Robert Shulman: On "Gauley Bridge"

At the beginning of "Gauley Bridge" (pp. 16-17), by viewing the city from the point of view of the camera—"camera at the crossing sees the city"—Rukeyser reinforces the organizing idea of a series of documentary photographs. The scene is a familiar one from thirties documentaries,

a street of wooden walls and empty windows,

the doors shut handless in the empty street,

and the deserted Negro standing on the corner.

Rukeyser uses a stripped down style to focus on the harsh, empty details, emphasized by the twist of "deserted Negro, " not "deserted corner, " but doubly deserted, both as part of a desolate urban scene and as a black man in a West Virginia town.

Rukeyser meticulously uses the vantage point of the camera "fixed on the street" at the railway crossing to record what comes into view:

The little boy runs with his dog

up the street to the bridge over the river where

nine men are mending road for the government.

He blurs the camera-glass fixed on the street.

Rukeyser then turns the camera inside, to the hotel owner "keeping his books behind the public glass" and, behind the postoffice window,

a hive of private boxes,

the hand of the man who withdraws, the woman who reaches her hand

and the tall coughing man stamping an envelope.

To reinforce the sense of meticulous documentary notation, Rukeyser records the details inside the post office and bus station in a series of incomplete sentences. In this randomly observed scene a man coughing, the symptom of the fatal silicosis, is simply taken for granted as part of the flow of routine details.

After "the yellow-aproned waitress" in the bus station, in the next frame Rukeyser gives us

The man on the street and the camera eye;

he leaves the doctor's office, slammed door, doom,

any town looks like this one-street town.

In her self-reflexive use of documentary, for Rukeyser the camera eye, like the earlier rapids of the mind, is as much a part of the scene as the man on the street. In a context of precise physical notation, the phrase "the man on the street" records a physical presence but in a way that generalizes him into the representative "man on the street, " a connotation that contributes to the irony of "any town looks like this one-street town. " "Any town" may look like this town but this town is also special because of "the tall coughing man" and this "man on the street" who leaves the doctor's office, the "slammed door" and "doom" conveying a sense of emotional disturbance and finality, presumably for the same reason the man in the post office is coughing. Everything about the town of Gauley Bridge is ordinary and recognizable but slightly heightened because, whereas people everywhere get sick and die, in Gauley Bridge some of them suffer and die from silicosis.

Rukeyser continues to develop the simultaneously special and representative quality of Gauley Bridge by accumulating the common objects that, along with the coughing man and the man on the street, give this American place its precisely rendered look and meaning. "The naked eye" and the "camera" are again part of a scene that includes

Glass, wood. and naked eye: the movie-house

closed for the afternoon frames posters streaked with rain,

advertise "Racing Luck" and "Hitch-Hike Lady."

The figures who have peopled the earlier part of the poem or photograph reappear, familiar now as

Whistling. the train comes from a long way away,

slow, and the Negro watches it grow in the grey air,

the hotel man makes a note behind his potted palm.

The rain, the wish fulfillment movies, the "grey air, " and the approaching train

And in the beerplace on the other sidewalk

always one's harsh eyes over the beerglass

follow the waitress and the yellow apron—

"the yellow-aproned waitress" noted earlier in the bus station—these unglamorous, commonplace details are the backdrop for Rukeyser's concluding stanza:

What do you want—a cliff over a city?

A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?

These people live here.

Abruptly, "what do you want"—the picturesque details of the conventional guide—book or landscape painting, a pretty, comforting scene, "a foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?" Instead, "the empty street, / and the deserted Negro, " the "posters streaked with rain, " the "red-and-white filling station" and, unremarkably, the coughing man and the man on the street: "these people live here, " in a place that has value and a claim on our attention because of them.

In "Gauley Bridge" Rukeyser brings alive a documentary aesthetics of precise observation and self-reflexive involvement. The language is stripped down, the sharply focused details are noted, and the reader or viewer is invited to fill in, as with the elliptical scene of the man on the street leaving the doctor's office. Rukeyser uses this aesthetic to render an American subject matter of the ordinary made luminous through accurate recording, understated revelation, and implied protest. The deserted Negro, the yellow-aproned waitress, the bus station, the "Racing Luck" and "Hitch-Hike Lady," the men dying of silicosis, the "one-street town," the railroad tracks and the whistling train, the "grey air" and the red-and white filling station, the "beerplace" and the underpass—all are familiar objects and characters in the iconography of the Popular Front, with its special attention to blacks, ordinary workers, and the abuses of capitalism. As she does throughout The Book of the Dead, in the political art of "Gauley Bridge" Rukeyser draws energy from, works within, and contributes to the political culture of the Popular Front.

Like the long poem it is an integral part of, "Gauley Bridge" derives part of its meaning from this cultural context. When the poem appeared in the April 1, 1939, issue of Scholastic, this context of Popular Front political culture did not have to be supplied but was alive as part of the general culture a magazine like Scholastic emerged from and transmitted. What is problematic, however, is how the poem fared removed from the context of The Book of the Dead. Dorothy Emerson, the editor of Scholastic's "Poetry Corner," intelligently addressed the problem any anthologist faces, how to make one or two poems from a long work accessible. She tactfully established that "Gauley Bridge" was part of The Book of the Dead, "a group of poems dealing with ‘the Gauley tragedy,’ in which several thousand workers toiled under such bad conditions that they died from having breathed in silica, fatal as fine glass-particles." She states that as one of these workers "the man leaving the doctor's office will die here, in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia." She also introduces the poem by way of "The Road," the camera, and the gaze of the tourist. But even with her helpful, sympathetic commentary, does "Gauley Bridge" by itself really convey the full implications of Rukeyser's documentary aesthetic and the organizing role of documentary photography as a vehicle of witnessing and of political exposure and protest? These questions also bear on the issue of the role of anthologies in making poems from the past available to contemporary readers. "Gauley Bridge" gains its full meaning and impact as part of a larger composition but The Book of the Dead is not a candidate for anthologizing. A group of representative poems—Rukeyser's for her Selected Poems or summaries like Dorothy Emerson’s—can nonetheless make a difference. To her credit, in her Rukeyser selection, Out of Silence: Selected Poems, Kate Daniels faces up to the problem by reprinting the entire Book of the Dead.


Criticism Overview
Title Robert Shulman: On "Gauley Bridge" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert Shulman Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered
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Contexts No Data Tags No Data

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