Defacing the monument
Rukeyser’s innovations in docupoetics
In 1936, just a year after winning the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize, the twenty-two-year-old Muriel Rukeyser arrived in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in United States history, to work on her next poetry project. That same year The Plow that Broke the Plains was introducing American moviegoers to the documentary film; actors and writers working for the federal Living Newspaper Project were performing documentary theater in the streets; John Steinbeck was finishing The Grapes of Wrath, inspired by a newspaper story he had written a few years before; and another winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, James Agee, was traveling through rural Alabama on assignment from Fortune magazine to begin a book on tenant farmers that would change the shape of documentary forever. Rukeyser, too, would leave her mark on documentary with her groundbreaking series of poems inspired by the events in Gauley Bridge, “The Book of the Dead.” Published in her 1938 collection US 1, the work was wrought from congressional testimony, interviews with survivors, quotations from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Paradise Lost, and chronicles of West Virginia history
The term “documentary poetry” has come into fashion in recent years to describe work that “(1) contains quotations from or reproductions of documents or statements not produced by the poet and (2) relates historical narratives, whether macro or micro, human or natural,” according to poet/critic Joseph Harrington. While documentary poetry has precursors dating back to the ancients, many of its most famous examples were written in the twentieth century, such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems. Recent interest in such precursors may be in part why there has been a renewed interest in “The Book of the Dead.” The most frequently cited line of the text comes from an early footnote in which Rukeyser declared: “Poetry can extend the document.” Yet this focus on the footnote overlooks other groundbreaking elements of the poems.
“The Book of the Dead” both predates many contemporary characteristics of documentary poetry as well as anticipates continued innovation in the field. In this series of poems, Rukeyser not only shows us how to “extend the document”; she lays bare the documentary act itself, reminding her readers of the limits of representation and calling attention to the historical archive she creates. She offers models for how to investigate place through relational histories and national mythologies, establishing a methodology that predates both Paterson and The Maximus Poems. Finally, she establishes a connection between documentary investigation and activism, anticipating the work of poets such as Mark Nowak, Kaia Sand, and Brenda Hillman.
In addition to highlighting Rukeyser’s contributions to documentary poetry, I am also interested in concretizing her legacy by considering Brenda Coultas’s poem series “The Abolition Journal (or, Tracing the Earthworks of My County),” which sketches a complicated history of race in Coultas’s native southern Indiana and neighboring Kentucky. I make no claim that Coultas considers Rukeyser a direct influence. Yet, in what has become a frequently cited example of contemporary documentary poetics published in 2007, Coultas carries out much of the work Rukeyser directly calls for or suggests by example in “The Book of the Dead.” Ultimately, Coultas demonstrates the ways in which Rukeyser provides a model for what is current in documentary poetics.
Rukeyser’s series of poems was a product of heightened interest in documentary forms prevalent during the 1930s. As critic William Stott notes, “a documentary motive was at work throughout the culture of the time: in the rhetoric of the New Deal and the WPA arts projects; in painting, dance, fiction, and theater; in the new media of radio and picture magazines; in popular thought, education, and advertising.” Rukeyser believed that the poem had a particular power to represent current events, as well as to offer a specific view to them. As critic Shoshana Weschler explains, “For Rukeyser, poetry shares in common with science a heightened quality of vision: the imaginative capacity to recognize knowledge as process, and reciprocity and relationship as fundamental principles of being.”
The forces that drew Rukeyser to “extend the document” did not exert the same pull on other poets. In the years following World War II, both the New York School and Confessional poets turned inward instead of toward outward “processes.” Rukeyser and her work lost footing. Writing in 2003, poet and critic Kristin Prevallet notes Rukeyser’s work “is contemporaneous with the work of the Objectivist/Projectivists, and yet it is often omitted from discussions of the period.” Writers who continued in a documentary mode did not see Rukeyser as a forerunner. She corresponded with Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, and yet — as Eileen Myles observes — “she wasn’t passed down.” Myles, writing in The Nation in 1997, explained that Rukeyser was “barely represented in either the academic or the experimental poetic canon.”
For example, in the 1970s — during a time when “photographs, dispatches and television reports” exposed “America’s racism and called into doubt our war in Southeast Asia” — poet Edward Sanders coined the term “investigative poetics” and created a methodology for poetic inquiry that included instructions for conducting interviews and creating subject files, as well as for developing “high energy verse grids” and “data clusters.” He finds an ancestor in Pound, “thus Olson, thus Ginsberg, thus Investigative Poetry,” establishing a lineage often repeated.
Considering Rukeyser alongside the work of Coultas may help contemporary documentary poets access their full inheritance as they utilize documentary sources to create something at once speculative and responsive, social as well as personal.
The camera and the archive
By the time Rukeyser set out to write her long sequence of poems about the Gauley Bridge mining disaster in West Virginia, she had already earned a place as a poet and an activist. At the age of nineteen, she was arrested while protesting the racially charged Scottsboro Boys trial in Alabama. She would witness the start of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona the same year she traveled to West Virginia to document the mining disaster. In Gauley Bridge, exploitative practices in the excavating and mining of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel from 1930 to 1931 resulted in the silicosis poisoning and deaths of anywhere from 764 to 2,000 miners, the majority of whom were African American migrant workers. Although a congressional hearing ended in a favorable judgment for the workers, few victims ever received compensation. As a response to the disaster, Rukeyser wrote a series of poems constructed out of testimony from doctors, employees, and victims’ relatives gathered in a congressional investigation, as well as from interviews with survivors and their families. She included descriptions of the town with its “street of wooden walls and empty windows,” as well as excerpts from regional histories, dizzying equations for falling water (the project included the construction of a dam), and a stock market ticker for the project’s parent company Union Carbide. In a note accompanying the series, Rukeyser explains her desire to demonstrate how “theories, systems and workmen … factors, which are in the end not regional or national” created this community and how, in the end, they lead to its devastation (604).
In this sense, Rukeyser’s work represents more than “extending the document”; it is an attempt to correct the official record (represented by congressional hearings and coverage in the popular media) and provide the reader with a sense of the connections and complicities omitted from official histories. Critic Tim Dayton explains that poetry offers Rukeyser the advantage of “a richness and density of texture enabling a more challenging or searching treatment of the subject,” as well as allowing for “a fragmented subjective response,” or, more specifically, a polyvocal response to the event. The lyric also offers opportunities for Rukeyser to subtly lay bare the process of documentation itself.
For example, in the first poem of the sequence “The Road,” she creates a purely cinematographic opening, taking the reader “past your tall central city’s influence” down the roads of West Virginia to Hawk’s Nest, where the photographer “unpacks camera and case” (74). Rukeyser may have been referring to photographer Nancy Naumburg, who traveled with her to West Virginia. In the 1930s, photographs were one of the premiere modes of social documentary. In fact, photographs were so important to the 1930s documentary book that literary critic Malcolm Cowley believed they became more vital than the text. Cowley explained: “The pictures state the theme of the book, whereas the prose serves as illustrative matter.”
But photographs were never published with Rukeyser’s work. Instead, Rukeyser uses the camera to suggest that despite its importance as a tool for documentation, the reality represented in a photograph is subjective in as much as it is mediated through the choices of the photographer. In other words, in Rukeyser’s poem the camera functions as a symbol through which she lays bare the documentary process. Rukeyser draws our attention to the camera as an instrument of documentation and to the photographer who selects a subject, considers composition, focuses a lens, and decides what to include or crop from the frame. As Stott reminds us, “all documentary photographs, like all propaganda and indeed all exposition, are to some extent biased communication.” In this, the photographer shares with the documentary poet an opportunity to shape the reality that is presented.
For the documentary poet, Harrington suggests, “bias” presents itself in the selection of documents themselves:
Which documents? And why not include them at all? Why include these … and exclude others? By what authority does the documentary poet (howsoever poetical s/he might be) decide why the front and back covers delimit the book? It seems to me that poetry, precisely because of the generic conventions historically associated with it, forces the docupoet to confront these questions. Otherwise, one produces the very kind of poetry … that unconsciously represses part of the record without altering our experience of either the record or of repression.
By including the image of the camera, Rukeyser reminds her readers that they are being presented with a selected representation of a reality instead of the reality itself. Rukeyser makes her selection of sources (or “archive,” as Harrington calls it) — and the creation of the poem — manifest.
Elsewhere, Rukeyser makes clear the record of her selection and repression, even suggesting how her decisions might confound readers’ expectations. The poem “Gauley Bridge,” a description of a working-class town with its “beerplace” and filling station, ends with the lines:
What do you want — a cliff over a city?
A foreland, slope to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here (78)
Rukeyser addresses her audience: the reader who lives in a “central city” and comes to poetry desirous of the picturesque. By confronting the reader’s expectations, Rukeyser anticipates the work’s tepid reception. For example, reviewer Willard Maas, writing in Poetry in 1938, admired Rukeyser’s “inventiveness” and “intentions, which are ambitious to the point of audacity,” but felt that “the signs of the road lead her into fields that have been more adequately explored and tersely recorded by journalists.” These debates largely continue, a point I will return to later. It is important here to note that Rukeyser was aware of conventional expectations. And by pointing them out, Rukeyser takes responsibility for her archive.
“Gauley Bridge” begins with another reminder of Rukeyser’s documentary choices and offers insight into her particular focus:
Camera at the crossing sees the city
a street of wooden walls and empty windows
the doors shut handles in the empty street
and the deserted Negro standing on the corner (77)
Again, what the camera “sees” is not a matter of chance; even to notice the African American man suggests an awareness of those often marginalized. This point of view was not exclusive to “The Book of the Dead.” In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser affirms her affinity for culture that arises from the margins: “On work gangs, prison gangs, in the nightclubs, on the ships and docks, our songs arise.” In Rukeyser’s viewfinder/poem, the African American man is not “alone” but “deserted” on a street where the doors have closed to him. The image of closed doors suggests a larger condition of negligence born of legalized discrimination and capitalist exploitation, an issue explored throughout the poem series. And yet the man appears square in the center of town. The camera (like Rukeyser herself), placed at crossroads, sees the man. And the poet observes that, like the camera, the man watches, “looking down the track” to see what comes or goes. Thus the African American man and the camera/Rukeyser are featured as observant outsiders, although the African American man is also an economic participant in the society that marginalizes him. The man’s own status as “outsider” is confirmed later in the poem “George Robinson: Blues” that begins, “Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes they let us stand / around on the sidewalks if we are black or brown” (87). (This is the Jim Crow South, and there are laws against loitering.) The act of sympathy is important and suggestive as well of the fact that the condition of the African American might act as a viewfinder through which to judge the American character. As the poem develops, the African American man will not only be seen in the viewfinder but be given voice through those sections culled from congressional testimony.
This is not without complication. The documentarian speaking for her subjects has a strong precedence in the 1930s. One of the most problematic examples comes from the classic social documentary book You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, a founding example of the documentary book genre common in the 1930s which used text and image to describe a social condition and invoke sympathy if not political action in middle-class readers.
Stott, a fierce critic of the book, notes that that Caldwell “diminished — brutalized — the sharecropper because his audience expected such a picture.” In a particularly egregious example of such practices, Caldwell and Bourke-White often gave the photographs captions that according to an introductory note “expressed the author’s own conceptions of the sentiments the individuals portrayed.” As Stott observes, “The words Caldwell and Bourke-White put in the tenants’ mouths made them as abject as possible.”
But the difference between the work of Caldwell and Bourke-White and Rukeyser comes primarily from the fact that Caldwell and Bourke-White perform a kind of unannounced ventriloquism. Instead, Rukeyser uses documentary sources for the poem in an attempt to maintain verisimilitude rather than out of a desire to control the reactions of her readers. When Rukeyser utilizes documentary sources, she reminds us of the archive that produced them. For example, the third poem in the series, “Statement: Philippa Allen,” announces its source as congressional testimony. Rukeyser structures the poem as a series of questions and answers from Allen, one of the main researchers/writers to bring the event to national notice:
— You like the State of West Virginia very much, do you?
— I do very much, in the summer time.
— How much time have you spent in West Virginia?
— During the summer of 1934, when I was doing social work down there, I first heard of what we were pleased to call the Gauley tunnel tragedy, which involved about 2,000 men. (75)
When juxtaposed with poems written in more traditional forms (for example, the three-line stanzas of the opening poem), the Q&A form reminds readers of the source text as well as draws attention to the constructed nature of the poem, thus also reminding readers of the poet who shapes the work instead of employing the ventriloquism of other documentary books.
Elsewhere, Rukeyser quotes from explorers’ journals, settlement checks, and correspondence surrounding the settlement, as well as from the congressional bill itself again, drawing attention to the materiality of the archive. One of the most stunning examples of this comes halfway through the poem “The Dam,” where Rukeyser reproduces the stock ticker for Union Carbide. The ticker appears in a different typeface, creating a typographic break or dam (a “blockage,” as critic Michael Thurston has pointed out), in the middle of the poem’s flow. It also provides a visual pun on the idea of the quote. The line that precedes the ticker reads: “This is the valley’s work, the white, the shining” (101). The numbers force readers to confront the stark economics that drive everything else recorded in the poem; the difference in typography recalls the source for this information.
In this sense, Rukeyser is transparent in her attempt to explain what happened at Gauley Bridge — but also gives readers a sense of the “theories, systems” behind the events. Rukeyser not only lays bare her process through the archival gestures of the poem, but she makes evident her potential biases and intent, “owning and reveling in the imaginative desire that drives it,” as Harrington puts it. Ultimately, she creates a more complete picture of what happened at Gauley Bridge and what might be learned from it by situating events against a backdrop of history and activism as well as revealing the process by through which she acquires knowledge of the event.
Opening up the field of history
The second poem of the sequence, “West Virginia,” traces the state’s history. Here, we begin to understand the philosophy behind the poet’s use of historical documents. Rukeyser believed it was important to set events in their historical contexts and claimed it was vital to understand the present through a clear revaluation of a past. In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser writes, “It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories.” (61). As Jane Cooper explains, Rukeyser thought it vital to “acknowledge our own violence” and the divisions upon which this country was founded in order to become nonviolent. So Rukeyser contextualizes the industrial disaster at Gauley Bridge against a history of racial violence, including the Native American genocide and Civil War. It is the kind of historical contextualization that will anticipate both Patterson and The Maximus Poems, with important distinctions. Kristin Prevallet finds Rukeyser’s use of history in her poems an alternative to the totalizing visions of writers such as Olson, who utilize historical fact to serve the poem’s argument. As Prevallet explains:
Looking back at Rukeyser reminds us of how important it is to remember that the inclusion of “history” in the poem was (and is still) practiced by many other works unrelated to Olson’s Black Mountain School trajectory. … Reading the work of these poets opens up the field “history,” demanding an awareness of facts as always linked to specific human experience, and an understanding that appropriating these facts for the sake of a poem does not always tell the whole story.
Nowhere is Rukeyser more adept at linking history to specific human experience than in “The Book of the Dead.” Throughout the sequence Rukeyser not only invokes history but challenges it, offering a model for how the poet/reader/citizen can actively respond to historical narratives.
Take for example her transcription of a marker at the site of John Brown’s execution in the poem “West Virginia.” The mention of the abolitionist becomes an opportunity to modify or penetrate the historical record. Here Rukeyser literally writes in between the language of the marker:
the granite SITE OF THE precursor EXECUTION
sabers, apostles, OF JOHN BROWN LEADER OF THE
War’s brilliant cloudy RAID AT HARPER’S FERRY (75)
The actual monument provides a fairly bland description of the place, “Site of the Execution of John Brown Leader of the Raid at Harper’s Ferry,” which would seemingly not infuriate those who still feel sympathies with either side of the Civil War. Rukeyser offers a more opinionated view of the site. Dayton notes that, by “interpolating her words” with that of the marker, as an official historical record, Rukeyser presents both “an official skeletal version of the story of John Brown, and her own more nuanced version.” In that “more nuanced version,” as Dayton suggests, Brown is both activist and martyr. In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser describes Brown as “that meteor.” She calls the raid itself “that precipitating stroke” that “like the archaic bloody violence of the Greek plays spoke to many lives” (36). In “West Virginia,” Rukeyser’s choice to describe the Harper’s Ferry Raid as “brilliant cloudy” highlights both its success (as a rallying point for the abolitionist cause) and its obvious failure as a raid. (Brown had hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. Instead, Brown and his men were captured. Brown was hanged) But Rukeyser’s “brilliant cloudy” description also references the dualities that will remain throughout the poem between the brilliant power of the dam and the clouds of silica mined in relation to its construction, which killed hundreds if not thousands of miners. In any case, the transcription of the monument illustrates Rukeyser’s ability to do more than cite the official record: it illustrates her ability to respond to it. (Another example of how Rukeyser makes clear her interventions in the archive.) Contesting official histories and rewriting the documentary source is an important tool when confronting source material that is itself part of discourses that legitimated and normalized racial discrimination.
Throughout the series, Rukeyser evidences her sensitivity to a history of racial inequity. Whiteness itself has a presence in the poems as material evidence of the dangerous mining practices. While a legacy of discrimination and racism leads to the conditions that produce the mining disaster, ironically, the toxic silica dust does not discriminate. As one survivor explains: “As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night / with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white” (88).
Gauley Bridge historical marker (photo by Ken Thomas).
Later in the series, white becomes a metaphor for the force of water as well as economic and social control. In the poem “Power” Rukeyser notes: “The power-house stands skin-white at the transmitter’s side / over the rapids the brilliance, the blind foam” (97). The “skin-white” power-house serves as a gateway holding back the “blind” white foam of water fueling this hydroelectric plant. The “blind” white foam of the water represents those “theories” and “systems,” the free-market economy and Jim Crow South that allow a tragedy such as Gauley Bridge to occur. It is not insignificant that the “power-house,” a source of control and regulation as well as a symbol for Union Carbide (the company that owns the dam and uses the silica in their industrial processes), is not just white but white-skinned. It is not coincidence that those who benefited from this work were a corporation run by white men, while those that suffered most were African American. The Fourteenth Amendment, originally written to protect the rights of African Americans, was used to give individual rights to corporations disproportionally owned by white men. The prioritizing of white-owned corporations over the rights of non-white citizens (in the case of Gauley Bridge) is an example of the kind of racial prejudice that became foundational to the local project of building a dam. “This is the valley’s work,” Rukeyser writes later in the poem, “the white, the shining” (101). What force might counteract the raw power of corporate racist America? In Rukeyser’s poem, the answer comes in the form of the activist documentary poet.
“Lightning strikes” of activism
Rukeyser ends “The Book of the Dead” by returning to the figure of Brown. In the series’ penultimate poem, “The Bill,” she reveals that justice was not served to the miners or their survivors. Despite rulings favoring the plaintiffs in suits brought against the operators, the majority of the victims and their families never received a significant settlement. Limits were placed on the claims awarded. The poet quotes from a congressional hearing: “I want to point out that under the statute $500 or / $1000, but no more, may be recovered” (106). Most claimants received much less. The poem “Arthur Peyton” includes these lines from correspondence surrounding the settlement: “Dear Sir, … pleasure … enclosing herewith our check … / payable to you, for $21.59” (94). Rukeyser calls the congressional efforts mere “[w]ords on a monument,” reminding readers of the earlier quotation from the Brown monument — and her need to rewrite its language. Rukeyser declares: “It cannot be enough” (106). The subcommittee’s request for funding and power of subpoena to conduct investigations was denied. Rukeyser ends “The Bill” with a call for activism and a return to the memory of Brown:
The origin of storms is not in clouds
our lightning strikes when the earth rises
spillways free authentic power
dead John Brown’s body walking from a tunnel
to break the armored and concluded mind (106)
Like the storms that originate “not in clouds” justice will not be brought from above — from corrupt institutions — but will rise from the ground, from the grassroots. There is a metaphoric and homophonic level to the stanza with its image of electricity in the form of a lightning bolt liberating the power of water, an act simultaneous with the old abolitionist walking from the tunnel to free consciousness and change opinion. The word “strikes” alludes to organization of workers, John Brown’s organizing against oppressive institutions of slavery and power, as well as to a lightning strike of energy. But the poem does not only aim to stir workers to unionize. Instead, its most excited plea asks readers to become aware of both current examples of injustice as well as the historical contexts that surround them. Rukeyser takes up Brown’s role as instigator when she asks her readers to do what she has done. She explains: “Defense is sight; widen lens and see / standing over the lands of myth and identity / new signals, processes.” Rukeyser calls her readers to action by asking them to look beyond national mythologies and record both injustice and the mechanizations that fuel it.
Here she elevates the documentary to activism, to the notion that seeing will make a difference. She focuses on those often overlooked (miners, workers, and minorities), and she calls upon her readers to do the same. In the final poem she asks: “What three things can never be done? / Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone” (107). Her wide-angle lens encompasses a web of connections and complicities in the disaster, something a mere photograph cannot do. Framing her poem with references to John Brown, she works to extend those connections and complicities beyond corporate misconduct to a national legacy, a failure of “myth and identity.” She asks readers to identify with the legacy of Brown’s activism and to never forget the legacy of oppression.
In addition, Rukeyser’s work establishes the systemic results of this oppression. She shows the connection between the numbers of the ticker tape and the cornfield turned to a burial ground, she links the death of these African American migrant workers to corporate profit margins. She places the camera between herself and her subjects to remind us to see. But she goes beyond the act of recording to suggest that one must interrogate, even rewrite, that which is literally carved in stone, be it law or history. She asks her readers/poets to question their histories and mythologies, offering a more active way of interacting with documentary materials both through the connections she creates between local events and national economies as well as by responding to biases inherent in conventional historical narratives.
Some seventy years later, many poets have taken up Rukeyser’s activist charge in a variety of innovative ways often with a global reach. Mark Nowak, Rukeyser’s closest descendent thematically, writes about a contemporary mining disaster that claimed the lives of twelve men (most through a brutal asphyxiation) in Sago, West Virginia. In Coal Mountain Elementary, Nowak interweaves state testimony from the surviving miners and rescue teams with the American Coal Foundation’s curriculum for schoolchildren, newspaper accounts of mining disasters in China, and photographs (Nowak calls it “sampling”). The result is a chilling portrait of a global system of danger and exploitation that in the words of the widow of one Chinese miner is “a job for living people working in hell.” Nowak extends that activism off the page in his work organizing and leading creative writing workshops for laborers.
In Remember to Wave, Kaia Sand turns historical investigation into collective exploration by undertaking walks and leading groups on tours through the site of the current Portland Metropolitan Exposition Center, as a way to reflect on its history as a Japanese American internment camp. Sand’s book includes both maps of the area along the Columbia River as well as collages of poetry, photographs, and images of objects found on the site. Sand literally stitched material together in collages, often typing directly onto found materials from a portable typewriter she carried with her on these walks. These collages, faithfully reprinted, give the book the feel of a scrapbook, a work of individual labor, in opposition to the regular typography and design of traditional history books, suggesting another way to challenge the manner in which conventional histories have been written.
For her part, Brenda Hillman turns documentary poetics into “Reportorial Poetry, Trance and Activism” in a section from her collection Practical Water. “Reportorial poetics,” Hillman explains, “can be used to record detail with immediacy while one is doing an action and thinking about something else.” Hillman creates poems out of her experience protesting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the antiwar group Code Pink. For example, in the poem “In a Senate Armed Services Hearing,” she records: “the prickly intimate hairs … behind (the General’s) ears”, a fly circling the room, and a vision of the goddess Ishtar from Babylon. Hillman provides a view to the bureaucratic machinations that perpetuate war and offers an example of how we might refuse the narratives that are created about these conflicts.
While the work of these poets offers many similarities to Rukeyser’s project and her call to “widen the gaze,” I want to look at one recent collection of documentary poetry by Brenda Coultas that exemplifies Rukeyser’s legacy in its reflections on the documentary process, its treatment of the legacy of national conflict, and its activism.
Contemporary excavations and commemorations
Brenda Coultas takes up Rukeyser’s project of interrogating “myth and identity” in the “The Abolitionist Journal (or, Tracing the Earthworks of My County),” a series of interrelated poems from her collection The Marvelous Bones of Time. In addition to “widening the lens,” she narrows her focus. Coultas was born in the slave-holding state of Kentucky but raised across the border in the “free” state of Indiana. An epigraph from Abraham Lincoln makes clear her intent to understand the legacy of “the very state where grew the bread / that formed my bones.” She embarks on her investigation with the question: “Are there any abolitionists hanging from my family tree?” (17). While she wants to identify with abolitionists from Indiana’s past, with the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln, she does not shy away from the racism of her local history. “I thought of Klansman when I thought of Indiana,” Coultas writes (24).
Identification can be complicated in a nation that scours much of its past from the landscape. Like Rukeyser, Coultas draws attention to the commemorative process itself as well as to its omissions. Like Rukeyser, she excavates while illuminating the process of excavation: “A hundred years hence, will there be markers commemorating where we had borrowed a book?” (23). She references the Underground Railroad, noting what exists now on sites that used to be stops on the journey to freedom, in effect noting what has not been memorialized.
Like Rukeyser with her camera, Coultas documents the documentary act and makes clear the difficulties of trying to comprehend a past that has not been made part of larger local or national history. Coultas reminds us that it is “hard to find a path through the fields 100 years later” (17). So Coultas makes copious lists of what remains in municipal archives, on plaques, in histories of the Underground Railroad, slave narratives, and genealogies, as well as from her own archive and memory. One poem, titled “The Executives of the Anti-Slavery League in Neighboring Counties,” lists the names of local abolitionists; another details a list of items Coultas bought at a market in 1976. The juxtaposition between the information found in a historical document and what one can imagine may have been a scrap of paper found in Coultas’s childhood home is provocative. It mimics Coultas’s overall strategy to insert herself into her investigation/documentation of local and national history. By allowing us to peer into her personal archive, Coultas gives her readers the opportunity to draw our own conclusions about the class, the ethnicity, the ideological positions she inhabits, and how that might influence her selection of documents. If nothing else, the inclusion of the shopping list acts as a stark reminder — a monument — to subjectivity.
If Coultas reveals the difficulties of trying to identify with her local history, the process becomes even more complicated as she tries to identify with figures from national myths:
Lincoln looked out over the river and saw a slave state and he was born in one (Kentucky), like me, but was raised in a free state (Indiana), like me. We were white and so could cross the river (17)
Here Coultas takes up Rukeyser’s claim to interrogate “myth and identity” as well as seek out “new signals, processes” (110). Coultas cannot speak of a “shared” history with Lincoln without invoking the history of those who could not cross that river, understanding larger issues of race. When she notes that she and Lincoln were “white” she recalls privilege and its limits; she excavates a past, constructs a net of relationship and responsibility:
I (am a color that is an uneven beige; have a face with reddish tones) read about a man who is described as colored and free (19).
Elsewhere, Coultas writes: “If in the document, she is described as an old darky, then I might be described as an old whitey” (19). Unlike Rukeyser, who takes up a post behind the camera’s viewfinder, Coultas sets herself in the center of her poems. And out of her desire to learn about her state’s and her family’s relationships to slavery, Coultas begins to unmask a set of assumptions about herself, the place she came from, as well as the relationships that can be gained from such an understanding. Here she moves away from taking up the voice of the oppressed to take a look at her own relationship to oppression. In fact, one of the few African American voices in the poem actually contradicts Coultas’s initial impulse to disparage Kentucky, a former slave state. An African American man whom Coultas encounters on a flight explains that he had moved his family from Los Angeles to Kentucky because it was “heaven” (53).
But while Coultas is careful not to speak for the oppressed, she finds it difficult to identify with the abolitionists and other Civil War heroes. When Coultas writes, “I did not marry Mary Todd, although I have always admired her” (16), it reads as a joke and a reminder. Identification goes only so far.
The series ends with “In a Gaze,” a listing of what Coultas learned from her excavation. Here she writes: “What did I learn about my kinfolk? / Petroglyphs mostly / divided as the bluegrass” (56). Coultas learns that there is both a “slaveholder” and a Union soldier hanging from her family tree. The poem concludes with an image of her native land as it looks from an airplane. From her window view the land appears like “a rough crazy quilt” with “elaborate chicken scratchings,” images that suggest the randomness of an item created out of necessity: a patchwork quilt sewn from scraps, a note scrawled hastily. But the poem’s final gesture moves to an image of the land as she has seen it “inscribed in the plat book of 1815 / a European geography imposed on native curves” (56). A plat book representing the legal ownership of lands in a given area represents the archive or a traditional history; it offers a brusque contrast to the “rough crazy quilt” or “chicken scratchings” of Coultas’s investigation. But the contrast highlights Coultas’s own desire to resist the notion of imposing an “order” upon the data she’s found. In the end, the reader is encouraged to appreciate the work not for its conclusions, but for the process of investigation, the willingness to witness that which could be admired and could be admonished in her local racial history.
As Patrick James Dunagan writes in a review, “By sorting out her own understanding of the historical record via her experience with it, as both text and lived fact, she opens the larger opportunity for a cultural sorting.” The most important map in Coultas’s project is the one she leaves behind for those who might follow her in their own investigations.
In addition to those mentioned, there is noshortage of contemporary documentary poets and no limit to documentary innovations, some of which Rukeyser pioneers. Perhaps like Rukeyser’s generation, caught between two wars and economic upheaval, many poets today turn toward documentary forms as a mode of resistance and activism. As Prevallet suggests, “Instead of buying gas masks and digging underground shelters (or moving to Canada), I turn my rage and confusion towards poetry” Rukeyser shows us that poetry can do much more than document. The activist documentary can contextualize events nationally and globally as well as explore and challenge national, local, and personal histories.
Despite the boom in documentary interest, the old debates remain.
Echoing the criticism of The Book of the Dead, George Szirtes declares in the October 2007 issue of Poetry magazine that the “real life in poems” resists “the world of cause and effect.” The world of the poem should be clearly cordoned off from the “real world.”
Szirtes claims “history is secondary to those brilliant moments of perception that mere existence makes possible.” Elsewhere the poet/critic Nada Gordon recently complains that docupoetry is “grasping for mimesis and reportage at the expense of verbal imagination.”
Much written these days about documentary poetics boils down to a defense. And in trying to defend those who would “extend the document,” many critics do not account for the various ways the document might be stretched, pulled, cut, sampled, marshaled, and limited. Beyond defending the documentary impulse, we might consider the ethics behind the works: are the voices of others used in an act of ventriloquism to serve an argument or to give voice to suppressed perspectives? Does history provide context or become utilized to prove a point? What kind of activism does the work provoke or incite off the page?
Maybe one way to begin to see these nuances is to take a fresh look at our ancestors. In a section of The Life of Poetry entitled “Backgrounds and Sources,” Rukeyser explains that she sees the “truths of conflicts and power over the land, and the truths of possibilities” (64). She goes on to list a variety of locations from those historically remembered as sites of commemoration as well as sites of tragedy. She includes both public memorials and those unremarked locales that serve as reminders of personal experiences. She concludes the passage by declaring: “Many of our poems are such monuments. They offer the truths of outrage and the truths of possibility” (66).
If the poem is a monument, it cannot simply reproduce the words of a historical marker such as the one Rukeyser found at Harper’s Ferry. Following Rukeyser’s example, the poem is made when the monument is defaced, when we have written into it, breaking syntax to allow space for more nuanced meanings.
The best homage to Rukeyser is not only to keep her legacy alive, but to ensure our criticism of her work continues to tell the whole story of her innovations, to formulate a web of connections between the issues and events that inspire our documentary poems and their literary antecedents.
1. Joseph Harrington, “Docupoetry and Archive Desire,” Jacket2.
5. Kristen Prevallet, “Writing Is Never by Itself Alone: Six Mini-Essays on Relational Investigative Poetics,” Fence 6, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2003).
6. Eileen Myles, “Fear of Poetry,” The Nation, April 14, 1997.
17. Michael Thurston, “All Systems Go: Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Book of the Dead’ and the Reinvention of Modernist Poetics,” in “How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?”: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).
28. Patrick James Dunagan, “Books by Jennifer Bartlett, Brenda Coultas, Jennifer Scappettone, and Heidi Lynn Staples,” Galatea Resurrects 10.
30. Nada Gordon, “On Docu-poetry: A Febrile Meditation,” Ululations 20 (February 2009).