How wonderful is the timing of that string of questions at the end of “Praise of the Committee?”
Who stands over the river?
Whose feet go running in these rigid hills?
Who comes, warning the night,
shouting and young to waken our eyes?
Who runs through electric wires?
Who speaks down every road?
My second reading of Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead went a whole lot smoother than my first. Last semester, Rukeyser came at a time when our Documentary poetics class had fallen a couple of weeks behind. In an effort to fit everything in, we were powering through a number of readings. The Book of the Dead fell into that machine. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think we were able to even spend so much as an hour talking about this piece. I remember liking The Book of the Dead; it was intriguing. I also remember feeling a general sense of confusion about the way the poem was constructed. The movements, from section to section, were puzzling to me. Especially when it shifts from “Arthur Peyton” to “Alloy.” It’s like something has changed in the poem and I’m acutely aware this is not in fact, simply a poem that is witnessing. It’s witnessing and it’s commenting. The commenting Rukeyser is participating in feels thought-through. At times the feeling is prophetic (her comments on environmental impact of industrialization). I think it would be fair to say The Book of the Dead is a didactic piece of writing.
I really like the way Rukeyser is working with place. The way she handles nature is really exciting. She seems, at times, to be pushing against romanticized notions surrounding the role of nature in poetry. Nature in The Book of the Dead is infected, essentially. The water makes people sick. The cornfield is a makeshift cemetery. The mouth of the tunnel chokes on silicate dust. And obviously, so much is described as being “glassy” or relating to glass in some kind of way (silica being a main component in manufacturing glass).
I had to Wikipedia the Egyptian Book of the Dead in order to begin to understand a connection between the two. Apparently, the Egyptian Book of the Dead can be translated into either the Book of Coming Forth by Day or the Book of emerging forth into the Light. In relation to Rukeyser’s poem I like Book of emerging forth into the Light. This translation seems to directly be articulating what Rukeyser establishes as her purpose for writing this poem at the very end.
“Carry abroad the urgent need, the scene,
to photograph and to extend the voice,
to speak this meaning.”
Oh, the answer: power!