Gertrude Reif Hughes: On "Power"

While patriarchal history chronicles victories and victors, feminist history registers a record of resistance, and thus it may be called a history of enemies. This is not to say that feminist history doesn't celebrate women's power. Emphatically it does, particularly in the hands of Adrienne Rich. But it also serves to expose oppression and oppressors--a mission that Emerson failed to consider when he mused on the lessons history offers. Increasingly in her career of writing and reading, and reaching her audiences to think with her "how we can use what we have / to invent what we need," she has undertaken to tell the stories of women's oppression and women's resistance. She has unearthed evidence of resources depleted by all kinds of abuse, including non-use. She has uncovered also a record of heroic resilience. Because it is a history of survivors, the record that Rich retrieves for her readers inspires a more tragic recognition of powers than the history of inexhaustible capacity that Emerson celebrates. It awakens consciousness of our passion for survival, yes, but also of the counterforces against which that passion somehow prevailed and must continue to prevail.

To enable women to identify and resist these counterforces, Rich is committed to working like the backhoe in "Power," the poem that opens The Dream of a Common Language

Living     in the earth-deposits     of our history

Today a backhoe divulged     out of a crumbling flank of earth one bottle     amber     perfect      a hundred-year-old cure for fever     or melancholy     a tonic for living on this earth     in the winters of this climate

The amber bottle that the backhoe turns up has sobering, even sinister, implications. When the poem continues, it becomes clear that it is a souvenir of the disease it was used to cure as much as it is a momento of healing. For Rich goes on to muse how Marie Curie--that patriarchally endorsed Uncommon Woman of Science--could be killed by the destructive power of her own discovery because she could not acknowledge that "her wounds came from the same source as her power."

Far from indicting Curie for this fatality, Rich mourns her and indicts her killer, the seductive, destructive forces of patriarchal competitiveness. In this first poem of The Dream of a Common Language and in the final one, "Transcendental Etude," Rich presents the lure of prima donna performance as a virulent enemy to achieving the dream of any commonality at all.

Joanne Feit Diehl: On "Power"

The opening poem in The Dream of a Common Language describes a similar revision of myth--again, the hero is a woman, and the treasure is not simply scientific knowledge but also knowledge of self, as the poet describes an attempt to reach into the earth for the sources of woman's distinctive power. Rich first combs through the earth deposits of "our" (female) experience of history to discover the amber bottle with its bogus palliative that will not ease the pain "for living on this earth in the winters of this climate." The second gesture of the poem is toward a text and model: the story of Marie Curie, a woman who seeks a "cure," denying that the "element she had purified" causes her fatal illness. Her refusal to confront the crippling force of her success and recognize the deadly implications of original discovery enables Curie to continue her work at the cost of her life. Denying the reality of the flesh, "the cracked and suppurating skin     of her finger-ends," she presses on to death:

She died     a famous woman     denying

her wounds


her wounds     came     from the same source as her power

Here, in the poem's closing lines, Rich uses physical space and the absence of punctuation (an extension of Dickinson's use of dashes) to loosen the deliberate, syntactic connections between words and thus introduces ambiguities that disrupt normative forms. The separation between words determines through the movement of the reader's eye--the movement past the "wounds" where it had rested the first time—the emphasis on the activity of denial and its necessary violation. The second "denying" carries the reader past the initial negative of a woman's denying self-destruction by extending the phrase "denying her wounds" into "denying her wounds came from the same source as her power." Denial is an essential precondition for the woman inventor's continuing to succeed; what she is denying, of course, is the inevitable sacrifice of self in work as well as the knowledge that her power and her wounds share a common source. Like Curie, this book’s later poems inform us, the woman poet must recognize a similar repression of her knowledge that what she is doing involves a deliberate rejection of the borrowed power of the tradition, the necessity of incurring the self-inflicted wounds that mark the birth of an individuated poetic voice.

Charles Altieri: On "Power"

[The task of "Power"] is to reverse traditions expectations of the role of myth in poetry. The first lines echo Kore myths as the poet thinks of a bottle of medicine unearthed from a construction site. Rich, however, quickly shifts from medicine to the making of medical cures, from passivity to activity, and hence from mythic associations to a specific historical figure, Madame Curie, whose legacy can take concrete form in discursive language. Curie is not quite a model. Instead she establishes a different kind of authority. The poet need not locate single models from the past but can try to construct a sense of community with a variety of women who appear in memory. Even the differences that prevent the past from passing on models become potentially productive by demanding a reciprocal dialogue. Sympathy with another's problems can lead to understanding features of one's own condition, and efforts at self-definition can become instruments for appreciating the problems oppressing others.

In this exchange there is considerable sustenance for Rich's hopes to overcome several dichotomies, especially that between private and public lives. As a community forms with the past, and as sympathy produces self-knowledge, it is possible to imagine poetry as a form of action. In poems one aligns oneself with other women and one tries to dramatize one's capacity to take power through and for them. If Curie died "denying / her wounds came from the same source as her power," then one can use her life to see how the two aspects might be united. And one can use one's sympathy as the contrastive term directing and dignifying the poet's quest to explore her own wounds as potential sources of power. Her project can depend not on a fantasized self but on grounding the imagination in history and then testing oneself against its realities. Once we have this historical consciousness, it is possible to give poetic voice a concrete focus. Instead of a person's being absorbed within scenes, scenes become challenges to the poet to produce a discursive poetic framework adapting them to the concerns of a society. Now Rich's greatest liability becomes an important source of strength. Her obsession with victimhood and her various forms of self-staging become states she can offer within a version of Augustine's confessional community.

Mary J. Carruthers: On "Power"

The first section, "Power," is about the sources and frustrations of women’s power.  As she has often done before, Rich uses the life of a dead woman (Marie Curie, Elvira Shatayev) as a moral exemplum of woman under patriarchy, fragmented and cut off from the sources of her own power yet grasping towards it. Thus, Marie Curie "died a famous woman denying / her wounds / denying / her wounds came from the same source as her power." Her voice in these poems is meditative and homiletic, rising to a moral pitch which, while sometimes troubling to reviewers, is nothing new to American poetry. Rich would surely prefer that we think of Bradstreet and Dickinson, but I often also hear Robert Lowell in these poems.

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.

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.