This essay considers the politico-aesthetics of infrastructure by focusing on poems that anticipate, justify, and critique internal improvements, from Joel Barlow’s early Republican vision of the Erie and Panama Canals to texts that document the ruin caused by the works Barlow imagined as glorious. Historical scholarship has long assessed the mania for cutting roads and canals into the landscape. But engaging an emerging infrastructuralism—and turning to imaginative texts that exist underneath the ground typically trod by US literary studies, from Philip Freneau’s celebratory ode to the Erie Canal to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ironic canal travel sketches to Margarita Engle’s recent historical verse-novel tallying the devastations of the Panama Canal—this essay identifies an infrastructural dialectic in which writers view infrastructure, initially, as awesome so as to justify its ecological and social violence and, subsequently, as banal so as to render it invisible within the settler state. Oscillating between awe and irritation, the sublime and the stuplime, then, these texts both expose the rhythm of infrastructure’s long—that is, low—relation to the structure of coloniality and, in Engle’s case, model how to disrupt it so as to imagine a more just life “after” infrastructure.

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