Muriel Rukeyser, Zombie Necromancer

I don’t care for this new zombie renaissance. And I don’t mean that like I’m afraid of zombies or something. I just think that 1). it’s a default subject matter for horror writers, 2). all interesting scenarios and subject matters were long ago exhausted, and 3). our current fascination with the genre points to disturbing cultural predilections. So I was surprised when reading a new compilation put out by Butler University’s Pressgang Press, Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings, that my favorite story was Amiee Bender’s Among Us. Briefly, it starts as a story about a zombie that develops a taste for the decaying flesh of its fellow zombies rather than the flesh of the living. The thing that gives the story larger ramifications is how it “zooms out” to show other instants of financial, agricultural, and even domestic “cannibalism” in our society. In one of the vignettes, a salmon farm feeds bits of their own product to their product, and the meat from the salmon-fed-salmon becomes poisonous for humans to eat. Another vignette is a description of the scene from the film Being John Malkovich when said actor tumbles into his own subconscious, an example more recursive or ouroboric than cannibalistic.

Somehow, I thought of Rukeyser and the dead workers of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster. In the poem “The Cornfield” from The Book of the Dead, Rukeyser veers us off the road that led us into the poem set in the opening poem, steers us across back roads–stopping once to ask for directions–to a field where workers who died from silicosis were buried “five at a time.” The burials were hasty and covert, as Rukeyser (through George Robinson) describes in this example:

I knew a man
who died at four in the morning at the camp.
At seven his wife took clothes to dress her dead
husband, and at the undertaker’s
they told her the husband was already buried.

If we haven’t yet understood that the bodies of the dead are fertilizing the corn that we eat, just as the work that killed them provides the electricity we mindlessly use, Rukeyser compares their meager, approximate grave markers (“wood stakes, charred at tip, / few scratched and named”) with the way we might mark the produce in our backyard plots:

Think of your gardens. But here is corn to keep.
Marked pointed sticks to name the crop beneath.
Sowing is over, harvest is coming ripe.

Of course the workers are morbidly presented as our crops here, but we could interpret the chilling idea of a harvest in a positive light as well, one in which the dead are resurrected to, in a way, avenge themselves against their wrongful deaths. As the dead beneath the field cry, “Earth, uncover my blood!” Rukeyser casts her act of poesis as that uncovering. Here, the poet is a noble take on the necromancer who raises and controls the dead.

This much I understood. But one of my students connected this zombie theme to the text Rukeyser selects from the Egyptian Book of the Dead for the poem “Absolom”: “I shall journey over the earth among the living.” Although I have always read this line in a hopeful light, the student pointed out a darker interpretation, that since these men know that they have silicosis blooming in their lungs, they’re basically dead already.

I try to get my students charged up over Rukeyser by describing The Book of the Dead as “a horror poem” (“Forced through this crucible,” I shudder dramatically, “a million men!”). I’m a huge proponent for eroding the wall between genre and literary, but usually I look to the McSweeney’s crowd or to books like Pressgang’s Monsters. I admit that I don’t often look to poetry for fresh takes on sci-fi, horror, westerns, fantasy, etc. But The Book of the Dead is not the only place Rukeyser indulges in imagery traditionally associated with the horror genre. Her Elegies (1949) are full of amputation, decay, and mutilation. In “River Elegy,” she writes:

The rich streets are full of empty coats parading,
and one adolescent protesting violin,
the slums full of their flayed and faceless bodies,
they shiver, they are working to buy their skin.
They are lost.

Of the ten elegies, she alone dates this most gruesome one, Summer 1940, as if telling the reader to root it in the context of World War II. We can specifically affix the “Half-faced, half-sexed… living dead” of this elegy to victims of war, but Rukeyser is vague enough about the identity of this city “built for the half-dead and half-alive” that we are free to interpret the place as anywhere and the cause to any number of mid-century (or half-century) evils. It’s difficult not to recall Eliot’s The Wasteland:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

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