Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Friday, 6 July 2012

John Vachon / Wallace Stevens: Downward to Darkness


Dubuque, Iowa, gas station at night, April 1940


We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Wallace Stevens: from Sunday Morning (1915) in Harmonium, 1923

File:Under the elevated railway, Chicago, Illinois fsa8a06711u.jpg

Under the Elevated tracks, Chicago, July 1940

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Under the El tracks, Chicago, July 1941

  Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
Under the El tracks, Chicago, July 1941

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Chicago, Illinois, July 1941

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Chicago, Illinois, July 1941

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

[Somewhere in the Upper Midwest], late summer 1941

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

[Somewhere in the Upper Midwest], late summer 1941

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

[Somewhere in the Upper Midwest], October 1940

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Bidding on futures, Minneapolis, Grain Exchange, September 1939

Sign in beer parlor window, Sisseton, South Dakota, September 1939

Photos by John Vachon from Farm Security Administration Collection, Library of Congress




"We live in an old chaos of the sun
. . .
Downward to darkness, on extended wings." --

These lines continue to resonate in the face of where we find ourselves, don't they? Pairing them with John Vachon's seen scenes (night and day) gives them new sense of urgency (meaning) -- what was that man w/ head bent down in front of that wall in Chicago in July 1941 thinking? where is he now?


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, red-tailed hawk calling in right
foreground, no sound of wave in channel

is not being or consequence
of it, since becoming

that corresponds to talk of
it, for example, that

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
line of pelicans gliding toward horizon

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Ah, Wallace Stevens

The best form and function fit to be seen in poetry

TC said...


I thought of the sun coming over the ridge in your video -- a new chaos every day.

And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

I guess it's the ambiguity which enters the picture there that undermines everything. Isolation is not sweet, casualty is not a happy thing in flocks, these are odd dissonances in and of themselves, and then the undulations, which should be pleasant, turn out to be a Form of Ambiguity. All this now seems to have been touched with prophecy, as you hint. Thinking, say of Marvell, the intelligence that cannot ignore the impending calamity.

The Vachon scenes perhaps haunt the penumbra of that same darkling historical evening.

Memories for me of the sunlit spaces under the El tracks while changing trains from the West Side to the South Side lines, this time of year, with my ushering uniform in my brown leather satchel, a hot July night, on my way downward to where that man with head bent down sits on the street.

And you are right. It would be interesting to know what he is thinking.

(Since auto hit my own head has been involuntarily bent down, a position perhaps fitting in many ways yet all the same hardly conducive to uplifting thinking.)

Hazen said...

What a contrast between Steven’s natural world and Vaschon’s cityscapes. The photos are crowded with the business of a civilization that wanted infinity for itself and no beer for Indians. With the detachment of the Buddha, Stevens presents us with his world of nature; but there’s a tentative note too: this life is an island in time, a sweet prison where we must live with old chaos and dependency all the way to the last exit.

TC said...

As a mute obscure college boardinghouse student I once soaked my copy of the Signet paperback edition of Stevens' poems in a tub of water overnight, then dried the pages out over the floor heater (this was deep January, somewhere in the Upper Midwest), so that in the end the pages became crinkled up into what I seem to have convinced myself was a simulacrum of the archaic. Americans will do just about anything to invent a cultural history for themselves.

Stevens called this poem "an expression of paganism".

Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

On the other hand, he was vice-president of The Hartford (or ITT Hartford, as it is now known). As such, it's unlikely he would have frequented any establishment that served beer to Pagans -- er, Indians. Not that he would have been any stranger to beer, however. The tales of his borracho Key West dust-ups with his coeval AmLit bigwigs are the stiff -- er stuff -- of legend -- almost said comedy. He is to have once broken a hand by hitting Hem in the jaw. And Hem was said to have a jaw made of silly putty. We have such soft, elastic myths really, when it comes to it.

Now John Vachon, on the other hand ... actually did look closely at our civilisation, if it deserves that name. Closely, yet always from the odd or unexpected or obliquely revealing private angle. Not forgetting that when he took these photos he was vice-president of nothing at all, merely an FSA file clerk who had graduated up to taking pictures for the standard agency wage of $5 per diem.

He came from that part of the country where he found the beer parlor sign. (He was from the next state over, Minnesota).

Hazen said...

The eye keeps coming back to Vachon’s 'Somewhere in the Upper Midwest, late summer 1941.' I like the incertitude of his ‘somewhere’ . . . with its dark street beneath the false moon of a streetlamp and black clouds descending. The starkness of his photos here remind me of Harry Callahan's Chicago pictures.

TC said...

The starkness and refusal of sentimentality, yes. What a great shot that is. I think also of Hopper, there.

(I'll have to confess, speaking of incertitude, that that caption is mine; it is correct, but not very specific; the photo is filed in one of the uncaptioned archival "Lots", so that the only clues as to location come from the adjacent shots; I have my own hunches as to the exact location, but as all the shots in question come from a trip through the Upper Midwest, and as the tone and atmosphere are generic to the time and region, in an interesting way, I settled for that generality. Like most of the images in those "Lots", the picture never appeared anywhere.)

aditya said...

..John Vacon's detached-observer eye always so terrific to fall back upon.

and man that board NO BEER SERVED TO INDIANS reminds me of so many boards the Britishers used to put up in the upmarket places before we got our independence -- DOGS AND INDIANS NOT ALLOWED and god knows what else.

A few months back walking down in one of these upmarket places I saw a board on one of the cafes INDIANS NOT ALLOWED-- well now Indians are just about the only people we have here! no?? well except for a few credit card swiping posh hippies.. So that we can continue to deprive us of our own 'cultural history' ..
british beers and their post colonial hangovers

Chris said...

"the intelligence that cannot ignore the impending calamity"

Yes, well said. The courage to keep looking at it, while not allowing it to be the only object of attention.

I am thinking of your bowed head, and grateful that it is somehow not preventing you from observing in this way.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

What a photograph— those haunting reflections in the plate glass window of “transparent” people, the white clapboard house, the car—another perfect day for a beer in the white man’s world.

(The man on the left looking rather sternly at Vachon seems to be wearing an apron—must be the waiter. One wonders if Vachon went inside to have a tall, cool one.)

Wooden Boy said...

What hurts in the poem is the sense that Stevens himself was looking to a past that couldn't be recovered, that he was already writing from the ruins.

The man with the head bowed, what makes me most afraid is the possibility that there are no thoughts to be had at all; that there isn't even an ambiguity to look to, only the dry facticity of administered world.

I'm thrown by the beauty in those photos. Looking at some of the figures moving in those lovely patches of light, they seem to me to have the grace of dancers.

TC said...

Something tells me Vachon would have settled for a slow, cool exit.

Those "No Beer Sold to Indians" signs were commonplace in the western US that epoch. Another FSA photographer, the brave Marion Post Wolcott (who could get away with certain things the other Agency photographers could not), found one such sign posted behind a dance saloon bar in Birney, Montana. The beery patrons gathered proudly round the sign, smiling brainlessly for history, as she snapped the shot.

Thanks WB for noting the dramatic patchwork illumination.

Those chequered passages and shafts of light beneath the El tracks, through which the dancers pass, suggest a blessing spilled through the railway grid from an upper world.

Above, on the complicated interchanges and extending platforms of the lines themselves, one could not but be conscious of what lay beneath, in this layered geometrical world.

The trains swung around the corners at such a speed no matter how many times one experienced that swing and sway, it always felt just a bit perilous.

Recursion (Infinite Loops)

The man with bowed head or his similars -- so familiar from the city streets again now.

Though in this town of questionable compassion there is currently slated on the ballot a "no-sit/no-lie" ordinance which would cause that man with bent head, or his similars, to take thought before assuming such positions.

My guess would be that Wallace Stevens, had he ever dared venture into such a zone, would have felt little sympathy, and advised such a man to Get a Job. Stevens was indeed as you say WB already writing from the ruins. Though in his day and from his privileged perspective the ruins perhaps looked like classical institutions, timeless monuments. The poetry admits to a sorrow for what is lost however. Its eloquence the inheritance and gift of an earlier poetic time. The blank verse owes much to Keats. Though had Wallace Stevens encountered the ragged young Master Keats, he might well have said brusquely, Get a Job, son.



And Keats might have replied to him,
"My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
one minute past. . ."

Robb said...

The soft-boiled egg is an unfortunate forgotten inclusion on meat and cheese plates of today.

larry white said...

And R.S. Thomas replied (re Stevens):

"There was no spring in his world.
His one season was late fall;
The self ripe, but without taste.
Yet painfully on the poem's crutch
He limped on, taking despair
As a new antidote for love."

I suppose it's the black-and-white medium, but "down to darkness" seems to predominate in these Vachons. The grace WB noticed is the light, undeniable even in the bowed head..

larry white said...

I mostly eat at home, where the soft-boiled egg and the generous beer are not forgotten and indeed replace the meat and cheese plates since I will not buy today's meat or most of its cheese.

u.v.ray. said...

In Wales as recently as 1995 I saw a sign in a pub window:


I never really know what to say about photographs from several decades past. They make me sad. All those people from another age that I will never know.

ACravan said...

So much here to appreciate and think about, beginning of course with the poem and photos. The "get a job" comment is grim/funny at this "managing decline" moment. I spent the morning at honest, more productive labor than my usual telekinetic attempts at making the phone ring, painting outdoor furniture. It's still way too hot in this region. Hope most of you are in cooler climes. The furniture came out great, by the way. If it's my father's spirit who has been spending time with us lately unlatching cabinets and opening doors, I would imagine he's surprised and pleased with my efforts. Curtis

TC said...

Ray, ditto here. It's the sadness tells me they were at least as real as you and me.

(NO ENGLISH is spoken here, either.)

TC said...


We're both laid low by accident effects here, but at least we do not have your heat to endure. Why is it endurance has come to be such an essential... virtue? (Or should I say necessity?)

Good about the furniture poltergeists... I think.