Muriel Rukeyser's first book of poetry, Theory of Flight, based on her experience of taking flying lessons, was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Series.
A political activist as well as a poet, Rukeyser devoted much of her time and writing to issues of feminism and social justice. She once worked for the International Labor Defense, and wrote for several publications on political issues, traveling to places such as Alabama (Scottsboro trial), Barcelona (People's Olympiad, which was a 1936 alternative to the Nazi-run Berlin Olympics) and Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to investigate ongoing poor health conditions among miners there in the wake of the Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster.
The construction of the Hawk's Nest Tunnel, beginning in 1927, during which workers were instructed to mine silica without proper protection, resulted in hundreds of miners, mostly African American men, developing the fatal lung disease silicosis. Rukeyser interviewed victims and their families; her detailed chronicling of the faces and voices of this tragedy resulted in the riveting poem sequence, "The Book of the Dead," which would be regarded as one of her most powerful pieces of poetry.
"The Book of the Dead" was published as a long sequence in Rukeyser's book U.S. 1 in 1938. It is a text that could be considered a hybrid work; it is polyvocal, part factual document, part investigative journalism, and part lyric. The series is a collage of source text that includes stock market quotes, Congressional reports and trial transcripts. The poems host a polyphony of voices: doctors, contractors, close family members of miners, and, most prominently, the victims themselves who were little more than exploited, and certainly nearly invisible, during the aftermath of the exposure. In doing so, the text provides a powerful exploration of who is empowered by speech, and whose speech acts have been mediated for various reasons. "The Book of the Dead," in making the dead visible, also exposes and implicates the classist, racist and capitalist structures that allowed such a tragedy to occur.
By invoking the original Egyptian text Book of the Dead, Rukeyser assigns a mythic importance to the miners who were asked to descend into the underworld that would eventually foster their demise. However, as Michael Davidson points out in Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World, "their journey is not a search for lost cultural plentitude, but a fatal contract with progress....Rukeyser deflates the modernist mythological imperative typified by Eliot's invocation of cyclic vegetation myths. Buried in this waste land are the corpses of workers for whom a reading of the
classics would have offered little sustenance."
While "The Book of the Dead" is consistent with Rukeyser's ongoing dedication to a poetry of "witness," it is unique in that it draws on, and includes, an abundance of non-literary source material, thus widening the lens of the poet as documentarian and activist.