- "All Power Is Saved"The Physics of Protest in Muriel Rukeyser's The Book of the Dead
Transformation is at the core of The Book of the Dead (1938). Similarly to the ancient Egyptian book of funeral rites alluded to in its title, Muriel Rukeyser's twenty-poem sequence speaks posthumously for 476 men who died from acute silicosis contracted in the early 1930s while they were digging a large tunnel for Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Transformation provides the main trope for the sequence in several notable ways. First, water is changed into electricity: in representing the massive hydroelectric project for which the Gauley tunnel was constructed, the poems follow the generation of electrical power from the potential energy in the water vapor of clouds to the kinetic energy of sparks in live wires. Next, natural resources, including human lives, are transformed into monetary value: the poems trace the conversion of silica and acute silicosis into the daily stock quotations for Union Carbide as its profits rise along with water behind a dam. The transfer of human energy into public-works projects, such as roads and hydroelectric plants that serve people's needs long after the builders have gone, complements this conversion. The many roads that "take you into your own country" (10) and the Gauley tunnel complex become enduring monuments in the poems to the toil and suffering that made and modified them. Finally, historical evidence is transformed into lyrical poetry in the sequence. Throughout The Book of the Dead, documents including transcriptions of Senate hearings, legislative petitions, and personal testimony become confluent with hydrology and verbal imagery to establish what Walter [End Page 553] Kalaidjian terms a "revolutionary signifying practice" that "effected a key displacement of 'literature' itself as a bounded, disciplinary field" (162).
Many Americans remain unaware of the worst industrial accident in U.S. history, initiated in 1930 as Union Carbide began an unprecedented experiment with hydroelectricity on West Virginia's New River. Since the project relied on publicly owned resources, Union Carbide's stated purpose was to develop power for public sale by diverting some of the river's water into a four-mile-long tunnel through Gauley Mountain to a hydroelectric dam at Boncar.1 Once inside the mountain, tunnel workers discovered a rich deposit of silica undetected by the geologists who had analyzed the rock through which the workers were digging. An essential element in the electro-processing of steel and metal alloys, this material was valuable to the engineers at Union Carbide, and the tunnel was enlarged in the section where the silica deposit was found. But mining silica creates large amounts of crystalline dust which, if inhaled, causes a potentially fatal respiratory disease. Union Carbide executives ignored this risk, however, and increased the pace of the digging while leaving the miners ill-equipped for and ignorant of the hazard. Men quickly sickened and died from what doctors falsely diagnosed as tuberculosis and pneumonia, attributed to excessive drinking and gambling outside in cold weather. New workers—desperate for employment during the Great Depression—came by the boxcarful to replace them. In order to avoid having the true cause of the workers' deaths determined by autopsy, Union Carbide paid the local mortician to bury the first victims secretly in a cornfield owned by his mother, and work continued on the project ahead of schedule.2
Critics have long appreciated The Book of the Dead for the way it employs the trope of transformation in terms of conversion and renewal, especially regarding the sequence's reclamation of the value [End Page 554] of the human labor exploited by Union Carbide. Louise Kertesz approaches Rukeyser's work as a drama in which the river plays "the main character" (100). The speaker in the sequence follows the river on its linear journey down the gorge as it slowly gains power, which Kertesz sees as a metaphor for the speaker's evolution from merely observing details in the first poems to criticizing them in "outrage" at the end. She adds, however, that "even in outrage [the speaker] sings possibility" in the final lines. Similarly, Robert Shulman describes the...