Walter Kalaidjian: On "Absalom"

[P]erhaps Rukeyser’s most stunning advance beyond proletcult and bourgeois aesthetics alike is her distinctively feminist rendering of social empowerment. To begin with, it is the mother’s compassionate narrative in the "Absalom" section that augurs women’s revisionary authority . . . . Mrs. Jones’ poignant story of the loss of three sons to silicosis stands out as the poem’s at once most desperate and heroic portrait. Failing to persuade the company’s doctor to examine or treat her sons for silicosis, she "went out on the road and begged the X-ray money" (28). As it happened, these x-ray pictures of damaged lung tissue were eventually presented as evidence in spearheading the first of many lawsuits brought against Union Carbide. Although successful in carrying out her son’s last request to seek damages against the company, the mother, at the time of Rukeyser’s interview, was woefully impoverished, having to hitchhike eighteen miles for the paltry subsistence settlement that only barely sustains her remaining family: "They asked me how I keep the cow on $2. / I said one week, feed for the cow, one week, the children’s flour" (29). In the mother’s grim testimony of industrial disease and poverty, Rukeyser uncovers capital’s hidden oppression of depression era families that, obscured in the domestic sphere, were not as visibly exploited as male workers.

However diminished by death and hardship, nevertheless the mother vows, in memory of her youngest boy Shirley, that "I shall give a mouth to my son" (30). Likewise, as poet Rukeyser empowers the mother’s pledge by supplementing her plain-spoken idiom with a more mythic discourse - one that voices a feminist rebirth:

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.

The striking shift in tonal registers, achieved by crosscutting such italicized passages into the transcript of the mother’s interview, effectively shatters the alienation and despair of silicosis, symbolized in the poem’s crystal wall of glass sealing off the heavens. The mother forces "a way through" to a revolutionary, transpersonal resolve through her fusion with the invoked figure of the female messiah, here patterned after Isis, the Egyptian goddess of transmigration. It is the power of the feminine in Rukeyser’s revisionary mythology that transforms "the river of Death" at "the root of the tower and the tunnel’s core" into the hydroelectric dam’s "Pool of Fire" from which the world is reborn. Speaking in the persona of the goddess, the poet claims for herself "power over the fields and Pool of Fire, / Phoenix, I sail over the phoenix world" (15).


Criticism Overview
Title Walter Kalaidjian: On "Absalom" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Walter Kalaidjian Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique
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