Wednesday, February 20, 2013

`And in the Vacancies of Need'

My son and his fiancée flew into Houston last Thursday from New York City and left Sunday in a rental car for Austin, and took off again Tuesday morning headed for Albuquerque, twelve hours to the west, living one of my American dreams. Moving west with only an approximate geographic goal, like floating down the Mississippi on a raft, is our inheritance, cherished even if never realized. In “Traveling in America” (What She Knew, 1996), Peter Filkins says “it’s a pointless, / and therefore, beautiful journey.” But the best chronicle of a westward American journey I know is not in Parkman or Kerouac but J.V. Cunningham’s To What Strangers, What Welcome (1964), subtitled A Sequence of Short Poems. In his essay “Several Kinds of Short Poem” (The Collected Essays of J. V. Cunningham, 1976), the poet, who grew up in Montana, writes: 

“The poems would deal with the American West, that vast spiritual region from Great Falls, Montana, to El Paso, Texas; from Fort Riley, Kansas, to the sinks of Kansas; and with the California Coast, another and perhaps less spiritual region. And the poems would relate some sort of illicit and finally terminated love affair. And there would be a fusion of the feeling in the personal relationship and the feeling for the West and the Coast.” 

Cunningham intends the fifteen-poem sequence to be not a travelogue but an elliptical narrative, which he sketches in the essay like this: “A traveler drives west; he falls in love; he comes home.” Cunningham's story is nothing I forecast or wish upon my son and his wife-to-be. The story is grim and occasionally squalid, more film noir than happy romance, as in the sixth poem: 

“It was in Vegas. Celibate and able
I left the silver dollars on the table
And tried the show. The black-out, baggy pants,
Of course, and then this answer to romance:
Her ass twitching as if it had the fits,
Her gold crotch grinding, her athletic tits,
One clock, the other counter clockwise twirling.
It was enough to stop a man from girling.” 

It’s Cunningham’s correlation of the vast, uninhabited landscape and the narrator’s fraught emotional life that makes To What Strangers, What Welcome so compelling, a fractured short story in miniature. Here is the first poem in the sequence, summarized by Timothy Steele in his excellent notes to The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (1997) as an “intimation of an as-yet-unmet lover”: 

“I drive Westward. Tumble and loco weed
Persist. And in the vacancies of need,
The leisure of desire, whirlwinds a face
As luminous as love, lost as this place.” 

In a phrase, there is Cunningham’s theme:  “vacancies of need.” Steele notes where each poem in the sequence was composed, between 1959 and 1963: Sheridan, Wyo.; Tucson, Ariz.; Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; New York City; Palo Alto, Ca.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Santa Barbara, Ca.; Roy, N.M.; Sudbury, Mass. – a reenactment of the sequence’s east-to-west and west-to-east pattern across this “vast spiritual region.” Back home in Massachusetts, the speaker concludes the sequence with this poem: 

“Identity, that spectator
Of what he calls himself, that net
And aggregate of energies
In transient combination—some
So marginal are they mine? Or is
There mine? I sit in the last warmth
Of a New England fall, and I?
A premise of identity
Where the lost hurries to be lost,
Both in its own best interests
And in the interests of life.” 

Steele describes this concluding poem as “a meditation on the tenuousness of our lives and on the providential dispensation that life goes on, regardless of our personal interests in arresting its processes or in clinging to the past.”

1 comment:

George said...

This past fall, a visitor was talking about finally discarding some old family china, and the last lines of To What Strangers came to mind. She had not then read Cunningham, but may have since.