I Wake Up Choking

By Maggie MessittMay 5, 2018

I Wake Up Choking

The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser

POET MURIEL RUKEYSER started writing and publishing while at Vassar College and over the summers she spent at Columbia University studying anthropology, the short story, and psychology. In 1933, she left college without graduating and traveled to Alabama to report on the Scottsboro Trials — the cases that would eventually inspire Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Her reportage, subsequent arrest, and the racial injustice around the trial inspired her first poetry collection, Theory of Flight, which won the Yale Younger Poets award. Then, in the spring of 1936, Rukeyser became interested in the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster, its survivors, the West Virginian community of Gauley Bridge, and the narratives that mainstream media and the congressional hearings were ignoring.

I first heard of the tunnel disaster while staying at the Glen Ferris Inn, along West Virginia’s Kanawha River, just two miles south of Gauley Bridge. That night, a man at the bar said that hundreds died there — coal miners who had turned to drilling because the mines were closing. “They had black lung,” the man said. “No,” someone interrupted. It was something else. An older woman who worked at the inn told me that many more than that had died and most of them weren’t actually from West Virginia. But no one at the bar could remember the name of the disease that killed an estimated 40 percent of all workers drilling Hawk’s Nest Tunnel.

I found myself drawn to West Virginia for its whitewater, its Affrilachian poetry, and the complicated history of Kanawha Valley — also known as Chemical Valley for its tank farms, the storage of chemical waste that dates back to World War II, and decades of contamination. Once I’d moved to Appalachia, I often wandered from southeastern Ohio to Fayette County, West Virginia, for the day and stayed the night when I’d gone too far or too long.

I would cross the Ohio River and drive into West Virginia to meander its mountainous roads, passing through disappeared towns. One fall afternoon, inside Fayette County, I drove past a three-story, wooden octagonal building with an arched entryway and spires. A sandwich board, begging the few passersby to stop, steered me into a gravel lot, up the staircase, and into the Whipple Company Store. Designed and built by a coal baron in 1890, this store was the economic, domestic, and family center of the coal company — just one of hundreds that once dotted the state. I quietly walked through the small miners museum — tracing the evolution of the miner’s cap and light source, from candle-lit to electric, and the canary cages they carried into the tunnels to warn of carbon monoxide. (If the island songbird died, they must exit immediately or die with her.) In the back of the building would have been a post office and a telephone operator, tucked out of sight to those shopping in the general store. This is where everything a family needed could be purchased, where miners were paid, and borrowed against their wages — a reminder that the coal company infrastructure trapped families from moving upward and outward. The companies owned their homes as well as the store, and many paid miners with scrip, currency that could only be used in venues owned by their employers.

Coal mines dominated West Virginia until the Great Depression when company after company began to lay off miners or close. In the 1930s, unemployment exceeded 80 percent in some of the state’s counties. Congress was embroiled in a debate over anti-immigration laws and the United States saw a rise in white supremacy. The effects of the New Deal were only starting to affect the nation. This is the climate in which Union Carbide recruited unemployed workers — two thirds of whom were black — to build Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. And, this is the climate in which the disaster occurred. This is also the West Virginia that 23-year-old Muriel Rukeyser traveled to in 1936 — with her friend, photographer Nancy Naumberg — with the aim of documenting the incident.

Unlike most industrial disasters, caused by a single event, Hawk’s Nest spanned five years (some argue eight) — the slow, willful killing of workers drilling a three-mile hydro tunnel, diverting water from the New River, under the Gauley Mountain to a power plant, and then back to the river once again. Inside, the tunnel began to fill with white dust: the silica discovered in Gauley Mountain was some of the most unalloyed ever drilled. “Danger begins at 25% / here was pure danger,” Rukeyser writes. But everyone drilled dry and no one wore masks. To drill wet — to literally water down the stone before cutting — would have lessened the dust but required much more time.

In The Book of the Dead, a series of 20 poems — sometimes considered one long poem with 20 parts — Rukeyser brings together the voices of Gauley Bridge, where supervisors and white tunnel workers lived, and of nearby Vanetta, an isolated township of black workers and their families. She splices dialogue from congressional hearings and pulls information from trial documents and local archives as a way to best document not only “a disease worse than consumption,” but also the experiences and voices of the survivors, families of the deceased, politicians, and the employer, Union Carbide.

In “George Robinson: Blues,” for example, she brings to the page her interviews with Robinson, a black worker, speaking for those who “went into the tunnel mouth to stay”:

The water they would bring had dust in it, our drinking water,
the camps and their groves were colored with the dust,
we cleaned our clothes in the groves, but we always had the dust.
Looked like somebody sprinkled flour all over the parks and groves,
it stayed and the rain couldn’t wash it away and it twinkled
that white dust really looked pretty down around our ankles.

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.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.

Although hundreds had already died before Rukeyser and Naumberg arrived, the men they met were often experiencing the long, slow strangle of silicosis. In the poem “Mearl Blankenship,” Rukeyser brings us inside her conversation with a sick white worker (and a member of the committee seeking justice through the courts):

I wake up choking, and my wife
rolls me over on my left side;
then I’m asleep in the dream I always see:
the tunnel choked
the dark wall coughing dust.

The Book of the Dead is documentary poetry — a modality that uses reportage and cultural documents both as reference and as text — at its most effective. From “The Road” and “West Virginia” to “The Disease” and “Juanita Tinsley” to “The Doctors” and “Power,” the collection builds a narrative that carries through each poem, leading us into a disaster impossible to shake, illustrating the fight for accountability, and exposing the awful truth: the workers were dying.

Worse still, between “George Robinson: Blues” and “The Cornfield” — a hybrid of interviews, observation, and congressional hearings — Rukeyser reveals that black workers, in particular, were often buried in mass graves within hours of their deaths:

Did you ever bury thirty-five men in a place in back of your house?
Thirty-five tunnel workers the doctors didn’t attend,
died in the tunnel camps, under rocks, everywhere, world without end.

“The whole valley is witness,” writes Rukeyser. Yet Union Carbide argued the death toll was small and blamed sensational journalists for overestimates.

Influenced by Rukeyser’s fieldwork in West Virginia and her Jewish identity, The Book of the Dead makes room for the exploited and even dares to give them names. However, in this new version of the book with an introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, the poet/scholar gives light to even more names when she uncovers a list of 135 workers who died between 1930 and 1935: name, race, age, burial place. The total number of men who died is under dispute, ranging from 764 (over five years) to as much as 2,000 (overall).

Moore explains that little from Rukeyser’s original research has been recovered; although notes from her other reporting around that time — written about extensively by scholars studying her work — reveal a young poet-reporter who obsessively recorded events: from hand-drawn maps and primary documents to interview notes and observations and lists — so many lists. She has a “camera-like style of writing,” writes scholar Sarah Chadfield, mirroring the aesthetic of the American 1930s, the documentary era — which, as promoted by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), embraced the lives and circumstances that mainstream media and Americans had ignored throughout the prosperous 1920s. Across the arts, narratives were shifting their focus to the marginalized in the United States. According to John Lomax, folklore editor of the FWP, writers were tasked, “above all, to let the people speak in their own voice and tell their story.”

Not surprisingly then, in 1936, at the same time that Rukeyser and Naumberg were in West Virginia, poet-turned-journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans were living among sharecroppers in Alabama. Their reporting led to an article for Fortune that was never published; though, with this reporting, Agee wrote the seminal book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Only a few years later, Richard Wright worked with Edwin Rosskam to curate Farm Security Administration images by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein for Wright’s book 12 Million Black Voices (1941). Wright’s prose accompanies 90 images in an exploration of the origins and history of black oppression in the United States. This form, often called the documentary-photo book, was another reflection of the mandate of the times — so much art was being filtered through documentary: poetry, prose, photography, theater, film.

It’s understood that Rukeyser and Naumberg had similarly intended to produce a manuscript of text and image. This never happened and it’s unclear why. Most of Naumberg’s photos are long lost, writes Moore, although, at some point, a few surfaced in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now, for the first time, with this recent reprint of the collection, West Virginia University Press has paired Rukeyser’s text with original images. Although, the pairing does not live up to its hype, including only three small black-and-white photographs, it does allow us to see Hawk’s Nest Dam, the view of Vanetta from the railroad tracks, and inside someone’s kitchen. A fourth illustration included in this edition is Rukeyser’s hand-drawn map of Gauley Bridge and the wishbone confluence, where the Gauley River and the New River merge to become the Kanawha River. This is a far more exciting (and valuable) addition — however, it is also quite small. Still, these inclusions remind us of the process of creating The Book of the Dead, in which two young women traveled to a part of West Virginia that many people continue to find forbidding.

The Book of the Dead is a story about race. It’s about industry. It’s about being held accountable and the right to a safe workplace. But, to me — like so many Great Depression narratives — it’s about wealth and power and the ways in which that has trumped humanity and justice across time. Benjamin A. Botkin, who succeeded John Lomax as the FWP’s folklore editor, believed that “[d]emocracy is strengthened by the valuing of myriad cultural voices.” Yet Rukeyser, Botkin, and others involved in documentary writing during the 1930s were under FBI surveillance for many years. In the 1940s, when the Work Progress Administration was publishing its guidebook to West Virginia, the state’s governor removed all mention of the disaster from the text. The comprehensive source on the subject, The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster, by Michael Cherniack, published in 1986, makes no mention of Rukeyser’s reportage or poetry. This too is about power and documentation, and how much it matters who is doing the documenting.


Maggie Messitt is the author of The Rainy Season, a work of narrative and immersion journalism, longlisted for the 2016 Alan Paton Award. She teaches in the MFA program at Goucher College and is the national director of Report for America.

LARB Contributor

Maggie Messitt is the author of The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa, longlisted for the 2016 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award in South Africa, where she was a journalist and editor for eight years. Since returning to the United States, her essays and reportage have been published in Creative NonfictionMother JonesRiver Teeth, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance magazine, among others. She was awarded honorable mention in the 2013 Documentary Essay Prize competition of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and her work for Wisconsin Public Television and PBS’s POV documentary film series earned her a 2010 Multimedia Storytelling fellowship from the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of California, Berkeley. More recently, Messitt was a 2015 Kenyon Review Peter Taylor Fellow, Scholar-in-Residence at Bowers Writers House, Truman State University’s 2016 Clayton B. Ofstad Endowed Writer-in-Residence, and nonfiction judge for the 2017 Oregon Literary Fellowships. She now teaches in the MFA program at Goucher College and is the national director of Report for America.


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