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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Stolen Riches (Edward Dorn / Russell Lee)


Cherry orchards, farm land and irrigation ditch at Emmett, Idaho
: photo by Russell Lee, July 1941

That worn clothes look

as nice

on the children down the road

playing and running in the afternoon

that these clothes are used,

these castoffs

we are castoff from – all the elegant

running little retailers, here

and in the next crossroads town.

.....But the dress one little girl

blithely wore, unaware

an argument as to the ways of society

was going on around her –

a long yellow dress


pulled in at the waist, nearly

sweeping the ground.

Oh, they are now pagan

these old castoffs,

but as rationale one sees the grime

sees the face broken in dark lines of consumption.

.....Of wearing secretly a burden,

costumes fitting as casually as though

they were stolen,

from the wealth

of the nation.

File:Children reading 1940.jpg

Children looking at picture books at school, Santa Clara, Utah: photo by Russell Lee, July 1941

File:Bill Stagg turning up his beans, Pie Town, New Mexico. He will next pile them for curing (LOC).jpg

Bill Stagg turning up his beans, Pie Town, New Mexico. He will next pile them for curing
: photo by Russell Lee, October 1940

Russell Lee photos from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress

The Argument Is: Edward Dorn, from The Newly Fallen, 1961


doowman said...

Suffering Detroit's darkest days, I'm now following doctor ED's emphatic prescription, "Take one thousand Tom Clarks before going to bed" very much to heart. Who knew it could be so easy -- and FREE over the internet!

manik sharma said...

dark and honest bring out the education in facts using these wonderful photos...."face broken in dark lines of consumption"...marvellous

as an innuendo....before reading this i was watching video footage of the JFK assassination....conspiracy theories(true or not)...but one can't help but feel sorry for ourselves...there are secret burdens already(as u said)....need we stash even more on our backs?? ones that even the rain or moist winds cannot lighten....our world has become less of what is useful to life itself and more of what is useful to hippocracy...

aditya said...

An absolute gem of poem.

Here, in many lanes leading to many homes I see plenty of children men alike running wearing worn clothes. My sweaters are ridiculously cheap and I always have had a feeling that they might cast off as well.

Taking the lead this post reminds me of Thoreau in Walden-

A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in; for him the old will do, that has lain dusty in the garret for an indeterminate period.

f there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be. Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles.

Who ever saw his old clothes — his old coat, actually worn out, resolved into its primitive elements, so that it was not a deed of charity to bestow it on some poor boy, by him perchance to be bestowed on some poorer still, or shall we say richer, who could do with less?

TC said...

To wear poverty with dignity, in any context, is to create beauty of a special kind.

From 1956 to 1959 the poet Edward Dorn (1929-1999) dwelt with his family – his first wife Helene Helmers, their son Paul, and Helene’s two children by a previous marriage, Fred and Chansonette – in Burlington, a small town in the fruit-picking and timber country of the Skagit Valley (Washington state). In these years Dorn worked at a bewildering variety of casual-labor jobs, meanwhile struggling to make his mark as a writer.

From this period date most of the poems in his first collection, The Newly Fallen (1961), as well as the groundwork of his novel The Rites of Passage (1965; later reissued as By the Sound).

Here, in one of his most telling poems of the Skagit Valley stay, "The Argument Is," he adopts his characteristic against-the-grain rhetorical stance, perversely locating value in one set of distinguishing signs of material deprivation. In this poem the children’s second-hand clothing is worn as "a secret burden" in the double sense, both as a social emblem of shame weighing them down and as a reverse badge of honor, declaring their innocence of "the ways of society" (and thus freeing them from responsibility for its complex injustices). The poem shows Dorn’s "political" thinking at its nontheoretical concrete best, revealing an empirical truth about life in the sociological "basement stratum" – where, paradoxically, the only true grace, a careless, casually-fitting castoff or "stolen" freedom, is to be found.