Monday, July 15, 2019

'Sin City Takes Its Ease'

I first saw Texas in May 2004, and as we made our descent, even before the plane landed, I had to jettison an illusion, or call it a stereotype. Houston is not a John Ford desert, as I expected, but one of the greenest American cities, dense with oaks and pines. Texas suffers under two sets of preconceived notions: it is both Southern and Western, with emphasis on the former. It was one of the eleven Confederate states. Transplanted Northerners have a lot of prejudices to flush from their system. In any other country Texas would be five or six countries, a veritable Yugoslavia.

In my experience, the next illusion to be discarded was my misunderstanding of what Turner Cassity describes in his poem “Across the River and into the Sleaze” (The Destructive Element, 1998). There’s sleaze aplenty here. On that first ride from the airport I saw, on the frontage roads along the interstates, numerous dealers in what is still called “adult entertainment.” I expected Texas to be a Baptist republic. Parts of it are but not Houston. Rawness and squalor coexist here with gentility, rectitude and even middle-American blandness. Houston, an inexhaustibly interesting place, has no zoning laws. A funeral parlor adjoins a gas station which adjoins a storefront church and an ice house, with a taqueria-on-wheels parked out front. Cassity, a native of Mississippi and longtime resident of Georgia, opens his poem with these lines:

“Across the river, or the county line,
Or just outside the city limits, or—
Juarez and Matamoros—out of reach
In Mexico, Sin City takes its ease:
A mockery of planned communities,
the city beautiful, greenbelts, Our Town,
Park cities, biosphere, the Habitat.
It is the triumph of the frontage road,
An ozone hole its bright Tiepolo.
Before we damn it as unnatural
We might do well to bear in mind asphalt
Is just as natural as grass. They both
Come up out of the ground.”

Cassity writes in full contrarian mode. He never met a pious P.C. truism he didn’t detest and wish to violate. He continues:

“And as for vice . . .
It was a garden where the Fall took place.
The double serpent of the Interstate
Hangs high his lighted fruits on either side;
Their promise without season of a flesh
Always renewed. If ripeness is not all
It’s more of it than greenness, and so too
Is rot. The porn-shop fronts are shining scales;
The two hides glitter at the outer edge. . .”

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