The Book of the Dead

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Medical-Industrial Discourses: Muriel Rukeyser's "The Book of the Dead"

In 1936, Muriel Rukeyser traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to investigate the first, and what remains among the most severe industrial disasters in the United States. Rukeyser, born in 1913 in New York City, had committed herself to leftist journalism on leaving Vasser in the 1930s. Although she was herself never on record as a member of the Communist Party (which did not prevent later extensive investigation of her by the McCarthy Committee on UnAmerican Activities), she became involved in the Popular Front and began writing for leftists journals such as the New Masses and the Daily Worker. On their behalf she went to Spain to cover the People's Olympiad alternative anti-fascist games set up to protest the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Evacuated at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, on her return to the States she was sent to cover the Scottsboro trial of eight black men accused of raping two white women; and then to Gauley Bridge.

There, Union Carbide had contracted to construct a hydroelectric power plant on New River, West Virginia. This involved building two power stations, two dams, and digging two tunnels. The tunneling, however, turned out to be through almost pure (97-99%) silica, a glass mineral component crucial to the electro-processing of steel. The company's efforts shifted to the extraction of the silica. Despite regulations of the U.S. Bureau of Mines that silica was to be mined with hydraulic water drills to limit dust and that miners should wear masks with filters, Union Carbide chose the faster method of dry drilling and failed to provide the masks that would have required work interruptions to clean the filters every few hours. The result was a high density of silica dust produced from dynamiting rock and its removal by miners. Labor in the tunnel involved a six day work week with two ten-hour shifts per day; each man working the tunnel in two three-hour shifts. The predominance of workers were black migrants who had come to Gauley Bridge in hope of employment during the depression years. More than 2000 eventually sickened from silica lung poisoning and died of suffocation. Full records of the effects of the silica dust, however, remain impossible to obtain, since many workers moved on after their work stint, and black migrant workers in particular were rushed to burial in unmarked graves.1

The claims of silica poisoning were in any event contested by Union Carbide, as workers began to complain of shortness of breath, leading to the suffocation and death of more than 2000 miners. Union Carbide doctors diagnosed these as death by tuberculosis, pneumonia, and pleurisy. Access to doctors not employed by the company, who might investigate and testify to other causes of death was nearly impossible for the impoverished families. Nevertheless, in a case represented by Rukeyser in her series of poems on the Gauley Bridge disaster, one mother, after the deaths of her husband and three sons, succeeded in obtaining X-Rays. These showed the silica dust in the lungs of her youngest boy, establishing the cause of death as silicosis – poisoning from silica dust – which then became the basis for legal action accusing the company of negligence and asking for worker's compensation. Lawsuits were initiated, and the case was finally investigated by the Congress. But a more extensive investigation recommended by the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Labor was blocked. Some compensation did emerge, although this largely went to the lawyers representing the cases; a West Virginia Law of 1935 included silicosis in worker's compensation, but with many loopholes. Nevertheless, Rukeyser's efforts succeeded in bringing the issues of industrial disaster to national attention, in mainstream as well as leftist journals.

For Rukeyser, the Gauley Bridge disaster was not only a major journalistic venture but also a poetic one. The documentary material of personal accounts, filed medical reports, in conjunction with various legal proceedings and even legislative hearings eventually to emerge from the disaster, became the material out of which Rukeyser constructed her poem-series "The Book of the Dead." In these poems, she detects and exposes not only the complicities between medical and industrial-legal institutions, but the ways in which these take place through specific modes of language: discourses that penetrate, disperse, absorb, and direct experiences through the institutional interests of those who deploy them. In this, she looks forward to a Foucauldian recognition of the enormous disciplinary power of institutions not only in their mutual complicity – here legal, medical, industrial, legislative, and also racial – but specifically as discourses. Rukeyser's texts become Foucauldian sites where institutional disciplines occur as powerful discourses, flattening, shaping, processing all who circulate through their disciplinary linguistic systems.2 As poetry, the various institutional sites and structures Rukeyser treats emerge specifically as modes of language. She represents how these discourses penetrate and grasp, assimilate and process the individuals caught within them. Rukeyser here reflects a Marxist critique of liberal institutions as instruments of power and liberal definitions of the self as a self-defined, autonomous individual. For Rukeyser, the self instead is understood as embedded within and shaped by social, historical and material conditions; with various discourses competing and aligning, augmenting and also resisting each other, in ways that poetry can expose and examine. Yet Rukeyser also, as poet if not ideologist, is fully committed to the individual. Against Marxism's insistence on the priority of the collective, and even within Rukeyser's own sense of the force of institutional powers and discourses such as Foucault later anatomized, Rukeyser's texts speak in and for the individual voice as it, both against and within social context, asserts its own sense of self and world, and indeed offers poetry as a model for such individual expression. Poetry itself is a unique and individual creation; framed and even penetrated by social forces, which inevitably and both positively and negatively shape the individual, these however do not simply determine poetic or individual assertion. The self remains an individual site, where intersecting forces find unique formation, and which poetry can express and affirm as unique creative voice.3

As poet, then, it is for Rukeyser to represent individuals and their situations as linguistic configurations: on the one hand as discourses that frame and conduct institutional power, yet on the other in the possibility and power of personal vision and expression. For, as poet, she asserts or explores possible modes of language other than, although always within the context of, disciplinary discourses. She does not however work in what might be called a liberal tradition of aesthetics, where the poet is a unique and vatic seer affirming his own originality. Hers is a different model of poetry, and also of the poet. Her poetic draws on, affirms, and serves the words of others. In her "Book of the Dead" many passages are constructed out of testimony and documentary record, personal interview or letter. In this as in other ways Rukeyser offers a vision of poetry in stark opposition against what was just then emerging as the defining model in the American academy: the New Critical poem as enclosed aesthetic object – an aesthetic she rejected and that rejected her work in turn.4 She instead sees the particular concern of poetry to be the representation of languages drawn from many spheres and contexts; so as, among other things, to bring language's claims and force, modes and implications to heightened consciousness, and ultimately to ethical action.

In this sense, poetry is never merely aesthetic, if this is taken to mean removed from other norms and human engagements. Indeed, Rukeyser's work raises questions of the very purposes of poetry, their social function and place. In "The Book of the Dead," what occurs is the rendering of diverse institutional linguistic norms – medical, legal, legislative, commercial, industrial – as these situate and penetrate the humans caught up in their procedures. Yet the poet is a self who reflects and represents this. In doing so she points to a selfhood not only as subjected to intersecting and often complicitous institutional powers; but to a selfhood that, through devotion to others and as a member of a social community, can recover the voices of protest, of resistance, of affirmation in terms other than the disciplinary ones that are so admittedly potent. In and through her words, as reflection as well as intensification of their own, these diverse and unique selves find voice.

In the conduct of the poems of "The Book of the Dead," Rukeyser offers material speech drawn from the records of the Gauley Bridge disaster along with her own descriptions, observations, images and techniques. Often actual documentary material is incorporated from hearings, minutes, letters or personal interviews. Yet even when most documentary, literary techniques of transposition and formatting, quotation and rupture, lineation and interposition, perform tasks of exposure and critique, involvement and indignation, claim and contest, in an activist poetics. The very title of the sequence "The Book of the Dead" introduces a mythic dimension into the otherwise technological and social-realist documentary modes, in a high modernist method of arranging material through archetypal or mythic correlations. Through these literary strategies, the enormous force of institutional and bureaucratic languages is made to be felt; but so are the efforts and speech of persons unexpert in such procedures, who lack the professional training to master and direct them; individuals speaking from within their own commitments and communities, rendered vocal by the poetry and the force and function of poetry itself.

Rukeysers' sequence "The Book of the Dead" was published in 1938 in her volume U.S. 1. The title itself is a play on the U.S. Road Guide Book Series being published at the time. The poems in this way offer what has been called a "counternarrative" to the official ones constructed by governmental agencies or initiatives: the Guide Book Series with its authorized account of American history and landscape. Against these stand the silenced stories of migrant and other day-laborers caught within economic depression, which Rukeyser brings to record.5 In terms of literary technique, as many commentators have pointed out, the texts reflect and transform a number of newly emerging media forms of the thirties: photography, documentary (including photographic and filmic modes), and X Ray technology.6 Rukeyser conducted a life-long refusal of the opposition between poetry and science, or more broadly between any of the spheres and engagements of human living. In the poems, one governing image system concerns glass. The eye of the camera lens emerges repeatedly as a crucial image for Rukeyser's own poetic reportage. But the silica dust is itself made of glass; as are the X Ray lenses that ultimately confirmed the diagnosis of silicosis as cause of death, implicating the industrial practices. As Rukeyser writes of her own poetic project in the opening poem, "The Road:"

Now the photographer unpacks camera and case,

Surveying the deep country, follow discovery

Viewing on groundglass an inverted image.7
Rukeyser enters the space of Gauley Bridge, then, by way of images of glass, not to assert a neutral objectivity but exactly to gainsay it. Glass promises perfect transparency and scientific exactitude. Rukeyser's repeated glass-imagery instead emphasizes the inevitable pointedness and perspective of any vision, directed through instruments and interests of those who deploy them. The first view, thus, is of viewing itself, in glass vividly figured both within the scene and in self-reflexive commentary. Through glass she first enters (physically and on poetic record) the town of "Gauley Bridge:"

Camera at the crossing sees the city

a street of wooden walls and empty window,

the doors shut handless in the empty street,

and the deserted Negro standing on the corner. (R 75)

Depression era photographic documentary of reduced towns empty of activity loom here, with self-conscious reflection on the act of recording and presenting though the image of camera lens on empty window. As the sequence moves forward, while landscape continues to be represented in increasingly complex imagery, what comes more and more forward are various and yet interpenetrating discourses, as these process the humans caught up in their procedures.

Images of glass thus also become figures for language and its modes or presentation. Among these, medical testimony emerges as in many ways the ground for the poems' other discourses: industrial, legal, and ultimately personal languages. Rukeyser's poems rework the medical language deployed by company doctors and company lawyers. Against and through this is interposed the accounts of sufferers and their families, whose attempts to reply, respond, retell are repeatedly cut through and into by technical medical, legalized language and method. In this process, the poems examine how the very contours of the individual sufferer are threatened, as personal experience is pushed toward being absorbed into medical terms and figures. Thus, the poem “The Disease” is mainly conducted through a discourse of medical presentation and cross-examination:

This is a lung disease. Silicate dust makes it.

The dust causing the growth of

This is the X-ray picture taken last April.

I would point out to you: these are the ribs;

this is the region of the breastbone;

this is the heart (a wide white shadow filled with blood.).

In here of course is the swallowing tube, esophagus.

The windpipe. Spaces between the lungs.
Between the ribs?
Between the ribs. These are the collar bones.

Now, this lung's mottled, beginning, in these areas.

You'd say a snowstorm had struck the fellow's lungs.

About alike, that side and this side, top and bottom.

The first stage in this period in this case.
Let us have the second. . .
That indicates the progress in ten month's time.

And now, this year – short breathing, solid scars

Even over the ribs, thick on both sides.

Blood vessels shut. Model conglomeration.

What stage?

Third stage. Each time I place my pencil point:

There and there and there, there, there. (R 83)
The miner here is assimilated into a medicalized body, by way of assimilation into medical technology of X-rays and its terminology; just as he is penetrated by the industrial substance of the silica that is filling his lungs and suffocating him to death. Investigative questions punctuate stanza breaks – “What stage? -- eliciting information, clarifying points, but also poetically echoing and calling into question such representation of a person and its consequences. The poem becomes the chart of this discourse-body, this body as medical chart and industrial waste. The breaking off of the line – "The dust causing the growth of" – not only records actual testimony but dramatizes the status of the sentence, whose medical report becomes rendered as the oxymoron of dust causing deadly growth. Both time and space become functions of medical representation. The body is tracked from stage to stage as a manifestation of symptoms. In space it is reduced from three dimensions to two, as that side by this, top and bottom; within the conventions and orientations of X-Ray, black and "white shadow filled with blood" and finally as a pointer on a screen or film of "There and there and there."8 The almost extravagant simile of a "snowstorm," intended as direct white description, in fact introduces a more far-reaching conversion: of this body into crystal, the compulsive images of the poem and the substances into which this body is indeed being transmuted. The poem becomes a medical affidavit of the body, within juridical procedures that follow its own institutional norms, all converging into this brief to be filed against indemnities. "Model conglomeration" ironically and painfully applies both to this body and to the corporation that has possessed it.

But then the living voice cuts in:

"It is growing worse every day. At night

"I get up to catch my breath. If I remained

"flat on my back I believe I would die."

It gradually chokes off the air cells in the lungs?

I am trying to say it the best I can.

That is what happens isn't it?

A choking-off in the air cells?
Here is the person speaking, reversing perspective from seen to seer, from spoken about to speaker, describing its integrated inner physical experience. Yet this is hard to match with the requirements of medical evidence in court (I think of the witch hunts, with the illiterate women having to function within the linguistic practices of courts and inquisitions). "Catch my breath" must be rendered as "choking-off in the air-cells." Yet "I am trying to say it the best I can." Official discourse confronts personal account. One has a sense of pushing boulders uphill. Personal experience is subordinated to medical language as legal procedure directed by interests; while the legal framework for uncovering truth and achieving justice are deeply compromised by their own formats and rules.

Just so, in the poem “The Doctors,” different voices both collude and work at cross-purposes. The poem renders a medical-legal conversion of experience into a presentation in court:

Dr. Goldwater. I hope you are not provoked when I say "might."

Medicine has no hundred percent.

We speak of possibilities, have opinions.

Mr. Griswold. Doctors testify answering "yes" and "no."

Don't they?

Dr. Goldwater. Not by the choice of the doctor.

Mr. Griswold: But that is usual, isn't it?

Dr. Goldwater. They do not like to do that.

A man with a scientific point of view – . .

Most doctors avoid dogmatic statements.

Avoid assiduously "always," "never."

Mr. Griswold. Best doctor I ever knew said "no" and "yes."

Dr. Goldwater. There are different opinions on that, too.

We were talking about acute silicosis.

The man in the white coat is the man on the hill,

The man with the clean hands is the man with the drill,

The man who answers "yes" lies still.
--Did you make an examination of these sets of lungs?

-- I did.

-- I wish you would tell the jury whether or not those lungs were silicotic.

-- We object.

--Objection overruled.

-- They were. (R 86)

Testimony takes shape as regulated through legal exchange. In this case, medical discourses struggle, but also are complicitous with legal ones. The doctors at Gauley Bridge were mostly employed by Union Carbide. Their desire to "avoid dogmatic statements" may have to do with their own liability as much as any scientific scruple or medical ethics. And, as one company doctor reports in a prose passage within the poem: "I warned many of them of the dust hazard and advised them that continued work under these conditions would result in serious lung disease. Disregarding this warning many of the men continued at this work and later brought suit against their employer for damages." Even were the medical implications entirely forthcoming, and the law entirely devoted to justice, what choices and chances had these men to refuse employment in a depression era? Economic interests and necessities compromise liberal promises of choice and equality. As to establishing medical facts, these must emerge as best they can while embedded within litigious practices, competitions, and interests.

Yet one verse stands apart, breaking out of the judiciary-linguistic proceedings. The almost nursery-rhyme like " man in the white coat" as "man on the hill, the "man with the drill," the "man who lies still" are at once archetypal and historically exact. "George Robinson: Blues," another poem in the sequence, cites the "hill" that "makes breathing slow" and where "the graveyard's up on high." That is where the silica mines were located, where dry drills spewed white dust. In this poem, white takes on not only industrial but racial meaning. George Robinson acted as leader to the black workers. In his severely ironic account, the white silica served to equalize – but only as a measure of deadliness:

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,

With a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.

The dust had covered us both. And the dust was white. (R 84)
In light of "The Doctors," no doctor in a "white coat" opposes or protects from the "man with the drill," while "lies still" emerges as a ghastly pun. The black man coated with white "lies still" in death. The white coated man "lies still" in discourse.

Drawing in yet another discourse-event, the “The Disease: After-Effects” inscribes a congressional hearing on silica poisoning and industrial responsibility. Here another reversal takes place. In a poem such as "The Disease," the mineral material of the landscape penetrates the body, suffocating it. But now the American landscape itself becomes deformed with disease, scarred and suffocating.

No plane can ever lift us high enough

To see forgetful countries underneath,

But always now the map and X-ray seem

Resemblent pictures of one living breath

One country marked by error

And one air.

It sets up a gradual scar formation;

This increases, blocking all drainage from the lung,

Eventually scars, blocking the blood supply,

And then they block the air passageways.

Shortness of breath,

Pains around the chest,

He notices lack of vigor.
Bill blocked; investigation blocked. (R 98)
Representation by X-ray now also becomes the country's map. The "air" of the plane's path is "one" with the air in the diseased lungs. The "gradual scar formation" refers both to the aerial photograph of the land below; yet no less to the bodies of those who worked the land; and finally to the body politic and its processes of governing the land in which, as in a silicotic lung, the bills and investigations are "blocked."

This poem is followed in the sequence by “The Bill,” which presents the disaster in the language of a motion to be voted on the Congressional floor:

THAT the effects are well known.

Disease incurable.

Physical incapacity, cases fatal. (R 100)
Legislative modes of presentation act as a magnetic force to which everything in its field is subject. Yet, as poetry, the language has a different status from its documentary sources. The formal terms of the congressional motion become shocking in its contrast against the horror of the disease it formally addresses. Poetically representing these discourses, through interruption, disjunction, juxtaposition, rhythmic repetition, contrast and gap does not enact and confirm but rather anatomizes and exposes their power. That is, making disciplinary languages into poetic text opens a rupture in them, a reflective distance from their operation which unmasks them.

Rukeyser's poetry is thereby mobilized as a form of political activism, projecting an anatomy of social forces as they construct and are constructed by the individuals within them. The very notion of the self as penetrated by and implicating social systems already distinguishes her vision from the libertarian understandings, in critique of reductive notions of self-determination and responsibility without regard for the institutional settings and overarching powers within which any individual resides and in terms of which we are not merely self-determining. Nor has she full confidence in legislative procedures. "The Bill" ends with misgivings in a language of incomplete sentences and interrupted promises:

We recommend.

Bring them. Their books and records.

Investigate. Require.

Can do no more.

These citizens from many States

Paying the price for electric power

To be Vindicated. . .
The subcommittee subcommits.

Rukeyser sees legislation as falling short of justice – "Can do no more" – although she does she simply abandon it. What she does is offer “Their books and records” in her own poetic books and records, before you on the page. These are meant to impel.

But is there a language-event besides these instituted discourses? In her poetic weave Rukeyser interposes and counter-poses other voices against disciplinary ones. In the poem "Absalom," Rukeyser represents the voice of the mother who was “the first of the line of lawsuits” (R 81). It was she who first provided the medical evidence, after begging on the highway for the money to pay for X-rays, as the poem recounts.

I tried to get Dr. Harless to X-ray the boys. . .

the company doctor in the Kopper's mine,

but he would not see Shirley.

He did not know where his money was coming from. . .

I went on the road and begged the X-ray money,

the Charleston hospital made the lung pictures,

he took the case after the pictures were made.

Thus came evidence that the deaths of her husband and three sons had been caused by silicosis. In "Absalom" hers is at once official report and personal account, further interwoven with lyrical cries as if from the Egyptian "Book of the Dead," as of course also biblical lament through the poem's title Absalom, and haunted by the dead son's voice:

He said, "Mother, I cannot get my breath."

Shirley was sick about three months.

I would carry him from his bed to the table,

from his bed to the porch, in my arms.

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