Michael Thurston: On "Absalom"

"Absalom" models and invites participation in a politics not only dynamic but also elegiac. It constitutes a crucial node in the sequence, a junction point at which documentary and modernism meet to mount a critically unmasking and ritually remembering political life. Mrs. Jones lives in Gamoca, near Gauley Bridge; her husband and three sons have all contracted silicosis. The focus of the poem is on the third son, Shirley, who dies of the disease but brings about the silicosis scandal when he urges his mother to "have them open me up and / see if that dust killed me" (27). Shirley’s wish led to the discovery of the cause of workers’ deaths, but the poem most importantly explores Mrs. Jones’ own struggle to transcend the limits placed on her by poverty and suffering and to find in her circumstances some measure of power. The mother’s testimony takes us again over ground covered by the sequence’s earlier expository passages; she explains that her husband and sons had worked in a coal mine, had been convinced by a power company foreman to come to work at the tunnel for better money, and had gone into the tunnel. After eighteen months, Shirley "came home one evening with a shortness of breath." From the beginning of her sons’ illness, Mrs. Jones takes action, begging money for X-rays, pleading with the company doctor to take her sons’ case for half of any compensation she might get. Her work results in legal action: "The case of my son was the first of the line of lawsuits." The suits, though, bring only meager compensation, for which she has to hitchhike eighteen miles. With three sons dead and a husband dying, Mrs. Jones is left scraping to get by on $2.00 a week.

Defeated by the disease, the doctors, and the duplicity of lawyers and corporations, Mrs. Jones’ last recourse is her testimony; her only power is to speak, to fulfill her resolution : "I shall give a mouth to my son." Her matter of fact tone throughout the testimony makes more harrowing her descriptions of suffering -- of carrying Shirley "from his bed to the table, / from his bed to the porch, in my arms," and of her three sons’ deaths:

 

The oldest son was twenty-three.

The next son was twenty-one.

The youngest son was eighteen.

 

Like Mearl Blankenship or George Robinson, Mrs. Jones appears to be a simple citizen stoically suffering through this tragedy. Her diction is plain, her recollections starkly and unsentimentally delivered. Readers familiar with the documentary culture of the period would recognize in Mrs. Jones, in her understated determination and in her flat tone, the strong and stoic mother figure represented over and over again in the work of, for example, Bourke-White and Caldwell. But, of course, Mrs. Jones’ appearance here is a carefully crafted illusion. The first twelve lines of "Absalom," for example, are taken from social worker Philippa Allen’s testimony in the Hearings a subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Labor Committee held to investigate the Gauley Bridge tragedy. Rukeyser makes only minor changes to Allen’s version, reversing the order in which Mrs. Jones’ three sons are listed, for example, and omitting Allen’s explicit claim that Shirley was his mother’s favorite son. In the middle of the section, though, Rukeyser seamlessly weaves together material from Allen and from several separated passages in Mrs. Jones’ testimony (some eighty pages later in the published Hearings). A graphic representation might show this more clearly than an explanation. In this excerpt, the Roman text marks material from Mrs. Jones’ testimony, the italics material from Philippa Allen’s testimony, and the bold text marks invented language:

 

When they took sick, right at the start, I saw a doctor.

I tried to get Dr. Harless to X-ray the boys.

He was the only man I had any confidence in,

the company doctor in the Kopper’s mine,

but he would not see Shirley.

He did not know where his money was coming from.

I promised him half if he'd work to get compensation,

but even then he would not do anything.

I went on the road and begged the X-ray money,

the Charleston hospital made the lung pictures,

he took the case after the pictures were made.

And two or three doctors said the same thing.

 

The compression Rukeyser achieves by jumping back and forth between speakers and by switching the order of statements renders Mrs. Jones’ recollections more powerful and poignant; the impact of the material is enhanced when Rukeyser brings it together and into focus.

Later in the poem, Rukeyser manipulates the text of the hearings to shift to her female speaker a power she lacks (and male speakers have) in the Congressional testimony, the power to name. Charles Jones, testifying after his wife, lists the men he knows who have died:

Shirley was the first to die, then Cecil died, and then Jeffrey died, and then Oren, and then Raymond Johnson, and then Clev. Anders, Oscar Anders, Frank Dickinson, Frank Lynch, Henry Palf, Mr. Wall, who was assistant superintendent, Mr. Pitch, a foreman . . . . There was a slim fellow who carried steel with my boys. His name was Darnell, I believe.

Rukeyser puts her edited version of this list in the mouth of Mrs. Jones:

 

There was Shirley, and Cecil, Jeffrey and Oren,

Raymond Johnson, Clev and Oscar Anders,

Frank Lynch, Henry Palf, Mr. Pitch, a foreman;

a slim fellow who carried steel with my boys,

his name was Darnell, I believe.

 

Mrs. Jones, through Rukeyser’s editing, becomes the speaker who names the dead, reading them into the record; she has the power to preserve their memory through the act of naming them. In the Egyptian myth system from which Rukeyser’s borrows her poem’s structure, Mrs. Jones takes on the roll of Thoth, the Egyptian scribe god, as well as that of Isis, who gathers the fragments of Osiris and reconstitutes the god. Naming the dead, she exercises the power to give them new life. She also attains, by calling this roll, a vantage point that commands the entire valley, shifting from the names of the men to the names of the towns they came from, broadening her scope to show how "the whole valley is witness." Mrs. Jones’ compelling final resolution ("I shall give a mouth to my son") rests, at least in part, upon the power she exhibits in these lines, a power she attains only through Rukeyser’s manipulation of the Congressional text, her careful work to "extend the document."

Rukeyser’s editing strengthens the agency Mrs. Jones attains through her actions. While her husband grows sicker and cannot work, Mrs. Jones files lawsuits, hitchhikes the eighteen miles to town for the meager compensation checks, and holds the family together on two dollars per week. When her sons become ill, she takes them to the doctor, she begs money for X-rays and convinces the doctor to take the case. When Shirley cannot move about, she carries him from his bed to the table, to the porch. Mrs. Jones’ agency appears even in the grammatical structure of her speech, which differs from the structure of Mearl Blankenship’s in the preceding section. Blankenship repeatedly follows references to his own actions with references to what others have done or might do for him. He wakes up coughing, but his wife turns him over, he has written a letter but asks the narrator to send it, he has sued the company but asks if his audience can do anything for him. Blankenship, of course, is dying, and Rukeyser’s construction of his speech and writing quite poignantly show that he is not master of his own fate. Mrs. Jones, though, exercises greater control over hers. Her sentences persistently begin with "I" and a verb: "I first discovered," "I saw the dust," "I would carry him," "I tried," "I promised," "I went on the road and begged," "I hitchhike." This pattern culminates in the poem’s concluding resolution: "I shall give a mouth to my son."

This resolution is a key to the lived politics Rukeyser evolves and models in the sequence. Just as water creates usable power only in tension with that which would block it, memory becomes power only in the speaking of it, the dynamic repetition of speech and action against those forces which would silence and repress. Rukeyser elevates Mrs. Jones, through her suffering and her power to speak and memorialize, to a mythic stature that makes her central to the sequence as a whole. Mrs. Jones’ testimony is interrupted at several points by sets of italicized lines that seem to be spoken by a different voice. Set off from Mrs. Jones’ voice not only by typography, but also by diction, rhythm, and content, the italicized lines add a mythic dimension to "Absalom." But the mythic does not exclude this mother; rather, Rukeyser takes Mrs. Jones up into the realm these lines create. The same grammatical structure that characterizes Mrs. Jones’ speech organizes the elevated rhetoric of the italicized lines:

 

I have gained mastery over my heart

I have gained mastery over my two hands

I have gained mastery over the waters

I have gained mastery over the river.

. . . . .

I open out a way . . .

I come forth by day . . .

I force a way through . . .

I shall journey over the earth . . . .

 

The grammatical similarity between Mrs. Jones’ monologue and the italicized lines allows us to read the lyrical interruptions not only as a "mythic discourse" that supplements Mrs. Jones’ "plainspoken idiom," as Walter Kalaidjian writes, but as a version of Mrs. Jones’ own rhetoric, an elevated variant of her own maternal agency. The lines transform the mother’s localized and limited agency into a broader and uncontained power. The collocation of mother and tunnel brings a measure of new power to Mrs. Jones, elevating her from mother to the Mother who is able to proclaim, after her youngest son’s death, "I have gained mastery . . . ." Rukeyser’s strategic editing and startling juxtaposition of the documentary and the poetic fashion, in Mrs. Jones, a powerful female figure who bridges the all-too-earthly realm of tunnels, silica, and workers and the seemingly supernatural realm of waters, rivers, and the air. Like the phoenix, she rises from the wreckage of her family to fly and to speak. And in so doing, she figures the cyclical structure that exists in tension with the sequence’s documentary style.

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Criticism Overview
Title Michael Thurston: On "Absalom" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael Thurston Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Documentary Modernism as Popular Front Poetic: Muriel Rukeyser’s 'Book of the Dead’
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