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On "Alloy"


Stephanie Hartman

Rukeyser presents this allure as superficial, sinister, deceptive:

This is the most audacious landscape. The gangster's
stance with his gun smoking and out is not so
vicious as this commercial field, its hill of glass.

Sloping as gracefully as thighs, the foothills
narrow to this, clouds over every town
finally indicate the stored destruction. (OS 28)

The apparently beautiful hill is a mere glittering surface, hiding the lethal silica. Sexualizing the hill's curves converts the common image of the landscape as womanly body (virgin land awaiting the plow of enterprising men) into a "commercial" image; this land has already been opened up. The "hill of glass," sparkling with promise like a crystalline El Dorado, is converted into steel, a substance even more pure and hard, and just as inviting to aestheticize. To this process the workers are subjected—"Forced through this crucible, a million men"—as if they are transported by the overhead conveyor, instead of operating it. The line looks back to the arresting image of Peyton fed into a steel mill furnace. Again, the workers' bodies are consumed in the process of steel production like a raw resource, sharing the fate of the silica, sacrificed to make the invulnerable steel.

Rukeyser's focus on glass helps establish her poem as a comment on modernization as well as a specific response to Gauley Bridge. According to the art critic Robert Hughes, glass was the representative material of the modern city, a symbol of progress and purity: "The supreme Utopian material . . . was sheet glass. . . . It was the face of the Crystal, the Pure Prism. It meant lightness, transparency, structural daring" (175). Glass represented what was most promising and attractive about industrialization. Rukeyser's description of the process of steel making, in which "electric furnaces produce this precious, this clean, / annealing the crystals, fusing at last alloys" (OS 28), echoes this fervor for the modern and "perfected." But Rukeyser counterbalances ardor for the beauty of glass and steel (expressed with greater latitude in the next section) with an awareness of how modernization can imperil the body: her glass is deadly.

from "All Systems Go: Muriel Rukeyser's 'The Book of the Dead' and the Reinvention of Moderist Poetics"" in "How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?": The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. Ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Anne E. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman.


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