Poetry News

A New Edition of Muriel Rukeyser's The Book of the Dead Gives Light to More Names

By Harriet Staff
Muriel Rukeyser

Maggie Messitt writes about Muriel Rukeyser's documentary poetics and anthropological research, much of which inspired her first books, Theory of Flight, which won the Yale Younger Prize in 1934, and The Book of the Dead, published in 1938 and now out in a new edition from West Virginia University Press. Focusing on the 1936 "Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster, its survivors, the West Virginian community of Gauley Bridge, and the narratives that mainstream media and the congressional hearings were ignoring," the book is "a series of 20 poems — sometimes considered one long poem with 20 parts," writes Messitt for Los Angeles Review of Books. More:

Influenced by Rukeyser’s fieldwork in West Virginia and her Jewish identity, The Book of the Dead makes room for the exploited and even dares to give them names. However, in this new version of the book with an introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, the poet/scholar gives light to even more names when she uncovers a list of 135 workers who died between 1930 and 1935: name, race, age, burial place. The total number of men who died is under dispute, ranging from 764 (over five years) to as much as 2,000 (overall).

Moore explains that little from Rukeyser’s original research has been recovered; although notes from her other reporting around that time — written about extensively by scholars studying her work — reveal a young poet-reporter who obsessively recorded events: from hand-drawn maps and primary documents to interview notes and observations and lists — so many lists. She has a “camera-like style of writing,” writes scholar Sarah Chadfield, mirroring the aesthetic of the American 1930s, the documentary era — which, as promoted by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), embraced the lives and circumstances that mainstream media and Americans had ignored throughout the prosperous 1920s. Across the arts, narratives were shifting their focus to the marginalized in the United States. According to John Lomax, folklore editor of the FWP, writers were tasked, “above all, to let the people speak in their own voice and tell their story.”

Read on at LARB.