By 1935, an unagreed-upon number of miners had succumbed to silicosis after working on the digging of a tunnel for a hydroelectric power plant at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. The historical marker at the West Virginia site, replacing an older one that celebrated the “vast water power” generated by the New River Canyon, notes “109 admitted deaths,” and adds, “Congressional hearing placed toll at 476 for 1930-35.” Martin Cherniak, author of a book-length study of the disaster, puts the number (an estimation) at 764. Estimated figures from other sources range from 700 to over 1,000 deaths. In “Absalom,” one the testimony poems of The Book of the Dead, a mother speaks of some of these victims, in particular of the death of her youngest son. The title of the section takes its name from the second book of Samuel, not from the details of Absalom’s hapless power struggles with his father but from the father’s moving expression of grief at Absalom’s death: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Yet Rukeyser’s “Absalom” begins as a plain-spoken monologue. The speech is clearly addressed to a listener, but the listener is not acknowledged, and so the premise is that there is nothing between us and the mother, just as, in some documentary films, the interviewer stays off-camera. The poem begins here:
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.
This is the prose-not-poetry voice of Emma Jones, one of the community members who testified before the House Subcommittee about the progression of the disease in her husband and sons. Her recital is stark; if her voice itself were a film, the film would be grainy, in black and white. She describes in plain, unlyrical detail the work her sons and husband did in the mine,
not steady work,
for the mines were not going much of the time.
A power Co. foreman learned that we made home brew,
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.
In effect, we’re overhearing an interview; the voice seems authentic and almost laconic. She then turns back to son number three: “Shirley was my youngest son; the boy. / He went into the tunnel.” Fact. He went into the tunnel. No qualification, no lament. Real information, yes. But—real art? Then an utterly different voice interrupts the mother’s tearless recital:
My heart my mother my heart my mother
My heart my coming into being.
This italicized passage and the three other italicized passages later in the poem are slightly altered excerpts from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, a kind of how-to manual on passage to and through the afterlife, a book of instructions, hymns and spells. The voice seems to speak as the dead son, speaks in counterpoint to the plainness, honesty and directness of the mother’s voice, speaks as a lyrical distillation of her unvoiced sorrow. The illusion of documentary is deliberately broken, the plain-spoken juxtaposed with the heightened articulation of human sorrow.
At first the mother’s voice seems unchanged by the second voice. She goes on speaking as if the interruption had not occurred: for her it has not occurred: “My husband is not able to work. / He has it, according to the doctor.” Yet she holds her own; if the parallelism of the Egyptian passage has an accumulating power, her voice at its plainest moments has a devastating precision: “I saw the dust in the bottom of the tub.” For me, her voice at such points resembles that of a speaker in one of the old ballads, of which Gordon Gerould gives this now-classic definition:
A ballad is a folk-song that tells a story with stress on the crucial situation, tells it by letting the action unfold itself in event and speech, and tells it objectively with little comment or intrusion of personal bias.
In old ballads, much of the emotion and emphasis is imparted by way of small “facts”—the pathos of the condemned Mary Hamilton’s ascent to the gallows swells when “the heel came aff her shee” (shoe); the drowned sons of “The Wife at Usher’s Well” return from paradise for one last night at home wearing hats made of birch; the son speaking in “Lord Randall” reveals without comment that he has just eaten “eels fried in a pan” by which (he doesn’t say this) we discover his lover has poisoned him. The mother’s blunt reference to “dust at the bottom of the tub” has the same potency and pathos, and so does the litany of names, also a balladic technique:
There was Shirley, and Cecil, Jeffrey and Oren,
Raymond Johnson, Clev and Oscar Anders . . .
And yet, as the Egyptian voice comes in, and in again, with its formality of diction and its stately rhetoric, as here—
My heart is mine in the place of hearts,
They gave me back my heart, it lies in me.
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 mother’s voice too begins to be transformed, as here, in its momentary rising from listing to statement:
the towns of Glen Ferris, Alloy, where the white rock lies,
six miles away; Vanetta, Gauley Bridge,
Gamoca, Lockwood, the gullies,
the whole valley is witness.
Something of the lyrical quality of the “mastery” passage seems to have made possible the mother’s poetic reflection that “here the white rock lies,” and with the line “the whole valley is witness,” the mother turns away from factual narrative to make a statement by which her utterance rises, if only for a moment, to eloquent commentary. As for the “Egyptian” passage quoted above, the irony that the son has died as a direct result of human attempts to gain mastery over the waters doesn’t diminish the beauty and yearning of the Egyptian text in its expression of a belief that the soul may be released from its helplessness and suffering. The son’s voice comes in one final time:
I open out a way, they have covered my sky with crystal—
another irony residing here, in the crystal-like quality of the tunnel’s deadly silicone—
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 rebirth whose original context (in the Egyptian Book of the Dead) is the Field of Reeds in the afterlife becomes another kind of rebirth in the mother’s last words, which end the poem:
He shall not be diminished, never; I shall give a mouth to my son.
The simplicity of “He went into the tunnel” gives way to the formality (“I shall”) and the heightened diction (“diminished”) of the second voice. Rukeyser has the mother say “mouth” rather than “voice,” a choice both more practical (to speak one needs a mouth) and more heartbreaking (the son no longer possesses a mouth) and certainly more lyrical and more emotionally charged than “voice.” The metaphor articulates what the fact—the dust at the bottom of the tub—could not. The poem begins with the power of simple testimony and it ends not in lament—“O my son Absalom, my son, my son”—but, to borrow Rich’s phrase, in the “will to change”: the decision to speak for, to be a mouth, not the mouth of the river or the tunnel, to be the living mouth of the son. Evidence is an essential part of the mother’s power as witness, but her metaphorical utterance is the place where private grief finds its public expression in a powerful emotional appeal. An appeal heard not by congressman or the lawyers for Union Carbide but by us, though I can’t explain or calculate or generate reliable statistics for exactly who that is.