Presented at the 2013 Muriel Rukeyser Centenary Symposium, March 14-16, 2013, Eastern Michigan University
As we discuss the iterations of power revealed in Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” I think it is important to consider the power that the poem itself represents. That is, Muriel Rukeyser’s authorial power. In Rukeyser’s documentary Poem of Witness we find that she incorporates real people and their actual testimonies. While this is a fantastic way to give a voice to the subjugated victims of the disaster at Hawk’s Nest Tunnel; I wonder whether the artistic liberty Rukeyser takes with the words of others is just another form of subjugation – even if the poem is sympathetic or even actively beneficent to the victims? After all, Rukeyser manipulates the context of testimonies in order to make them more likely to elicit stronger sympathies, and actually edits and changes some testimonies to more vehemently convey her own position while still attributing her alterations to the real people from which they derived.
Michael Thurston aptly describes my first suspicion of authorial power present in, “The Book of the Dead,” through the case of “Mearl Blankenship.” The verbatim presentation of all the misspellings and grammar issues in Blankenship’s letter contextualize the dialectic of Blankenship’s speech. While I find it appropriate that Rukeyser accurately presents Blankenship’s letter, I think a lurking danger is magnified when Rukeyser poetically splices the letter with her own descriptive narrative. The question arises that perhaps the exposure of his class position and lack of education is being exploited for sympathy, and dangerously capable of eliciting a sense of superiority, parody, and ridicule. Like Thurston, I believe Blankenship’s words speak for themselves, and that it is possible Rukeyser’s splices are more about the manipulative strumming of heartstrings than they are about giving Blankenship a voice and platform to speak on his own behalf through his own words.
My second suspicion concerning Rukeyser’s authorial power deals with her alteration of George Robinson’s testimony. In the final stanza of, “George Robinson: Blues,” Rukeyser presents Robinson’s testimony as saying:
As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the
tunnel at night,
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white. (Emphasis added)
However, in his testimony Robinson’s exact words were:
As dark as I am, when I came out of that tunnel in the mornings, if you had been in the tunnel too and come out at my side, nobody could have told which was the white man. The white man was just as black as the colored man. (Kadlec 23, emphasis added)
David Kadlec points out that Robinson’s original words expose not only the tragically exploitative working conditions of all the workers at Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, but also the racist subjugation of African Americans that is also central to the story of the Hawk’s Nest Tragedy. It may seem inconsequential to change this single representation in Robinson’s testimony. But while the testimony is heavily codified by the racist social mores at the time, that does not change the fact that the words of Robinson’s testimony are his words. Moreover, the pernicious racial codification is made obvious by Robinson’s deliberate and clearly incorrect characterization of the silica dust being black.
This brings me to the ethical quandary present in Documentary Poetry and Poetry of Witness as it is manifested by Rukeyser’s authorial power in, “The Book of Dead.” Poetry is an art form. Liberal political sensibilities generally hold that freedom of expression is a basic right of citizens in a liberal society, and paramount to the work of artists in particular. On the other hand, Witness and Testimony come with a special ethical value set that involves an obligation for truthfulness and accuracy. As I have pointed out, Robinson’s testimony is inaccurate in its characterization of silica dust. But the committee questioning Robinson unanimously failed to correct him because of the racist more that forbade a black man from impersonating a white man. Rukeyser does “correct” the testimony, but in so doing erases the pernicious racism that codifies Robinson’s testimony, and therefore, Rukeyser fails to convey the full meaning of Robinson’s testimony and the full weight of the tragic situation faced by Robinson and African American workers at Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. I find it more than slightly discomfiting that Robinson’s words are subjugated to Rukeyser’s artistic expression in this way.
Beneficently speaking for these subaltern people by contextualizing their testimonies to increase sympathy, and altering their words in order to more strongly convey a specific aspect of their plight, may move on the spectrum of subjugation from malevolently exploitative to condescending, but I still believe it is a form of subjugation. Therefore, it would seem that Poetry of Witness and Documentary Poetry are in need of a unique set of ethical obligations that is not necessarily applicable to Poetry in general.
Kadlec, David. “X-Ray Testimonials in Muriel Rukeyser.” Modernism/Modernity 5.1 (1998): 23-47. Web. 3 March 2013.
Thurston, Michael. “Documentary Modernism As Popular Front Poetics: Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Book of the Dead.’” Modern Language Quarterly 60.1 (1999): 59+. Web. 3 March 2013.