Janet E. Kaufman

Michael True: On "Poem" (I lived in the first century of world wars)"

Rereading Muriel Rukeyser's "Poem"—beginning, "I lived in the first century of world wars" (RR 211 )—I inevitably wonder why anyone speaking American English wouldn't regard it as one of the most remarkable poems in contemporary American literature. Where else, in 20 lines, do we have such an accurate rendering of what it feels like to live at this moment in history? Who else provided such a precise, simple statement of our "nuclear" dilemma? Which other writer managed not only to identify the terror that dominates the landscape, but also to suggest a strategy for moving through its insanity toward a safer place?

. . . "Poem" is, among other things, a journey through discouragement, even despair, to a renewed acquaintance with the restorative powers of history and biography, represented by the "men and women / Brave, setting up signals across vast distances" (RR 212).

I lived in the first century of world wars.

The opening line, an assertion, places the speaker in time, in an era unlike any other, scourged by modern warfare. In the 1970s, Rukeyser, as with any person her age, rightfully felt that the world had been at war continually throughout her lifetime. "Kathe Kollwitz," written about the same time as "Poem," mentions the special bond Rukeyser feels with an artist enduring the same fate:

Held between wars

my lifetime

among wars, the big hand of the world of death (RR 214)

Although the movement against the war in Vietnam, to which Rukeyser contributed, had gathered strength by the late 1960s, it had provoked no change in policy in Washington, and the war would drag on for another five years.

The simplicity of the opening statement in "Poem" gives it a particular weight and authority. It is a pronouncement, but also a lament, whose simple language keeps it from sounding pompous or pretentious. It’s as if the speaker were beginning a casual autobiography—"I was born in Philadelphia in 1913." The mood, approaching depression, is quickly established) so that we are prepared for the ironic statements, bordering on anger, that follow. Both the depression and the anger are reasonable responses to the situation in which the speaker finds herself. That first line sets up expectations that are fulfilled and at the same time challenged by the second line:

Most mornings I would be more or less insane, (RR 211)

The word "insane" in the second line is surprising in the way that Joseph Brodsky said is characteristic of American poems (he had in mind Auden’s "September 1, 1929"): "it violates the preconceived music of the meter with its linguistic content" (Brodsky 308).

Although wars are obviously horrible and impinge on the lives of everyone, including people far from the battlefield, Rukeyser’s rather bald statement, nonetheless, draws the reader up short. Is she being funny—or serious? The following lines not only answer that question but also describe how the peculiar insanity of the Vietnam period was accomplished:

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

The war in Vietnam was a TV war fought in living rooms and barrooms across America. It was an undeclared war initiated by "careless" people who felt no responsibility to tell the truth. Communication, based upon trust, was systematically subverted by bureaucrats merely doing a job, assisted by journalists whose reports were little more than press releases from the White House. Stories of the war omitted or suppressed important details. "Careless stories" repeated lies of American foreign policy, as it was being conducted from Washington (a fact substantiated only later by the Pentagon Papers). Also),contrary to a popular impression, TV coverage of the war probably lengthened rather than shortened it. Domesticated by TV, it became mere background among advertisements in the media.

The word "devices" suggesting something devious or malign, is particularly appropriate here. Although the Pentagon did not exploit TV for propaganda purposes as fully and obviously during the Vietnam War as it did during the Gulf War, people sensed that information was being withheld. Only later did the public learn that the body counts, evidence that "we were winning," were phony.

I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

In the search for reassurance, the speaker in the poem telephones a friend, only to find that person similarly undone by a century of wars. Even after the guns are silent and the treaties are signed, the destruction goes on and on, in the suicides and the innocent victims of landmines that seldom appear among the casualty lists, as well in nightmares, evidence of scars and trauma among those who survive.

The theme of war's insanity is given further weight by the word "mad." Although this is a lyric poem, anger, even fury, over circumstances responsible for "a century of world wars" are central to the argument of the poem. ("Mad," by the way, was used with similar effect in the Auden lyric mentioned earlier: "the world offence . . . / That has driven a culture mad.")

Little by little, however, the speaker moves through the negative energy associated with this state of being toward a positive state. The transformation occurs when she offers to others a simple gift:

Slowly I would get to pen and paper, Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

The generous impulse to make a poem is life-giving for the person offering the gift, as well as for the one receiving it. And in the act of writing, changes take place that ultimately move the speaker toward a new insight. This change is accomplished with the aid of memory, as the speaker reclaims the lives and values of those who represent positive alternatives to the present:

In the day I would be reminded of those men and women

Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,

Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined

    values.

Although the speaker does not mention specific people, the list undoubtedly includes people such as Kathe Kollwitz and Pablo Neruda, who told the truth about war and, against all odds, resisted injustice, and whom Rukeyser wrote about elsewhere in The Speed of Darkness.

Remembering their legacy, the speaker moves through the day toward evening. her mind filled with precise memories of what they achieved and how they went about it:

As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,

We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.

It is the concluding lines of "Poem," it seems to me, that dramatize the speaker's authority and authenticity in speaking about her subject. Historically, poems on the subject of peacemaking are often predictable, even shallow in content, and anthologies about "peace" are inordinately dull. The sentiments may be admirable, but the images, sounds, and arguments are either predictable or slack. Conventional verses on the topic tell the reader what peace looks like, but not about how it is made. In poetry, as well as in public policy, peace is too often understood as merely the absence of war. An obvious exception to this rule is "Making Peace" by Denise Levertov (with whom Rukeyser traveled to Vietnam about the time "Poem" was written).

In the concluding lines of "Poem," Rukeyser gives us not only a vision of peace, but also specific guidelines for the resolution of conflict and the transformation of power associated with it. Peace is not a happening, but a construct. It is built through the systematic arrangement of ideas and concepts, including love and reconciliation; it is a design that meets specific requirements, a shelter assembled according to plan:

To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile

Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,

Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.

The requirements for peace involve transforming ourselves as well as the world around us. They include integrating our conscious and unconscious "selves," our dreams and our actions, in the long struggle to "wake up." Accomplishing peace "within" and "without" resembles a Buddhist enlightenment, which enables us to become less egocentric and to be fully present to others. Perhaps we may even begin to trust the rhythm of experience that Rukeyser refers to in a number of her major poems.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

The final line, a refrain echoing the opening line, makes an association between violence within and without: peacemaking in the individual and peacemaking in the social order.

Lorrie Goldensohn: On "The Poem as Mask"

Even without the simple biographical facts to shoehorn into a reading—of the poet's own charged experience of waking out of anesthesia after a cesarean birth and being told of the hysterectomy also performed on her, without her consent, at the same time—the poem reads explosively, with the famous masks and mythologies still flashing their exclamation points like stoplights. Through memory, the mortally wounded psyche is healed and rescued with the child, and the god lifts his hand as if Stravinsky himself had orchestrated it, in a new and even stronger and more disturbing mythic rite, this time from the deliberately female vantage point of that cleft speaker, regathered as Orpheus, maenad, and mother.

The poem is embedded in my own twentieth-century history as well as Rukeyser's, part of a seventies movement primed for sisterhood, but not quite ready for mothers, especially if they were ours. Reprinted in 1993, first released in 1973, Florence Howe's anthology of feminist poetry, No More Masks! chooses Rukeyser's negation of the practice of masking for its blazon. "The Poem as Mask," however, performs a series of much more complicated maneuvers of recognition and retrieval, maneuvers that hardly dismiss the adoption of masks or personae. And the famous exclamations seem more a question of which persona, rather than a dismissal of all personas: "No more masks! No more mythologies!" is one moment in Rukeyser's poem.

In an interview published in 1972 by William Packard, when asked specifically about this line, Rukeyser agrees that when it is spoken, "the myth begins again." The lifted hand becomes an acceptance of myth both paradoxical and necessary that occurs "[a]s soon as the refusal is made" (129). By the time actual memory confronts myth through the reality of the birthing female, exile from the self is undone, and under the baton of the god's lifted hand, the shattered fragments of the self enact a literal movement of recollection and raise "their own music." And their own new mythology.

. . . Her makeover of the Orpheus legend clearly had two aims: one, to reconnect poetry to its older roots in prophecy and wisdom literature, crippling discourse in favor of image; two, to provide a poetics that would acknowledge the full range of female experience as not incidental to poetry, but essential to it. Over many years, Rukeyser strove to take a male myth of the genesis of poetry and recover it for women, thereby to ground herself both theoretically and practically as woman and poet, with neither category ever to subtract energy from the other. . . . another creation myth is germinating inside the story of the origins of the female poetic voice. It is a myth that may worry the anti-essentialist feminist. In "The Poem as Mask" Rukeyser proposes the founding moment of a female self-recognition, and her simultaneous rejection of Orpheus and acquisition of her own voice, as the moment of a violated childbed, when her fertility is attacked in the instance of its expression. And yet, the female splits; gives birth; and suffering, acquires voice. In a split that also heals the gap between writing and living—between poetry and life—the poem couples or splices an "actual" autobiographical memory with a fictive or mythic recognition. But Rukeyser bears down on female memory or authentic experience as that which gives rise to the new myth, in which a newer god lifts his—and it is still his—enabling hand. In "The Poem as Mask" Orpheus may be a woman finally with the right mask on, clutching the right mythology, but the deity hasn't changed his pronoun.

I can imagine critical responses rejecting the implied pronatalism of this Orpheus myth, its potentially coercive suggestion that the catalyst of female creativity be childbirth, in a remake of Freud's movie Anatomy as Destiny, this time as produced and directed by a feminist. Yet Rukeyser's imagery can also be read nonprescriptively, and as generated from the context of a particular life and history that may not be pared away from a reading of the poems. Rukeyser in the postwar years is not just scorched, but fired by the experience of birthing and raising a son in the teeth of convention and through ambiguous paternity; fighting for her right even to have this child, she rewrites her creation myth: in "The Poem as Mask" both mask and mythology are cast aside, only to be retrieved and re-shaped.

But the recuperative role that motherhood plays is clear: the self split open in self-mothering is the cloven female body, despite the male's appropriation of midwifing and control over procreation, and despite the wound to her fertility that the poet undergoes in her hysterectomy, on the way to a deliverance both psychic and actual. The new myth is this female body whose wounds produce the Orphic song, its emblem the poet-mother and child. Against the surgical knife of male cancellation, body and family become female: first mother, then tentatively, then more and more strongly, bisexual or lesbian. And perhaps a shouldering aside of the male, except as son, becomes a necessity for a strong woman poet who has just undergone four years of a global conflagration in which militarism sidelined or dismissed or victimized women.

[Editor's Note: Excerpted from a much longer essay. See the original book for the full text]

Janet Kaufman: "(To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)"

Rukeyser's first published poetic lines reflecting on the meaning of being Jewish emerge in a Petrarchan sonnet in her ten-poem sequence "Letter to the Front" (1944), which confronts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Searching for a way to respond to these wars specifically as a woman and a poet, the sequence opens with a visionary declaration: "Women and poets see the truth arrive" (OS 61). Progressing through the sequence, Rukeyser imagines the influence women could have by responding to war and beckons for their "Involvement in the world." Finally, she concludes by imagining the heroic efforts of resistance fighters that began with "signs of belief" and offered hope; her poem, a letter to the front, becomes an effort to return the favor of those signs: "As I now send you, for a beginning. praise" ( OS 68).

Giving no hint of itself earlier in the sequence, the seventh poem of the sequence. a sonnet, announces itself with a proclamation: "To be a Jew in the twentieth century / Is to be offered a gift." (OS 65). Imagine writing these lines at the apex of the Nazi genocide. In a poem-letter addressing women in general and herself as a poet—and indirectly addressing her lover, Otto Boch, who had died fighting in the Spanish resistance—why did she abruptly insert this declaration? What could she have meant by it, and why would she write it as a Petrarchan sonnet, the ultimate form for the love poem? The octet continues:

                                  If you refuse,

Wishing to be invisible, you choose

Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.

Accepting. take full life. Full agonies:

Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood

Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God

Reduced to a hostage among hostages. (OS 65)

The "gift," these lines make clear, is not offered unconditionally; the price of refusing it is "death of the spirit." Accepting it, however, means knowingly accepting "full agonies," willingly stepping into "labyrinthine blood." She invokes centuries of persecution against Jews with these words, as well as the

courage and persistence of Jews who resisted persecution throughout history. Her words also disturbingly echo the appellation of God in Jewish liturgy—"King of Kings" or "Host of Hosts"—when they claim that accepting "full agonies" also means facing a history with God fallen, reduced to "hostage among hostages." This was 1944.

The sestet of the poem rescues, offers hope, even while it equates the gift with torment:

The gift is torment.   Not alone the still

Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.

That may come also.   But the accepting wish,

The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee

For every human freedom, suffering to be free,

Daring to live for the impossible.

The "torment" evokes not only the physical suffering inflicted by a history of oppression, but the mental torture of hoping for freedom and peace that, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War and World War II described in "Letter to the Front," seems impossible. The "accepting wish" torments because it dares and tethers one to a life of resistance and risk-taking. Rukeyser's language evokes the covenant between God and the Israelites at Sinai, contingent upon the Israelites, and all succeeding generations, accepting it. When Moses says to the people, "Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, even us, who are all here alive today" (Deut. 5:3), the people respond: "We will hear it and do it" (5:24). To accept the gift is to accept a binding responsibility, but a responsibility that liberates, making the impossible possible. Many have argued that the notion of the covenant distinguishes the Jewish people and Jewish history; Rukeyser seizes on this idea in her sonnet: the gift of Judaism is a binding relation to God, history, and the future. With the seed of this idea in an essay earlier in her career, Rukeyser had written, "To me, the value of my Jewish heritage, in life and in writing, is its value as a guarantee" ("Under Forty" 9).

Although, ostensibly, one can accept or deny the contract posited in the sonnet, choice does not seem viable. As the octet declares, not to accept the gift, if one is born a Jew, is to be invisible, to blind one perhaps even to oneself. Rukeyser published these lines in a time not only when Jews were being annihilated in Europe but when, in America, Jews were striving to assimilate rapidly into mainstream American society. Given that, in childhood, Rukeyser found her parents' temple bereft of meaning and that she remained distant from organized Judaism, the fact that both the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements adopted "To Be a Jew" into their prayer books "astonished" her. "One feels that one has been absorbed into the line and it's very good" (Packard 122). Much of Rukeyser's poetry displays these conventional qualities of prayer: praise, supplication, argument, dialogue, and risk. We see this, for instance, at the end of "Nine Poems for the unborn child" (1948): "praise / To the grace of the world and time that I may hope / To live, to write, to see my human child" (OS 78), or in "The Poem as Mask" (1968): "Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand, / the fragments join in me with their own music" (RR 213). Prayer entails a spiritual risk of participating in a conversation that offers no certainty of response; writing to and trusting so emphatically in poetic language, Rukeyser creates a listener, drawing upon poetry as prayer as a way to "live for the impossible." When she asserts in "Notes for a Poem," early on in her first volume, Theory of Flight, that the poem offers "a plough of thought to break this stubborn ground" (CP 11), she harkens back to Isaiah's injunction: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks" (2:4). While Rukeyser's sonnet in "Letter to the Front" emphasizes the liturgical qualities of her poetry, it also defines Judaism as a source of courage to break through the silences that perpetuate injustice.

Rukeyser reinforces this idea in an essay published the same year as the sonnet "To be a Jew," in a collection entitled "Under Forty: A Symposium on American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews" in the Contemporary Jewish Record. The editors of this symposium wanted to know whether the writer's position as artist and citizen had been "modified . . . by the revival of anti-Semitism as a powerful force in the political history of our time." Among the essays, Rukeyser's was the only one insisting on the interwovenness and interdependence of her various identities. Elaborating on her theme of Judaism as a gift, Rukeyser wrote about her sense of her Jewish heritage as a guarantee: "Once one's responsibility as a Jew is really assumed, one is guaranteed, not only against fascism, but against many kinds of temptation to close the spirit" (9).

John Lowney: On "The Book of the Dead"

When the conclusion of "The Book of the Dead" reiterates the poem's opening refrain—"These roads will take you into your own country" (OS 37)—this refrain is also rewritten, insisting on the reader's active role as "witness" much more forcefully. "These roads" constructed for commerce, including the commerce of tourism, are also the roads traveled by anonymous migrant workers. "The Book of the Dead" assures that "your own country" can neither "forget" nor "keep silent" these workers' defiant narratives of counter-memory.

John Lowney" On "The Dam"

If there is any doubt about the poem's implication of white supremacy with abusive labor practices, the description of the material site of "Power" makes this clear: "The power-house stands skin-white." And immediately after this, the poem returns to its opening statement: "this is the road to take when you think of your country, / between the dam and the furnace, terminal" (OS 29). As impressive an engineering accomplishment as the dam is, its awesome power cannot conceal the devastating social cost of its construction. While the dam harnesses the power of the "white" water of the river in springtime, this whiteness is conveyed as an "excess of white. / White brilliant function of the land's disease" (OS 31). This "scene of power," this "valley's work, the white, the shining" (OS 33), ultimately serves the interests of Union Carbide stockholders, as the poem's subsequent quotation of the stock report suggests. At the same time, however, its "excess" also galvanizes the revolutionary social forces whose collective interests become visible on the page below the company’s bottom line.

Stephanie Hartman: On "The Dam"

. . . "The Dam" voices the possibility that witnessing can again divert or transform power. While the "Power" section ends with the line "this is the end," "The Dam" begins, "All power is saved, having no end" (OS 31). The second law of thermodynamics, the law of the conservation of energy, is crucial to the poem's movement from charting the destruction of individual bodies to affirming workers' enduring power; Rukeyser's invocation of scientific laws extends to including the formula for the velocity of falling water within her text. Her expansive description of energy in this section envisions Gauley Bridge as a scene of rebirth and sets up an analogy between the conservation of energy and the mythic resurrection of the phoenix:

                                energy

total and open watercourse

praising the spillway, fiery glaze,

crackle of light, cleanest velocity

flooding, the moulded force.

 

I open out a way over the water

I form a path between the Combatants:

Grant that I sail down like a living bird,

power over the fields and Pool of Fire.

Phoenix, I sail over the phoenix world. (OS 31 )

The conservation of energy is seen as a source of positive transformation. The term "power" for Rukeyser is not synonymous with its abuse: it is a force of constant change that can be reclaimed for the worker's benefit.

Ultimately the river emerges as the main figure for the power of the working class that has been suppressed and usurped. It is opposed to the image of brittle glass, which Rukeyser associates with death and rigidity. In words that evoke class struggle, Rukeyser cajoles the river to rise again, to be reborn:

Effects of friction: to fight and pass again,

learning its power, conquering boundaries,

able to rise blind in revolts of tide,

broken and sacrificed to flow resumed.

Collecting eternally power. Spender of power,

torn, never can be killed, speeded in filaments,

million, its power can rest and rise forever,

wait and be flexible. Be born again. (OS 33)

Rukeyser's images of continuity—of endless flow, inexhaustible power, rebirth—are made to celebrate the durability and strength of the workers. She moves away from her emphasis on the individual ill body to celebrate the collective power of the working class, so that the deaths take their place within the context of a larger struggle, a fight that can be won; through the triumph of the collective, perhaps, the casualties can be reborn. She redeems the deaths of the workers by fitting them into a larger account of the inexhaustibility of power, energy, and motion. In this view, power clearly is not structured as a hierarchy that the unfortunate workers, trapped at the bottom of a class system, struggle to get out from under; rather, it is a continually flowing medium, like water or electricity, as "scarless" and indestructible as the workers' bodies are vulnerable.

Stephanie Hartman: On "Power"

The lyrical "Power" section begins on an unabashedly aestheticizing note; we soon learn, however, that the plant is built upon—and literally covers over—a darker, more complex version of "power." Rukeyser at first describes the power plant as a harmonious element of a beautiful natural landscape. She anthropomorphizes its graceful, even delicate form: "Steel-bright, light-pointed, the narrow-waisted towers / lift their protective network . . . / gymnast, they poise their freight" (OS 29). The towers—sleek, taut, "skin-white"—take on perfected human forms, even as the workers are physically broken by their labor. The section follows a vertical movement from the heights of the plant's towers to its depths, again suggesting that this beauty is superficial—or at least that it does not tell the whole story.

The section gains literary resonance as the speaker is taken on a tour deep into the plant by a Virgilian guide, "the engineer Jones, the blueprint man / loving the place he designed" (OS 29)—loving it so much that away from the plant he is "Adam unparidiz'd." His words present the plant not as a site of exploitation, but as the product of human vision and labor. As the comparison to Adam, the original name-giver, suggests, Jones is a sort of poet-engineer. In Jones's speech to the last bulb in the shaft—"'Hail, holy light, offspring of Heav'n first-born, / 'Or of th' Eternal Coeternal beam / 'May I express thee unblamed?"' (OS 30)—Rukeyser recasts Milton's apostrophe into a speaking situation that makes electricity "coeternal" with divine light, rather than its antithesis. Her reference to Paradise Lost also invokes a poetic history of political protest in which Rukeyser claims Milton as a model.

On the way down into the center of the plant, Jones and the speaker encounter working men—"after the tall abstract, the ill, the unmasked men" (OS 30)—whose illness is a reminder of how the material can complicate the abstract beauty of the towers, and even Jones's idealism. The section ends at the bottom of the shaft, and on a perhaps surprisingly dire note: "this is the river Death, diversion of power, / the root of the tower and the tunnel's core; / this is the end" (OS 31). While the diversion of the river's force powers the plant, the "diversion" or misuse of political and economic power leads to the workers' deaths. If this river of Death is read as Lethe, the reference also suggests that the worker's deaths are due to a kind of forgetting that the poem's act of witnessing, and its drawing of lines of connection, seeks to counteract.

After this descent, the poem invokes a rebirth figured in both mythic and scientific terms: both offer figures of continuation and connection.

Stephanie Hartman: On "Alloy"

Rukeyser presents this allure as superficial, sinister, deceptive:

This is the most audacious landscape. The gangster's

stance with his gun smoking and out is not so

vicious as this commercial field, its hill of glass.

 

Sloping as gracefully as thighs, the foothills

narrow to this, clouds over every town

finally indicate the stored destruction. (OS 28)

The apparently beautiful hill is a mere glittering surface, hiding the lethal silica. Sexualizing the hill's curves converts the common image of the landscape as womanly body (virgin land awaiting the plow of enterprising men) into a "commercial" image; this land has already been opened up. The "hill of glass," sparkling with promise like a crystalline El Dorado, is converted into steel, a substance even more pure and hard, and just as inviting to aestheticize. To this process the workers are subjected—"Forced through this crucible, a million men"—as if they are transported by the overhead conveyor, instead of operating it. The line looks back to the arresting image of Peyton fed into a steel mill furnace. Again, the workers' bodies are consumed in the process of steel production like a raw resource, sharing the fate of the silica, sacrificed to make the invulnerable steel.

Rukeyser's focus on glass helps establish her poem as a comment on modernization as well as a specific response to Gauley Bridge. According to the art critic Robert Hughes, glass was the representative material of the modern city, a symbol of progress and purity: "The supreme Utopian material . . . was sheet glass. . . . It was the face of the Crystal, the Pure Prism. It meant lightness, transparency, structural daring" (175). Glass represented what was most promising and attractive about industrialization. Rukeyser's description of the process of steel making, in which "electric furnaces produce this precious, this clean, / annealing the crystals, fusing at last alloys" (OS 28), echoes this fervor for the modern and "perfected." But Rukeyser counterbalances ardor for the beauty of glass and steel (expressed with greater latitude in the next section) with an awareness of how modernization can imperil the body: her glass is deadly.

Stephanie Hartman: On "Arthur Peyton"

. . . "Arthur Peyton," describes another worker's body in the act of assuming the characteristics of his materials, this time employing more explicitly technological imagery. The speaker, also a miner with silicosis, asks the woman he would have married to testify for him—"O love tell the committee that I know"—so that she can project his haunting, ghostly voice into the official avenues of the legal system. He describes himself and his world taken over by glass, in volatile images that suggest the speaker's faltering hold on language and on life:

my death upon your lips

my face becoming glass

strong challenged time making me win immortal

the love a mirror of our valley

our street our river a deadly glass to hold.

Now they are feeding me into a steel mill furnace

O love the stream of glass a stream of living fire. (OS 28)

The section's glassy river and glassy shards of silica are both elements of. power linked in the cycle of steel production. Peyton, after imagining himself turning into silica ("my face becoming glass") envisions his entire body fed into the furnace to produce steel. The section's first words—"Consumed. Eaten away" (OS 27)—take on new meaning: Peyton's body is used up like a natural resource. The speaker's image presents the laboring body as a consumable resource like the silica rather than as a ceaseless source of power like the flowing river. His illness signifies his reduction from active worker to raw material, from embodied person to sheer body—in a word, his dehumanization. For both Blankenship and Peyton, illness is represented in terms of immobility: Blankenship seems to fade into a mere image or X-ray of himself, and Peyton and his world turn to glass.

These workers' fatal engagement with the industry of steel production throws a cautionary note into the celebration of the machine that was just winding down in the thirties. The image of the machine eating Peyton alive deviates considerably from the general cheer and optimism over the machine prevalent up through the Great Depression, as evident in the 1913 Armory Show; the 1927 Machine Age Exhibit in New York, which "include[d] fantastic drawings of the city of the future, 'modernistic' skyscrapers, constructivists, robot costumes, theatre settings, and factories together with some excellent machines and photographs of machines" (Barr); and the 1934 Machine Art exhibition.

John Lowney: On "George Robinson: Blues"

The most ironic testimony to the lethal power of whiteness is that of George Robinson, a black migrant driller who became the workers' "leader and voice," who "holds all their strength together: / To fight the companies to make somehow a future" (OS 16). His insider's description of Gauley Bridge contrasts ironically with the reporter's first impressions: "Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes, they let us stand around, they let us stand / around on the sidewalks if we're black or brown" (OS 21). His definition of a "good town for Negroes" indicates the degree of official harassment a black man might expect in such a segregated town, but his tone is more ironic than we first suppose, as his account of Union Carbide labor practices goes on to substantiate. Significantly, Robinson's testimony is written in the form of a blues poem. Of the many examples of "our buried poetry" (LP 98) that Rukeyser discusses in The Life of Poetry, she pays the greatest tribute to the blues. As she writes of Bessie Smith, the pain expressed by so many blues singers corresponds with the treatment they receive by a social system quick to capitalize on their talent—on their labor—but slow to provide necessary support in time of need: "their powers realized, these singers in a moment are surrounded by the doorless walls of an ambivalent society" (LP 112). Robinson's blues testimony exposes how systematic such "ambivalence" is. He conveys every absurdly dehumanizing detail in an understated manner that indicts as it seems to so passively accept the pervasiveness of the "white dust." The end rhyming and repetition of key words and phrases reinforces this awful absurdity: "When the blast went off the boss would call out, Come let's go back, / when that heavy loaded blast went white, Come, let's go back . . . the camps and their groves were colored with the dust, / we cleaned our clothes in the groves, but we always had the dust" (OS 22). Robinson's blues concludes with an image of whiteness that is brutal in its parody of racial coding:

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,

with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.

The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white. (OS 22)

The cost of such racial equality is of course the lives of both the black miner and the white miner. If, on the surface, both appear white in their shared experience as laborers, the lack of value ascribed to their lives by their employer suggests a commonality more often associated with black lives in the United States. The white appearance of the workers, the virtual erasure of blackness in the deadly silica dust, certainly speaks to the racial coding of the history of Gauley Bridge. Yet the commonality compelled by shared adversity also suggests a potential for interracial alliances to contest the white supremacist thinking that Robinson so bitterly mocks.

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