Saturday, May 1, 2010

BF FAIRCHILD'S ALL THE PEOPLE IN HOPPER'S PAINTINGS

Edward Hopper, "Morning Sun"

For me Edward Hopper is the quintessential American painter because he captures the desolation of what is still a frontier country. True, America's youth is its oldest tradition, but there is some inherent sadness (for me) that stems from the absence or scarcity of beautiful churches, fountains, squares, parks with great old trees, the colorful crowds in the streets. Alexandria, Rome, Paris, London, Vienna -- it takes centuries for a city to start humming with that larger life that astonishes us with its beauty and vitality.

Oscar Wilde famously remarked, "America is such a violent country because your wallpaper is so ugly." Yet every city that's now famous for its beauty was once just the bleak dwellings of the first settlers, without a single beautiful building.

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I'm posting another fabulous poem, almost right there with Ed Hirsch's "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad." (Funny, I only now saw the word "pain" in "painting." Of course I realize that the root is "paint," but I'm also reminded that becoming an artist is driven by trauma.)

I say almost because Fairchild's poem could use compression here and there. It goes on a bit too long, repeats itself, is not as masterfully focused and concise as Hirsch's poem. To compare the two is to see the advantage of taking a smaller slice, a tighter focus. It is a better strategy to choose just one painting. And yet there are enough good lines in Fairchild's poem to give me much pleasure. And I love the idea of seeing Hopper's people as you might see neighbors in your hometown -- 'All the people in Hopper's paintings walk by me" -- a great opening line. And Hopper's women as the "angels of boredom," and the way the people in the paintings become real and interact with the speaker -- this is where we see how wonderful poetic imagination can be. 

That the speaker finds Hopper's people more appealing than anything his hometown in Kansas offers is itself a surprise. 


Or they lived in coffee shops
and cafés at three a.m. under decadent flowers
of cigarette smoke as I thought I would have
if there had been such a late-night conspiracy
in the town that held me but offered nothing.

~ You might object that Hopper never painted anything glamorous, just dullness and emptiness and loneliness. Why would Hopper's paintings be more appealing than the Kansas hometown? Perhaps this says a lot about the hometown. 

ALL THE PEOPLE IN HOPPER’S PAINTINGS

All the people in Hopper’s paintings walk by me
here in the twilight the way our neighbors
would stroll by of an evening in my hometown,
smiling and waving as I leaned against
the front porch railing and hated them all
and the place I had grown up in. I smoked
my Pall Mall with a beautifully controlled rage
in the manner of James Dean and imagined
life beyond the plains in the towns of Hopper
where people were touched by the light of the real.

The people in Hopper’s paintings were lonely
as I was and lived in brown rooms whose
long, sad windows looked out on the roofs
of brown buildings in the towns that made
them lonely. Or they lived in coffee shops
and cafés at three a.m. under decadent flowers
of cigarette smoke as I thought I would have
if there had been such a late-night conspiracy
in the town that held me but offered nothing.
And now they gather around with their bland,

mysterious faces in half-shadow, many still
bearing the hard plane of light that found them
from the left side of the room, as in Vermeer,
others wearing the dark splotches of early
evening across their foreheads and chins that said
they were, like me, tragic, dark, undiscovered:
the manicurist from the barber shop buried
beneath a pyramid of light and a clock frozen
at eleven, the woman sitting on the bed
too exhausted with the hopelessness of brick walls

and barber poles and Rheingold ads to dress
herself in street clothes. The wordless, stale
affair with the filling-station attendant
was the anteroom to heartbreak. The gloom
of his stupid uniform and black tie beneath
the three white bulbs blinking Mobilgas into
the woods that loomed bleak as tombstones
on the edge of town; the drab back room
with its Prestone cans and sighing Vargas girls
and grease rags; his panting, pathetic loneliness.

But along the white island of the station,
the luminous squares from its windows
lying quietly like carpets on the pavement
had been my hope, my sense of the real world
beyond the familiar one, like the blazing café
of the nighthawks casting the town into shadow,
or the beach house of the sea watchers
who sat suspended on a veranda of light,
stunned by the flat, hard sea of the real.
Everywhere was that phosphorescence, that pale

wash of promise lifting roofs and chimneys
out of dullness, out of the ordinary that I
could smell in my work clothes coming home
from a machine shop lined with men who stood
at lathes and looked out of windows and wore
the same late-afternoon layers of sunlight
that Hopper’s people carried to hotel rooms
and cafeterias. Why was their monotony
blessed, their melancholy apocalyptic, while
my days hung like red rags from my pockets

as I stood, welding torch in hand, and searched
the horizon with the eyes and straight mouth
of Hopper’s women? If they had come walking
toward me, those angels of boredom, if they
had arrived clothed in their robes of light,
would I have recognized them? If all those women
staring out of windows had risen from their desks
and unmade beds, and the men from their offices
and sun-draped brownstones, would I have known?
Would I have felt their light hands touching

my face the way infants do when people
seem no more real than dreams or picture books?
The girl in blue gown leaning from her door
at high noon, the gray-haired gentleman
in the hotel by the railroad, holding his cigarette
so delicately, they have found me, and we
walk slowly through the small Kansas town
that held me and offered nothing, where the light
fell through the windows of brown rooms, and people
looked out, strangely, as if they had been painted there.

~ B.F. Fairchild, from The Art of the Lathe

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I knew only one of Hopper's paintings before I came to America: Main Street on Sunday. And its emptiness frightened me. But imagine my sense of the uncanny when for a while I ended up in Cudahy, a suburb of Milwaukee, and its Main Street looked exactly as in Hopper's painting. Imagine my shock, since I came from Warsaw, a densely urban city that radiated an intense energy and seemed magical to me, especially the downtown at night. But even in daytime, I found just looking out the window to be entertainment enough.

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Here is part of an interview with Fairchild in which he speaks about Hopper's paintings:
Poems Out Loud: Readers often marvel at the “suicidally beautiful” images that fill your poems. You’ve been called, too, “a surprising painter, one obviously indebted to Edward Hopper, whose paintings always seem darker than they are, with their parallel lines of light-catching windows and bricks extending beyond the frame into invisible potential. Do you have any thoughts on why these kinds of images—images that seem darker than they are—can be so arresting? What might be the value of these images for the reader/viewer?

Fairchild: I don’t have an adequate answer for you here. I will say that I am certainly indebted to the paintings of Edward Hopper. I was never in an art museum until I went to college, but I remember opening a book on Hopper back in my marvelous hometown library and being absolutely taken away by those paintings in reproduction. It was only a book, but it might as well have been the Whitney in New York. There was something about them that seemed an extension of the deepest part of myself or of my experience in the world. I had no way to explain it, and still don’t, though I tried to approach it in a poem in The Art of the Lathe, “All the People in Hopper’s Paintings.” I suppose I ought to write something in prose on Hopper, but I believe Mark Strand has saved me that trouble in his wonderful little book, which begins, “I often feel that the scenes in Edward Hopper paintings are scenes from my own past.” As for the images that “seem darker than they are,” it’s difficult to say. I’ve been made aware of the obsession with light/dark imagery in the poems, but not of that particular quality in the individual image.

Poems Out Loud: Shifting gears, let’s talk about place. Do you find that living in a particular place—in your case, originally, rural Kansas—affects the mechanics of your art? In other words, does the physical place, the topography, inform the line—the syntax, diction, breaks? Does your physical landscape inhabit the form of your poems at the macro and micro level?

Fairchild: I haven’t lived in southwest Kansas for some forty years, but I can say that its influence on me when I was young and now when I write about it was, and is, profound. But I think that influence is primarily psychological. That is, the day-to-day experience of living in a very flat and relatively featureless landscape fostered not only loneliness, a sense of emptiness, and fits of depression, but a deep need to imaginatively escape it—boredom being, I suppose, the mother of invention. But an actual influence on the way I write poems? The machine shop and the work that was done there had some of that in terms of the love of craft, and I’ve written elsewhere about that, but syntax and line? I don’t think so. The only thing I can think of in this regard might involve my love of metaphor. Local talk, especially oilfield talk, could be quite metaphorical, especially in the use of profanity.

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4 comments:

  1. Wow, what a fantastic poem. Pete was a creative wiritig teacher of mine in 1992 at CSUSB - a great experience. This warms my heart.

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  2. Yes, It is a fantastic poem. Just happened to find your comment after all this time. I knew Pete back when I lived in Torrance, and he'd come to LA now and then to give a reading. I remember him with great fondness. A wonderful man, a very complex and ambitious poet.

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  3. May 13, 2013

    Simply to say that I am thrilled this post, among the first I ever posted, has had more than 3,000 page views. Pete Fairchild's work deserves a wider recognition.

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