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On "Mearl Blankenship"

Michael Thurston

In "Mearl Blankenship," Rukeyser presents two perspectives: that of Blankenship (a Rinehart and Dennis employee afflicted with silicosis) speaking in the present and in a letter he hopes the narrator will send to the city, "maybe to a paper / if it’s all right," and that of a narrator, who explicitly interprets him. These perspectives correspond to a conventionally sentimental portrayal, on one hand, and to a highly conscious and self-referential deployment of that portrayal on the other. In the letter we hear Mearl most clearly, the syntax and spelling indicating his class and level of education:

Dear Sir, my name is Mearl Blankenship.
I have Worked for the rhinehart & Dennis Co
Many days & many nights
& it was so dusty you couldn’t hardly see the lights.

Blankenship’s suffering is evident -- "I wake up choking, and my wife / rolls me over on my left side" (24) -- and his written plea for help provides us an opportunity to see clearly the effect of tunnel work on one worker. But the means by which Rukeyser renders Blankenship’s voice are precisely those that make us recoil from the captions Erskine Caldwell wrote for Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs in their 1936 book, You Have Seen Their Faces:

J C Dunbar said that I was the very picture of health
when I went to Work at that tunnel.
I have lost eighteen lbs on the Rheinhart ground
and expecting to loose my life
& no settlement yet & I have sued the Co. twice
But when the lawyers got a settlement
they didn’t want to talk to me

The misspellings and incorrect punctuation comprise a textualized dialect representation of Blankenship’s speech. His class position and lack of education are typographically exposed not only for sympathy but, potentially, for a stance of superiority, for parody, for ridicule. Blankenship’s "letter" in the poem is really his, not a fabrication; Rukeyser quoted it verbatim and kept it for reference when she worked on the poem. Yet she runs the risk of condescension in using it as she does. As William Stott, Paula Rabinowitz, and others have argued, documentary works by deploying documents in a highly selective and tactically framed manner while appearing simply to adduce them.

However problematic, the self-representation of Mearl’s suffering is compelling on its own, but Rukeyser splices it with the narrator’s description both to broaden its significance and to show the hand that turns the violin music up so that our heartstrings resonate in sympathy. When the narrative voice interrupts Blankenship’s letter, Mearl and the surrounding scene (river and rocks) are intertwined:

He stood against the rock
facing the river
grey river grey face
the rock mottled behind him
like X-ray plate enlarged
diffuse and stony
his face against the stone.

The scene is Mearl himself writ large. The river is the color of his face, and the rock against which he stands is transformed into an enlarged X-ray of Mearl’s own lungs. The adjective Rukeyser uses to describe the rock, "mottled," appears at several points in the sequence to describe a silicotic lung. A metonymy for the region itself, Mearl, in this monologue, effectively performs the "case history" function in Rukeyser’s poetic documentary. Through his testimony and his carefully constructed representation, the figure of this individual worker provokes the collective response necessary to encourage social change. Repeated and recombined throughout the sequence, the documentary conventions Rukeyser borrows here provide the ground and the guide for readers to think through the cluster of problems the Gauley Bridge disaster dramatically embodies for American society. And the conventions simultaneously refer to themselves so that the object of our sympathy is already ironized, already placed within critical quotation marks, already recognized as a construction; our sympathy itself, therefore, is bracketed by Rukeyser’s complex eliciting of it.

[Michael Thurston, "Documentary Modernism as Popular Front Poetic: Muriel Rukeyser’s 'Book of the Dead’ (Modern Language Quarterly 60.1 (March 1999), 59-83.]

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