suite of poems called “Lives” that profiled five Americans; Gibbs was a scientist who worked on applications of thermodynamics. Her work extends beyond the page as well; Doctor Atomic is an opera about the test of the first atomic bomb that incorporates some of Rukeyser’s work from The Speed of Darkness. 

For our first reading of BotD, I want to frame it with some photos from a trip I took to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, last summer. After reading Rukeyser’s poem, I wanted to see for myself the places she wrote about, and I wanted to see the gravesite and memorial after reading about the concept of witness in Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry. I felt compelled to go witness for myself, I suppose, to not just read and move on but to go and pay my respects.

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A sign on Endless Wall Trail, where I hiked to see the New River, the tunnel, and the dam.
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New River, from Diamond Point Overlook
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The dam, and Hawk’s Nest Tunnel entrance to the right.
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A sign documenting the tunnel disaster. This sign estimates the death toll at 476 but most records estimate in the 700’s and possibly more. 
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This sign is off the freeway near Summerville and easy to miss, but I caught it out of the corner of my eye while driving by, and we turned around to go back. I wonder if it’s hardly visible on purpose?
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Monument at the Hawk’s Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site
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Small wooden crosses decorate the ground at the memorial. This is called Whippoorwill Cemetery, and according to this article, there are 41 black bodies buried here.

 

 

 

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