blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Arthur Peyton"


Stephanie Hartman

. . . "Arthur Peyton," describes another worker's body in the act of assuming the characteristics of his materials, this time employing more explicitly technological imagery. The speaker, also a miner with silicosis, asks the woman he would have married to testify for him—"O love tell the committee that I know"—so that she can project his haunting, ghostly voice into the official avenues of the legal system. He describes himself and his world taken over by glass, in volatile images that suggest the speaker's faltering hold on language and on life:

my death upon your lips
my face becoming glass
strong challenged time making me win immortal
the love a mirror of our valley
our street our river a deadly glass to hold.
Now they are feeding me into a steel mill furnace
O love the stream of glass a stream of living fire. (OS 28)

The section's glassy river and glassy shards of silica are both elements of. power linked in the cycle of steel production. Peyton, after imagining himself turning into silica ("my face becoming glass") envisions his entire body fed into the furnace to produce steel. The section's first words—"Consumed. Eaten away" (OS 27)—take on new meaning: Peyton's body is used up like a natural resource. The speaker's image presents the laboring body as a consumable resource like the silica rather than as a ceaseless source of power like the flowing river. His illness signifies his reduction from active worker to raw material, from embodied person to sheer body—in a word, his dehumanization. For both Blankenship and Peyton, illness is represented in terms of immobility: Blankenship seems to fade into a mere image or X-ray of himself, and Peyton and his world turn to glass.

These workers' fatal engagement with the industry of steel production throws a cautionary note into the celebration of the machine that was just winding down in the thirties. The image of the machine eating Peyton alive deviates considerably from the general cheer and optimism over the machine prevalent up through the Great Depression, as evident in the 1913 Armory Show; the 1927 Machine Age Exhibit in New York, which "include[d] fantastic drawings of the city of the future, 'modernistic' skyscrapers, constructivists, robot costumes, theatre settings, and factories together with some excellent machines and photographs of machines" (Barr); and the 1934 Machine Art exhibition.

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.


Return to Muriel Rukeyser