Where I come from. Part Two: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) or Bridging the Gap - blog by BluePoppy

 



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Where I come from. Part Two: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) or Bridging the Gap
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Posted 22-Mar-2015 at 09:59 PM (21:59) by BluePoppy
Updated 22-Mar-2015 at 11:19 PM (23:19) by BluePoppy




Muriel Rukeyser, undated

Without her environments realizing it, a poet’s education starts early in life. For a white child growing in to her power of language within white discourse this will naturally be very different from a Black child fending for herself in the projects.

Most of the poetry the white child will read for many years, when poetry is both sustenance and doorway, is not only written by white men, but frames an all-white world; its images and metaphors are not raceless, but rooted in an apartheid of imagination. So the poet must break free from the limits and boundaries presented to her – and this is where the struggle begins.

Muriel Rukeyser for me is the one poet of the 20th century who most intuited, explored, and in her work, embodied this triangulation: This impulse to enter, with other humans, through language into the order and disorder of the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root.

For Adrienne Rich the link is power. Poetry and politics both have to do with description and with power. And so, of course, does science. Rich writes [1]:

Quote:
We might hope to find the three activities – poetry, science, politics triangulated, with extraordinary electrical exchanges moving from each to each and through our lives. Instead, over centuries, they have become separated – poetry from politics, poetic naming from scientific naming, an ostensibly “neutral” science from political questions, “rational” science from lyrical poetry […].
This didn’t just happen by accident. By and large it was very much connected to the early rise of the Western economies, the Great War economies as much as globalization itself. When Rukeyser (*1913) was a little girl growing up in New York City, the city itself was growing at an incredible pace. She writes [2]:

Quote:
Each of these apartment houses, standing like dead trunks along the avenue, has its army of children.” Around them “the city rises in its light. Skeletons of buildings; the orange-peel cranes; highways put through; the race of skyscrapers. And you are a part of this.
Muriel Rukeyser was a new kind of American, intensely and for her whole life identified with one place – New York City, yet internationalist in spirit and actions. Traveling the world yet deeply rooted. Her poetry embraces both New York, which in some poems becomes virtually part of her body, and places whose conflicts and configurations entered her psyche: Gauley Bridge/Hawks Nest, West Virginia; Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War; the Outer Banks; Ireland; Vietnam; South Korea.

So let’s take the Hawks Nest disaster that probably would have long been wiped from our collective memory if not for a poetic sequence Rukeyser wrote after hearing the testimony during a committee hearing of the US House of Representatives. The committee characterized Gauley Bridge, the nearby village where most workers lived, as "the village of the walking dead." The moving testimony of witnesses led Rukeyser to write a narrative poem on the tunnel.

And why, you might wonder, does a disaster from the 1930ies still matter to us today? It does, because what I called earlier (in the title of my previous blog post) “the interconnectedness of everything”. In the modern world the past extends into the future more than ever before.

On December 3, 1984 the release of methyl isocyanate from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India caused over 15,000 deaths and injured 150,000 to 6000,000. To this day it is deemed the deadliest industrial disaster in world history.

Union Carbide's path to Bhopal began over a half-century earlier at the young company's construction of the tunnel at Hawks Nest. Deaths from acute silicosis contracted during the tunnel's construction have been conservatively estimated at 764 and may have reached 2,000. The deaths were covered up. Twenty miles away, a cornfield outside the town of Summersville became a makeshift cemetery for tunnel fatalities. With three quarters of the deaths being African-American workers, race was another issue. Black labor that was cheap and largely undocumented with several hundred unmarked African-American burial sites still standing as a reminder of America's deadliest industrial disaster.

Now you might want to call Rukeyser’s poetry like in The Book of the Dead poetry of disaster. And in a way it is. However, it is also a way to deal with trauma that leaves so many of us silent. It tries through formalized language to enter the realm of the unspeakable. In her poem Rukeyser explores the incident from multiple perspectives including those of the miners, the doctors who diagnosed them, a mother who lost all her sons. The language shifts with the poem and contains language of the working poor, personal testimony as well as Union Carbide stock reports. Together they form a mosaic of a reality few people back then, let alone us today, could enter otherwise with the same clarity, the same compassion and the same understanding.

Just as seventy or eighty years from now 9/11 will no longer ring the same bell in people’s minds across the globe. There will be iconic photography by the likes of Jim Nachtwey. There will be written and taped testimony by those who were there that day. There will still be recordings from the 911 tapes and there will be yet another report by Congress, oddly enough printed on the cheapest of pulp, sitting on the shelves of the Library of Congress. However, I have yet to find the poem that expresses for me what happened not only on that day, but in the aftermath – when police, EMTs, firefighters, construction workers and countless others died from having been contaminated by toxic debris. There were hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic debris containing more than 2,500 contaminants, including known carcinogens, spread across Lower Manhattan due to the collapse of the Twin Towers. The focus of the news media to this day is on 9/11, the moments when the towers were hit by the hijacked planes and later on collapsed. It is not on the people, the ones clearing for years Ground Zero, the mothers who lost their sons, the wives who lost their husbands years later.



Brooklyn Bridge fireworks on the opening night in 1883.

Which brings me back to young Muriel Rukeyser’s New York when she was growing up. She had witnessed the building of the George Washington Bridge as she was driven back and forth to school along Riverside Drive. She saw it as the consummation of a process, but also as itself altering both the city and the lives of people just as the building of the Brooklyn Bridge had changed New York City when it was completed in 1883.

Back then contemporaries marveled at what technology was capable of and the bridge became a symbol of the optimism of the time. John Perry Barlow wrote in the late 20th century of the "literal and genuinely religious leap of faith" embodied in the Brooklyn Bridge — "the Brooklyn Bridge required of its builders faith in their ability to control technology". 9/11 changed all that – faith in technology was no longer the issue. Faith as such became the issue.

There are many facets to the meaning of 9/11. On a personal level it was my daughter’s first day in kindergarten. We were living in Boston at the time and evacuation from the city was a grim experience. For days we were without working phone lines and without any information regarding the whereabouts of friends living in New York City. My best friend lived two blocks away from Ground Zero and I was paralyzed with fear until we made contact four days later.



Artwork from "Trauma. Spaces." © SoWi, 2005

In 1949 Rukeyser wrote on the function of poetry in a time of crisis about a wasted elemental resource:

Quote:
American poetry has been part of a culture in conflict.
[…] We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business with in the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare. It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories. […] But around and under and abov it is another reality. […] This history is the history of possibility.
It is upon us to make good use of it.



[1] Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There – Notebook on Poetry and Politics (San Francisco: Norton, 1993)
[2] Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (New York: A.A. Wynn/Current Books, 1949)

My all time favorite books on New York that have shaped my view of the city over the years:
Norval White, Elliot Willensky, Fran Leadon, AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010)

E.B.White, Here is New York (New York: Little Bookroom, 2000)

Robert A.M. Stern, New York 1960 : Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1997)

Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Random House, 1975)

With inspiration from:
Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There – Notebook on Poetry and Politics (San Francisco: Norton, 1993)

Adrienne Rich, A Human Eye – Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008 (San Francisco: Norton, 2010)




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