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Poet and Reader in the Witness Box

Society on Trial in Muriel Rukeyser’s Early Poetry

Christa Buschendorf

Pages 213 - 234


In her early documentary poetry of the 1930s, the Jewish American poet, writer, and political activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) dealt with two famous cases of social injustice, the Gauley Bridge mining disaster where hundreds of workers died owing to unsafe working conditions (‘The Book of the Dead’), and the lawsuit of the Scottsboro Nine, in which nine young black men were falsely accused of having raped two white women (“The Trial”). On the basis of a radical relational poetics that poses a poetic process built on a close interrelation between poet, poem, and reader, a process, moreover, in which the reader is redefined as “witness,” Rukeyser generates poetic spaces of justice. In a brief discussion of ‘The Book of the Dead’ followed by a close reading of “The Trial,” this article shows how Rukeyser—drawing on the analogy between judicial procedures of witnessing and judging in the legal courtroom and multiple acts of witnessing and judging in the court of poetry—conducts retrials that reveal the severe injustice of the official verdicts in these cases, highlight the dreadful suffering of the victims and, in the end, call for a state of higher justice.


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