Robert Shulman: On "Absalom"

In the next in a series of poems in which the workers and their families speak in their own words, in "Absalom" (pp. 27-30) the speaker is Mrs. Jones, another member of the defense committee and the mother not of one but of three sons who have died of silicosis. Her husband is dying and unable to work. Her language is straightforward and affecting:

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.

Rukeyser juxtaposes the mother's words with what becomes a lamentation as she moves to her poem Spell B of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Rukeyser focuses on the heart and the mother as integral to her political art. She also elides the promise of life ("my coming into being") with the mother's revelations about sickness and death, first of her three sons, culminating in Shirley, the Absalom of the poem, and then of her husband, in the immediately following line, "my husband is not able to work." This simple statement gains force from its juxtaposition and contrast of styles with the suggestive lamentation from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Is Shirley the lamenting voice of "my heart my mother"? Does he merge with the dead Egyptian whose heart "is weighed in the scales of the balance against the feather of righteousness"? For him is there a promise of life or an exposure of the suffering and death the company has caused—or both? Or are the "my" of "my heart" and "my husband" the same? Does the dead Egyptian merge with Mrs. Jones and compound the sense of social, economic, and political wrong? Or are we to keep all of these possibilities in mind? In any case, in the remainder of the poem Rukeyser continues to juxtapose Mrs. Charles Jones's testimony (Investigation, pp. 37-40) with fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This opening up of possibilities and a denial of closure is basic to Rukeyser's avant-garde political art in which she fuses documentary precision, powerful feeling, and a range of languages.

In the fullest sense Mrs. Jones cares for her son:

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.

    My heart is mine in the place of hearts,

    They gave me back my heart, it lies in me.

The quotations from the Egyptian The Book of the Dead center on the heart, the seat of feeling, humanity, and life. These connotations reinforce Mrs. Jones's humanity, intensify her sense of loss and, as she continues, expose what the doctors lack. Dr. Harless in particular refuses to X-ray the boys because "he did not know where his money was coming from." Mrs. Jones goes on,

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.

Mrs. Jones adds Shirley's words and feelings to the account. When he dies he wants his mother to have him opened up to

"see if that dust killed me.

"Try to get compensation,

"you will not have any way of making your living

"when we are gone,

"and the rest are going too."

    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.

The chant from The Book of the Dead amplifies and gives urgency to this narrative of suffering and loss. The positive note of "mastery over my heart," the sense of renewal, and the invocation of "the waters" and "the river," with their reference both to the river at Gauley Bridge and the waters and river of life—these positive associations also throw into ironic relief Mrs. Jones's narrative of legal manipulation, company power, and government hostility:

The case of my son was the first of the line of lawsuits.

They sent the lawyers down and the doctors down;

they closed the electric sockets in the camps.

As she continues the names of the dead resonate, as do the place names—"the whole valley is witness." In a compressed style Rukeyser has Mrs. Jones establish the role of the relief officials who refuse to mail checks so that

I hitchhike eighteen miles, they make checks out.

They asked me how I keep the cow on $2.

I said one week, feed for the cow, one week, the children's flour.

What gradually emerges is that after the doctors first called what the boys had pneumonia or "would pronounce it fever,"

Shirley asked that we try to find out.

That's how they learned what the trouble was.

From Shirley, who has opened out a way into the tragedy, Rukeyser segues to the last of the quotations from The Book of the Dead,

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.

Rukeyser has previously associated crystal with the deadly silica, one of the multiple ironies her montage generates. In particular, in the context of Rukeyser's poem the traditional affirmation of rebirth has a specifically human and implicitly radical connotation, reinforced by the mother's concluding declaration:

He shall not be diminished, never;

I shall give a mouth to my son.


Criticism Overview
Title Robert Shulman: On "Absalom" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert Shulman Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered
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Contexts No Data Tags No Data

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