from The Book of the Dead: Praise of the Committee

These are the lines on which a committee is formed.
     Almost as soon as work was begun in the tunnel
     men began to die among dry drills. No masks.
     Most of them were not from this valley.
     The freights brought many every day from States
     all up and down the Atlantic seaboard
     and as far inland as Kentucky, Ohio.
     After the work the camps were closed or burned.
     The ambulance was going day and night,
     White’s undertaking business thriving and
     his mother’s cornfield put to a new use.
     “Many of the shareholders at this meeting
     “were nervous about the division of the profits;
     “How much has the Company spent on lawsuits?
     “The man said $150,000. Special counsel:
     “I am familiar with the case. Not   :   one    :    cent.
     “ ‘Terms of the contract. Master liable.’
     “No reply. Great corporation disowning men who made. . . .”
     After the lawsuits had been instituted. . . .
The Committee is a true reflection of the will of the people.
     Every man is ill. The women are not affected,
     This is not a contagious disease. A medical commission,
     Dr. Hughes, Dr. Hayhurst examined the chest
     of Raymond Johnson, and Dr. Harless, a former
     company doctor. But he saw too many die,
     he has written his letter to Washington.
The Committee meets regularly, wherever it can.
     Here are Mrs. Jones, three lost sons, husband sick,
     Mrs. Leek, cook for the bus cafeteria,
     the men: George Robinson, leader and voice,
     four other Negroes (three drills, one camp-boy)
     Blankenship, the thin friendly man, Peyton the engineer,
     Juanita absent, the one outsider member.
     Here in the noise, loud belts of the shoe-repair shop,
     meeting around the stove beneath the one bulb hanging.
     They come late in the day. Many come with them
     who pack the hall, wait in the thorough dark.
This is a defense committee. Unfinished business:
     Two rounds of lawsuits, 200 cases
     Now as to the crooked lawyers
     If the men had worn masks, their use would have involved
     time every hour to wash the sponge at mouth.
     Tunnel, 3⅛ miles long. Much larger than
     the Holland Tunnel or Pittsburgh’s Liberty Tubes.
     Total cost, say, $16,000,000.
This is the procedure of such a committee:
     To consider the bill before the Senate.
     To discuss relief.
          Active members may be cut off relief,
               16-mile walk to Fayetteville for cheque—
               west virginia relief administration, #22991
               to joe henigan, gauley bridge, one and 50/100,
               winona national bank. paid from state funds.
     Unless the Defense Committee Acts;
     the People’s Press, supporting this fight,
     signed editorials, sent in funds.
     Clothing for tunnel-workers.
          Rumored, that in the post-office
          parcels are intercepted.
          Suspected: Conley. Sheriff, hotelman,
          head of the town ring—
          Company whispers. Spies,
          The Racket.
     Resolved, resolved.
     George Robinson holds all their strength together:
     To fight the companies          to make somehow a future.
     “At any rate, it is inadvisable to keep a community of dying
          persons intact.”
     “Senator Holt. Yes. This is the most barbarous example of
          industrial construction that ever happened in the world.”
     Please proceed.
     “In a very general way Hippocrates’ Epidemics speaks
          of the metal digger who breathes with difficulty,
          having a pain and wan complexion.
          Pliny, the elder. . . .”
     “Present work of the Bureau of Mines. . . .”
     The dam’s pure crystal slants upon the river.
          A dark and noisy room, frozen two feet from stove.
          The cough of habit. The sound of men in the hall
          waiting for word.
               These men breathe hard
               but the committee has a voice of steel.
               One climbs the hill on canes.
               They have broken the hills and cracked the riches wide.
               In this man’s face
               family leans out from two worlds of graves—
               here is a room of eyes,
               a single force looks out, reading our life.
               Who stands over the river?
               Whose feet go running in these rigid hills?
               Who comes, warning the night,
               shouting and young to waken our eyes?
               Who runs through electric wires?
               Who speaks down every road?
               Their hands touched mastery; now they
               demand an answer.

Muriel Rukeyser, "from The Book of the Dead: Praise of the Committee" from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser.  Copyright © 2006 by Muriel Rukeyser.  Reprinted by permission of International Creative Management.
Source: The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006)
More Poems by Muriel Rukeyser