April 24, 2014

Muriel Rukeyser: These Roads Will Take You Into Your Own Country

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) is described by an essay on the website of the American Poetry Foundation in this way: "Impassioned, self-confident, eclectic, a poet of powerful expression, a poet of the political and the personal...."  In an earlier era, 1938, she travelled to the coal mining region and wrote about what she witnessed using her form: poetry.  This work inspired me to take on the same challenge of writing about mining in northern Minnesota. For this reason, I chose a line from one of her poems, "The Book of the Dead," as an inscription for Night Train Red Dust.  

Her title refers to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It expressed her metaphor that the miners in the coal industry were archetypal figures that descended into the underworld. The Academy of American Poets has an essay about this important work that reflected many voices in the community, historical documentation, and a socio-political perspective:
"The Book of the Dead" was published as a long sequence in Rukeyser's book U.S. 1 in 1938. It is a text that could be considered a hybrid work; it is polyvocal, part factual document, part investigative journalism, and part lyric. The series is a collage of source text that includes stock market quotes, Congressional reports and trial transcripts. The poems host a polyphony of voices: doctors, contractors, close family members of miners, and, most prominently, the victims themselves who were little more than exploited, and certainly nearly invisible, during the aftermath of the exposure. In doing so, the text provides a powerful exploration of who is empowered by speech, and whose speech acts have been mediated for various reasons. "The Book of the Dead," in making the dead visible, also exposes and implicates the classist, racist and capitalist structures that allowed such a tragedy to occur. 
Initially, Night Train Red Dust began with a focus on Highway #4, otherwise known as the Vermilion Trail.  In my research, I learned this road was the first road into northeastern Minnesota- initially a path for foot or horseback used by the Native Americans, and then later this road was travelled by surveyors and geologists with horse and wagon. Veterans from the Civil War arrived at Vermilion Lake during its Gold Rush via the Vermilion Trail. Reports from the 1800s were that the road was difficult to travel, often muddy and impassable. Equipment was more successfully transported during the cold winter when the surface was frozen. Large machinery and mining equipment were carried to Biwabik and other locations on this road.  Muriel Rukeyser is a poet whom I admire for her broad range of poetry.
This is excerpt of the poem:

These roads will take you into your own country. 
Seasons and maps coming where this road comes
into a landscape mirrored in these men.

Past all your influences, your home river,
constellations of cities, mottoes of childhood,
parents and easy cures, war, all evasion’s wishes.

What one word must never be said?
Dead, and these men fight off our dying,
cough in the theatres of the war.

What two things shall never be seen?
They : what we did. Enemy : what we mean.
This is a nation’s scene and halfway house.

What three things can never be done?
Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone.
The hills of glass, the fatal brilliant plain.

The facts of war forced into actual grace.
Seasons and modern glory. Told in the histories,
how first ships came

seeing on the Atlantic thirteen clouds
lining the west horizon with their white
shining halations;

They conquered, throwing off impossible Europe—
could not be used to transform; created coast—
breathed-in America.

Besides writing "poetry of witness" like U.S. 1, Rukeyser also explored mythic stories (like that of Orpheus and Eurydyce). She connected her stories to myth:
By invoking the original Egyptian text Book of the Dead, Rukeyser assigns a mythic importance to the miners who were asked to descend into the underworld that would eventually foster their demise. However, as Michael Davidson points out in Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World, "their journey is not a search for lost cultural plentitude, but a fatal contract with progress....Rukeyser deflates the modernist mythological imperative typified by T.S. Eliot's invocation of cyclic vegetation myths. Buried in this waste land are the corpses of workers for whom a reading of the classics would have offered little sustenance." 
While "The Book of the Dead" is consistent with Rukeyser's ongoing dedication to a poetry of "witness," it is unique in that it draws on, and includes, an abundance of non-literary source material, thus widening the lens of the poet as documentarian and activist.
With such an inspirational writer as a guide,  I hoped to develop a collection of work that would reflect the challenges for men and women who lived in a mining community. Much of the region's population is employed in the mining industry.  During college one summer, I also worked at Minntac.  Mining supports the economy, yet it poses hazards to health and the environment. Growing up in a blue collar community with history of strong union activism and 'proletariat' roots, I have received an valuable education and I hold much respect for people who work hard. The Iron Range has made a critical contribution to the United States. The iron ore built the cities and highways and it supported the war efforts. It continues to provide us with resources and strength.

Alice Walker on Muriel Rukeyser from SLAP Agency on Vimeo.

Academy of American Poets. "Groundbreaking Book: US 1: Featuring "The Book of the Dead." n.a. copyright 2014.  Web. Retrieved 24 April 2014. 

Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive. Copyright Elisabeth Däumer 2012. EMU’s English Department.

"Muriel Rukeyser Biography" Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/muriel-rukeyser

Rukeyser, Muriel. Out of Silence: Selected Poems.  Edited by Kate Daniels.  TriQuarterly Books. Northwestern University. 1992.  Print. 

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