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Sunday, 6 November 2011

Edward Dorn: The Common Lot


Children playing in vacant lot in Negro section of Chicago: photo by Russell Lee, April 1941

Trees standing in the vacant lot
again today, a masterful forbearance.

A masterful forbearance, the children
too, playing on the sidewalk,

and in the vacant lot, that
they don't all go away, one by one,

one could love them both, the trees
and the children.

1 playing with a white ball, 2 in a frail tree
climbing for the crown. My daughter alone

on the mound of rubbish sand disappears
into a cave of pink rug.

..............................Certain screams

then a sense of patience.

Her, my daughter's well of forbearance.
The playmate she wades across the sand to

is dark black, a color.
Nearby the process, a game of ball.

Ah, the vacant lot is vast, I can speak of love
only at the edge.

In early February [1956] Ed and Helene Dorn, with Helene's two children from a previous marriage, moved on to San Francisco, taking a four-room furnished flat at 184 States Street in Corona Heights... "They allowed CHILDREN! Wow!" ... Across the alley behind [the] house a disused parking lot was given over to kids' games. "Fred [Buck], natch, he & 7 others, have a great fort built in the vacant parking lot across the alley," Helene noted. Fred Buck still recalls that vacant lot, "where my mates and I dug a hole (for a trap or clubhouse of something) and covered it over with a cruddy piece of pink carpet from the same lot. I think I remember trying to get my sister and her friend to try to walk across it (à la catching heffalump).

The vacant lot supplied [Dorn] the location for a poem. He called the poem "The Common Site," then later changed the title to "The Common Lot" when including it in his first chapbook (The Newly Fallen, 1961). It represents for the poet a thoughtful self-situating within the value-sets that define the moral world of his poetry. The language reverberates with the abiding terms of those values -- common, forbearance, love, patience, speak, hopefully but tentatively counterposed against all that is implied by vacant. The central paradox underlying Dorn's early lyric premise is here stated: to speak of love is possible only at the alienated margins of the social vacancy. Only by way of absence is utopian presence imaginable. The poet, while acknowledging his inevitable sharing in the common "lot" or condition, is reminded by his attendance upon the common site (the vacant lot) that his presence will always be that of the speaker at the edge.

from TC: Edward Dorn: A World of Difference, 2002

A child of white migrants in her playhouse. The rusted scales represented a clock to the little girl. Near Harlingen, Texas
: photo by Russell Lee, February 1939 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection)

A child of white migrants in her playhouse. Near Harlingen, Texas
: photo by Russell Lee, February 1939 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection)

Children of migrant cherry pickers: photo by John Vachon, Berrien County, Michigan, July 1940

Boys playing with bows and arrows near railroad yards, Dubuque, Iowa: photo by John Vachon, April 1940

Photos from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Fine poem, fine analysis, wonderfully illustrated. Thanks, Tom.

TC said...

And thanks to you, Don. Your words, to me, are always worth their weight in poetry (that is, straight and true and light as the air we are lucky to be still breathing).

Barry Taylor said...

Wonderful kids creating worlds in the face of a world that can only offer them debris. Your choice of photos (not just in this post)shows a great feeling for the resilience and inventiveness of children, Tom.

Great poem, too, and I'm, struck by the luck and inevitability of Dorn finding 'Lot' to replace 'Site', and so set the whole machinery of the poem spinning.



Thanks for this one -- "dark black, a color"

"attendance upon the common site" --


light coming into sky above black plane
of ridge, jet passing above pine branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

a reference to this that is
sometimes there, what

was before, became realized,
seems to have started

darkness of cloud to the left of point,
shadowed green pine on tip of sandspit

aditya said...

Every word stays with you till the end Tom!

'Only by way of absence is utopian presence imaginable.'

While looking for words in the dead night (in vain) to describe .. the word verification for the day reads-


Terrific comes and stays.

Although disused .. the parking lot also manages to put me in the mind for a Charles Bukowski poem-

Nin Andrews said...

Yes, beautiful poem and photos. I love the recent series of images of migrants, life on the edge.

DavidG said...

Theme fits well with -- the next step for democracy is all about insuring that we're all in this together.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Oh, boy--do I ever identify with this fine poem and the photos--especially the last one-- so judiciously selected to accompany it: In the 1950s our family had a house right next to the tracks leading to Weyerhaeuser Timber Company’s main sawmill in Raymond, Washington—the house demolished, the tracks uprooted, the sawmill moved, the times long gone.

WV (believe it or not): peresh!

TC said...

Fraught times, remembering previous fraught times; grateful for instruction from all, still learning.

Inspiring comments:

"...we're all in this together."

(And yes, David, a serendipitous bridge from Dorn's poem and title to the Common Lot site: especially interesting on the issue of sortition.)

Nin reminds that those who have been around a while and remember our families' experience of the last Depression -- as Ed Dorn surely did, as of the writing of this poem -- can still feel in our bones and nerves the uncertainty, the out-on-shaky-limb sensation of

" on the edge."

That precariousness recalled also by Vassilis (re. the bottom photo in particular):

"...a house right next to the tracks leading to Weyerhaeuser Timber Company’s main sawmill in Raymond, Washington—the house demolished, the tracks uprooted, the sawmill moved, the times long gone..."

And Barry comes close to the heart of the matter here with this:

"Wonderful kids creating worlds in the face of a world that can only offer them debris... the resilience and inventiveness of children."

Remembering Marvin Gaye's 1971 song, for the inner city kids of Detroit -- "Save the Children".

If we can't save them, let's at least try to spare them... something.

Finally, there came a very helpful comment from Martha King on her blog King Ink (see margin link here). Martha and her husband Basil were at Black Mountain College in 1955 when Ed, then with Helene, returned for his second stay at the school: "Residents of uncertain status," as Martha nicely describes them in her extremely interesting "Memoir of Black Mountain College: Three Months in 1955".

Re. the present post, Martha reflects:

" complicated that love. And nice your use of the still older Farm Security photos, Dorothea Lange esp. These children (30s – 50s) lived with a degree of freedom almost unheard of this sad day: the poor keep their kids inside as long as they can, the middle class ‘supervise’ them relentlessly."

Amen to that.

Robb said...

Once again, Dorn blows me away. I'd never heard of him until you introduced me to him on this blog. Now I'm a huge fan. Thanks, Tom. It really boosts my vallaun.

TC said...


Totally happy to hear that. Our vallaun needs any boost it can get.

Marcia said...

Thank you for posting the great Dorn poem, your insightful words, and the accompanying photos. Just made my day (about a week late, but you know, "better late than never").

TC said...


As ever, it's a treat to hear from you. A few days, a week, no matter. Now is always now.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Edward Dorn's Difference Part II

Gran Dornaria
Needs to be written, by you? Or by me, Tom Clark?
These views now a reference
into his view beyond the classroom
indoors into the out
side of sarcasm--(mean exhibition)
Ed, where are you? Anyone near
wanted you
would "do" you
until they met lovely Jenny
of the fair, fine day
or read the bio by Clark--
nicht wahr?
Nothing left but po from here on out.

TC said...


Yes, there is a great vacancy now in The Common Lot.

As to that second volume, I did indeed write much of it; and left it in drafts, for I felt that part of the story was not, finally, meant to be told by me.

Not so much that it looked strictly academic to me, but that I gathered it looked that way to the academics. Their province, as it were. Leaving me to say nothing, though I suppose that's the same thing as Out of here.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Oh, to explore the Boulder
time would be to delve into Abhorrences so sharp that they nullify what came previously?

Your view is needed because of the poetry in
not out
on the edge
where grief lives
where it has pooled, stagnant sludge.

Your view is sane and balanced.
Settled details are necessary
to move past this time. It moves
so print? it.

TC said...


The first "publication" of Abhorrences came in two small handmade -- that is, literally,
hand-lettered, hand-illustrated, hand-sewn -- books which I made, as Ed was writing and sending on the poems, some thirty years ago. (These were intended largely as gifts for Ed.) So obviously at the time I didn't see them as nullifying Ed's earlier work.

To attempt to explore the Boulder time that lay beneath and behind that set would be to attempt to explore several deeper and wider issues. The ambivalences and complications involved with re-situating a precisely individual and particular mind and soul within the context of American Academic Civilisation and Its Discontents would require, I think, a larger range and depth of work than a mere biography. A Durkheim, perhaps.

I came gradually to understand that that was not my job. To write about the work is one thing, to take on the social/historical context something else entirely. A large canvas, as they say. A Hieronymus Bosch, perhaps.

And the opening of all those cans of jewels and worms that compose a person's privacies, I also came to understand, will always entail a violation, to some degree.

That I did not want to do, for certain.

I'd had enough of biography and its myriad little life-invasions by then. One ought at least to spare one's friends.

What remained in drafts shall be scattered like ashes on the winds. Neither mainstream commercial nor university press publishing would have been appropriate, nor for that matter possible, I thought then, and know now.

To cut to the present, I'm now no more than a ailing old man, with no will left for negotiating, fighting or arguing -- all those good things that come to writers who are foolish enough to take on difficult and unpopular subjects without the support of the imperial moneybags.

It's sweet of you to want to know more. But then again, it's possible your imaginations and speculations will stand in for the "real" story at least as kindly as any biography ever could. That Keatsian state of not-knowing, I've latterly come to think, can often be more open, generous and fulfilling than the opposite (I mean, that is, knowing "too much" -- and of course, in the end, nobody ever really knows everything... I almost said anything, which might be at least as true).

The poems are still there, after all. And I must admit that the ones I like best, whether or not I "got it right" about them, I did address, and at least I gave those my best shot. For a few devoted readers like you to have learned that there was more to the Dorn story that came before the "famous" and "official" Dorn story, I suppose that's as much as, in modesty, I could have hoped for, anyhow.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

What I Told

About Bohemia. About the rubble and digging.
It was a different time. My time here
was passing. A river, swift, between my legs.
Me standing in Rattlesnake Creek. The summer
billowy. All that air in the sun. River. Bitterroot.

Lewis, Clark? Clark and Lewis. Lewis waiting
for Clark to come help him, retrieve him,
up till the end. Like he always did.

TC said...

Bitterroot, Bittersweet.

History is the memory of Time.

Lovely poem, Susan.