Stephanie Hartman: On "Power"

The lyrical "Power" section begins on an unabashedly aestheticizing note; we soon learn, however, that the plant is built upon—and literally covers over—a darker, more complex version of "power." Rukeyser at first describes the power plant as a harmonious element of a beautiful natural landscape. She anthropomorphizes its graceful, even delicate form: "Steel-bright, light-pointed, the narrow-waisted towers / lift their protective network . . . / gymnast, they poise their freight" (OS 29). The towers—sleek, taut, "skin-white"—take on perfected human forms, even as the workers are physically broken by their labor. The section follows a vertical movement from the heights of the plant's towers to its depths, again suggesting that this beauty is superficial—or at least that it does not tell the whole story.

The section gains literary resonance as the speaker is taken on a tour deep into the plant by a Virgilian guide, "the engineer Jones, the blueprint man / loving the place he designed" (OS 29)—loving it so much that away from the plant he is "Adam unparidiz'd." His words present the plant not as a site of exploitation, but as the product of human vision and labor. As the comparison to Adam, the original name-giver, suggests, Jones is a sort of poet-engineer. In Jones's speech to the last bulb in the shaft—"'Hail, holy light, offspring of Heav'n first-born, / 'Or of th' Eternal Coeternal beam / 'May I express thee unblamed?"' (OS 30)—Rukeyser recasts Milton's apostrophe into a speaking situation that makes electricity "coeternal" with divine light, rather than its antithesis. Her reference to Paradise Lost also invokes a poetic history of political protest in which Rukeyser claims Milton as a model.

On the way down into the center of the plant, Jones and the speaker encounter working men—"after the tall abstract, the ill, the unmasked men" (OS 30)—whose illness is a reminder of how the material can complicate the abstract beauty of the towers, and even Jones's idealism. The section ends at the bottom of the shaft, and on a perhaps surprisingly dire note: "this is the river Death, diversion of power, / the root of the tower and the tunnel's core; / this is the end" (OS 31). While the diversion of the river's force powers the plant, the "diversion" or misuse of political and economic power leads to the workers' deaths. If this river of Death is read as Lethe, the reference also suggests that the worker's deaths are due to a kind of forgetting that the poem's act of witnessing, and its drawing of lines of connection, seeks to counteract.

After this descent, the poem invokes a rebirth figured in both mythic and scientific terms: both offer figures of continuation and connection.


Criticism Overview
Title Stephanie Hartman: On "Power" 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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