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Tuesday, 4 May 2010

J.V. Cunningham: Montana Fifty Years Ago



Looking West, Billings, Montana: photo by Agricolamontanae. 2009

Gaunt kept house with her child for the old man,
Met at the train, dust-driven as the sink
She came to, the child white as the alkali.
To the West distant mountains, the Big Lake
To the Northeast. Dead trees and almost dead
In the front yard, the front door locked and nailed,
A handpump in the sink. Outside, a land
Of gophers, cottontails and rattlesnakes,
In good years of alfalfa, oats and wheat.
Root cellar, blacksmith shop, milk house, and barn,
Granary, corral. An old World Almanac
To thumb at night, the child coughing, the lamp smoked,
The chores done. So he came to her one night,
To the front room, now bedroom, and moved in.
Nothing was said, nothing was ever said.
And then the child died and she disappeared.
This was Montana fifty years ago.

File:Massacre hill.JPG

Massacre Hill, looking northeast from Fetterman Monument, Montana: photo by Junkerjorg, 2009


Northern Pacific Railway depot, Gardiner, Montana (postcard)
: Frank Jay Haynes, n.d., from National Park Service Photo Archive: image by Mike Cline, 2009


Northern Pacific Railway depot, Livingston, Montana
: photo by Frank Jay Haynes, 1894: from Northern Pacific Views, Edward W. Nolan, 1983: image by Mike Cline, 2009


Northern Pacific Railway tracks into Wibaux, Montana: photo by Frank Jay Haynes, 1894: from Northern Pacific Views, Edward W. Nolan, 1983: image by Mike Cline, 2010

J.V. Cunningham: from The Collected Poems and Epigrams, 1971



Thank you Tom, for bringing JVC to our attention. Here's another one, not unrelated to this,

The dry soul rages. The unfeeling feel
With the dry vehemence of the unreal.
So I, in the idea of your arms, unwon,
Am as the real in unreal undone.

TC said...


Pleased you've responded on this one.

The tough knotty unselfsparing quality and coiled formal tension in Cunningham have interested me for a long time. Yes, the poems do tend to interrelate -- the 1942 Palo Alto poem you quote, written when JVC was a young man (31), with this late piece I've posted, from 1966-67. And in fact everything with everything, all very much of a piece, from a poet who once wrote, in a poem about a bitter separation called "Coffee" (1935), of escaping to "drink/Dark coffee and... read/More than a man would think/...I know not fear or haste./Time is my own again./I waste it for the waste."

This one is about the dry-land ranch in Wheat Basin country where he went to stay during the summers while growing up on the Montana plains in Billings -- his father having been a steam-shovel operator for the Northern Pacific, died while off on a job in California, when JVC was 15 -- these great Haynes photos document those vast empty spaces for all time.

He described this poem in an interview as "an attempt to summarize not so much my own experience, but to put into form the kind of situation out at the ranch."

There is also "Montana Pastoral" (1941):

I am no shepherd of a child's surmises.
I have seen fear where the coiled serpent rises,

Thirst where the grasses burn in early May
And thistle, mustard and the wild oat stay.

There is dust in this air. I saw in the heat
Grasshoppers busy in the threshing wheat.

So to this hour. Through the warm dusk I drove
To blizzards sifting on the hissing stove,

And found no images of pastoral will,
But fear, thirst, hunger, and this huddled chill.

(His third person account of that one: "A curt autobiography... in which the details of fear, thirst, hunger, and the desperation of this huddled chill were hardly a just summary of his first twenty years but rather an epigrammatic presentation of the salient motives those years communicated to his later life".)

Tim Steele edited JVC's poems, with a fine commentary, for Ohio U. Press in 1997. And there is also the very interesting testament "The Journal of John Cardan: Together with The Quest of the Opal and The Problem of Form" (Alan Swallow, 1964).

I remember once in Buffalo talking about JVC with R. Creeley, who was (understandably) drawn to the short-poem sequence "To What Strangers, What Welcome" (1964).

Two masters of an unstinting bearing-down on -- and in --the poem.



Thanks so much for all this. I was 'raised' reading Cunningham back in the Berkeley days, along with Winters and Edgar Bowers, pointed there by Roy Bundy who taught classics there (his short books on Pindar said to be classics) but also comp lit classes in his house on MIlvia Street -- volumes of the OED and Partridge and Skeet piled up on the floor beside his chair, spending a night on one of JV Cunningham's epigrams from The Exclusions of a Rhyme, Bundy himself a recovered alcoholic who claimed that Winter's moral example was what had saved him. My JVC books from those days are all over at Mills now, your poem yesterday and these comments prompts me to bring them back here again, after all this time. . . .

TC said...


Interesting history. How things do wind around and turn back upon themselves.

The notorious "mordant" side of Cunningham which once may have seemed so formidable and perhaps foreboding, back then a digging-in against the grain of "his time" in poetry -- coming back to him now I find in that same "difficult" tone, curiously, a credible acknowledgment of/response to life as presented. (Odd feeling reading him till late last night and then reading a bit of Ted, Train Ride... another Irish/Catholic/American voice, but that one skating over the thin ice rather than plunging into the chilly depths... Maybe shows what an extended spell in that zone "where palsy shakes a few sad last grey hairs" can do to expand, or shall I say, shrink, one's reading tolerances?)



Great to make that leap from Cunningham's mordant (drenched?) view of things to Keats' noting of "where palsey shakes a few sad last grey hairs" (JVC wouldn't have 'approved' of the Keats, at least not in later years, but probably as a mere youth must have love him). . . .

TC said...


Cunningham's early interests, as is known, ran to Ben Jonson and Fulke Greville, but there's evidence too that in his Stanford grad student days he harboured a powerful admiration for Keats's To Autumn; which has a sort of classical tone one can imagine him going on approving in later years.

(Another of his early approvals that I remember once being surprised by: Stevens's Sunday Morning; which, it might be said, extends the classical strain in Keats.)

From drenched to palsied, when one thinks of it, an inevitable progression anyway, maybe?