“Did we then wrestle as if we were our angels?
There is peace also
love changing like religion.
Around your image now my prodigal wishes
Gather in, like the eye’s color in brightened rooms,
Contract like a cloud of birds about a tree.”
– from “The Two Illuminations” by Muriel Rukeyeser (1958)
The first step in arranging my comprehensive field exam reading list was putting it into chronological order. The next step, I contracted or compressed that chronology into epochal time shifts, and then, more specifically, condensed those shifts into paradigmatic literary movements. In plain terms, I grouped the books together into consumable pods of about 25/30. This is an inexact method: some books will bleed across timelines, and some will seem out of place. I wasn’t trying to be too precise here; but rather have the books listed in arrangements that are easier for me to remember during the exam.
The first epoch is dedicated to the stuff written just after World War II and before the start of the counterculture movement. Essentially, these are all the books on my list written between 1945 and 1960. It was in this time that contemporary literature in North America turned away from the more formal Modernist aesthetic and moved toward the scattered, disoriented, and highly subversive Postmodern form of the middle of the century.
This postwar era is dedicated to those authors whose work still echoes its predecessors — like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway — but is also forging ahead into uncharted territory. This is the group of pioneers, the trailbreakers, the individuals who wrote against convention in imaginative and wildly daring ways.
I have 30 titles in this section:
– 15 novels/novellas (Bellow, Gaddis, Kerouac, Burroughs, Nabokov, Updike, Smart, Richler, etc.)
– 7 collections of poetry (Rukeyeser, Ginsberg, Bishop, Cohen, etc.)
– 4 plays (Miller, Albee, Hansberry)
– 3 pieces of literary criticism (Ihab Hassan and others)
– 1 collection of short stories (Salinger)
The first title on the list is the sequence of poems “The Book of the Dead” (1938) from American poet Muriel Rukeyeser’s Collected Poems. This is a title I am required to close read. So this post will be a bit longer than the others.
Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) was a second generation American-Jew. Like many of the more formidable poets and authors coming out of the United States after the war, Rukeyser was Ivy-bred and well educated. She attended private school before matriculating at the prestigious and exclusive Vassar College just shy of her eighteenth birthday. And she later went on to study at Columbia University, publishing her first book of poetry in 1934.
A bit of an idealist and a strident feminist, Rukeyser’s poems fused together politics and poetics into a swirling gyre of activism, eroticism, hope, regret, shame, gratuity, whimsy, and humanity. Her work put political pressure on the value of poetry to catalyze social change, to become something more than an art object while still maintaining the right tenor of imagination and creativity. She was obscure, erratic, complicated, risky, unusual, moralistic, and sentimental.
Because she was an ally to the leftist movement, Communism, worker’s rights, and a supporter of equality and tolerance, but also Ivy school bred, she was considered romantic and bourgeois: just a rich white girl writing about problems that she couldn’t relate too. Others found her inspiring, and as a signpost for connecting the “simultaneous singularity and multiplicity of human experience” (Kaufman/Herzog pg. xl). She was a great integrator of style, who sought out the “buried voices” (Kaufman/Herzog pg. xl) of the marginalized American minority populations. She was experimental. She was postmodern poetry before there were any terms to classify her as such. She may well have been the first counter voice to the American national identity. And she was a woman writing in a male dominated world. She died of a stroke at 66.
Her most famous and memorable work is a sequence of poems entitled “The Book of the Dead”: a stirring poetic rebuke of the Hawk’s Nest Industrial Tragedy where 2,000 miners, mostly African-American, contracted silicosis and died from working on a hydroelectric project in the caves of the Blue Ridge Mountains in south-central West Virginia without proper breathing equipment.
John Denver – “Country Roads”
There are 20 poems in this sequence of varying length, breadth, and style. Together they weave a pastiche of the tragedy, tying together the loose ends of corruption, court hearings, exploitation, personal testimonies, and medical investigations, to form a topography of the crime that resonates with the local Appalachian geography. It is after all a profoundly majestic natural setting. John Denver sang about it for chrissake. And the resource development that skewered the region is mirrored in the lacerating tone of the poems.
The first two poems set the scene of the crime. “The Road,” a bouncing poem with a staccato cadence, takes us into the Gauley River Valley via the mountain pass highway. The poem clicks like a camera: snapshots of the scenery, metaphors of inverted images and questions of impression. The poem not only situates us geographically but reminds us this is an investigative trip — our poet is here for truth, calling on the land to speak for what the records hide, “Here is your road, tying / you to its meanings,” the speaker says. The poem calls into question the meaning of first impressions, how we are colored by reputation or predisposition, yet not so far off from a truth hidden underground. “West Virginia” follows “The Road,” (naturally!) and further contextualizes the site of the crime within a narrative of American Colonial expansion, manifest destiny, Civil War, and resource extraction. It is a spare poem, discordant and out of time with the rest of the sequence, making the tone more cynical and critical of American metanarratives. It crackles to life the long dead voices and stories of victims that have been through West Virginia since first encounter.
It’s clear, after the first couple of poems, that the sequence is haunted by the Hawk’s Nest tragedy. Not like ghosts, but more like the foreboding sense of murder. As such, the next four poems are all from the perspective of town inhabitants. “Statement: Philippa Allen” is written in the form of a court testimony from a social worker who visited Gauley Bridge. Her testimony unveils the network of corruption between resource industries, power companies, and the town that allowed the incident to occur. “The Face of the Dam: Vivian Jones” is a heartbreaking poem about a worker who shuffles off to the mines every day, thick clouds of raw silica burning his lungs, and him reaching into his pocket at the end of the day for the picture of his girl, Vivian, who guides him home. It is written in consistent, marching, quatrains that mimic the drudgery of being a working stiff in Gauley Bridge. “Mearl Blankenship,” is poem written as a plea — Mearl, a miner, begging for somebody to come and help him. “Absalom,” is an allegorical poem that deals with the incomprehensibility of a mother’s grief after losing her sons and husband to the chalky air in the mines. The tone of these named poems is tragic and full of despair and hopelessness. All are notched with the power of tragedy, loss, and vulnerability. In a way, Rukeyser is speaking for them, like the mother in “Absalom” says, “I shall give a mouth to my son,” so does Rukeyser’s poems give voice to the victimized.
Wedged in between the named poems, is an extraordinary but irreverent poem titled “Gauley Bridge”: a speckled glimpse of a booming-mine city. It relates commerce to the people, how business and consumer squawk at one another through advertisements, newspapers, and store locations without ever speaking to each other. It is antagonistic yet calm, cutting down capitalism while justifying it. It resists the attempt to metaphorize the area and instead presses for realism, insofar as Rukeyser’s scattered aesthetic will allow. The poem reads:
“What do you want—a cliff over a city?
A foreland, slope to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here.”
It is unapologetic, demanding you to not gloss over the raw aspect of living in a town built on cutting the lives out of people with a thousand swords.
The jewel of the sequence is “Power.” Not ironically, “Power” is the most powerful poem, propelling downward couplet clauses of rhythmic poetry like a miner’s jackhammer: “Now ladder-mouth; and the precipitous fear / uncertain rungs down into after-night.” It follows like a canary the miners deep into the tunnels and rings out the enclosure of the mines. It reminds us these things were engineered not for power but for hosting death: they are not mines, they are tombs. Yet, the power of the poem is not in its digging like quality but its leveling capacity. The speaker is searching for a middle zone, an inclusive space where the voices of nature, worker, engineer, and corporation, all sound the same. In fact, this is one of Rukeyser’s shining qualities, searching out the middle of things. She writes in the second stanza of the site of the power-station in the river: “This is the midway between water and flame, / this is the road to take when you think of your country / between the dam and the furnace, terminal.” And, as we lead away from power to the last half-dozen poems in the sequence, we sense we are all swirling around one central point, one central location, that is the spot of corruption in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia.
Rukeyser’s poems are often instructive moralistic and constitute the power of poetry like in the heavy-handed “Homage to Literature” (1938). But she can be charming and whimsical when she wants to be like in the rollicking, playful, and incoherent “From the Duck-Pond to the Carousel” (1938) about nannies taking children to the Atlantic City boardwalk. However at stake in most of her poems is the status of the American Nation like in her stand alone poem “Wake Island” (1945), and for bringing a voice to the under-represented like the scene she captures in “Seventh Avenue” (1938) of a section of Harlem and its people who walkabout at night. In her later career she becomes more self-involved and insular, but it’s also when she writes her most vulnerable work. “Kathe Kollwitz” (1968) is a long autobiographical poem and “The Speed of Darkness” (1968) posits Rukeyser in her most sensitive position as “A tree that trembles, / I am the tree that trembles and trembles,” she writes, afraid.
Yet, her capacity cannot be understated: she is a magician of style, an integrator. Often her poems mix song, prose, prose poem, dialogue, legal documents, ekphrasis, and testimony all into one. I was impressed with her ability to seize an image or point-in-time and close in on it, letting the emotion be interpreted out of the moment like at the end of “The Two Illuminations” (1958) where she zooms in on the feeling and look of a school of birds deciding on a tree: “Contract like a cloud of birds about a tree”. It is her most Whitmanesque moments. Her most directed. Her most emotionally aware.
And for that, she is an integral poet of the Contemporary era.