That is what happens, isn’t it?
A choking-off in the air cells?
There is difficulty in breathing.
And a painful cough?
Does silicosis cause death?
– Muriel Rukeyser, from “The Disease” in The Book of the Dead
Muriel Rukeyser’s great 1938 documentary poem The Book of the Dead recounts the fight of industrial workers who contracted silicosis while constructing a hydroelectric plant in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Her focus on the visible–the camera, the extra, the historical document–seeks to make visible what is essentially invisible in lived experience. Namely, the ways in which industrial products or byproducts–in this case, silica released from rocks in the process of building the plant–can mark, change, and even destroy human bodies via mechanisms beyond the understanding of most of us who are not doctors. To work with old residential buildings is to confront the bewildering proliferation of known and unknown dangers presented by products old and new, but more than that, it is to confront the moral and sometimes legal responsibility to keep safe those within one’s employ. Yesterday a subcontractor came to our new home on Emerson Street to discuss installation of our new wood stove. He recently found out, he told me, that he has asbestosis in his lungs from years repairing asbestos coated chimneys, and installing chimneys through roofs insulated with vermiculite, a mineral sourced in the US mostly from a Libby, Montana mine contaminated by asbestos.
Hearing this gave new meaning to the hours and days I spent in that attic, bent over, breathing through my P100 rated respirator and sweating in my Tyvek suit, scooping loose vermiculite into bags and hoping all the knob and tube wiring wouldn’t electrocute me. It was terrifying work–have I done it right? Is my mask fitting properly today? Will I be able to bag it all in time to take it to the landfill? Do I have all the proper forms? Then, my nose itches and there’s nothing I can do about it. Light-headed from hunger but unwilling to change all my clothes just for a snack, I continue scooping loose mineral fill into plastic bags. Speaking to my subcontractor gave meaning to all of this: if he and his men, heedless of the risks, take off their masks half way through the day, they are safer for those hours I spent in the humid dark.
And if my sub and his workers do not always wear their masks, heedless of the risks, it is in part because of this problem of visibility–what can we see or understand about the hidden workings of asbestos particles? Like Muriel Rukeyser, who struggled in her documentary poetry to bring the discourses of science, statistics, and public health into the language of her work, public health outreach faces the problem of making immediate what is distant and abstract: the dangers we cannot understand face off daily against the discomforts we feel all to immediately. In the following passage, silica dust is visible everywhere, even as the danger the dust poses–its legibility in a legal, political, and medical sense–is subject to litigation:
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.
When I was researching in the Rukeyser archives at the Library of Congress, I stayed with a dear friend who had, without knowing it, a bedbug infestation. I sat in the reading room surreptitiously scratching my ankles. Like lead, bedbugs seem an insidious, invisible danger. Yet bedbugs announce their presence with loud discomfort and no risk of disease or permanent harm, besides driving you up the wall. Lead exists silently in the soil, the dust on windowsills. And then children face difficulties in school, often without knowing the reason why. Presence and absence, visible and invisible. One of Rukeyser’s speakers is a woman who has lost two children to silicosis and is about to lose a third. Rukeyser allows this mother to express her grief in eloquent language drawn from the Egyptian 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.
He shall not be diminished, never;
I shall give a mouth to my son.
Work–the work of poetry and the work of making things–is essential to life. Yet it brings with it, like stepping into a car, known dangers and unknown ones. May I always act thoughtfully and responsibly to keep my family and workers safe from harm.
But I want to close with a reflection on that old, boring canard, the role of poetry in all of this. Auden, like Rukeyser, thought carefully during the 1930s about the role of poetry in public life. In famous lines from his elegy for Yeats, Auden writes,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
The Gauley Bridge disaster was one in in which executives did indeed tamper. It was a disaster of busy griefs and isolations, but isolations that Rukeyser sought to speak past through her incorporation of statistics, legal records, and scientific information into her poems. How, after all, can poetry make visible collective organizing any more than it can make visible the slow working of asbestos fibers in the lungs? The towns turned industrial disasters of Gauley Bridge, West Virginia and Libby, Montana are indeed “raw towns” that those with few resources “believe and die in.” Does the poet also believe and die there? Authenticity is, perhaps, too much to ask of language, when language is itself never authentically that which it evokes. But my own appreciation of the work of safety–and of what Rukeyser was trying to communicate in her poetry about that work–has been immeasurably deepened by the hours I spent under the hot attic roof. Her work offers, among poetry’s many “way[s] of happening,” the beginning of a way to assimilate technical and manual labor into art, and to give voice, “a mouth,” to that labor.