Tag Archives: rukeyser

What is Stamina? Transmediation Example

Muriel Rukeyser, at the young age of 22, wrote the documentary poem “The Book of the Dead” which chronicles the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster. This event, which took place in the 1930’s, has been called America’s worst industrial disaster, but it is not well-known to most American citizens. Rukeyser’s poem features transcripts from court hearings and meetings of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor, as well as testimony from men who worked in the tunnels and their families. While it is unclear to me at this time whether or not she actually spoke with these individuals in their homes or worked from documents that were provided to her, Rukeyser’s take on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster sheds a necessary light on the desperate persistence of the tunnel workers despite fatal conditions. Sia, an Australian music artist, released the song “The Greatest” in 2016. The song, according to the website Genius which provides annotated song lyrics, was written as an anthem for LGBT individuals after the shooting at the Orlando Pulse nightclub. Both Rukeyser’s poem and Sia’s song speak to the experiences of marginalized people.

In Rukeyser’s poem, she tells of the workers who contracted silicosis after digging out a tunnel rich in silica to divert water for hydroelectric power for the Union Carbide Company. This tunnel was located in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, and the dam and tunnel entrance can be seen from the hiking trails along the New River Gorge. Silicosis is a lung disease; the dust fills the lungs of the individual affected, and that person eventually suffocates as they can no longer breathe. “I can’t breathe” is a well-known cry of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the deaths of unarmed black men in the hands of police, specifically Eric Garner who uttered these words prior to his death. Some have argued that these deaths should be considered murder. I believe some would argue the same about the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster. Most of the men working in the tunnel at that time were men of color, migrant workers from southern states. Sia’s song opens with similar words, “Uh-oh, runnin’ out of breath, but I/Oh, I, I got stamina/Uh-oh, running now, I close my eyes/Well, oh, I got stamina/And uh-oh, I see another mountain to climb/But I, I, I got stamina” (“Sia – The Greatest Lyrics”). While Sia’s lyrics speak specifically to the challenges that LGBT individuals face in this country, and her treatment of not being able to breathe is figurative (the mountain is a metaphor), it parallels the literal experiences of both the Hawk’s Nest victims as well as the black men who have lost their lives more recently.

Rukeyser includes the bill passed by the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor in “The Book of the Dead,” under a section called The Bill. Toward the end of that section, there is a direct quote presented before the signed names of the representatives. It reads, “If by their suffering and death they will have made a future life safer for work beneath the earth, if they will have been able to establish a new and greater regard for human life in industry, their suffering may not have been in vain.” While this is an admirable statement to make, the struggle for human rights for non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people in this country is ongoing, and we cannot make martyrs out of those whose lives were taken. History cannot be erased, nor can these lives be brought back. Perhaps statements like this bring some comfort to the families of those whose loved ones have died, but it’s an embarrassment that as a country, America has not yet figured out how to ensure basic protections to all of its people. Sia’s song declares “I’m free to be the greatest, I’m alive/I’m free to be the greatest here tonight,” and one annotation claims that “Redemption, self-preservation, perseverance, and finding inner-strength are all common themes in Sia’s music” (“Sia – The Greatest Lyrics”). I would argue that these qualities are common themes in American culture, but that these values unfairly place the burden on marginalized individuals to fight for what they should already have, rather than calling out the systemic issues that allow this cycle to continue.

For a version of this essay in MLA format with citations, please click here.



Hawk’s Nest Videos

Here are a few videos on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster:

Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Tragedy

West Virginia@150: Hawk’s Nest 1930

Witness at Hawk’s Nest (this one is dramatic; it is based on the novel of the same name and published by West Virginia University Public Health)

Two videos from the US Department of Labor: 2013 “Deadly Dust” Silica (“statistics are people with the tears washed off”) and “Stop Silicosis” (this opens with a report from the late 1930’s and testimony from a man in Woodhaven, MI). The original “Stop Silicosis” film from 1938 can be found here.

For further context, here’s an overview of 1930’s America. 


Contextualizing BotD, Part 3

Our second class on BotD covered a few shorter sections: Mearl Blankenship, Absalom, The Disease,  George Robinson: Blues. We also read The Doctors. To accompany these sections, two excerpts from a book on the Hawk’s Nest Disaster were provided, one of these is George Robinson’s statement to the court, and the the other is a short interview with the daughter-in-law of Dr. Harless, who treated many of the men who contracted silicosis before he was terminated by Union Carbide. These sections provide further human contact with the incident; in other words, we’re not just getting Rukeyser’s thoughts on what she observed here, but actual statements from the people who lived there, who worked in the tunnel, and in the case of Absalom, we hear from the mother of three boys, the youngest of whom (at age 18) asked that his body be used for research.

In these last sections (Arthur Peyton, Alloy, The Disease: After Effects, The Bill, and The Book of the Dead), we hear more about the court proceedings, and the relationship between water, power, corporations, and people. We are presented with law, with the consequences of a labor disaster carefully curated by a corporation, and a return to The Road in the last section (notice the repeating lines).

I’d like to investigate a few of the names mentioned in the poem, and you may choose to pursue any of these names further for your annotations: Dr. Hayhurst, Dr. Harless, Cecil Jones (and his family), Mr. Marcantonio, Dr. Goldwater, Mr. Griswold.

A newspaper announcement found via a Google search. Note Marcantonio’s accusation.

In the last post, we saw a letter from Nancy Naumberg to Muriel Rukeyser, offering suggestions for what would become BotD. Here is a photograph she took of shacks along the railroad tracks in Vanetta, a community/coal town along the Gauley River. For perspective, here are some images from Google Maps:

This map depicts Gauley Bridge, where the Hawk’s Nest tunnel was dug, Kanawha Falls below that, Alloy to the west, and the New River traveling southeast. The river heading north is Gauley River.

This map depicts Gauley Bridge, where the Hawk’s Nest tunnel was dug, Kanawha Falls below that (mentioned in “West Virginia”), Alloy to the west (“Alloy” is a section of BotD), and the New River traveling southeast. The river heading north is Gauley River.
Nancy Naumberg’s photograph is of a town in Vanetta. As you can see, Vanetta is just north of Gauley Bridge. Alloy, another town mentioned (we didn’t read that section) is to the west. Note the Gauley River National Recreation Area to the northeast, and Summersville above that. Summersville is where the gravesite and memorial is located, and where many of the bodies were taken and buried in unmarked graves prior to being moved to the memorial cemetery.
This map shows the Gauley River traveling through the GRNRA, and to the north is Summersville. That small circle right before the road crosses the river is where the memorial is located.
While people flock to the area now for white water rafting, hiking, and rock climbing, the towns along Gauley River and New River were once coal-mining towns. In fact, you can hike the Kaymoor Trail (if you can handle the stairs) and head down into the mine where you’ll see the processing plant, coke ovens, and town site.

A few major themes we should address (in groups!) in regard to BotD now that we’ve read through the poem in its entirety (mostly):

  • Citizen journalism and authority: who has the authority to speak on an issue? Where does authority come from? Rukeyser was certainly no expert (by certain standards), and yet her work ensured that Union Carbide would be exposed for years to come, despite their efforts (and successes) in minimizing the incident. How do we see citizen journalism at play today? What obligation (if any) do citizens have in witnessing, documenting, and circulating information about events? Are their words just as valid as “experts?” Is there a place for both? Can you think of any examples?
  • Here’s another essay on the same subject. What do you make of this? Were the doctors victims of corruption (in other words, were they victims much like the men who died?), or were they willing participants in the problem? Why? On a similar note, you may recognize the saying, if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. What obligation did the doctors have to the workers? To the company? What barriers did they experience to being on the side of the solution? 
  • How does this connect to our own obligation as individual readers, or viewers, of documentation like BotD or the news we encounter on our televisions and social media accounts? What does it take to be part of the solution? What obligation do we have once we have witnessed an event? What barriers do we experience to taking action and/or creating change?


Next time we meet, we’ll be discussing annotations. Here’s what you should be doing before then: think about the sections we read in class, or consider reading the sections we skipped. Look for areas that were especially interesting, moving, or even confusing. Look for places where you needed more information as a reader, and places that stirred a memory of something else (another text, an event, a personal connection) over places that required interpretation. You’ll need to choose one section of the poem that you can annotate. I will show you an example of an annotated poem, and you’ll have time to begin searching for information with my support.

Contextualizing BotD, Part 2

In our first class covering Rukeyser’s BotD, we talked about the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster, we looked at photographs of the river, dam, and tunnel, and we saw the small roadside cemetery that houses just 41 of the bodies of the miners who died because of silicosis.

We read “The Road,” which I think is about Rukeyser’s drive out to West Virginia from New York, as she describes the sights one might see while leaving the city through the suburbs and entering the backcountry, not terribly far away, and yet an entirely different world. Note her mention of the suburbs, the six-lane highway, the spa, and the tee. She seems to be alluding to wealth and comfort (“Gay blank faces wishing to add history to ballrooms, tradition to the first tee”). Note as well her reference to ownership: “These roads will take you into your own country.” Whose country? Do the people living in major cities and the surrounding suburbs, those with white collar jobs, know what she refers to as the “deep country?” Have they ever visited? Maybe for vacation?

We also looked at “West Virginia,” Rukeyser’s poetic backstory for the state; necessary to situate the Hawk’s Nest incident as part of a larger story. “Statement: Philippa Allen” is our first shift into Rukeyser’s use of documents in this poem; this is an actual record from the “Investigation Relating to Health Conditions of Workers Employed in the Construction and Maintenance of Public Utilities,” a 1936 Report of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor. Reading it out loud helps to distinguish between Miss Allen’s statements and the questions asked by the committee. Following this section is Gauley Bridge; remember, this is the city where the disaster takes place, and in this section Rukeyser explicitly reminds us that “These people live here.” In this section, she repeats the word glass often, and it is worth noting that silica (you may recognize silica gel packets from a shoe box!) is a component of fused quartz, or glass.

To supplement our next sections of BotD, here’s some more information:

I found a letter from Nancy Naumberg, Rukeyser’s photographer friend. The text is copied below:

April 6, 1937
Dear Muriel,

I wanted to give you a few of my personal reactions to Gauley Bridge, and also to suggest a general outline. First, following your first two sentences, I would suggest describing the disease, and its symptoms. Then, telling the story of Viv. Miller as we drove to view the tunnel, about which I had heard so much. Through his story, the background of the tragedy. In other words, as in the story I told Eliz. do it chronologically, only this time getting in the facts as much as possible.

Stress, through the stories of Blankenship, Milleretc. [sic] the necessity of a thorough investigation in order to indict the Co., its lawyers and doctors and undertaker, how the company cheated these menout [sic] of their lives, and the miserable conditions under which they now live; stress the relief situation, the inadequacy of it, how far they have to go to get it, how the silicosis men are put on the heaviest kind of work relief with the tunnel bosses in charge and how many of them are too sick to work, how when Jones and Robinson testified, they were taken off work relief, and only put back on because of Congressional pressure.

Stress the importance of silica rock — use Robinson’s testimony for silica dust stories, show how we heard that the men working there have been bought offby [sic] the Co. Show how the tunnel itself is a splendid thing to look at, but a terrible thing to contemplate. Show how a similar condition must not be repeated, how there must be adequate precautions taken in industry, how adequate compensation lawsmust [sic] be enacted, how the whole thing is a terrible indictment of capitalism.

Are you going to the modern museum showing tomorrow nite?

If you want me to help you write this with you in the morning, let me know.

Nancy [Naumberg]

[letter to Rukeyser from Nancy Naumberg, who accompanied the poet to Gauley Bridge; in the Muriel Rukeyser papers, Library of Congress]

I also mentioned the lack of available materials on the Hawk’s Nest incident; here’s a link that lists both books and newspaper articles that were published. Availability of these documents is iffy, but the West Virginia Archives and History Library does have them, so if I’m ever out that way again (which I hope to be), maybe I’ll get to see them. Rukeyser’s papers are part of a special collection in the Library of Congress, another place I’d love to visit. The finding aid can be located here. For those of you who are unfamiliar (probably most of you!), a finding aid is a document that identifies the papers that are part of the collection; these can include letters, notebooks, and other unpublished works. There are also letters collected at the New York Public library.

Moving into the next four sections of the poem, we’ll focus on documentation of silicosis by way of a brief 2010 journal article from Environmental Health Insights, and a source that addresses the living situations of the miners, employment conditions, and the compensation mentioned on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster sign in the previous post.

And lastly, outside the NYPL, on Library Way, are plaques by a number of writers, including Rukeyser. This quote is from “The Speed of Darkness.”

Time comes into it.
Say it.         Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.

This photograph is from the Muriel Rukeyser Wikipedia page.

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.

A sign on Endless Wall Trail, where I hiked to see the New River, the tunnel, and the dam.
New River, from Diamond Point Overlook
The dam, and Hawk’s Nest Tunnel entrance to the right.
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. 
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?
Monument at the Hawk’s Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site
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.