The Dam

Michael Thurston: On "The Dam"

"All power is saved," "The Dam" begins, "having no end." In the verse paragraph that follows, Rukeyser poetically evokes and enacts the illimitable energy of falling water; the grammatical constructions of her poetic celebration resist syntactic order, blurring distinctions between subject and object:


Water celebrates, yielding continually

sheeted and fast in its overfall

slips down the rock, evades the pillars

building its colonnades, repairs

in stream and standing wave

retains its seaward green

broken by falling rock; falling, the water sheet

spouts, and the mind dances, excess of white.

White brilliant function of the land’s disease.


How are we to parse this sentence (or these sentences -- the fragment making up the last line seems an appositive defining "white" at the end of the long sentence)? After the independent clause that begins the sentence, where do we pause, how do we fashion the phrasal elements into coherent units? Should we read the sentence as "Water celebrates, yielding continually, sheeted and fast in its overfall; [it] slips . . . ," or as "Water celebrates, yielding continually; sheeted and fast in its overfall, [it] slips . . ."? In either case, the addition of a semicolon to mark a new independent clause and the addition of a pronoun to provide that clause its subject seems necessary. And how do we read the end of the sentence? Does "excess of white" describe the dance of the mind or the spout of the water sheet? Both? Neither? The fragment that ends the paragraph seems to define the "excess of white," and, in turn, the waterfall, but its lack of a subject leaves it indeterminate. We can guess at a relationship between the land’s disease and the water’s celebration, but we cannot posit a grammatical relationship between them.

Rukeyser also blurs the subject/object relationship by deferring predication. In the third verse paragraph, for example, the piling up of participles prevents sentence completion:


Many-spanned, lighted, the crest leans under

concrete arches and the channelled hills,

turns in the gorge toward its release;

kinetic and controlled; the sluice

urging the hollow, the thunder,

the major climax


total and open watercourse

praising the spillway, fiery glaze,

crackle of light, cleanest velocity

flooding, the moulded force.


The second clause begins with a construction roughly parallel to the first: an introductory adjective phrase followed by the subject and verb. While the first clause’s present-tense verb forms a proper predicate, the second clause’s present participles ("urging," "praising," "flooding")do not, and the sentence remains a fragment. The lack of predication here renders the relationships between the subject ("the sluice") and the series of nouns and noun phrases throughout the rest of the clause indeterminate.

In these passages water (as subject) diffuses into an uncontainable proliferation of significance just as water (as image and metaphor) diffuses into uncontainable energy. Through her polysemous juxtaposing of fragments, Rukeyser releases surpluses of meaning the poem cannot contain; she overcomes the spatial limitations of the poem and the containment implicit in its title by yoking the thematic anarchy of water to the rhetorical anarchy of language. She also stages the continuous struggle between stasis and ecstasy, enclosure and explosion, for only in tension with the forces that would block it is the water’s potential energy realized. Fragments drawn from physics, law, and finance jostle against each other in a field of mutual interruption and destabilization. After feverishly celebrating the power of water for two pages, Rukeyser dramatically shifts registers to view the same scene from the vantage offered by applied physics:


How many feet of whirlpools?

What is a year in terms of falling water?

Cylinders; kilowatts; capacities.

Continuity: Q=0

Equations for falling water.


We have jumped from the aesthetic contemplation of the waterfall to a scientific and instrumental analysis of it. More important, we have shifted from the discourse of poetic contemplation, in which water and power are related through metaphoric condensation and parallel description, to the discourse of electrical engineering, in which the two are related through the laws of physics. The discourse of electrical engineering is itself interrupted by the discourse of finance in a reference ("balance-sheet" [56]) whose significance becomes apparent only later in the poem, and by a return to the poetic portrait of power as the agent in a series of statements drawn from earlier in the sequence.

But the poetic portrait is again interrupted several lines later, when Congressional testimony appears. These passages introduce legal discourse ("Mr. Griswold: ‘A corporation is a body without a soul.’"), but they also introduce the popular cultural discourse of news accounts and gangster films:


Mr. Dunn. When they were caught at it they resorted to

the methods employed by gunmen, ordinary machine-

gun racketeers. They cowardly tried to buy out the people

who had the information on them.

Mr. Marcantonio. I agree that a racket has been practised . . . .


The Congressional testimony is followed by a set of assertions whose diction marks them as poetic: "The dam is safe . . . the dam is the father of the tunnel . . . ." But three lines later we come upon the most dramatic discursive interruption, the stock quotation showing Union Carbide’s net profits for one day. The tickertape appearance of the quotation, unlike the other interruptions, actually alters the physical space of the page; finance intrudes upon the textual space of poetry. The stock quote shows the bottom line, the economic fact that renders all else -- human suffering, legal wrangling, even water’s energetic flowing -- momentarily meaningless: Union Carbide stock rises in value, up three points in the day’s trading. The bit of ticker tape mocks the "mastery" touched by tunnel workers and stands as a graphic illustration of Griswold’s charge -- "A corporation is a body without a soul." Moreover, the stock quote, set off from surrounding text by solid horizontal lines, literally embodies blockage. It cuts the page in half.

Lifted from the business page of a newspaper, the quote here stands in a relationship of mutual challenge with the poetic lines that surround it. But, in the poem’s concluding moment, this textual bit of capitalist culture and the discourse of finance is ultimately absorbed. Its blockage lasts only a moment, and then is overcome by the very natural force on which it is, itself, based -- the water flowing through the dam’s channels, converting its kinetic energy into electric power. This power finally triumphs:


This is a perfect fluid, having no age nor hours,

surviving scarless, unaltered, loving rest,

willing to run forever to find its peace


in equal seas in currents of still glass.

John Lowney" On "The Dam"

If there is any doubt about the poem's implication of white supremacy with abusive labor practices, the description of the material site of "Power" makes this clear: "The power-house stands skin-white." And immediately after this, the poem returns to its opening statement: "this is the road to take when you think of your country, / between the dam and the furnace, terminal" (OS 29). As impressive an engineering accomplishment as the dam is, its awesome power cannot conceal the devastating social cost of its construction. While the dam harnesses the power of the "white" water of the river in springtime, this whiteness is conveyed as an "excess of white. / White brilliant function of the land's disease" (OS 31). This "scene of power," this "valley's work, the white, the shining" (OS 33), ultimately serves the interests of Union Carbide stockholders, as the poem's subsequent quotation of the stock report suggests. At the same time, however, its "excess" also galvanizes the revolutionary social forces whose collective interests become visible on the page below the company’s bottom line.

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.

Louise Kertesz: On "The Dam"

We are meant to hold these clusters of meaning in the mind as they reveal the fullness of reality. Some of the meanings the poet is allowing to expand into their conteallations are these: in "Power" death is both finality and source of power; but in another sense, one cannot say that power has any source, any beginning or end -- thus the first line of "The Dam." But that line is followed by


in the green season, in the sudden season

the white the budded

    and the lost.

Thus more contradictions: power does have a beginning and an end. Assertion and counter-assertion, "phases of essence." In Rukeyser’s poetry we are rarely permitted to rest at any phase.

There follows a description of the power of flowing water, "diverted water," "White brilliant function of the land’s disease." As in "Alloy" we have power out of illness. As in "Absalom" a voice interrupts the natural description and associates the power of this river with the self-renewing, self-healing energy of the universe as it has been described in myth and religion . . . . After another page of description of water and dam, the poem encompasses the document at the appropriate point: a dialogue among members of the inquest further reveals the soullesness of the corporation’s role in the tragedy. Then a line of stock quotation in newstype is incorporated into the poem. But the lines immediately resume their flowing description of the power of water.

This is a perfect fluid, having no age nor hours,

surviving scarless, unaltered, loving rest.

The effect of the lines’ movement and content is a healing, like the self-healing of a river. These obstructions (the machinations of commerce), these dead rocks in the path of flowing, live power are submerged in the watercourse. Even that murderous word -- glass -- (hear "hill of glass" from "Alloy") is redeemed: water is "willing to run forever to find its peace / in equal seas in currents of still glass."