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Arts of the Possible: Literature and Social Justice Movements

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The fall of my freshman year, I took “ENGL H286 Arts of the Possible: Literature and Social Justice Movements” which was key in helping to bring all of these understandings to light.  What was wonderful about the class is that theory or dense history wasn’t necessary for understanding past social justice struggles – what we were reading was often the work of those directly involved.  My notions of what constitutes effective organizing was backed up by Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, but challenged by Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and members of the Weather Underground.  Reading Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of The Dead," about miners dying of industrial fumes because they were not provided with masks, made me begin to ask if the U.S. really was a combat zone, with labor and social inequalities being the weapon of choice.  Shared below are my ideas and reflections about The Book of The Dead, and other Rukeyser poetry from the same anthology, US 1, through the lens of understanding how Rukeyser’s political point is complicated by her use of disability imagery.

            In both conversation and literature, people’s physical beings are generally thought of in terms of a prescribed list of qualities that define their appearance.  Hair length, body type, eye color, and race might seem like trivialities on the surface, but they all speak to the ways in which we perceive and view one another.  When people’s bodies are corrupted by a disease, however, the artificial manners in which we describe them are often replaced with a complete fixation on what is wrong with their anatomy.  Instead of looking at a person’s outward being, we think about the ways in which their organs are being distorted underneath the flesh.  This phenomena is clearly seen in Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry cycle from U.S. 1, as she describes the difficulties faced by West Virginia miners who have become sick with Silicosis.  The language used to portray their physical bodies concentrates almost entirely on the destruction caused by the mine-induced illness.  Their whole identities become the disease, and, in turn, the hazardous work sites that made them sick.

            A uniform focus on disease can quickly trigger the complete effacement of individual identities and result in robbing people of their senses of self. Throughout Rukeyser’s poems, the situation surrounding the miners is described by numerous points of view – the miners themselves, their family members, doctors, lawyers, and anonymous narrators.  One of the common threads throughout these very different pieces is that the only physical attributes assigned to the miners directly relate to their Silicosis.  In some cases, such as throughout the poem “The Disease,” the loss of identity is so strong that no name is given when describing their sick bodies. “I would point out to you: these are the ribs; this is the region of the breastbone; this is the heart (a wide white shadow filled with blood). In here of course is the swallowing tube, esophagus.  The windpipe.  Spaces between the lungs.” (31) The clinical information from an x-ray being read adds weight and realism to the piece, but throughout the medical discussion there is no mention of who the image belongs to.  The reader knows nothing else about his body – or his life – except for the internal destruction.

            In omitting these other details, Rukeyser is sending the tacit message that the only purpose these men have in her poetry is to serve as poster-children for an occupational lung disease.  An incredible amount of intrusiveness is permitted into the bodies of a total strangers in order to understand the background of a social cause.  By acquiring a disease that has become the genesis for an entire movement, the lives of the miners take on a meaning beyond themselves.  At the end of “The Disease,” the questioning concludes with “Does Silicosis cause death? Yes, sir.” (32) The sick miners almost seem to have more purpose in the story after they are dead  – more of the dead are assigned names and ages than the living, such as in “Absalom” (27).  The roll call of those who have passed away is reminiscent of a list of soldiers who have perished during war; the battlefield these men have gone to is Gauley Bridge in West Virginia, but they are still held up as unfair victims.  It is arguable whether or not this type of mild exploitation is eventually beneficial in helping the greater cause, but it is important to recognize that the poems borrow the stories of these men without proper citation.

            One effect that illness – or shared hardship of any kind – can have on a community is that it often brings people together from various different backgrounds.  It is unclear from Rukeyser’s work whether this occurred after the Silicosis outbreak, but it is obvious that the disease itself was not discriminatory.  When the x-ray is described in “The Disease,” it is remarkable that it could be talking about a man of any race or ethnicity.  “More numerous nodules, thicker, see, in the upper lobes.  You will notice the increase: here fibrous tissue.” (31)  Historically, Appalachia has been widely regarded as a very racially segregated and often racist part of the country, but everyone working in the mines developed the same physical problems.  The inner anatomy of all humans is indistinguishable, and by only focusing on the academic details of their health problems, Rukeyser is helping to fight against ingrained racist perceptions by emphasizing commonalities.

            The men who worked in the mines lost so much of their physical identities that even their skin was stained identical shades of chalk-white from the overwhelming dust.  This again serves as a very poignant reminder that all of the miners were equal in terms of skin color – that their work was not defined in by their race.  As George Robinson wrote in his namesake poem, “George Robinson: Blues,” “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 white.” (34) Removing race, a marker that has long been associated with hate and prejudice, allows for an equilibrium to be met between the miners, but also results in a loss of identity for Robinson, the narrator of the poem.  He begins with his name as the title, and a bold statement of his identity in the first clause, “Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes” (33).  Yet, by the time he has finished talking about his work in the mines he has defined himself as another sick miner, literally identical to the rest of his coworkers.

            Throughout Rukeyser’s poetry cycle, the men who have become ill with Silicosis are so tightly chained to place they got sick that even the imagery surrounding their bodies begins to match that of the minefields.  In “Mearl Blankenship,” the miner narrating the poem associates his feelings of sickness and discomfort entirely with his workplace – when he is choking at night, his subconscious automatically goes to the mine. “‘Then I’m asleep in the dream I always see: ‘the tunnel choked, ‘the dark wall coughing dust.” (24)  Instead of seeing himself as the one coughing and choking, he projects his symptoms onto the walls of the mine, the toxic site hemorrhaging with the silica that made him sick.  Mearl Blankenship’s self-identity has become highjacked by the place that is quickly killing him.  The mottled rock of the mines (25), covered in white dust that “looked like somebody sprinkled flour all over” (34)  is later recalled when a doctor describes a Silicosis-infected lung as “this lung’s mottled, beginning, in these areas.  You’d say a snowstorm had struck the fellow’s lungs.” (31) The disease is significant – clinically and socially – because of what caused it, and Rukeyser is able to demonstrate this through language similarities alone.  The bodies of the miners are looked at through the lense of their illness, but the silicosis is completely intertwined with the mines, linking the bodies with the inanimate mountains where they once worked.

            One of the most defining features of the Gauley Bridge mines is the overwhelming dust that fills them. “It was so dusty you couldn’t hardly see the lights.” (24) It is this dust, thick with silica, that the miners inhaled day after day, and that eventually scarred their lungs so badly as to cause fatal disease.  The course of Silicosis goes back to the place it started from, with men like Shirley spewing up dust the same way the walls of the mine did. (27) It is the dust that defines the epidemic, from the walls that caused it, to the disease itself, to the where the dead bodies will eventually be laid to rest.  In many ways, Rukeyser not only defines the bodies in terms of their sickness, but also in its causation and presentation.  In Absalom, Shirley tells his mother, “‘I want you to have them open me up and see if that dust killed me.’” This is almost a superfluous question.  The mining community quickly identified dust as the culprit and the disease, and, eventually, their identities. 

            In addition to its standing as literature, Rukeyser’s poetry cycle could easily serve as a public health statement.  The piece is less about people than it is about medicine – bodies mainly serve as portholes by which to understand the disease process.  The individuals who are portrayed in the poems are left featureless; shells that harbor a terminal illness, until its conclusion is played out.  The poems are told from many different perspectives, and the different narrators all possess unique voices.  However, throughout the entire piece, the theme of the bodies remains the same.  Rukeyser is able to utilize the many different characters to get her point across and portray the miners bodies in terms of the Silicosis, and in turn make a statement about a social cause she cares deeply about.

Works Cited

 Rukeyser, Muriel. U.S. 1. New York: Covici & Friede, 1938. “Book of the Dead.”


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