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  • Archive as Underworld in the Modern Long Poem
  • Olivia Milroy Evans (bio)

"Yet, the belly of this boat dissolves you, precipitates you into a non-world from which you cry out […] Experience of the abyss lies inside and outside the abyss. The torment of those who never escaped it: straight from the belly of the slave ship into the violent belly of the ocean depths they went. But their ordeal did not die; it quickened into this continuous/discontinuous thing"

Édouard Glissant
The Poetics of Relation

"In the middle of the journey of our lifeI found myself astray in a dark woodWhere the straight road had been lost sight of."

Dante Alighieri
Inferno, translated by Seamus Heaney

"This is the midway between water and flame,this is the road to take when you think of your country,between the dam and the furnace, terminal."

Muriel Rukeyser "Power,"
The Book of the Dead

Rituals of Descent

The archive and the underworld both appear to be the destination for the documents and souls they contain, yet the proliferating meanings of a word like "terminal" reveal that an end can easily become a beginning, or a destination an origin. In their documentary poems The Book of the Dead and Zong!, Muriel Rukeyser and M. NourbeSe Philip reopen cases that have been closed in order to seek justice for the victims of capitalist greed turned violent. Although their temporal relationships to their subjects are vastly different, Rukeyser and Philip both turn to the legal record to correct its injustices. By choosing to build their poems out of court cases and government documents, both Rukeyser and Philip have identified the law as their interlocutor. Their documentary poetics grow out [End Page 44] of the tension between what the archive provides and what they want to subvert or insert into the historical record. Rukeyser writes as an activist, stirred by direct contact with the victims of the Hawk's Nest incident to seek immediate legal reparations for the wrongs perpetrated by mining companies and ignored by the government. She is an outsider, but an ally. Philip writes from a very different subject position—an insider personally invested in the stories of her ancestors, but also separated from the event by a seemingly unnavigable chasm of years. Both imagine the archive as an underworld, but the difference in their temporal situatedness leads each poet to engage with the archive in spatially different ways. Rukeyser treats the archive as a space that she can traverse, whereas Philip likens her composition process to a more stationary act of summoning spirits.

Philip and Rukeyser both combine tropes from the journey to the underworld with documentary poetics to fulfill the ethical demands placed on them by the mass of documents, stories, and even (unrecorded) bodies produced by a particular event. Rukeyser imagines her poem as descent journey that moves through physical space, building on the epic convention of katabasis. Philip eschews narrative in favor of an even older form—the summoning of spirits through ritual sacrifice, or nekuia. Michael Thurston observes that "The tradition of the descent into the Underworld is a tradition of revision, of innovation against the horizon of the past" (Thurston 6). Both Rukeyser and Philip seek to challenge injustice by repurposing complicit texts from the archive in their own projects, revising them in radical ways. Reading these poems together reveals how writing to or from the underworld creates space for poets to challenge the present with voices from the past. Their poems insist on the capaciousness of poetry to open up, rather than seal, the underworld of the archive.

In her 1938 documentary poem, "The Book of the Dead," Muriel Rukeyser digs up dirt on the deaths of at least 700 workers from silicosis contracted while mining the Hawk's Nest Tunnel. Her poem draws from interviews she conducted during a trip to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, as well as a vast archive of legal documents. In 1929, Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation began the project to build a hydroelectric power plant, two dams, and two tunnels. Although U.C.C.C., its subsidiary (the New Kanawha Power Company), and their contractor (Rinehart and Dennis...


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