Stephanie Hartman: On "The Dam"

. . . "The Dam" voices the possibility that witnessing can again divert or transform power. While the "Power" section ends with the line "this is the end," "The Dam" begins, "All power is saved, having no end" (OS 31). The second law of thermodynamics, the law of the conservation of energy, is crucial to the poem's movement from charting the destruction of individual bodies to affirming workers' enduring power; Rukeyser's invocation of scientific laws extends to including the formula for the velocity of falling water within her text. Her expansive description of energy in this section envisions Gauley Bridge as a scene of rebirth and sets up an analogy between the conservation of energy and the mythic resurrection of the phoenix:


total and open watercourse

praising the spillway, fiery glaze,

crackle of light, cleanest velocity

flooding, the moulded force.


I open out a way over the water

I form a path between the Combatants:

Grant that I sail down like a living bird,

power over the fields and Pool of Fire.

Phoenix, I sail over the phoenix world. (OS 31 )

The conservation of energy is seen as a source of positive transformation. The term "power" for Rukeyser is not synonymous with its abuse: it is a force of constant change that can be reclaimed for the worker's benefit.

Ultimately the river emerges as the main figure for the power of the working class that has been suppressed and usurped. It is opposed to the image of brittle glass, which Rukeyser associates with death and rigidity. In words that evoke class struggle, Rukeyser cajoles the river to rise again, to be reborn:

Effects of friction: to fight and pass again,

learning its power, conquering boundaries,

able to rise blind in revolts of tide,

broken and sacrificed to flow resumed.

Collecting eternally power. Spender of power,

torn, never can be killed, speeded in filaments,

million, its power can rest and rise forever,

wait and be flexible. Be born again. (OS 33)

Rukeyser's images of continuity—of endless flow, inexhaustible power, rebirth—are made to celebrate the durability and strength of the workers. She moves away from her emphasis on the individual ill body to celebrate the collective power of the working class, so that the deaths take their place within the context of a larger struggle, a fight that can be won; through the triumph of the collective, perhaps, the casualties can be reborn. She redeems the deaths of the workers by fitting them into a larger account of the inexhaustibility of power, energy, and motion. In this view, power clearly is not structured as a hierarchy that the unfortunate workers, trapped at the bottom of a class system, struggle to get out from under; rather, it is a continually flowing medium, like water or electricity, as "scarless" and indestructible as the workers' bodies are vulnerable.


Criticism Overview
Title Stephanie Hartman: On "The Dam" 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 "All Systems Go: Muriel Rukeyser's 'The Book of the Dead' and the Reinvention of Moderist Poetics""
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