books “Her Living Voice”: On “The Essential Muriel Rukeyser”
The Essential Muriel Rukeyser
Foreword by Natasha Trethewey
MANY READERS OF poetry will have come to Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980) first through her extraordinary sequence The Book of the Dead. These poems, published in 1938 as part of the larger collection U.S. 1, are Rukeyser’s response to the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in which approximately 800 men — most of them Black migrant workers — lost their lives to silicosis. This horrific industrial disaster, born entirely of corporate greed and corruption, remains one of the worst in American history; Rukeyser’s poetic response is one of the most affecting and important works of modern poetry written in English, and what Philip Metres has called the “touchstone” of documentary poetics.
Perhaps it is no great surprise, then, that extracts from The Book of the Dead make up over a quarter of this new book of Rukeyser’s poems, selected by former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. In her introduction, Trethewey recalls her earliest encounter with Rukeyser’s work: reading The Book of the Dead aloud in a graduate school seminar, Trethewey “felt the resonant power of her living voice,” jolting the class with the force of a thunderclap. What Rukeyser exposed and explored in the ’30s was still painfully pertinent in Trethewey’s 1990 classroom, and remains a reality in America today, thrown into even starker relief during the COVID-19 pandemic: Black Americans are more likely to be provided unsafe working and living conditions than white Americans, and are more likely to die prematurely as a result.
Eighteen of the original 20 poems in The Book of the Dead are reproduced here — a decision that affords the reader a profoundly immersive experience. The sequence’s first poem, “The Road,” draws us into the lives of those struggling in the disaster’s wake, transporting us down an arterial route into the diseased heart of the country’s exploitative industrial practices. With the poem’s speaker as guide, we notice how the road becomes increasingly clogged by the effects of capitalism and settler colonialism — hotels, golf courses, spas, an airport. “Here is your road, tying // you to its meanings,” writes Rukeyser. We are no longer passengers: we are complicit.
Further poems in the sequence explore culpability and responsibility as they uncover historical wounds beneath lived trauma. Blending lyric and document, often via a succession of vividly and tenderly rendered images, Rukeyser blurs the distinction between the choked lungs of the miners and the scarred landscape they have been made to break open in the search for precious silica. Discovery in America has so often meant theft — of resources, of land, of life. The “found-land farmland” and “Indian fields” (“Mohetons planted them”) imagined in the poem “West Virginia” are revisited a few pages and 300 years later in “The Cornfield,” in which a local undertaker is paid by Rinehart & Dennis, the company behind the disaster, to bury bodies without ceremony or headstone before the false diagnoses on their death certificates can be disputed:
Swear by the corn,
the found-land corn, those who like ritual. He
rides in a good car. They say blind corpses rode
with him in front, knees broken into angles
Shows the sworn papers. Swear by the corn.
Pneumonia, pneumonia, pleurisy, t.b.
The quietly devastating final lines of “The Cornfield”, “—No, sir; they want to go on. / They want to live as long as they can,” recall a couplet from Rukeyser’s earlier “City of Monuments” (1935) regarding the battle of Gettysburg: “[B]lood of the starved fell thin upon this plain, / this battle is not buried with its slain.” Time and again in this book, Rukeyser shows the pernicious patterns of history repeating under patriarchal white supremacy. As the struggle for justice and equality continues, the nation’s real monuments are under the landscape’s surface — buried, covered up, built over. It’s hard not to read these poems without the last words of Eric Garner and George Floyd — as well as the chants of BLM protests worldwide — ringing in one’s ears. Trethewey explains how such events shaped her selection of the poems: “And with the civil unrest and protests against police brutality and social injustice occurring in tandem, the idea of essential had extended to frame a national reckoning around whose lives matter, and how much…”
There are many reasons why Rukeyser’s work continues to gain traction in the 21st century. By now, proclaiming that Rukeyser was “ahead of her time” seems an unnecessary cliché, and yet her attention to the intersections of capital, extraction colonialism, and ecological decline situate her work as both prescient and vital. The selection’s opening “Notes for a Poem” casts hope into the future by calling for “a plough of thought to break this stubborn ground,” a return to, and a re-turning of the earth that will provoke careful meditation on the ways in which extractive economies have mingled soil and blood. The often overlooked early poem “Sand-Quarry with Moving Figures” digs into this metaphor further, exploring the poet’s own family’s complicity in carving up the planet for profit (Rukeyser’s father was a construction engineer and later, before the Great Depression hit, a cement company owner):
“Look,” he said, “this quarry means rows of little houses,
stucco and a new bracelet for you are buried there;”
but I remembered the ruined patches, and I saw the land ruined,
exploded, burned away, and the fiery marshes bare.
The scarred earth becomes a foundational image for Rukeyser, cut through by another recurring embodied motif — the river. Redirected, poisoned, underestimated, the river for Rukeyser is a symbol of natural power and abiding connective flow “under all the images, under all growth and form” (“Untitled”). Leading to the ocean, the river also leads to one of the most important images of Rukeyser’s life and career: her memory of sailing away from Spain at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. On that overcrowded boat, a man — “several times a refugee” — asked of her “where is there a place for poetry?” “Then,” Rukeyser writes, “I began to say what I believe.”
A book of 75 selected poems, especially by an author as prolific as Muriel Rukeyser (her Collected is over 700 pages long), will, by necessity, reproduce poems out of context. Yet the reach that Rukeyser’s poetry continues to activate — across temporal, geographical, physical, and figurative boundaries — repositions “context” as something fluid and boundless — a field or condition of experience that is at once familiar and fresh, well trodden and new. From Rukeyser’s Elegies (1949), Trethewey has chosen to reproduce “Fourth Elegy. The Refugees” and “Eighth Elegy. Children’s Elegy.” The two are deeply connected. From “Fourth Elegy”:
A line of birds, a line of gods. Of bells.
And all the birds have settled on their shadows.
And down the shadowed street a line of children.
[…] It is yourself
five years younger, and five years younger, and young,
until the farthest infant has a face
ready to grow into any child in the world.
The soaring possibility in this remarkable stanza’s initial sequence of images soon mixes with a creeping fear that the potential of childhood might be denied. “They take to boats,” Rukeyser writes — in one simple phrase unleashing a torrent of associative images that include the harrowing media photographs of our contemporary “refugee crisis.”
Consider also the well-known opening lines from “Poem”:
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
Originally published in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, the poem resonates deeply with our contemporary moment, in which our own isolated doom-scrolling on “various devices” might be momentarily interrupted by targeted advertisements. “Poem” embodies the mixture of weariness and frenzy that continuous wars engender in those who live amid them. As its lines track from morning to “night,” the poem becomes not just a record of resistance across the arc of a day — or a life — but a call to action against forces of violence and occupation. The speaker makes “poems for others unseen and unborn,” pitching her messages into the future in the way that Partisan “men and women” are imagined “setting up signals across vast distances” in order
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
In recent years, several of the most important contemporary poets working out of America, including Metres, have acknowledged Rukeyser’s influence on their poetics — Solmaz Sharif, Claudia Rankine, Erika Meitner, Susan Briante, Deborah Paredez to name a few. As Paredez recently wrote in The New York Times, what remains astounding about Rukeyser’s writing is that “it captures both the sense of isolation and deep connection that mark our everyday lives during moments of turmoil.” It reminds us — then, now, and in the future — “that we can endure what seems unendurable.”
Such endurance is often sustained by a wry and fearless confrontation of others’ prejudices. “Myth” (1973) imagines an old blind Oedipus returning to the Sphinx to ask, “Why didn’t I recognize my mother?” At the Sphinx’s reply that “Man” was the wrong answer to her riddle, Oedipus replies that “when you say Man, you include women too. Everyone knows that.” “That’s what you think,” is the Sphinx’s delectable response.
In some ways, Rukeyser’s entire career was spent reminding people — at times gently, at times forcefully — to rethink engrained myths and perspectives: to “widen the lens and see” (“The Book of the Dead”). A poet, novelist, biographer, playwright, filmmaker, children’s writer, bisexual, Jewish, single mother, and a tireless social activist, Rukeyser knew struggle and rejection, and knew what it was to put one’s body on the line. Poems such as “Despisals” underline what Rukeyser called the “false barrier” between people, modes of living and thinking: “Not to despise the other. / Not to despise the it. To make this relation / with the it: to know that I am it.” And who can forget anaphora wielded as stark lesson in “The Speed of Darkness”:
Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis
Whoever despises the penis despises the cunt
Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child.
Hatred of the most intimate parts of our own bodies, of the bodies of others, of difference, stems from the same emotion that mobilizes the fear of poetry (a fear, incidentally, that Rukeyser notes “little children do not have”). The last poems in the book are taken from The Gates (1976), chronicling, among other things, Rukeyser’s trip to South Korea to stand in protest outside the prison in which the Korean poet Kim Chi Ha was incarcerated as dissident against the Park regime. “How shall we tell each other of the poet?” Rukeyser asks. “How shall we speak to the infant beginning to run? / All those beginning to run?”
Empathy is a force of these poems, but Rukeyser throughout her life was careful about assuming another’s point of view. (There were, however, times when Rukeyser’s attempts to highlight the differences between her relatively privileged position as a white woman, and the social realities of people of color, revealed her own blind spots. Those poems are not included.) Nevertheless, Rukeyser’s writing, as this volume attests, is imbued with an enduring antiracist, anticolonial poetics in practice. Poems will telescope in and out of pronouns of address and possession — we, they, our, my, your — but above all ask us to confront ourselves, in all our precarity and need, in all our fear and loathing. At a time of global crises in human rights and heightened racial tensions, Rukeyser’s poetry offers us ways to reach “beyond ourselves”: to think, to imagine, and to act as moral agents.
This is partly why her preferred term for the receiver of a poem wasn’t “reader” or “audience” but “witness.” The word carries through history and scripture the weight of a tensile relationship between responsibility and revelation. Poetry, then, for Rukeyser, is embodied praxis — its very terms announce “that we are about to change, that work is being done on the self.”
Distilled into this book, therefore, is an energy that is akin to hope. Not the wishful, aspirational kind, nor the cruel optimism kind, but a non-hierarchical hope that is ignited in moments of human connection and exchange in which “the false barriers go down,” and positive change is possible.
Such hope, administered undiluted in its essential form, strengthens the blood.
 Philip Metres, ‘(More) News from Poems: Investigative / Documentary / Social Poetics On the Tenth Anniversary of the Publication of “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy”’, Kenyan Review, March-April 2018. https://kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/2018-marapr/selections/philip-…
 The Book of the Dead was reissued in 2018 by West Virginia University Press, for the first time — as originally intended — alongside photographs by Nancy Naumburg, the photographer who accompanied Rukeyser in 1936 on her trip to report on the tragedy.