Robert Shulman: On "West Virginia"

In "West Virginia" Rukeyser takes the river and locale back to their colonial sources. This abrupt imaginative leap begins to fill in the history she started with John Marshall. At the start "they saw rivers flow west and hoped again." At first we do not know who "they" are but we soon understand that this hope for the sea is disappointed. The powerful rivers flowing west are nonetheless connected with the vital promise of America, an organizing motif Rukeyser reemphasizes at the end of "West Virginia" and at the end of The Book of the Dead. The "they" of the opening are "1671—Thomas Batts, Robert Fallam / Thomas Wood, the Indian Perecute, / and an unnamed indentured English servant." As part of her concern with the documentary, Rukeyser incorporates direct quotations from their journal to establish that they are mistaken in their belief that "WATERS, DESCENDING NATURALLY, DOE ALWAIES RESORT / UNTO THE SEAS INVIRONING THOSE LANDS."

Inseparable from this public language is the leap of personal association Rukeyser has with the "spilled water which the still pools fed. / Kanawha Falls, the rapids of the mind, / fast waters spilling west." Kanawha Falls is not only "the rapids of the mind" but also the site of the "New Kanawha Power Company, subsidiary of the Union Carbide and Carbon Company," the company responsible for those who "have from time to time died from silicosis contracted while employed in digging out a tunnel at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia." For Rukeyser, the rapids of the mind, the as-yet-unmentioned New Kanawha Power Compy, and the history she immediately returns to are all interconnected. Her version of the documentary, that is, includes the poet's mind as well as "the battle at Point Pleasant, Cornstalk's tribes, / last stand, Fort Henry, a revolution won."

As she moves from the American Revolution to the Civil War, in her version of the documentary Rukeyser also experiments with verbal montage:

the granite SITE OF THE precursor EXECUTION

sabres, apostles OF JOHN BROWN LEADER OF THE

War's brilliant cloudy RAID AT HARPERS FERRY.

Instead of a linear quotation of the inscription on the granite monument to John Brown, Rukeyser breaks up the inscription and intersperses notation words that signal the coming of the Civil War ("precursor," "sabres"), so that John Brown and his sabres emerge as precursors and apostles of the war, even as the "brilliant cloudy RAID" merges with the "brilliant cloudy" war. The symbolic weather of the raid and war merge with "floods, heavy wind this spring," perhaps the present of the poem merging with the immediacy of the past as Rukeyser sketches the separation of West Virginia from Virginia in the Civil War and then "troops / here in Gauley Bridge, Union headquarters, lines / bring in the military telegraph. / Wires over the gash of gorge and height of pine." In a context filled with merging and principled conflict, for Rukeyser John Brown deserves the special attention her montage encourages the reader to give him. As a militant rebel John Brown is a historical precursor not only of the war but also of a radical response to the deaths at Gauley Bridge. In The Book of the Dead Rukeyser returns to John Brown to body forth her revolutionary affirmation at the climax of "The Bill" (p. 65) and later in her 1940 poem, "The Soul and Body of John Brown."

In "West Virginia" Rukeyser shifts back to her protagonist, "the water / the power flying deep / green rivers cut the rock / rapids boiled down, / a scene of power." This boiling natural power looks ahead to the electric, corporate, governmental, and radical power Rukeyser deals with later in The Book of the Dead. A forecast is the enigmatic stanza,

Done by the dead.

Discovery learned it.

And the living?

The phrase "done by the dead" may complete the immediately preceding "a scene of power," referring elliptically to the workers who drilled the power tunnel.

In response to the question "and the living?" Rukeyser concludes "West Virginia" with another of her quiet, understated, suggestive endings:

Live country filling west,

knotted the glassy rivers;

like valleys, opening mines,

coming to life.

In the phrase "live country filling west," Rukeyser plays off the living and the living country against the dead and reinforces her opening imagery of rivers flowing west, of simultaneous disappointment and the American Dream, the hope connected with the power of life-giving water "filling west." The "live country" "knotted," perhaps dammed, "the glassy rivers," which are "glassy" because of the silica that will cause painful deaths. In her elliptical style Rukeyser sketches a West Virginia, valleys, opening mines, "coming to life." The affirmation of life is inseparable from the recognition of death, not as a metaphysical or religious abstraction but as a result of a misuse of the "power" of the "glassy rivers."


Criticism Overview
Title Robert Shulman: On "West Virginia" 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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