Robert Shulman: On "Power"

As she gathers momentum, Rukeyser amplifies the religious and political implications of "Alloy" in the crucial sequence, "Power" and "The Dam." Before she moves into the depths, first of the powerhouse, then of the dam, in "Power" (pp. 49-53) Rukeyser draws on the resources of classical poetic forms and language to bring alive the setting: "the quick sun," the warm mountains, a vital, sexualized landscape that answers to the love and sexualized body of the poet who "sees perfect cliffs ranging until the river / cuts sheer, mapped far below in delicate track, / surprise of grace . . . as lovers who look too long on the desired face / startle to find the remote flesh so warm." The heat of the day is life-giving, not the terrifying, deadly heat of "Alloy" and "Arthur Peyton." Rukeyser begins and ends the first stanza of "Power" with images of the life-giving sun in what could be a marvelously sensual love poem paying tribute to

A day of heat shed on the gorge, a brilliant

day when love sees the sun behind its man

and the disguised marvel under familiar skin.

By the poem's final line, "this is the end," "the suns declare midnight."

Before she can move into the depths to face death and night, however, Rukeyser must first enter the powerhouse. From above her eye follows the power lines' "narrow-waisted towers" until she reaches the powerhouse standing

    skin-white at the transmitters' side

over the rapids    the brilliance    the blind foam.

Answering to her own ambivalence about the power she is dealing with, Rukeyser's verse form becomes more irregular, more agitated than in the first stanza as she gives us once more "the rapids the brilliance the blind foam" that drive the turbines.

The powerhouse we are entering is "midway between water and flame," midway between the water of the dam and the flame of the furnace. The elemental language also suggests the ritualistic water and flame of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The powerhouse is transitional, a stage not only in the transmission of electricity but also in a process of death and renewal, a renewal Rukeyser has prepared for in the sensuous celebration of the opening stanza. Having raised these expectations, however, Rukeyser immediately qualifies them by applying the grim and, as it turns out, revolutionary word "terminal" to the powerhouse and all it stands for. "Terminal" also casts its shadow and hope on the reiterated refrain line from the opening poem, "this is the road to take when you think of your country," a line that renews our sense of the promise and betrayal of America fused with the journey on the Osiris Way, a journey that has political as well as religious implications.

Inside the powerhouse Rukeyser responds to the colors, "the effective green, grey-toned and shining," to the "tall immense chamber of cylinders" and the play of light and color as "the rich paint catches light from three-story windows, / arches of light vibrate erratic panels on / sides of curved steel." As Rukeyser moves into the depths of the powerhouse, the light becomes increasingly symbolic but at first it has a precise, visual, documentary existence. Rukeyser similarly focuses on the "wheels, control panels, dials, the vassal instruments" of a technology she both values and connects with death, "terminal." In this setting she gives us the creator and presiding spirit of the powerhouse, "the engineer Jones, the blueprint man, / loving the place he designed, visiting it alone." His identifying line is "This is the place."

As they descend the stairs, Jones, ignoring or unaware of the men killed building the tunnel, announces that "they said I built the floor like the tiles of a bank, / I wanted the men who work here to be happy." His intentions, including the probably unflattering reference to the bank, are still bathed in "light laughing on steel, the gay, the tall sun / given away." In her next line, "the iron steps go down as roads go down," Rukeyser continues to keep alive the sense of the journey on the road with its American and Egyptian connotations.

Now in "the second circle, world of inner shade," Rukeyser precisely records the "hidden bulk of generators, governor shaft, / round gap of turbine pit" and further down, "here are the outlets, butterfly valves / open from here, the tail-race, vault of steel, the spiral staircase ending, last light in shaft." This technological world is also a "world of inner shade" whose relation to the Egyptian Book of the Dead is reinforced by saying explicitly of the entire region, particularly the wire flooring of the turbine pit, "this is the scroll, the volute case of night, / quick shadow and the empty galleries." "Inner shade," "night", and "last light in shaft" mark the change from the sunlit world of the opening, a change Jones underscores with the single word, "gone."

In the midst of this dark, powerfully suggestive setting, Rukeyser abruptly intrudes a contrasting voice, language, and tradition, Miltonic and Old Testament:

"'Hail, holy light, offspring of Heav'n first-born,

'Or of th' Eternal Coeternal beam

'May I express thee unblamed?'"

Rukeyser has already established the blame. From the vantage point of Milton's religiously charged language and the central symbol of light (Paradise Lost, 3.1-3), the corporate and technological world of the powerhouse emerges as a blasphemous bringer of light. What is at issue is a primal violation of the West's most basic divine and secular principles.

Moving still further into the underworld, Rukeyser records the fear that accompanies both a descent into darkness on the "uncertain rungs" of a steep ladder and the fear that accompanies entry into a region associated with death. In this suggestive setting, Jones amplifies his identification with the place he has created:

"This is the place. Away from this my life

I am indeed Adam unparadiz'd.

Some fools call this the Black Hole of Calcutta.

I don’t know how they ever get to Congress."

Rukeyser mixes high and low languages to endow Jones with a sense of humor and to develop the themes of death and Paradise Lost. Jones speaks about his "life" in a place of death. And, although he does not realize it, it is precisely in his place that he is "indeed Adam unparadiz’d," an identification that resonates with the quotation from Paradise Lost and with the underlying theme of the lost American Dream, or, rather, with the accumulating sense that the technological and economic power associated with the Gauley Tunnel are inseparable from the loss of the promise of America.

Spiraling downward on "the drunken ladder," in contrast to the earlier play of light and color Rukeyser now stresses that "a naked bulb / makes glare, turns paler, burns to dark again. Brilliance begins, stutters," In this uncertain light, or dark, she leaves Jones, "the tall abstract," and encounters "the ill, the unmasked men" of the Gauley Tunnel. These dead enter through association with the mask of the welder who says directly,

    "A little down,

five men were killed in widening the tunnel."

Rukeyser herself now enters the tunnel.

Shell of bent metal; walking along an arc

the tube rounds up about your shoulders, black

circle, great circle. down infinite mountain rides,

echoes words, footsteps, testimonies.

Beneath "the second circle," in the tunnel, the "black circle, great circle," "words, footsteps, testimonies" echo:

"One said the air was thin. Fifth Avenue clean."

But despite this testimony before the subcommittee, the air was not clean. As Rukeyser penetrates further "along created gorges" she deepens the contrast with the earlier sunlit, heat-warmed gorge. Suddenly,

    all the light burns out.

Down the reverberate channels of the hills

the suns declare midnight, go down, cannot ascend,

no ladder back; see this. your eyes can ride through steel,

this is the river Death, diversion of power.

The tunnel merges with the Egyptian underworld, the fear of being trapped merges with the fear of death without renewal, the reverse of the ritual drama enacted again and again in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The river in West Virginia merges with the river Death, not, however, mechanically but to emphasize the connection with, in the fullest sense, the "diversion of power, // the root of the tower and the tunnel's core."

Within the political culture of the thirties left as well as within mainstream American culture, the dynamo and the triumphs of technology had an honored place. In "Power"" Rukeyser counters this tendency with an intense, nuanced critique that draws energy from the Egyptian, Miltonic, and Marxist traditions. She goes into the depths, confronts death, the men killed in the widening of the tunnel, and, the light burned out, goes to the root and the core, the technology and the corporate capitalism, the diversion of power, and announces, "this is the end." Rukeyser is recording a moral and political judgment on the world of the powerhouse, on the diversion of power. Her concluding line has the force of "this should be and will be the end—a new, revolutionary world should follow." The religious and metaphysical associations of the Egyptian underworld and the Miltonic allusions deepen the moral and political implications but the sense of the "terminal," of "the end" is not in my judgment a pessimistic or despairing assertion of the finality of death.


Criticism Overview
Title Robert Shulman: On "Power" 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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