Tuesday Poem: All the People in Hopper's Paintings by B.H. Fairchild

All the people in Hopper's paintings walk by me
here in the twilight the way our neighbors
would stroll by of an evening in my hometown
smiling and waving as I leaned against
the front-porch railing and hated them all
and the place I had grown up in. I smoked
my Pall Mall with a beautifully controlled rage
in the manner of James Dean and imagined
life beyond the plains in the towns of Hopper
where people were touched by the light of the real.

The people in Hopper's paintings were lonely
as I was and lived in brown rooms whose
long, sad windows looked out on the roofs
of brown buildings in the towns that made
them lonely. Or they lived in coffee shops
and cafes at 3 a.m under decadent flowers
of cigarette smoke as I thought I would have
if there had been such late-night conspiracy
in the town that held me but offered nothing.
And now they gather around with their bland,

mysterious faces in half-shadow, many still
bearing the hard plane of light that found them
from the left side of the room, as in Vermeer,
others wearing the dark splotches of early
evening across their foreheads and chins that said
they were, like me, tragic, dark, undiscovered:


                   . . . . . Why was their monotony 
blessed, their melancholy apocalyptic, while 
my days hung like red rags from my pockets

as I stood, welding torch in hand, and searched 
the horizon with the eyes and straight mouth 
of Hopper's women? If they had come walking 
toward me, those angels of boredom, if they 
had arrived clothed in their robes of light, 
would I have recognized them? If all those women 
staring out of windows had risen from their desks 
and unmade beds, and the men from their offices 
and sun-draped brownstones, would I have known? 
Would I have felt their light hands touching

my face the way infants do when people
seem no more real than dreams or picture books?
The girl in the blue gown leaning from her door
at high noon, the gray-haired gentleman
in the hotel by the railroad, holding his cigarette
so delicately, they have found me, and we
walk slowly through the small Kansas town
that held me and offered nothing, where the light
fell through the windows of brown rooms, and people
looked out, strangely, as if they had been painted there.

There's a quality in the work of Edward Hopper that's instantly recognisable - the lonely, isolated people who appear the same even in social situations - the lonely isolated places, like the iconic gas station in an abandoned wayside halt.  Isolation in the middle of civilisation.  And that's one of the qualities of B H Fairchild's poetry too.  Some of my favourite poems are those that deal with the dust bowl tragedy on the prairies of America.  The Beauty of Abandoned Towns has 'Bindweed and crabgrass shouldering through asphalt cracks, rats scuttling down drainpipes, undergrowth seething with grasshoppers.' while sunflowers bang 'their heads on a conclusion of brick, the wind's last argument lost in a yellow cloud,' and broken windows flash 'the setting sun in a little apocalypse of light'.  These later poems are quite political in their condemnation of an agricultural policy that ploughed up 'ancient plains of short grass that fed bison', to plant commercial crops that turned the prairies into dust 'I look back/to see the sky turn sick with darkness,/ a deep brown-green bile boiling up to smear/the sun dull as rusted-out tin siding'. [Dust Storm, No Man's Land, 1952]   

Commerce, the poems seem to say, doesn't make us happy.  Ordinary people's lives changed with the creation of 'the lords of grain'.  At first: 'The bumper crop in 1929.  I stood on the front porch, dawn rolling over me like a river baptism because I was a new man in a new world, a stand of gold and green stretching from my hands to the sun coming up.'  But later the vision from the front porch was more sinister: 'I still tense up when an afternoon sky darkens.  A roller would come in, dust up to eight thousand feet.  If you were in the field, you were lost until it cleared.  Or dead from suffocation.'  

I've only recently discovered B H Fairchild (why is American poetry so little known in the UK?) and I'm knocked out by his poetry.  The stories that are told in these poems - the way lives are illuminated, just as the light falls in a Hopper painting, revealing only just enough, but creating an air of mystery.  One of his early poems is typical of both content and style - called 'In a Cafe near Tuba City, Arizona, Beating My Head against a Cigarette Machine' (which is a poem in itself!)  It begins; 'The ruptured Pontiac, comatose and tilted on three wheels,/ seems to sink slowly like a drunken ship into the asphalt' and continues into an analysis of relationships, past and present, apocalyptic events and the incoveniences of being broke.  A minor incident, the breakdown of a car, becomes a major poem.  Fairchild's work comes from the lost heart of America, Trumpville, where hopelessness and despair motivated a massive vote against the establishment.  If you want to understand that, read BH Fairchild's poetry. 


  1. Thank you for this introduction Kathleen. Fairchild is new to me. This is compelling writing.


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