Muriel Rukeyser, Wallace Stevens: Books of the Dead

December 26, 1012

There’s a picture of the two of them – Stevens standing at the back, and Rukeyser seated in front with Marianne Moore.   To the left of him from where they were, and to the left of him in her poetry.

But Stevens is capable of coming from the left field himself: is it the Egyptian Book of the Dead that inspires his poem, “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” written soon after the death of Henry Church, his close friend?

Rukeyser is on record as having drawn on the Egyptian text in her “Book of the Dead,” a long poetic sequence about West Virginia miners,  published in U.S.1 (1938).  These miners, mostly African-Americans, had been mining silica without being given masks, leading to the fatal lung diseases, silicosis, for hundreds of them.  Rukeyser interviewed victims and their families, doctors, social workers, trial lawyers.

She’s writing lyric, and she’s doing investigative journalism – for her, there is no separation and no contradiction between these two.  The lyric form has to have a documentary dimension if it is to speak to its own time, and speak back to its own ancient origins.

The dead is of course at the heart of it:  Rukeyser is in fact restaging that most time-honored of poetic themes: the descent into the Underworld.  Here, it is scripted not by Homer or Virgil or Dante, and features not heroes with resounding names.  Those who make the descent in West Virginia are nameless miners.  Rukeyser names them, and, in the manner of the Egyptian Book of Dead, she fashions these lines: “I come forth by day, I am born a second time,/ I force a way through, and I know the gate/ I shall journey over the earth among the living./ He shall not be diminished, never; / I shall give a mouth to my son.”

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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