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

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Best Intentions


Rural schoolchildren, San Augustine County, Texas: photo by John Vachon, 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Meant to be
a propaganda image
for the "war effort" --
the four of
them together
beneath the low roof
of the one
room school --
someone’s relative
is in the photograph –-
I understand it
as an enhanced
past. And can't help half
imagining half
remembering the original:
in my hand it breaks, a leaf
found in a book,
the yellow veins, the brown
split edges.  All
that direct open
certainty of life,
that awkward earnestness,
all the best
laid plans, all
the good intentions
in the world.

Rural schoolgirl, San Augustine County, Texas: photo by John Vachon, 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)
This post is dedicated to Hazen Walker


Conrad DiDiodato said...

When I first saw this (especially blog post title)I immediately thought of the abuse of First Nations children at the old Christian "residential schools" in Ontario. First their way of life then their dignity as persons were violated by Catholic clerics.

The pictures of these children look eerily similar.

Nin Andrews said...

Yes, absolutely. I had so much faith back then in that Dick and Jane landscape. Even under my little desk, practicing for the day the bombs exploded from the sky. And I sometimes wonder about it all. Did my parents encourage that? They were already cynical--we didn't have a TV and we would fight over the paper, all 8 of us, and before I could understand, my father would tell us how they were lying about the body count in Vietnam . . . that the war was at best American idiocy, at worst, just evil.
And still I believed in those sunny faces and futures . . . and I believed most of all in our good intentions.
How? I am not sure.
All this is a long way of saying, I love the poem, the post, the pictures.

Hazen said...

that direct open
certainty of life,
that awkward earnestness,
all the best
laid plans, all
the good intentions
in the world.”

There is so much truth and beauty in this. In the poem, you’ve caught the essence of a time. I open Beyond The Pale this morning and I recognize everything. That was my generation. I’m there in that first photo; I’m the kid sitting semi-obscured at the back, disguised as myself. (Students were arranged alphabetically, so, from year to year, Walker often took the hindmost desk, exactly like the desk pictured.)

From out here Tom, it appears you’re fast regaining your old vigor. Remarkable, given your recent, and involuntary, participation in a game of automovilistic nine-pins.

TC said...

Of course that sleepy little East Texas bottom-land farm town (pop. 225, elev. 304 feet) was about as far as America could get from the big wide world at the time John Vachon took these astonishing pictures.

They say so much about a lost time, a lost innocence in the wide wilderness of a land that is now far more lost than anyone living in that town at that time could ever have begun to understand (happily for them).

The FSA photo archive, as a commenter here put it so well of late, is our Sistine Chapel. But instead of the image of God and Adam touching fingers, what we have in this archive is an image of the past of America reaching out to try to touch the heart of the present America.

And... it's a stretch.

TC said...

And while we're at it, hats off to Hazen Walker for the inspiration that brought this post to life.

He is a graduate of that school.

(By the by, Hazen, you've reminded me that last night my depleted vigor quotient was so puny I couldn't drag myself up to watch the only tv station we get, Spanish language, Telefutura, for Contacto Deportivo with the futbol highlights -- thus, glass proving half full, missing a segment that anyway always makes me look away in horror, even when not all tore up as at present: Lunes Automovilistico, with cars exploding all over this wide world.)

TC said...

The abundant generosity of Blogger keeps revealing to me wonderful comments which the lab pixies had secreted away under the spiral staircase, out of sheer spite, deceiving elves that they are.

Conrad, that's a terrible story, the "residential schools". These kids probably had a better shake.

But poor kids are poor kids, and it always shows, no matter the time or place.

Nin, it's hard to say or know what the parents knew, or for that matter just how much the kids knew, though of course so much was always secretly suspected.

Being of a generation earlier, for me it there was never much question of referring back to the parents or the authorities -- they just seemed responsible for everything -- and the selfish wish to stay out of a body bag, which indeed has lingered on in me yay until the present desperate hour, made it very hard to see things with any sort of forgiving distance.

Then later on the responsibility seemed to spread out like a stain, so that there became no longer any way to say with conviction Not guilty, even as one retained that awful grudging sense of having been the victim of everything.



Such a moving picture, in all its stillness --

. . .half / remembering half / imagining . . .

. . .all the best / intentions in the world.


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, motionless leaf on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

such that observation, made
use of has been given

nothing, the linear element
defined, line between

grey white of fog reflected in channel,
wingspan of pelican flapping across it

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

In 1943, these boys in the first picture somewhere between 6-12 years of age; in 1950-52, perhaps one old enough for the Korean War; in 1963 all of them eligible to die for US-style “democracy” in Vietnam—what a poem, what a photograph, what a shame.

Robb said...

Lovely lovely, Tom.

Robb said...

(The freckles on the girl in the bottom photo are beautiful. They do not make freckles like that any more.)

ACravan said...

Lunes Automovilistico -- who would have dreamed? I have to say that I hadn't thought of the FSA Archives as being our Sistine Chapel equivalent. That will stay in my brain for a while. Curtis

Chris said...

I see more experience than innocence here. The boy in the overalls looks old to me. As if he's already seen a lot.

So many lives. These pictures feel worthwhile in part because their vivid precision reminds me of this: there are so many lives in this country, lives that have been lived and are being lived, that pass unnoticed but for the arresting image.

aditya said...

A stunner of a poem Tom. Each line slicing into the next.. and by the time it ends I am blown away!

A brilliant re-working of The Knot i.e. if I have not slipped on one of those many wet pavements of memory..

And a photograph of kids being taught moral-science in one of the Public Parks in Delhi

Anonymous said...

"And can't help half / imagining half / remembering the original"

Love this.

Is there room in the everyday for an earnestness that isn't awkward, I wonder.

TC said...

Sweet, sweet comments, many, many thanks to all for lending wisdom and solace here -- long rainy night after another long difficult medical day.

One correction, I cited the population of San Augustine as 225. One zero shy of the facts. It was, back then, 2250.

For another reader, Ron Padgett, who grew up not too far away (Tulsa, Oklahoma), the photos also struck a chord.

"I clearly recall those desks," Ron writes. "The ones in my school even had inkwells. Those desks got replaced around 1954, when I was in junior high, by modern ones, modular, with lightweight light-green tubular frames and very blond wood.

"In the photo my eye keeps going back to the right hand of the boy in tan shirt and pants, clearly a kid accustomed to manual labor."

That's excellent noticing. A poet's eye!

I could not leave San Augustine behind without remembering that John Vachon was not the only great FSA photographer to visit San Augustine. Four years earlier, another master had been there:

Russell Lee: Small World (San Augustine, Texas, April 1939)