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On "Absalom"


Louise Kertesz

"Absalom" is spoken by a mother who has lost three sons to silicosis and whose husband is dying of it. Hee narrative lines ("I had three sons who worked with their father in the tunnel") are interrupted by rhythmic lyric lines in which individual maternal strength is connected with the universal power of regeneration:

I open out a way, they have covered my sky with crystal
I come forth by day, I am born a second time,
I force a way through, and I know the gate
I shall journey over the earth among the living.

As [M.L.] Rosenthal noted, "the mother’s determination to make her youngest child’s death count for something, to have him live again in her own work of struggle for a better life, is linked with the rebirth motif of the great religions, and specifically of the Egyptian religion" whose scripture is The Book of the Dead. Philip Blair Rice pointed out that the imaginative scheme of "The Book of the Dead" was that of Osiris’ Way. The tunnel is the underworld, the mountain stream is the life-giving river, and the congressional inquiry is the judgement in the hall of truth. Rice noted that this scheme is suggested rather than presented; the poem is not overweighted with allegory. But Rosenthal is perceptive in identifying the persona in Rukeyser’s poem with Isis not Osiris and with all the great female protagonists from mythological earth mothers to the strong modern women of Lawrence and Gorky. Especially harrowing lines are spoken by the mother of an eighteen-year-old boy:

Shirley was sick about three months,
I would carry him from his bed to the table,
from his bed to the porch, in my arms.
. . . .
He lay and said, "Mother, when I die,
"I want you to have them open me up and
"see if that dust killed me.
"Try to get compensation . . . ."

[Louis] Untermeyer said that he was emotionally and physically shaken by the combination of protest and prophecy in the poem. It ends with these lines, spoken by the mother:

He shall not be diminished, never;
I shall give a mouth to my son.

[from Louise Kertesz, The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980), 102-103.]


Walter Kalaidjian

[P]erhaps Rukeyser’s most stunning advance beyond proletcult and bourgeois aesthetics alike is her distinctively feminist rendering of social empowerment. To begin with, it is the mother’s compassionate narrative in the "Absalom" section that augurs women’s revisionary authority . . . . Mrs. Jones’ poignant story of the loss of three sons to silicosis stands out as the poem’s at once most desperate and heroic portrait. Failing to persuade the company’s doctor to examine or treat her sons for silicosis, she "went out on the road and begged the X-ray money" (28). As it happened, these x-ray pictures of damaged lung tissue were eventually presented as evidence in spearheading the first of many lawsuits brought against Union Carbide. Although successful in carrying out her son’s last request to seek damages against the company, the mother, at the time of Rukeyser’s interview, was woefully impoverished, having to hitchhike eighteen miles for the paltry subsistence settlement that only barely sustains her remaining family: "They asked me how I keep the cow on $2. / I said one week, feed for the cow, one week, the children’s flour" (29). In the mother’s grim testimony of industrial disease and poverty, Rukeyser uncovers capital’s hidden oppression of depression era families that, obscured in the domestic sphere, were not as visibly exploited as male workers.

However diminished by death and hardship, nevertheless the mother vows, in memory of her youngest boy Shirley, that "I shall give a mouth to my son" (30). Likewise, as poet Rukeyser empowers the mother’s pledge by supplementing her plain-spoken idiom with a more mythic discourse - one that voices a feminist rebirth:

I open out a way, they have covered my sky with crystal,
I come forth by day, I am born a second time,
I force a way through, and I know the gate,
I shall journey over the earth among the living.

The striking shift in tonal registers, achieved by crosscutting such italicized passages into the transcript of the mother’s interview, effectively shatters the alienation and despair of silicosis, symbolized in the poem’s crystal wall of glass sealing off the heavens. The mother forces "a way through" to a revolutionary, transpersonal resolve through her fusion with the invoked figure of the female messiah, here patterned after Isis, the Egyptian goddess of transmigration. It is the power of the feminine in Rukeyser’s revisionary mythology that transforms "the river of Death" at "the root of the tower and the tunnel’s core" into the hydroelectric dam’s "Pool of Fire" from which the world is reborn. Speaking in the persona of the goddess, the poet claims for herself "power over the fields and Pool of Fire, / Phoenix, I sail over the phoenix world" (15).

[from Walter Kalaidjian, American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique (New York: Columbia UP, 1993), 173-174.]


 Michael Thurston

"Absalom" models and invites participation in a politics not only dynamic but also elegiac. It constitutes a crucial node in the sequence, a junction point at which documentary and modernism meet to mount a critically unmasking and ritually remembering political life. Mrs. Jones lives in Gamoca, near Gauley Bridge; her husband and three sons have all contracted silicosis. The focus of the poem is on the third son, Shirley, who dies of the disease but brings about the silicosis scandal when he urges his mother to "have them open me up and / see if that dust killed me" (27). Shirley’s wish led to the discovery of the cause of workers’ deaths, but the poem most importantly explores Mrs. Jones’ own struggle to transcend the limits placed on her by poverty and suffering and to find in her circumstances some measure of power. The mother’s testimony takes us again over ground covered by the sequence’s earlier expository passages; she explains that her husband and sons had worked in a coal mine, had been convinced by a power company foreman to come to work at the tunnel for better money, and had gone into the tunnel. After eighteen months, Shirley "came home one evening with a shortness of breath." From the beginning of her sons’ illness, Mrs. Jones takes action, begging money for X-rays, pleading with the company doctor to take her sons’ case for half of any compensation she might get. Her work results in legal action: "The case of my son was the first of the line of lawsuits." The suits, though, bring only meager compensation, for which she has to hitchhike eighteen miles. With three sons dead and a husband dying, Mrs. Jones is left scraping to get by on $2.00 a week.

Defeated by the disease, the doctors, and the duplicity of lawyers and corporations, Mrs. Jones’ last recourse is her testimony; her only power is to speak, to fulfill her resolution : "I shall give a mouth to my son." Her matter of fact tone throughout the testimony makes more harrowing her descriptions of suffering -- of carrying Shirley "from his bed to the table, / from his bed to the porch, in my arms," and of her three sons’ deaths:

The oldest son was twenty-three.
The next son was twenty-one.
The youngest son was eighteen.

Like Mearl Blankenship or George Robinson, Mrs. Jones appears to be a simple citizen stoically suffering through this tragedy. Her diction is plain, her recollections starkly and unsentimentally delivered. Readers familiar with the documentary culture of the period would recognize in Mrs. Jones, in her understated determination and in her flat tone, the strong and stoic mother figure represented over and over again in the work of, for example, Bourke-White and Caldwell. But, of course, Mrs. Jones’ appearance here is a carefully crafted illusion. The first twelve lines of "Absalom," for example, are taken from social worker Philippa Allen’s testimony in the Hearings a subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Labor Committee held to investigate the Gauley Bridge tragedy. Rukeyser makes only minor changes to Allen’s version, reversing the order in which Mrs. Jones’ three sons are listed, for example, and omitting Allen’s explicit claim that Shirley was his mother’s favorite son. In the middle of the section, though, Rukeyser seamlessly weaves together material from Allen and from several separated passages in Mrs. Jones’ testimony (some eighty pages later in the published Hearings). A graphic representation might show this more clearly than an explanation. In this excerpt, the Roman text marks material from Mrs. Jones’ testimony, the italics material from Philippa Allen’s testimony, and the bold text marks invented language:

When they took sick, right at the start, I saw a doctor.
I tried to get Dr. Harless to X-ray the boys.
He was the only man I had any confidence in,
the company doctor in the Kopper’s mine,
but he would not see Shirley.
He did not know where his money was coming from.
I promised him half if he'd work to get compensation,
but even then he would not do anything.
I went on the road
and begged the X-ray money,
the Charleston hospital made the lung pictures,
he took the case after the pictures were made.
And two or three doctors said the same thing.

The compression Rukeyser achieves by jumping back and forth between speakers and by switching the order of statements renders Mrs. Jones’ recollections more powerful and poignant; the impact of the material is enhanced when Rukeyser brings it together and into focus.

Later in the poem, Rukeyser manipulates the text of the hearings to shift to her female speaker a power she lacks (and male speakers have) in the Congressional testimony, the power to name. Charles Jones, testifying after his wife, lists the men he knows who have died:

Shirley was the first to die, then Cecil died, and then Jeffrey died, and then Oren, and then Raymond Johnson, and then Clev. Anders, Oscar Anders, Frank Dickinson, Frank Lynch, Henry Palf, Mr. Wall, who was assistant superintendent, Mr. Pitch, a foreman . . . . There was a slim fellow who carried steel with my boys. His name was Darnell, I believe.

Rukeyser puts her edited version of this list in the mouth of Mrs. Jones:

There was Shirley, and Cecil, Jeffrey and Oren,
Raymond Johnson, Clev and Oscar Anders,
Frank Lynch, Henry Palf, Mr. Pitch, a foreman;
a slim fellow who carried steel with my boys,
his name was Darnell, I believe.

Mrs. Jones, through Rukeyser’s editing, becomes the speaker who names the dead, reading them into the record; she has the power to preserve their memory through the act of naming them. In the Egyptian myth system from which Rukeyser’s borrows her poem’s structure, Mrs. Jones takes on the roll of Thoth, the Egyptian scribe god, as well as that of Isis, who gathers the fragments of Osiris and reconstitutes the god. Naming the dead, she exercises the power to give them new life. She also attains, by calling this roll, a vantage point that commands the entire valley, shifting from the names of the men to the names of the towns they came from, broadening her scope to show how "the whole valley is witness." Mrs. Jones’ compelling final resolution ("I shall give a mouth to my son") rests, at least in part, upon the power she exhibits in these lines, a power she attains only through Rukeyser’s manipulation of the Congressional text, her careful work to "extend the document."

Rukeyser’s editing strengthens the agency Mrs. Jones attains through her actions. While her husband grows sicker and cannot work, Mrs. Jones files lawsuits, hitchhikes the eighteen miles to town for the meager compensation checks, and holds the family together on two dollars per week. When her sons become ill, she takes them to the doctor, she begs money for X-rays and convinces the doctor to take the case. When Shirley cannot move about, she carries him from his bed to the table, to the porch. Mrs. Jones’ agency appears even in the grammatical structure of her speech, which differs from the structure of Mearl Blankenship’s in the preceding section. Blankenship repeatedly follows references to his own actions with references to what others have done or might do for him. He wakes up coughing, but his wife turns him over, he has written a letter but asks the narrator to send it, he has sued the company but asks if his audience can do anything for him. Blankenship, of course, is dying, and Rukeyser’s construction of his speech and writing quite poignantly show that he is not master of his own fate. Mrs. Jones, though, exercises greater control over hers. Her sentences persistently begin with "I" and a verb: "I first discovered," "I saw the dust," "I would carry him," "I tried," "I promised," "I went on the road and begged," "I hitchhike." This pattern culminates in the poem’s concluding resolution: "I shall give a mouth to my son."

This resolution is a key to the lived politics Rukeyser evolves and models in the sequence. Just as water creates usable power only in tension with that which would block it, memory becomes power only in the speaking of it, the dynamic repetition of speech and action against those forces which would silence and repress. Rukeyser elevates Mrs. Jones, through her suffering and her power to speak and memorialize, to a mythic stature that makes her central to the sequence as a whole. Mrs. Jones’ testimony is interrupted at several points by sets of italicized lines that seem to be spoken by a different voice. Set off from Mrs. Jones’ voice not only by typography, but also by diction, rhythm, and content, the italicized lines add a mythic dimension to "Absalom." But the mythic does not exclude this mother; rather, Rukeyser takes Mrs. Jones up into the realm these lines create. The same grammatical structure that characterizes Mrs. Jones’ speech organizes the elevated rhetoric of the italicized lines:

I have gained mastery over my heart
I have gained mastery over my two hands
I have gained mastery over the waters
I have gained mastery over the river.
. . . . .
I open out a way . . .
I come forth by day . . .
I force a way through . . .
I shall journey over the earth . . . .

The grammatical similarity between Mrs. Jones’ monologue and the italicized lines allows us to read the lyrical interruptions not only as a "mythic discourse" that supplements Mrs. Jones’ "plainspoken idiom," as Walter Kalaidjian writes, but as a version of Mrs. Jones’ own rhetoric, an elevated variant of her own maternal agency. The lines transform the mother’s localized and limited agency into a broader and uncontained power. The collocation of mother and tunnel brings a measure of new power to Mrs. Jones, elevating her from mother to the Mother who is able to proclaim, after her youngest son’s death, "I have gained mastery . . . ." Rukeyser’s strategic editing and startling juxtaposition of the documentary and the poetic fashion, in Mrs. Jones, a powerful female figure who bridges the all-too-earthly realm of tunnels, silica, and workers and the seemingly supernatural realm of waters, rivers, and the air. Like the phoenix, she rises from the wreckage of her family to fly and to speak. And in so doing, she figures the cyclical structure that exists in tension with the sequence’s documentary style.

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


David Kadlec

Rukeyser hoped to "widen the lens" of the "paternalistic" New Deal documentary apparatus not only by using medical visual technologies to recover invisible texts, but by challenging conventionally gendered claims to the instruments of both medical and poetic seeing. By exposing encrypted male interiors in her poem, and by foregrounding the women -- the journalist Philippa Allen, and the bereaved mother, Emma Jones -- who secured interviews, autopsies, and X-rays to uncover the indistrial truth of the tunnel incident, Rukeyser regendered her medical reportage, restoring agency to women through a visual medium that was first conceived to erase it. The passage from the Heart Amulet of Hatnofer, the first arcane inscription to appear in "The Book of the Dead," paid tribute to the matriarchal aspects of a society that, at the time of the production of the Eighteenth-Dynasty stone, was ruled by an innovative queen, Hatshepsut, who had claimed for herself the traditionally male role of sun god. Rukeyser extended the words on this amulet, a treasure stolen from the breast of the Egyptian mother who had borne it, into the testimony of the modern West Virginia mother who procured the first "X-ray pictures" of the tunnel workers’ lungs:

I first discovered what was killing these men.
I had three sons who worked with their father in the tunnel:
Cecil, aged 23, Owen, aged 21, Shirley, aged 17.
They used to work in a coal mine, not steady work
for the mines were not going much of the time.
A power Co. foreman learned that we made home brew,
and he formed the habit of dropping in evenings to drink,
persuading the boys and my husband --
give up their jobs and take this other work.
It would pay them better.
Shirley was my youngest son; the boy.
He went into the tunnel.

My heart     my mother     my heart      my mother
My heart     my coming into being
.

Egyptian icons and religious texts featured powerful matriarchs like the Heart Amulet’s Hatshepsut, and prophetic goddesses like Isis who, according to Egyptian texts, "lived in the form of a woman" and cured diseases through her knowledge of the healing properties of words.

[David Kadlec, "X-Ray Testimonials in Muriel Rukeyser" (Modernism/Modernity 5.1, 1998: 23-47), 32-


Robert Shulman

In the next in a series of poems in which the workers and their families speak in their own words, in "Absalom" (pp. 27-30) the speaker is Mrs. Jones, another member of the defense committee and the mother not of one but of three sons who have died of silicosis. Her husband is dying and unable to work. Her language is straightforward and affecting:

Shirley was my youngest son; the boy.
He went into the tunnel.
    My heart    my mother    my heart     my mother
    My heart    my coming into being.

Rukeyser juxtaposes the mother's words with what becomes a lamentation as she moves to her poem Spell B of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Rukeyser focuses on the heart and the mother as integral to her political art. She also elides the promise of life ("my coming into being") with the mother's revelations about sickness and death, first of her three sons, culminating in Shirley, the Absalom of the poem, and then of her husband, in the immediately following line, "my husband is not able to work." This simple statement gains force from its juxtaposition and contrast of styles with the suggestive lamentation from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Is Shirley the lamenting voice of "my heart my mother"? Does he merge with the dead Egyptian whose heart "is weighed in the scales of the balance against the feather of righteousness"? For him is there a promise of life or an exposure of the suffering and death the company has caused—or both? Or are the "my" of "my heart" and "my husband" the same? Does the dead Egyptian merge with Mrs. Jones and compound the sense of social, economic, and political wrong? Or are we to keep all of these possibilities in mind? In any case, in the remainder of the poem Rukeyser continues to juxtapose Mrs. Charles Jones's testimony (Investigation, pp. 37-40) with fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This opening up of possibilities and a denial of closure is basic to Rukeyser's avant-garde political art in which she fuses documentary precision, powerful feeling, and a range of languages.

In the fullest sense Mrs. Jones cares for her son:

Shirley was sick about three months.
I would carry him from his bed to the table,
from his bed to the porch, in my arms.
    My heart is mine in the place of hearts,
    They gave me back my heart, it lies in me.

The quotations from the Egyptian The Book of the Dead center on the heart, the seat of feeling, humanity, and life. These connotations reinforce Mrs. Jones's humanity, intensify her sense of loss and, as she continues, expose what the doctors lack. Dr. Harless in particular refuses to X-ray the boys because "he did not know where his money was coming from." Mrs. Jones goes on,

I promised him half if he'd work to get compensation,
but even then he would not do anything.
I went on the road and begged the X-ray money,
the Charleston hospital made the lung pictures,
he took the case after the pictures were made.

Mrs. Jones adds Shirley's words and feelings to the account. When he dies he wants his mother to have him opened up to

"see if that dust killed me.
"Try to get compensation,
"you will not have any way of making your living
"when we are gone,
"and the rest are going too."
    I have gained mastery over my heart
    I have gained mastery over my two hands
    I have gained mastery over the waters
    I have gained mastery over the river
.

The chant from The Book of the Dead amplifies and gives urgency to this narrative of suffering and loss. The positive note of "mastery over my heart," the sense of renewal, and the invocation of "the waters" and "the river," with their reference both to the river at Gauley Bridge and the waters and river of life—these positive associations also throw into ironic relief Mrs. Jones's narrative of legal manipulation, company power, and government hostility:

The case of my son was the first of the line of lawsuits.
They sent the lawyers down and the doctors down;
they closed the electric sockets in the camps.

As she continues the names of the dead resonate, as do the place names—"the whole valley is witness." In a compressed style Rukeyser has Mrs. Jones establish the role of the relief officials who refuse to mail checks so that

I hitchhike eighteen miles, they make checks out.
They asked me how I keep the cow on $2.
I said one week, feed for the cow, one week, the children's flour.

What gradually emerges is that after the doctors first called what the boys had pneumonia or "would pronounce it fever,"

Shirley asked that we try to find out.
That's how they learned what the trouble was.

From Shirley, who has opened out a way into the tragedy, Rukeyser segues to the last of the quotations from The Book of the Dead,

I open out a way, they have covered my sky with crystal
I come forth by day, I am born a second time,
I force a way through, and I know the gate
I shall journey over the earth among the living.

Rukeyser has previously associated crystal with the deadly silica, one of the multiple ironies her montage generates. In particular, in the context of Rukeyser's poem the traditional affirmation of rebirth has a specifically human and implicitly radical connotation, reinforced by the mother's concluding declaration:

He shall not be diminished, never;
I shall give a mouth to my son.

from The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Copyright 2000 by The University of North Carolina Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.


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