David Kadlec: On "Absalom"

Rukeyser hoped to "widen the lens" of the "paternalistic" New Deal documentary apparatus not only by using medical visual technologies to recover invisible texts, but by challenging conventionally gendered claims to the instruments of both medical and poetic seeing. By exposing encrypted male interiors in her poem, and by foregrounding the women -- the journalist Philippa Allen, and the bereaved mother, Emma Jones -- who secured interviews, autopsies, and X-rays to uncover the indistrial truth of the tunnel incident, Rukeyser regendered her medical reportage, restoring agency to women through a visual medium that was first conceived to erase it. The passage from the Heart Amulet of Hatnofer, the first arcane inscription to appear in "The Book of the Dead," paid tribute to the matriarchal aspects of a society that, at the time of the production of the Eighteenth-Dynasty stone, was ruled by an innovative queen, Hatshepsut, who had claimed for herself the traditionally male role of sun god. Rukeyser extended the words on this amulet, a treasure stolen from the breast of the Egyptian mother who had borne it, into the testimony of the modern West Virginia mother who procured the first "X-ray pictures" of the tunnel workers’ lungs:


I first discovered what was killing these men.

I had three sons who worked with their father in the tunnel:

Cecil, aged 23, Owen, aged 21, Shirley, aged 17.

They used to work in a coal mine, not steady work

for the mines were not going much of the time.

A power Co. foreman learned that we made home brew,

and he formed the habit of dropping in evenings to drink,

persuading the boys and my husband --

give up their jobs and take this other work.

It would pay them better.

Shirley was my youngest son; the boy.

He went into the tunnel.


My heart     my mother     my heart      my mother

My heart     my coming into being.


Egyptian icons and religious texts featured powerful matriarchs like the Heart Amulet’s Hatshepsut, and prophetic goddesses like Isis who, according to Egyptian texts, "lived in the form of a woman" and cured diseases through her knowledge of the healing properties of words.


Criticism Overview
Title David Kadlec: On "Absalom" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author David Kadlec Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication X-Ray Testimonials in Muriel Rukeyser
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

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