The Book of the Dead

Muriel Rukeyser. West Virginia Univ., $17.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-946684-21-9
This reissue of Rukeyser’s 1938 collection proves that the poem has lost none of its power––and, in fact, has gained resonance. Considered a foundational example of documentary poetry, it chronicles the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster of 1931, in which hundreds of Union Carbide and Carbon workers were exposed to silica dust. It is estimated that 764 workers died of the lung disease silicosis, making it “the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history.” Rukeyser weaves together observations of her trip to West Virginia (“the most audacious landscape”), congressional testimony about the disaster, and workers’ conversations and letters, borrowing her title from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The poem is put in context with an extended introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, a West Virginia–based writer who lives five miles from where the disaster occurred. Moore gives valuable background about the tragedy––especially in fleshing out the racist elements of Union Carbide’s treatment of black miners––and adds lyrical, highly personal reflections on the evolving meaning of the poem. As Moore mulls the long history of environmental and health disasters that have befallen West Virginia, she notes how Rukeyser’s poem offers “a story of dignity and resistance that was yet to be told.” Innovative, gorgeous, and deeply moving, the work more than deserves a rereading: “planted in our flesh these valleys stand,/ everywhere we begin to know the illness,/ are forced up, and our times confirm us all.” (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/15/2018
Release date: 02/01/2018
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