- Radical Research and the Scientific Method: Tracking a New Trajectory through Four Recent Poetry Collections
When Muriel Rukeyser’s 1938 classic The Book of the Dead was reissued in 2018, edited and with a new introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, it became clear that a major, though underdiscussed, Modernist innovation was docupoetics. While many readers struggle to understand how certain racist, anti-Semitic, and fascist writers could be considered so essential for so long, contemporary poets are finding influence in less canonized poets of the twentieth century whose docupoetic aesthetics are proving to be powerfully resonant for the present historical moment.
The docupoetic tradition is typically defined as a poetic mode rooted in documentary techniques. A docupoetic poem draws upon fieldwork, interviews, oral histories, or archival research. Much of this work has also focused on questions of social justice, since complex geopolitical [End Page 177] questions benefit from meandering, collaged, often book-length forms that can hold multiple perspectives, a range of historical contexts, and rhetorical modes that move between the personal and political. In “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy,” his essay on docupoetics for the Poetry Foundation, Philip Metres identifies Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead as a cornerstone. Her work inquiring into the Hawks Nest Tunnel mining disaster draws on a range of research materials, including affidavits and personal letters, and on the deep knowledge of geology and human physiology necessary to understand the mining industry’s health and environmental impacts. In “Absalom,” one of the poems that established both a tone and formal approach for a range of docupoetic works that have followed, Rukeyser chronicles the testimony of a mother who had watched three sons die of various health complications from working in the mines:
And two or three doctors said the same thing.The youngest boy did not get to go down there with me,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,“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 heartI have gained mastery over my two handsI have gained mastery over the watersI have gained mastery over the river.
The case of my son was the first of the line of lawsuits.
Rukeyser, followed by writers such as Charles Reznikoff, Allen Ginsberg, and Ernesto Cardenal, established an aesthetic tradition that we have seen flourish in subsequent generations of poets, many of whom are now innovating from such roots. Though Rukeyser wrote about the human-ecological tragedies of resource extraction, the conventional terminology used by many literary critics suggests that the docupoetic mode is somehow distinct from poems whose research centers around [End Page 178] environmental justice. Poems with environmentalist themes are typically referred to as ecopoetics, which is characterized as a form of “nature writing.” However, poets have been engaging with scientific materials as part of docupoetics projects for as long as we can trace back the methodology, and younger docupoets are happily and productively blurring these lines.
Elizabeth Bradfield. Boreal Books, 2019, 160
pp., $19.95, paper
Elizabeth Bradfield’s new collection, Toward Antarctica, is a perfect example of how the docupoetic tradition of collaging rhetorical registers and cross-disciplinary research with a bit of lyric glue is being applied to scientific subjects. This book is based on the author’s work as a naturalist on an ecotourism expedition ship in Antarctica. The speaker’s experience of travel and exploration is complicated by visiting an ecosystem where the effects of human-caused climate change can be seen clearly and with intense urgency. In “Straits of Magellan” she describes a stunning whale sighting:
rostrum pillowing silk water beforebroken in arch, dive...