Muriel Rukeyser: An Introduction.

The Poems

In the 1930s, Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) emerged as a significant poetic voice during the 1930s. She published her first volume, Theories of Flight, in 1935 which was followed U.S. 1 in 1938 and A Turning Wind in 1939. These books feature long poems grouped into sequences of narrative meaning. The poems are evocative and mysterious, weighted with a social concern that incorporates both immediate, local events and the broad sweep of history.

The sequence "Book of the Dead" in U.S. 1, depicts

an event which occurred in a valley in West Virginia in the early thirties. Two thousand men were digging a three-and-a-quarter-mile tunnel under a mountain from Gauley�s Junction to Hawk�s Nest in Fayette County so that a river could be diverted as part of a hydroelectric power project. When it was discovered that the rock through which they bored had a high content of valuable silica, the contracting company had the men drill the rock dry, to get more silica out faster. As Time magazine put it, many of the workers "died like ants in a flour bin" of silicosis, which is incurable and leads in effect to strangulation. The workers and their families tried to get compensation, but an investigation before Congress was blocked, and lawyers charged the workers 50 percent of the meager compensation they finally received. (Kertesz 98-99)
These are events that occur at the ends of "the roads to take when you think of your country / and interested bring down the maps again." The description links the local tragedy to the wider nation, whose indifference permits such things to occur. Elsewhere in the sequence, Rukyser, speaking through a mother who lost three sons declares that she "will give a mouth" to the sons and those who suffer. Yet, the device of the mother makes this tragic rather than polemical. This describes much of Rukyser's work: she engages without declaiming; her argument does not overwhelm her art.

Stylistically, the poems maintain a structural coherence but incude an element of variation and experimentation, such as alterations in the placement of punctuation and the incorporation of found materials as in official documents and reportage in the Book of the Dead sequence.

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