Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Ecology, Egyptology, and Dialectics in Muriel Rukeyser's "The Book of the Dead"

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Ecology, Egyptology, and Dialectics in Muriel Rukeyser's "The Book of the Dead"

Article excerpt

Studying how Muriel Rukeyser combines mythopoetics from the Egyptian Book of the Dead with Marxist dialectics reveals how, in the final section of her long poem "The Book of the Dead," she transforms a historical narrative of a Union Carbide worker tragedy into an ecological vision that critiques corporate greed and America's manifest destiny myth.


As a modernist who believed in interdisciplinary knowledge, Muriel Rukeyser throughout her life refused to restrict the creative act to the arts. In her Life of Poetry, Rukeyser argued that in the scientist and the poet "consciousness and creation are linked" (171), and in both the energy of creation manifests itself in design--in the "relations" or "arrangement" of the new "pattern" of particulars (176, 179-80). In Willard Gibbs, Rukeyser wrote that both the scientist and the poet combat chaos with form (74) because "the imagination works on many levels with the same design" (231). Both the scientist and the poet use analogy in the creative process to create a new equilibrium from a disturbed balance (82-3). In her poem "Gibbs," she praises the mathematical elegance of his Phase Rule by observing that the creative act delves beneath surfaces to reveal an underlying "whole which is simpler than any of its parts" (188), for what constitutes truth is "an agreement of components" (Life 178).

Given Rukeyser's interdisciplinarity, and her conviction that all disciplines of knowledge possess a creative drive that delves beneath surfaces to reveal new and simpler wholes, it is not surprising to find Muriel Rukeyser fusing the science of ecology with Egyptology and Marxist dialectics as an organizational basis for the mythic juxtapositions of her long poem "The Book of the Dead," the centerpiece of her 1938 volume U. S. 1. The interdisciplinarity that Rukeyser emphasizes in her Life of Poetry also appears in "The Book of the Dead." Throughout her poetic narrative of the demise of the Union Carbide workers, Rukeyser employs Marxist dialectics not only to expose the capitalist reification of work into products and the alienation of the exploited workers, but also to reveal how capitalism fatally compartmentalizes the living whole of life into impersonal, fragmented areas of study: sociology, economics, law, psychology, political science, medicine, and engineering. This fragmentation leads to the failure of any attempt to shackle the corporate power of Union Carbide.

Rukeyser also employs dialectics to delve beneath the surfaces of capitalist reification and exploitation to reveal a deeper truth. What begins as a historical narrative with interspersed fragments of Egyptian mythology suddenly becomes dialectically transformed in the last section to reveal a new "agreement of components," a recension of the American frontier/manifest destiny myth--a vision of a "whole which is simpler than any of its parts." That deeper whole concerns ecology: in the last section the altered landscape offers irrefutable evidence of disrupted ecosystems in the piles of silica, the dammed water, and the hasty cornfield graves of workers who met an early death from silicosis. Through Rukeyser's bonding with an ecological level apparent in her earlier italicized quotations from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, she prepares readers for her final section attempt to rectify the degraded ecology, to offer a new whole by revealing the larger dimensions of the human and ecological tragedy, and by restoring the balance through the modernist design of her poem.

Rukeyser's elegaic, 63-page poem "The Book of the Dead" considers the significance of the 760 to 2,000 mostly black migrant workers who died of acute silicosis from a Union Carbide mining operation in the Gauley Bridge-New River Gorge area of West Virginia between 1930 and 1932--the largest industrial tragedy in American history. The most recent scholarly essays on "The Book of the Dead" investigate Rukeyser's use of Popular Front documentary realism to indict Union Carbide greed (Shulman, Thurston), her desire to witness and mourn the deaths of the black workers while exposing the injustice of corporate obfuscation (Lowney), her utopian Marxist urge toward the potential overthrow of constricting economic conditions (Dayton), and her use of film montage and relational thinking to convert surface vision into truth and collective knowledge (Hartman). …

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