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On "Gauley Bridge"


Robert Shulman

At the beginning of "Gauley Bridge" (pp. 16-17), by viewing the city from the point of view of the camera—"camera at the crossing sees the city"—Rukeyser reinforces the organizing idea of a series of documentary photographs. The scene is a familiar one from thirties documentaries,

a street of wooden walls and empty windows,
the doors shut handless in the empty street,
and the deserted Negro standing on the corner.

Rukeyser uses a stripped down style to focus on the harsh, empty details, emphasized by the twist of "deserted Negro, " not "deserted corner, " but doubly deserted, both as part of a desolate urban scene and as a black man in a West Virginia town.

Rukeyser meticulously uses the vantage point of the camera "fixed on the street" at the railway crossing to record what comes into view:

The little boy runs with his dog
up the street to the bridge over the river where
nine men are mending road for the government.
He blurs the camera-glass fixed on the street.

Rukeyser then turns the camera inside, to the hotel owner "keeping his books behind the public glass" and, behind the postoffice window,

a hive of private boxes,
the hand of the man who withdraws, the woman who reaches her hand
and the tall coughing man stamping an envelope.

To reinforce the sense of meticulous documentary notation, Rukeyser records the details inside the post office and bus station in a series of incomplete sentences. In this randomly observed scene a man coughing, the symptom of the fatal silicosis, is simply taken for granted as part of the flow of routine details.

After "the yellow-aproned waitress" in the bus station, in the next frame Rukeyser gives us

The man on the street and the camera eye;
he leaves the doctor's office, slammed door, doom,
any town looks like this one-street town.

In her self-reflexive use of documentary, for Rukeyser the camera eye, like the earlier rapids of the mind, is as much a part of the scene as the man on the street. In a context of precise physical notation, the phrase "the man on the street" records a physical presence but in a way that generalizes him into the representative "man on the street, " a connotation that contributes to the irony of "any town looks like this one-street town. " "Any town" may look like this town but this town is also special because of "the tall coughing man" and this "man on the street" who leaves the doctor's office, the "slammed door" and "doom" conveying a sense of emotional disturbance and finality, presumably for the same reason the man in the post office is coughing. Everything about the town of Gauley Bridge is ordinary and recognizable but slightly heightened because, whereas people everywhere get sick and die, in Gauley Bridge some of them suffer and die from silicosis.

Rukeyser continues to develop the simultaneously special and representative quality of Gauley Bridge by accumulating the common objects that, along with the coughing man and the man on the street, give this American place its precisely rendered look and meaning. "The naked eye" and the "camera" are again part of a scene that includes

Glass, wood. and naked eye: the movie-house
closed for the afternoon frames posters streaked with rain,
advertise "Racing Luck" and "Hitch-Hike Lady."

The figures who have peopled the earlier part of the poem or photograph reappear, familiar now as

Whistling. the train comes from a long way away,
slow, and the Negro watches it grow in the grey air,
the hotel man makes a note behind his potted palm.

The rain, the wish fulfillment movies, the "grey air, " and the approaching train

And in the beerplace on the other sidewalk
always one's harsh eyes over the beerglass
follow the waitress and the yellow apron—

"the yellow-aproned waitress" noted earlier in the bus station—these unglamorous, commonplace details are the backdrop for Rukeyser's concluding stanza:

What do you want—a cliff over a city?
A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here.

Abruptly, "what do you want"—the picturesque details of the conventional guide—book or landscape painting, a pretty, comforting scene, "a foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?" Instead, "the empty street, / and the deserted Negro, " the "posters streaked with rain, " the "red-and-white filling station" and, unremarkably, the coughing man and the man on the street: "these people live here, " in a place that has value and a claim on our attention because of them.

In "Gauley Bridge" Rukeyser brings alive a documentary aesthetics of precise observation and self-reflexive involvement. The language is stripped down, the sharply focused details are noted, and the reader or viewer is invited to fill in, as with the elliptical scene of the man on the street leaving the doctor's office. Rukeyser uses this aesthetic to render an American subject matter of the ordinary made luminous through accurate recording, understated revelation, and implied protest. The deserted Negro, the yellow-aproned waitress, the bus station, the "Racing Luck" and "Hitch-Hike Lady," the men dying of silicosis, the "one-street town," the railroad tracks and the whistling train, the "grey air" and the red-and white filling station, the "beerplace" and the underpass—all are familiar objects and characters in the iconography of the Popular Front, with its special attention to blacks, ordinary workers, and the abuses of capitalism. As she does throughout The Book of the Dead, in the political art of "Gauley Bridge" Rukeyser draws energy from, works within, and contributes to the political culture of the Popular Front.

Like the long poem it is an integral part of, "Gauley Bridge" derives part of its meaning from this cultural context. When the poem appeared in the April 1, 1939, issue of Scholastic, this context of Popular Front political culture did not have to be supplied but was alive as part of the general culture a magazine like Scholastic emerged from and transmitted. What is problematic, however, is how the poem fared removed from the context of The Book of the Dead. Dorothy Emerson, the editor of Scholastic's "Poetry Corner," intelligently addressed the problem any anthologist faces, how to make one or two poems from a long work accessible. She tactfully established that "Gauley Bridge" was part of The Book of the Dead, "a group of poems dealing with ‘the Gauley tragedy,’ in which several thousand workers toiled under such bad conditions that they died from having breathed in silica, fatal as fine glass-particles." She states that as one of these workers "the man leaving the doctor's office will die here, in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia." She also introduces the poem by way of "The Road," the camera, and the gaze of the tourist. But even with her helpful, sympathetic commentary, does "Gauley Bridge" by itself really convey the full implications of Rukeyser's documentary aesthetic and the organizing role of documentary photography as a vehicle of witnessing and of political exposure and protest? These questions also bear on the issue of the role of anthologies in making poems from the past available to contemporary readers. "Gauley Bridge" gains its full meaning and impact as part of a larger composition but The Book of the Dead is not a candidate for anthologizing. A group of representative poems—Rukeyser's for her Selected Poems or summaries like Dorothy Emerson’s—can nonetheless make a difference. To her credit, in her Rukeyser selection, Out of Silence: Selected Poems, Kate Daniels faces up to the problem by reprinting the entire Book of the Dead.

from The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Copyright 2000 by The University of North Carolina Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.


John Lowney

The narrative journey of "The Book of the Dead"—from "The Road," to "West Virginia," to "Gauley Bridge"—documents not only the wasted lives of the miners but also the documentary poet's process of gathering, recording, and reporting information. The poets initially self-conscious stance becomes more assertive only when additional voices provide collective support for her point of view. "Gauley Bridge," the fourth poem in this twenty-poem sequence, underscores how tentatively the narration begins, as it makes us aware that the presence of the camera is especially intrusive. This section develops the poems major trope, the trope of glass, which is at first the documentary photographer's medium for exposing—and correcting—the touristic commodification of place: the photographer "follows discovery / viewing on groundglass an inverted image" (OS 10). Yet glass is also the very medium through which everyday commerce is conducted: "the public glass" behind which the owner of "the commercial hotel" keeps his books; the "postoffice window" with its "hive of private boxes"; the bus station restaurant with its "plateglass window" and "April-glass-tinted" waitress; the "beerplace" where this waitress is herself objectified by "one's harsh night eyes over the beerglass" (OS 13-14).

As a medium for reification, glass also exposes how the social relations of Gauley Bridge are racialized. Furthermore, the camera's "groundglass" exposes how representations of Gauley Bridge are necessarily racialized as well. Before reaching the town's "many panes of glass / tin under light," "Gauley Bridge" begins with a bleak, almost blank image of "empty windows" on an "empty street," with a "deserted Negro standing' on the corner" This image of the "deserted Negro" takes on further significance only with the testimony of these very people that the camera initially objectifies. Nearby, however, where "nine men are mending road for the government," a boy running with his dog "blurs the camera-glass fixed on the street" (OS 13): this blurring suggests that the camera cannot neatly frame the lives it is documenting. This foregrounding of the photographer's interaction with her subject, which indicates how the camera eye can evoke but not contain the lives it documents, is reiterated in the subsequent contrast of visual perspectives, between the "eyes of the tourist house" and the "eyes of the Negro" (OS 14).

As the initial tour of Gauley Bridge concludes, the narrative lens is pointed directly at the reader:

What do you want—a cliff over a city?
A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here. (OS 14)

Immediately following this interrogation of the reader's position as consumer of this travel narrative, we are presented with the testimony of the first witness, Vivian Jones. His is not a story of glass as a medium for consumerism but one of glass literally—involuntarily—consumed: "hundreds breathed value, filled their lungs full of glass" (OS 15). This "glass" eventually consumes the workers who breathe it. Valuable for corporate investors, deadly for the workers who mine it, this "white glass" (OS 14) becomes the medium for revealing the racist social system that underlies the negligent labor practices of Union Carbide. The first mention of the silica's whiteness conspicuously reminds us that the historical remnants of slavery, if barely visible, have hardly disappeared; immediately juxtaposed with the "white glass" showing "precious in the rock" is the image of an "old plantation-house (burned to the mud)," now a "hill-acre of ground" where a "Negro woman throws / gay arches of water out from the front door" (OS 14). As "The Book of the Dead" subsequently proceeds through the "eyes of the Negro" rather than "the eyes of the tourist house," the local stories and songs of witness form a composite narrative of countermemory that transforms Gauley Bridge into a "nation's scene" (OS 37) that otherwise would have remained obscured.

from "Truths of Outrage, Truths of Possibility: Muriel Rukeyser's 'The Book of the Dead'" 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.


Leslie Ann Minot

The motion of the sequence is what moves "Gauley Bridge" forward, through shifting points of view, refusing to validate any particular point of view over the others:

Glass, wood, and naked eye: the movie-house
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Whistling, the train comes from a long way away,
slow, and the Negro watches it grow in the grey air,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Eyes of the tourist house, red-and-white filling station,
the eyes of the Negro, looking down the track,
hotel-man and hotel, cafeteria, camera.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
always one's harsh night eyes over the beerglass
follow the waitress and the yellow apron. (OS 14)

Even the camera is not the ultimate point of view, the source of all seeing, since it too is seen. These images are repeatedly structured like a cinema cut—we see eyes, then see what those eyes see. The reader is given the task of drawing these varying points of view together, of synthesizing them and also of recognizing the differences these different lines of vision represent, of which race and gender are only the most obvious. The act of looking, in itself, does not necessarily overcome separation—the people in the poem watch one another, without necessarily interacting. The poem, however, may be the "bridge" of its title, the place where these different viewpoints, these different ways of seeing, can be brought together, although it does not automatically follow that they will be. The camera, similarly, can be said to be located at a metaphorical "crossing" of points of view, as it is located at a physical "crossing" in the town. The reader, too, is called upon to occupy the place of that bridge and that crossing, since the reader's consciousness is crossed by these different lines of vision.

"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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