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Friday, 12 September 2014

Hazard Response: What Went Wrong in Happy Valley?

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Untitled [Young people on the Brooklyn waterfront on September 11] (detail)
: photo by Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos, 11 September 2001

As in that grey exurban wasteland in Gatsby
When the white sky darkens over the city
Of ashes, far from the once happy valley,
This daze spreads across the blank faces
Of the inhabitants, suddenly deprived
Of the kingdom’s original promised gift.
Did I say kingdom when I meant place
Of worship? Original when I meant
Damaged in handling? Promised when
I meant stolen? Gift when I meant
Trick? Inhabitants when I meant slaves?
Slaves when I meant clowns
Who have wandered into test sites? Test
Sites when I meant contagious hospitals?
Contagious hospitals when I meant clouds
Of laughing gas? Laughing gas
When I meant tears? No, it’s true,
No one should be writing poetry
In times like these, Dear Reader,
I don’t have to tell you of all people why.
It’s as apparent as an attempted
Punch in the eye that actually
Catches only empty air -- which is
The inside of your head, where
The green ritual sanction
Of the poem has been cancelled.

TC: Hazard Response, 2001, from Light and Shade, 2006



So She Moved into the Light: Eric Fischl, 1997

On Hazard Response

I like the call and response style the poem uses right after it sets up the contrasting opening lines, “grey exurban wasteland” and “once happy valley”. The poem goes well with the title of this book -- Light and Shade (which in turn evokes Keats).

Here is a bit from a conversation featured in Jacket's April ’06 issue, where Clark talks about this poem:

“I had that passage [from The Great Gatsby] in mind when I started the poem: ….

"With 'happy valley,' I was thinking, perhaps, of the America of Johnny Appleseed, in the Disney version, bright and abundant fields and orchards, that cartoon dream of an American past supplanting the endarkened vision of the present and future which Fitzgerald saw, or vice versa…

"The poem was written in that interesting early Fall of 2001, just after 9/11 and during the subsequent anthrax terror scare. One gaped with wonder at the TV while white-lipped network newscasters grimly presented footage of Hazmat teams in yellow plastic suits swarming pointlessly around outside suspected toxic terror sites…

"Meanwhile crowds of evacuated workplace normals could be seen apprehensively looking on, too sheepish to acknowledge the real terrorists might be those they’d chosen to govern them. That image of the doubled wastelands, the wasteland in Gatsby, the wasteland in the suburban office building parking lot, was indeed, as you’ve said, the switch that opened the floodgates of the 'call and response' structure that holds the poem together, even as it tries to fall apart.”
 
-- Black Mamba, (pōĭ-trē), 26 April 2006
 

"Hazard Response": The White Sky Darkens over the City of Ashes


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Entrance to Happy Valley, Tennessee: photo by Brian Stansberry, 2008

I believe “Hazard Response” was written not too long after the fateful events which led to and proceeded from 9/11. Your admiration for Fitzgerald’s classic Gatsby is as pertinent as Fizgerald’s own ardour for the works of the aforementioned John Keats (especially “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” as you point out in your lectures on Keats), who is of course evoked in the title Light and Shade, your forthcoming book. How does the opening image of the “grey exurban wasteland” feature in opening the floodgates of call and response in this poem, which seems to be arranged on a suddenly active faultline?

Yes, the title Light and Shade evokes Keats, who, in a letter written as he was dying, told a friend he could no longer write poetry because it took too much out of him -- to write poetry, he was suggesting, requires a tremendous effort, to set up its contrastive bases, to distinguish “light and shade,” the “primitive information,” and he no longer had that kind of energy. I can understand that. As to Fitzgerald -- who owed as much to Keats as one great writer can owe to another -- there’s a beautiful letter to his daughter in which he recounts reading the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” a hundred times before beginning to sort out the exquisite mechanics, the inner chime -- yes, the poem “Hazard Response” begins with a deliberate reference to his work. His early prophetic vision of a wasted post-industrial America was very much in my mind. I was thinking specifically of the opening of the second chapter of The Great Gatsby in which he describes a stretch of road on Long Island, about half way between West Egg and New York, where the highway seems to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. “This is a valley of ashes -- a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” The ash-covered men are railway workmen, but they are also symbolic men, of course. “Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.” Just what is it those surreptitious men are doing, in that ash-gray cloud?


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The Great Gatsby (first edition): F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925 (dust jacket illustration by Francis Cugat)


What a beautiful writer Fitzgerald is. It’s a road between worlds. Between the world of leisure, dreams and consumption -- Daisy’s world -- and the world of iron mills, stock markets, production -- Gatsby’s world. The main line of late capitalism in its full traffic. Things are just beginning to go to rot, so the society has to go a little out of its way so as not to look at its own corruption, the ashes that have begun to accumulate at the margins of its dream, like an off-taste in its mouth that needs washing down and away with a good stiff drink, and maybe then another one.

I had that passage in mind when I started the poem: “As in that grey exurban wasteland in Gatsby / When the white sky darkens over the city / Of ashes, far from the once happy valley, / This daze spreads across the blank faces / Of the inhabitants, suddenly deprived / Of the kingdom’s original promised gift.” With “happy valley,” I was thinking, perhaps, of the America of Johnny Appleseed, in the Disney version, bright and abundant fields and orchards, that cartoon dream of an American past supplanting the endarkened vision of the present and future which Fitzgerald saw, or vice versa, the two perhaps colliding, vision and dream, at the post-9/11 moment when the inhabitants are suddenly and abruptly forced to see the shadow of a possible ash-gray cloud descending over their erstwhile bright world. The poem was written in that interesting early Fall of 2001, just after 9/11 and during the subsequent anthrax terror scare. One gaped with wonder at the TV while white-lipped network newscasters grimly presented footage of Hazmat teams in yellow plastic suits swarming pointlessly around outside suspected toxic terror sites -- the parking lots of drab office blocks, suburban school buildings, gray hospitals. It made one think of gangs of lost, bumbling astronauts who’ve landed on the wrong planet and aren’t quite sure what to do next. Meanwhile crowds of evacuated workplace normals could be seen apprehensively looking on, too sheepish to acknowledge the real terrorists might be those they’d chosen to govern them. That image of the doubled wastelands, the wasteland in Gatsby, the wasteland in the suburban office building parking lot, was indeed, as you’ve said, the switch that opened the floodgates of the “call and response” structure that holds the poem together, even as it tries to fall apart.

 


View from Brooklyn, New York City, September 11, 2011: photo by Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos, 11 September 2001 (via Reading Magnum, U. of Texas Press)

 ¶ If the poem is about the apocalyptic disintegration of the founding illusions surrounding “the kingdom’s original promised gift,” what is your role in this process as a sometime citizen of the United States? After all, one cannot help noticing that you are engaging in a series of spiralling questions directed at your own assumptions. Are you allowing that your own subject-engagement with the perceived shift in historical epoch be counted among the other “inhabitants”?

Absolutely. The “call and response” -- the self-corrective, interrogative series that follows the wasteland image -- actually turns the argument of the poem over to the reader to play with and sort out. It’s definitely a kind of confession of being at a loss along with the reader. That’s what takes the poem over the falls, that identification with a common nescience. It scares me every time I read it.

from Tom Clark in conversation with Ryan Newton, in Jacket 29 (April 2006)

City of Ashes




Copper mining section between Ducktown and Copperhill, Tennessee. Fumes from smelting copper for sulfuric acid have destroyed all vegetation and eroded the land: photo by Marion Post Wolcott, September 1939 (Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
-- But who is that on the other side of you?
What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only...

T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land (excerpt), 1922




A train bringing copper ore out of the mine, Ducktown, Tennessee. Fumes from smelting copper for sulfuric acid have destroyed all vegetation and eroded the land: photo by Marion Post Wolcott, September 1939 (Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)


 
Copper mining and sulfuric acid plant, Copperhill, Tennessee: photo by Marion Post Wolcott, September 1939 (Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)
 

Copper mining and sulfuric acid plant, Copperhill, Tennessee: photo by Marion Post Wolcott, September 1939 (Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)
 


Copper mining and sulfuric acid plant, Copperhill, Tennessee
: photo by Marion Post Wolcott, September 1939
(Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

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WTC crash: photo by Kevinalbania, 11 September 2001

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Einsturz World Trade Center 2 gesehen vom West Broadway (Collapse of World Trade Center 2): photo by Hans Joachim Dudeck, 11 September 2001; image 21 June 2009

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 The corner of Greenwich and Barclay, facing East, near the destroyed World Trade Center on 9/11/2001: photographer anonymous, 11 September 2001 (Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress)

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 Onlookers viewing the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 Attacks on September 11, 2001, in Doric Park in Union City, New Jersey. The location was rebuilt as Firefighter's Memorial Park, which opened on August 8, 2009. The buildings of Hoboken are visible between the background of Manhattan and the foreground of the Park. Doric Park was later turned into Firefighter's Memorial Park, which opened on August 8, 2009: photo © by Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons, 11 September 2001

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Smoke rises from the site of the World Trade Center Tuesday, September 11, 2001: photo by White House Office of Management and Administration (Photographs related to the George W. Bush Administration, George W. Bush Library, Lewisville, Texas / US National Archives)

The Day the Sun Went Down on Happy Valley
 



Untitled [Young people on the Brooklyn waterfront on September 11] (detail): photo by Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos, 11 September 2001


Now that a broad discussion has opened up about a photograph that I took on September 11, 2001, on the waterfront in Brooklyn, I think I should add my voice and view of the event.

This image happened, in passing, so to speak, when I tried to make my way down to southern Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and, being a seasoned photojournalist, I followed my professional instinct, trying hard to get as close as possible to the horrendous event. When I heard that the subway had stopped running I took out the car, only to get stuck immediately in traffic on Second Avenue. I took my chances by crossing the Queensborough Bridge. Then, turning south into Queens and Brooklyn, I stayed close to the East River, stopping here and there to shoot views of the distant catastrophe, which unfolded on the horizon to my right. The car radio provided horrific news, nonstop. The second tower of the World Trade Center had just imploded; estimates of more than 20,000 deaths were quoted and later discredited.



 
Untitled [Young people on the Brooklyn waterfront on September 11] (detail): photo by Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos, 11 September 2001

 
Somewhere in Williamsburg I saw, out of the corner of my eye, an almost idyllic scene near a restaurant -- flowers, cypress trees, a group of young people sitting in the bright sunshine of this splendid late summer day while the dark, thick plume of smoke was rising in the background. I got out of the car, shot three frames of the seemingly peaceful setting and drove on hastily, hoping/fearing to get closer to the unimaginable horrors at the tip of Manhattan. 

from I Took That 9/11 Photo: Thomas Hoepker, Slate, 14 September 2006


Looking Away




Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1555 (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels)
 

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (detail)
: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1555 (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels)
 
 
 
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (detail): Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1555 (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels)

Where Was Happy Valley? Did it Ever Exist?


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Farmland along the upper Delaware River in New York State: photo by John Collier, June 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)
 
http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/pnp/fsac/1a34000/1a34500/1a34566v.jpg

Farmland along the upper Delaware River in New York State: photo by John Collier, June 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)
 
http://memory.loc.gov/service/pnp/fsac/1a34000/1a34200/1a34223v.jpg
   
Wheat farm, Walla Walla, Washington: photo by Russell Lee, July 1941


In the false-dawn twilight
the distances appeared limitless
to the lost rider,
who crossed the field alone, and at the other side paused
to examine the vast sky. Time passed. There were people
 
gathering, milling in mute groups at the edge of the field,
small, silent. They came up
over the horizon, then fell back. Were there, then not there,
and now here. The rider, remembering

the poem of Sepehri, enquired of a passer-by:
Where is the house of my friend?
But the only answer was the wind
feathering through the empty wheatfield.


TC: The Distances, 2012
 


http://memory.loc.gov/service/pnp/fsac/1a34000/1a34200/1a34224v.jpg
 
Wheat land, Walla Walla, Washington: photo by Russell Lee, July 1941

http://memory.loc.gov/service/pnp/fsac/1a34000/1a34200/1a34226v.jpg

Wheat farm, Walla Walla, Washington: photo by Russell Lee, July 1941

http://memory.loc.gov/service/pnp/fsac/1a34000/1a34200/1a34221v.jpg

Wheat farm, Walla Walla, Washington: photo by Russell Lee, July 1941

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a2/Farming_near_Klingerstown%2C_Pennsylvania.jpg/1024px-Farming_near_Klingerstown%2C_Pennsylvania.jpg

Farming near Klingerstown, Pennsylvania: photo by Scott Bauer, 2005 (U.S. Depatment of Agriculture)
 
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Marsh Bride Brook and Coastal Salt Marsh, East Lyme, Connecticut: photo by Alex756, 2003
 

8 comments:

TC said...

Hazard Response, read by Black Mamba @pō\’ĭ-trē, 26 April 2006

manik sharma said...

Tom,

What a harrowing piece. Beautiful. Love what the blog is trying to do as well..As for Hazard Response. Here is some by John Updike -

"The next morning, I went back to the open vantage from which we had watched the tower so dreadfully slip from sight. The fresh sun shone on the eastward façades, a few boats tentatively moved in the river, the ruins were still sending out smoke, but New York looked glorious."

- and to quote a mythical, unhappy resident of happy valley - "how do I maximize my happiness when my wage is minimum "

Hazen said...

What a powerful poem, Tom, about the continuing disaster we like to call “the American way of life”. The pictures too articulate that most clearly.

TC said...

Apropos money and happiness, couldn't help recalling this...

__

The Perfect Salary for Happiness: $75,000: Robert Frank, Wall Street Journal, 7 September 2010

The study, which analyzed Gallup surveys of 450,000 Americans in 2008 and 2009, suggested that there were two forms of happiness: day-to-day contentment (emotional well-being) and overall “life assessment,” which means broader satisfaction with one’s place in the world. While a higher income didn’t have much impact on day-to-day contentment, it did boost people’s “life assessment.”

Now we have more details from the study, conducted by the Princeton economist Angus Deaton and famed psychologist Daniel Kahneman. It turns out there is a specific dollar number, or income plateau, after which more money has no measurable effect on day-to-day contentment.

The magic income: $75,000 a year. As people earn more money, their day-to-day happiness rises. Until you hit $75,000. After that, it is just more stuff, with no gain in happiness.

That doesn’t mean wealthy and ultrawealthy are equally happy. More money does boost people’s life assessment, all the way up the income ladder. People who earned $160,000 a year, for instance, reported more overall satisfaction than people earning $120,000, and so on.

“Giving people more income beyond 75K is not going to do much for their daily mood … but it is going to make them feel they have a better life,” Mr. Deaton told the Associated Press.

He added that, “As an economist I tend to think money is good for you, and am pleased to find some evidence for that.”

The results are fascinating, especially in this conflicted age of materialism. But I wonder how they would differ by region or city. Would $75,000 mark the ultimate day-to-day contentment in such high-cost cities as New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco? I doubt it. Perhaps the salary number would be lower in South Dakota or Mississippi.

What do you think the income threshold would be in your town for maximum day-to-day happiness?

__

To translate the data scooped (or fabricated) in that particular survey done in 2008-2009 into the context of the present and the prospects of attempting survival in the Once Happy Valley, our helpful WSJ money guru would probably have to be readjusting the Perfect Salary for Happiness upward somewhat.

In those designated "high-cost" urban milieux (which, by the by, would include that gentrified patch of ugly Brooklyn waterfront from which the Fall of the Towers is being casually observed by the high-end Happiness Seekers in Mr Hoepker's photo), in one of which as it happens we here are unfortunate to be defensively eking out our final days, the WSJ PSH would have to be closer to $100 K. And good luck finding that in the street.

“As an economist I tend to think money is good for you, and am pleased to find some evidence for that.”

As a non economist I think money is bad for everybody, and am unhappy to find more evidence of that every time I consider the world in which I live.

In any case, it's difficult for me to imagine anyone actually WANTING to live in New York City, even if paid the proverbial "princely sum" to do so.

When we escaped New York nearly a half century ago, we ended up in a remote village, on a dirt road, where we got by on $1000 a year, and it was the happiest time of our life.

Now in that same no longer quite so remote village, the roads are paved, and it's so costly to gain entry that only the very rich can even begin to think to qualify to live there, happily or not.

But then, the matter of whether or not the very rich are happy is no affair of ours, in any case.

Currently any vacuous post-adolescent humanoid with computer skills and no awareness of history can "earn" enough money in an hour to buy lunch at a fancied-up waterfront dive like that one in Williamsburg -- or to keep us marginally alive for another miserable month (though the latter would probably not seem a particularly attractive option, mind).

TC said...

But of course if you have a lot of money and no taste you can do anything you want, in this great nation. But should you be wanting to do anything you want? If you and your posse want to wade in swinging haymakers at a snowmobile party, and because you can, you do, will it bring you happiness?

Palin gang brawl

Wooden Boy said...

The poem: it may be only you and Amiri Baraka responded as poets unflinchingly.

That deranged turn of foreign policy; we're all living in its wake.

Hilton said...

Just got back from China and still dizzy, was there for 9/11 with little recognition except on CCTV English. I've fallen behind in reading/viewing your meditations but I hope to catch up soon. This looks stunning.

TC said...

Many thanks Duncan and Hilton.

A bit dizzy here too, sans the brave travels, and flinching steadily these days, just in case. More reflex than policy. Meditation loop, closed circuit. Wake me for the wake.