Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday's poem: Muriel Rukeyser

Muriel Rukeyser was a US poet and political activist who wrote poems about equality, feminism, social justice, and Judaism.

Her poetry has featured post on this blog before here.

Rukeyser was active in progressive and radical politics throughout her life. She used her poetry as a mode of social protest against the causes and consequences of violence and injustice in the United States and abroad.

The extract below is  the opening of her poem "The Road," from the "The Book of the Dead" (1938). These were "documentary" poems that draws on actual legal testimony from the investigation into one of America's worst industrial tragedies -- the death of hundreds of migrant mine workers, many of them African Americans, from silicosis poisoning in the drilling of the Hawk's Nest Tunnel in West Virginia in the early 1930s.

The Road

These are roads to take when you think of your country
and interested bring down the maps again,
phoning the statistician, asking the dear friend,
reading the papers with morning inquiry.
Or when you sit at the wheel and your small light
chooses gas gauge and clock; and the headlights
indicate future or road, your wish pursuing
past the junction, the fork, the suburban station,
well-travelled six-lane highway planned for safety.
Past your tall central city’s influence,
outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,
are centers removed and strong, fighting for good
These roads will take you into your own country.
Select the mountains, follow rivers back,
travel the passes. Touch West Virginia where
the Midland Trail leaves the Virginia furnace,
iron Clifton Forge, Covington iron, goes down
into the wealthy valley, resorts, the chalk hotel.
Pillars and fairway; spa; White Sulphur Springs.
Airport. Gay blank rich faces wishing to add
history to ballrooms, tradition to the first tee.
The simple mountains, sheer, dark-graded with pine
in the sudden weather, wet outbreak of spring,
crosscut by snow, wind at the hill’s shoulder.
The land is fierce here, steep, braced against snow,
rivers and spring. KING COAL HOTEL, Lookout,
and swinging the vicious bend, New River Gorge.
Now the photographer unpacks camera and case,
surveying the deep country, follows discovery
viewing on groundglass an inverted image.
John Marshall named the rock (steep pines, a drop
he reckoned in 1812, called) Marshall Pillar,
but later, Hawk’s Nest. Here is your road, tying
you to its meanings: gorge, boulder, precipice.
Telescoped down, the hard and stone-green river
cutting fast and direct into the town.

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