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On "The Face of the Dam: Vivian Jones"


Shoshana Wechsler

. . . This is a lyrical recasting of the story from the point of view of a railroad man who transported silica ore from the mines. Once again we encounter incantatory repetitions of "glass"—"hundreds breathed value, filled their lungs full of glass / (O the gay wind the clouds the many men)"—but they are served up this time with a seething poetic diction that blatantly satirizes another recent account of the technological sublime. ("O proud O white O water rolling down" (OS 15) effectively conjures Hart Crane, even if it does him serious injustice.) The artificial diction turns democratically on its own maker, as well, by calling attention to the section's literary preciosity. But when Vivian Jones's improbably mannered speech yields at last to the neutral language of federal investigation in "Praise of the Committee," the flat exposition is in turn undercut by an emotional, paranoically charged lyric that conveys an accusatory gaze: "In this man's face / family leans out from two worlds of graves—/ here is a room of eyes, / a single force looks out, reading our life." The relentless seesawing of sound and image, and contradictory linguistic textures and tonalities, keeps our eyes sharply focused on—and pays a referential debt to—the extratextual referents who, "reading our life," demand the payment of an explanation: "Who runs through electric wires? / Who speaks down every road? / Their hands touched mastery; now they / demand an answer" (OS 17).

The demand for accountability echoes through the dramatic monologues spoken by Mearl Blankenship, George Robinson. Juanita Tinsley, Arthur Peyton, and others. And answer is given in the deadly, luminous details of the Gauley Bridge environs, categorized simply as "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. "

from "A Mat(t)er of Fact and Vision: The Objectivity Question and 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.


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