Robert Masterson’s “To the State Electrical Worker” [Read the poem here] (Published in Issue #15 of Cha)
Robert Masterson’s “To the State Electrical Worker” is an evocative and powerful exploration of tragedy and our callous response to it. The poem recalls W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” but while Auden’s work is about how people can be oblivious to events and suffering around them, Masterson’s poem shows how the plight of others is often treated as little more than public spectacle.1
As the title of Masterson’s poem makes clear, the piece is dedicated to a particular but unnamed Chinese electrical worker. The title flows into the prologue and it is here that we learn about the worker’s shocking death. Written in a factual style, the introduction informs us that the man was ‘killed while working on a giant steel pylon supporting the massive power lines spanning the Wei He River‘. Already, in this statement, we see the themes of the poem emerging. At first glance, the event described, while both dramatic and tragic, would seem to be a relatively minor one in the history of China. Indeed, the use of phrases such as ‘giant steel pylon’ and ‘massive power lines’ effectively signal the insignificance of the individual when compared to the nation’s industrial might.
Yet, despite the modest background of the man, his electrocution has captured the attention of the poet and his persona. It is unclear whether the speaker in the poem was present at the scene or is simply recreating an event he has read about. He nevertheless continues to obsess over the accident, the line ‘I still now as I did then wonder’ (L1; variations: L10, L20) suggesting a temporal distance between the worker’s death and the writing of the poem. After the intervening time, he is still unable to come to a conclusion about what triggered the event and he muses, ‘Who knows, who will ever know what caused your fatal spark’ (L7).
The persona imagines ‘the brilliant arc that clenched you tight, convulsed in one long spasm when / everything inside you jammed up with electricity rampant and when / you began to smolder’ (L8-L10). Here, the poet beautifully captures the physicality of the event and it is easy to picture the worker’s suffering. The persona also wonders about the man’s mental state, asking whether ‘you even noticed you were on fire’ (L11). Whether or not the worker is fully aware of his situation, the persona does present him as a kind of reverse witness to his own death, asking what it must have looked like while ‘you incandescent, /eyeballs ribboned with blue fire’, watched as the city ‘pulsed, hot and dusty’ below (L2-L3; L5).
The city also looks up to watch the man. The river bridge below was ‘jammed both ways’ in a ‘typical post-revolutionary rush hour’ (L12-L13) but still, the dying worker proves enough of a spectacle for ‘a quarter of a million people’ to stop their bicycles and ‘put one leg on the pavement so they could safely stare up goggle-eyed / and open-mouthed’ (L14-L16). In this description, the poet provides a sense that the crowd is formed of jaded and unfeeling bystanders who find diversion in a stranger’s misfortune. It is perhaps easy to overstate the cynicism of the crowd as there is little that any one individual can do to rescue the man. Is it worse to ignore a dying man you cannot help or watch his demise? In the use of phrases such as ‘goggle-eyed’ and ‘open-mouthed’, which are intended to convey the onlookers’ rapt attention, the poet, whether consciously or not, also has the crowd empathetically mirror the worker’s own physical state, his ‘eyeballs ribboned with blue fire’ (L3) and his twisting convulsions.
Still, for the commuters, the sight of a man ‘two hundred feet in the air who twitched’ and ‘was never coming down’ (L17-L18) is little more than ‘something different’ (L16) to be experienced, a living (or maybe dying) piece of art. This takes us back to Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” which describes Brueghel’s Icarus. In Auden’s take on this painting, everyone and ‘everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster’ of Icarus’s falling from the sky. In Masterson’s poem, however, everyone watches the disaster quite leisurely and unlike in “Musee”, in which we are not privy to Icarus’s final thoughts, here we see the poet at least tries to imagine the victim’s experiences.
The final stanza begins with a moral judgment: ‘The wrongness of this all is huge’ (L19). Presumably the speaker is referring to the indifference of the crowd towards the electrical worker or perhaps the indifference of Chinese society generally towards individuals. (This poem takes on new meaning in light of the event in Guangdong in which a toddler was run over twice and ignored by twenty passers-by before being helped.) But are the persona and poet in “To the State Electrical Worker” also speaking about their own guilt in exploiting the event? Although they are sympathetic recorders of the accident, they too are in some sense using the worker’s death. This is perhaps somewhat overstated, as there is an honest attempt in the poem to capture the electrical worker’s final moments, moments which may have otherwise been lost to history.
As the stanza progresses, the persona wonders ‘what it must seem / to you there among the wires thrumming harsh’, as ‘the river silver /and thin’ passed below (L20-L21). From this image, the speaker pulls out to imagine the worker’s place in the vast history of the Wei He River and China, saying that the view is reminiscent of a scroll painting of the same location a thousand years ago, ‘now hanging in a temple’ (L25), except that the ancient mists have been replaced by ‘diesel smoke from idle engines’ (L23). In this final aestheticization of the event, is the poet suggesting that “To the State Electrical Worker” is an attempt to capture the man’s life in art? Or is he suggesting that this particular tragedy is insignificant when compared to the history of the city and river? Or is it something else? The poem leaves it up to the reader to decide.
1My thanks to Professor Douglas Kerr who pointed out the relevance of Auden’s poem.
Robert Masterson is an award-winning writer, editor and teacher and the author of Garnish Trouble (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Artificial Rats & Electric Cats (Camber Press, 2008) and Trial by Water (Dog Running Wild Press, 1982). His creative work has appeared in numerous publications and on numerous websites throughout the world. Masterson’s teaching has taken him to the People’s Republic of China and penal institutions. He received the 1987 Creative Writing Fellowship from the University of New Mexico and the first Ted Berrigan Scholarship from the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in 1993. An English professor at the City University of New York’s Borough of Manhattan Community College campus, Masterson holds both a BA and an MA (with distinction) in English Literature from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; an MFA from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics; and an academic certificate from Shaanxi Normal University in the People’s Republic of China.