Presented at the 2013 Muriel Rukeyser Centenary Symposium, March 14-16, 2013, Eastern Michigan University

Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead is a voice to the voiceless, a poem that seeks to give power to those devastatingly affected by the Hawk’s Nest Incident. In order to do so, it must not turn away from or fail to remind us of the power that they were up against, that they fell victim to. For the poem is also a sobering reminder not only of the danger of corruption, but also the potential hazard of blindly accepting the value of what one may consider implied power.

Today, a modern audience unfortunately all too familiar with situations like these, with seemingly constant stories of corporate greed and exploitation of workers, might take the sort of abuses of power prevalent throughout Book of the Dead for granted. We know where our sympathies should lie. However, the audience who first met the poem’s publication in 1938, an audience to whom the word “corporation” was not yet the negative buzzword we hear today, might have been less willing to have their notion of trust in authority figures shaken. Rukeyser knows full well how powerful that trust can be, and places it front and center in the opening lines of the section entitled “The Doctors.”

Here, we are given snippets of the testimony given by various doctors during the congressional hearings on the matter. The poem’s opening lines give us a sense of the implied power that Union Carbide was able to use to its advantage, as we hear a doctor, Emory R. Hayhurst, state his credentials…having been told “don’t be modest about it”:

High school Chicago 1899


M.A. 1905, thesis on respiration

P & S Chicago 1908

2 years’ hospital training;

At Rush on occupational disease

Director of clinic 2 ½ years.

Ph.D. Chicago 1916

OhioDept. of Health, 20 years

Consultant in occupational diseases.

Hygienist,U.S.Public Health Service

And bureau of Mines

And bureau of Standards

I doubt I’m alone in hearing that list of accomplishments and thinking, “well, this is probably an expert who can be trusted.” I’m reminded of our tendency to scan the walls of our doctor’s offices – the more framed degrees we see, the slightly better we feel. We place so much faith into titles and accolades; we even tend to afford the sort of clinical language doctors or people in similar positions of authority use an extra level of import. Sure, we might consider academic language to be dry or emotionless, but we also tend to associate it with clout and knowledge. At times we give this voice more credence than that of the workers, we allow it additional significance, particularly when it comes delivered from those in positions of power. To put it simply, we like to believe there is an implied level of trust that goes along with authority…trust that can obviously be twisted and misused, as Rukeyser shows, and those affected by this tragedy know all too well.

As this section of the poem continues and we read testimony from Hayhurst and other doctors called as witnesses, Rukeyser challenges the trust we tend to attach to this list of credentials, first subtly by continually changing the textual style and layout of the piece, drawing attention to the malleability of the documents from which she culled the information. This, in turn, also draws attention to the potential malleability of what we’d consider “facts.” Now, this is of course an overriding theme of Book of the Dead, but it is particularly notable here, given the level of “trust” that we typically associate with doctors. Here, we are forced to call into question those representing the very profession that we place so much faith in, that we turn to when ill, that we expect to be an advocate for those in need. Whatever “power” might be afforded by degrees and medical knowledge becomes small comfort, in fact becomes a potential threat, when we encounter the doctor employed by Union Carbide–who, we learned earlier in the poem, refused to even x-ray some of the sick, concerned the family would not able to afford his fee–and who here, in his official statement, claims that the situation, in particular the number of dead and affected, is exaggerated. And that, in fact, he himself warned many of the workers of the dust hazard from working in the tunnel, and that they ignored his warnings, continued with the work, and then later brought suit against the company…some of them, he insinuates, not because they are actually ill, but because they want to take advantage of the situation.

An even more telling moment occurs near the end of “The Doctors,” as a Dr. Goldwater balks at emphatically declaring whether certain factors could indeed bring about acute silicosis.

Dr. Goldwater: I hope you are not provoked when I say “might.” Medicine has no hundred percent. We speak of possibilities, have opinions.

Mr. Griswold: Doctors testify answering “yes” and “no.” Don’t they?

Dr. Goldwater: Not by the choice of the doctor.

Mr. Griswold: But that is usual, isn’t it?

Dr. Goldwater: They do not like to do that. A man with a scientific point of view – unfortunately there are doctors without that – I do not mean to say all doctors are angels – but most doctors avoid dogmatic statements, avoid assiduously “always,” “never.”

Mr. Griswold: Best doctor I ever knew said “no” and “yes.”

Dr. Goldwater: There are different opinions on that, too. We were talking about acute silicosis.

In a situation where even “yes” and “no” are up for debate, where doctors appear unwilling to place the full blame for the illness on Union Carbide, we are again reminded of the amount of power the company was willing and able to wield over this investigation. This corrupted power runs throughout the poem–at one point in the later section “The Dam,” Union Carbide is referred to as having “resorted to methods employed by gunmen, ordinary machine-gun racketeers.” We are made aware that they used money to buy out those with crippling information about their tactics, most likely used money to influence the judgment of these aforementioned doctors; at the same time, many victims of their actions could not even afford their own medical treatment. The company not only betrayed the trust of the thousands of men who walked into those tunnels under their employ, but then managed to steal the comfort of having someone to turn to for help.

Book of the Dead is a poem of many voices. The voices of the victims, suffering the terrible after-effects of being subjected to an unsafe working environment, and confronted with a feeling of helplessness as they search for answers and retribution. And, here, the voice of the powerful forces they are up against in that search. It would be nice to believe these two voices were on equal playing fields, but Rukeyser’s poem, and indeed the very facts, as we know them, of the matter suggest otherwise. The enduring legacy of the Hawk’s Nest Incident, and those like it, is the distressing knowledge of how easily the authority that we place our trust in can be corrupted and turned against us. The notion of power is certainly not as appealing when it is being used against us, rather than used by us, and we feel as if we have none of your own.