Monday, October 1, 2007

bring down the maps again

Seriously last thing I need to be doing as I enter my last week of generals, but I've added Muriel Rukeyser's "Book of the Dead" (1938) to my list. A few notes that wont add up to anything major: A long pastiche poem that she wrote starting in 1936, when at the age of 22 she went to West Virginia to investigate and document the scads of miners dying of silicosis, a lung disease brought on by inhalation of silicon-dioxide. It's the true formal middle step between Reznikoff's Testimony, which carves its sources in order to crystalize historical violences in the present, and Paterson, which seeks to give the inhabitants of the town full control over their fates (WCW's argument against "accident" in Book I, even as spatial coincidence is the work's formal point of origin).

Here we are moved along the road,

"Past your tall central city's influence,
outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,
are centers removed and strong, fighting for good reason.

These roads will take you into your own country."

A clear relocation of both proletarian struggle and modernist representation outside the city. But "outside its body" begins to get troubled by the subject of poisoning, as the body politic succumbs to the same blockages (failed pleas on the floor of the House are included and dismissed) as the men's lungs. The purity of the raw materials becomes a threat to the poem's construction -- seeking to include testimonies unpurged -- as it is a threat to the miners, who were told to expand production once the bosses learned how the richest deposits could be "used...without refining". Documentation, as in the Oppen of Discrete Series, cannot stand apart from directly stated advocacy. Thus, the camera eye view of the city is blurred by movement, seems unable to survey properly (X-rays become the dominant and necessary form of photography in the poem, acting as truer "maps" throughout), and becomes another glass frame or prohibition, like the ones that house the manager who is "keeping his books behind the public glass".

"What do you want - a cliff over a city?
A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here."

ends the section "Gauley Bridge." Can't write a natural poem about the scene. Can't just show the city -- the bridge goes over the river, which is dammed, which is "a scene of power", which allows the mining, the highways, the road you took to get here.