John Lowney: On "Gauley Bridge"

The narrative journey of "The Book of the Dead"—from "The Road," to "West Virginia," to "Gauley Bridge"—documents not only the wasted lives of the miners but also the documentary poet's process of gathering, recording, and reporting information. The poets initially self-conscious stance becomes more assertive only when additional voices provide collective support for her point of view. "Gauley Bridge," the fourth poem in this twenty-poem sequence, underscores how tentatively the narration begins, as it makes us aware that the presence of the camera is especially intrusive. This section develops the poems major trope, the trope of glass, which is at first the documentary photographer's medium for exposing—and correcting—the touristic commodification of place: the photographer "follows discovery / viewing on groundglass an inverted image" (OS 10). Yet glass is also the very medium through which everyday commerce is conducted: "the public glass" behind which the owner of "the commercial hotel" keeps his books; the "postoffice window" with its "hive of private boxes"; the bus station restaurant with its "plateglass window" and "April-glass-tinted" waitress; the "beerplace" where this waitress is herself objectified by "one's harsh night eyes over the beerglass" (OS 13-14).

As a medium for reification, glass also exposes how the social relations of Gauley Bridge are racialized. Furthermore, the camera's "groundglass" exposes how representations of Gauley Bridge are necessarily racialized as well. Before reaching the town's "many panes of glass / tin under light," "Gauley Bridge" begins with a bleak, almost blank image of "empty windows" on an "empty street," with a "deserted Negro standing' on the corner" This image of the "deserted Negro" takes on further significance only with the testimony of these very people that the camera initially objectifies. Nearby, however, where "nine men are mending road for the government," a boy running with his dog "blurs the camera-glass fixed on the street" (OS 13): this blurring suggests that the camera cannot neatly frame the lives it is documenting. This foregrounding of the photographer's interaction with her subject, which indicates how the camera eye can evoke but not contain the lives it documents, is reiterated in the subsequent contrast of visual perspectives, between the "eyes of the tourist house" and the "eyes of the Negro" (OS 14).

As the initial tour of Gauley Bridge concludes, the narrative lens is pointed directly at the reader:

What do you want—a cliff over a city?

A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?

These people live here. (OS 14)

Immediately following this interrogation of the reader's position as consumer of this travel narrative, we are presented with the testimony of the first witness, Vivian Jones. His is not a story of glass as a medium for consumerism but one of glass literally—involuntarily—consumed: "hundreds breathed value, filled their lungs full of glass" (OS 15). This "glass" eventually consumes the workers who breathe it. Valuable for corporate investors, deadly for the workers who mine it, this "white glass" (OS 14) becomes the medium for revealing the racist social system that underlies the negligent labor practices of Union Carbide. The first mention of the silica's whiteness conspicuously reminds us that the historical remnants of slavery, if barely visible, have hardly disappeared; immediately juxtaposed with the "white glass" showing "precious in the rock" is the image of an "old plantation-house (burned to the mud)," now a "hill-acre of ground" where a "Negro woman throws / gay arches of water out from the front door" (OS 14). As "The Book of the Dead" subsequently proceeds through the "eyes of the Negro" rather than "the eyes of the tourist house," the local stories and songs of witness form a composite narrative of countermemory that transforms Gauley Bridge into a "nation's scene" (OS 37) that otherwise would have remained obscured.


Criticism Overview
Title John Lowney: On "Gauley Bridge" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Anne F. Herzog, Janet E. Kaufman Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication "Truths of Outrage, Truths of Possibility: Muriel Rukeyser's 'The Book of the Dead'"
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