Louise Kertesz: On "Absalom"

"Absalom" is spoken by a mother who has lost three sons to silicosis and whose husband is dying of it. Hee narrative lines ("I had three sons who worked with their father in the tunnel") are interrupted by rhythmic lyric lines in which individual maternal strength is connected with the universal power of regeneration:

I open out a way, they have covered my sky with crystal

I come forth by day, I am born a second time,

I force a way through, and I know the gate

I shall journey over the earth among the living.

As [M.L.] Rosenthal noted, "the mother’s determination to make her youngest child’s death count for something, to have him live again in her own work of struggle for a better life, is linked with the rebirth motif of the great religions, and specifically of the Egyptian religion" whose scripture is The Book of the Dead. Philip Blair Rice pointed out that the imaginative scheme of "The Book of the Dead" was that of Osiris’ Way. The tunnel is the underworld, the mountain stream is the life-giving river, and the congressional inquiry is the judgement in the hall of truth. Rice noted that this scheme is suggested rather than presented; the poem is not overweighted with allegory. But Rosenthal is perceptive in identifying the persona in Rukeyser’s poem with Isis not Osiris and with all the great female protagonists from mythological earth mothers to the strong modern women of Lawrence and Gorky. Especially harrowing lines are spoken by the mother of an eighteen-year-old boy:

Shirley was sick about three months,

I would carry him from his bed to the table,

from his bed to the porch, in my arms.

. . . .

He lay and said, "Mother, when I die,

"I want you to have them open me up and

"see if that dust killed me.

"Try to get compensation . . . ."

[Louis] Untermeyer said that he was emotionally and physically shaken by the combination of protest and prophecy in the poem. It ends with these lines, spoken by the mother:

He shall not be diminished, never;

I shall give a mouth to my son.


Criticism Overview
Title Louise Kertesz: On "Absalom" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Louise Kertesz Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser
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