Michael Thurston: On "The Dam"

"All power is saved," "The Dam" begins, "having no end." In the verse paragraph that follows, Rukeyser poetically evokes and enacts the illimitable energy of falling water; the grammatical constructions of her poetic celebration resist syntactic order, blurring distinctions between subject and object:


Water celebrates, yielding continually

sheeted and fast in its overfall

slips down the rock, evades the pillars

building its colonnades, repairs

in stream and standing wave

retains its seaward green

broken by falling rock; falling, the water sheet

spouts, and the mind dances, excess of white.

White brilliant function of the land’s disease.


How are we to parse this sentence (or these sentences -- the fragment making up the last line seems an appositive defining "white" at the end of the long sentence)? After the independent clause that begins the sentence, where do we pause, how do we fashion the phrasal elements into coherent units? Should we read the sentence as "Water celebrates, yielding continually, sheeted and fast in its overfall; [it] slips . . . ," or as "Water celebrates, yielding continually; sheeted and fast in its overfall, [it] slips . . ."? In either case, the addition of a semicolon to mark a new independent clause and the addition of a pronoun to provide that clause its subject seems necessary. And how do we read the end of the sentence? Does "excess of white" describe the dance of the mind or the spout of the water sheet? Both? Neither? The fragment that ends the paragraph seems to define the "excess of white," and, in turn, the waterfall, but its lack of a subject leaves it indeterminate. We can guess at a relationship between the land’s disease and the water’s celebration, but we cannot posit a grammatical relationship between them.

Rukeyser also blurs the subject/object relationship by deferring predication. In the third verse paragraph, for example, the piling up of participles prevents sentence completion:


Many-spanned, lighted, the crest leans under

concrete arches and the channelled hills,

turns in the gorge toward its release;

kinetic and controlled; the sluice

urging the hollow, the thunder,

the major climax


total and open watercourse

praising the spillway, fiery glaze,

crackle of light, cleanest velocity

flooding, the moulded force.


The second clause begins with a construction roughly parallel to the first: an introductory adjective phrase followed by the subject and verb. While the first clause’s present-tense verb forms a proper predicate, the second clause’s present participles ("urging," "praising," "flooding")do not, and the sentence remains a fragment. The lack of predication here renders the relationships between the subject ("the sluice") and the series of nouns and noun phrases throughout the rest of the clause indeterminate.

In these passages water (as subject) diffuses into an uncontainable proliferation of significance just as water (as image and metaphor) diffuses into uncontainable energy. Through her polysemous juxtaposing of fragments, Rukeyser releases surpluses of meaning the poem cannot contain; she overcomes the spatial limitations of the poem and the containment implicit in its title by yoking the thematic anarchy of water to the rhetorical anarchy of language. She also stages the continuous struggle between stasis and ecstasy, enclosure and explosion, for only in tension with the forces that would block it is the water’s potential energy realized. Fragments drawn from physics, law, and finance jostle against each other in a field of mutual interruption and destabilization. After feverishly celebrating the power of water for two pages, Rukeyser dramatically shifts registers to view the same scene from the vantage offered by applied physics:


How many feet of whirlpools?

What is a year in terms of falling water?

Cylinders; kilowatts; capacities.

Continuity: Q=0

Equations for falling water.


We have jumped from the aesthetic contemplation of the waterfall to a scientific and instrumental analysis of it. More important, we have shifted from the discourse of poetic contemplation, in which water and power are related through metaphoric condensation and parallel description, to the discourse of electrical engineering, in which the two are related through the laws of physics. The discourse of electrical engineering is itself interrupted by the discourse of finance in a reference ("balance-sheet" [56]) whose significance becomes apparent only later in the poem, and by a return to the poetic portrait of power as the agent in a series of statements drawn from earlier in the sequence.

But the poetic portrait is again interrupted several lines later, when Congressional testimony appears. These passages introduce legal discourse ("Mr. Griswold: ‘A corporation is a body without a soul.’"), but they also introduce the popular cultural discourse of news accounts and gangster films:


Mr. Dunn. When they were caught at it they resorted to

the methods employed by gunmen, ordinary machine-

gun racketeers. They cowardly tried to buy out the people

who had the information on them.

Mr. Marcantonio. I agree that a racket has been practised . . . .


The Congressional testimony is followed by a set of assertions whose diction marks them as poetic: "The dam is safe . . . the dam is the father of the tunnel . . . ." But three lines later we come upon the most dramatic discursive interruption, the stock quotation showing Union Carbide’s net profits for one day. The tickertape appearance of the quotation, unlike the other interruptions, actually alters the physical space of the page; finance intrudes upon the textual space of poetry. The stock quote shows the bottom line, the economic fact that renders all else -- human suffering, legal wrangling, even water’s energetic flowing -- momentarily meaningless: Union Carbide stock rises in value, up three points in the day’s trading. The bit of ticker tape mocks the "mastery" touched by tunnel workers and stands as a graphic illustration of Griswold’s charge -- "A corporation is a body without a soul." Moreover, the stock quote, set off from surrounding text by solid horizontal lines, literally embodies blockage. It cuts the page in half.

Lifted from the business page of a newspaper, the quote here stands in a relationship of mutual challenge with the poetic lines that surround it. But, in the poem’s concluding moment, this textual bit of capitalist culture and the discourse of finance is ultimately absorbed. Its blockage lasts only a moment, and then is overcome by the very natural force on which it is, itself, based -- the water flowing through the dam’s channels, converting its kinetic energy into electric power. This power finally triumphs:


This is a perfect fluid, having no age nor hours,

surviving scarless, unaltered, loving rest,

willing to run forever to find its peace


in equal seas in currents of still glass.


Criticism Overview
Title Michael Thurston: On "The Dam" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael Thurston Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Documentary Modernism as Popular Front Poetic: Muriel Rukeyser’s 'Book of the Dead’
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