A Provincial Sense of Time
by Robert Pinsky
In such a place, there are stories. The stories are as if in the air -- did it happen to your father or to someone he heard of, did it happen in his generation or another? It is as if the stories are alive, and the people temporary containers, which is to say it is like a form of possession by the dead. Pleasure Bay is a section of Long Branch, near the lower-middle-class street on which my father and I both lived as children (the houses are on the same block):
AT PLEASURE BAY
In the willows along the river at Pleasure Bay
What do I make of the way the historical scale of Nazism drifts in and out of this poem? Can I disclaim the stereotype of Americans as living without the resonance of history, inhabiting the present with a childlike complacency, an unwitting, unreflecting arrogance? I have tended to dwell in and on the past, but that is not exactly a defense: What is more unhistorical than the sentiments of nostalgia?
I hope my poem is about loss, not nostalgia, that the tenor singing an Italian aria, like the ruined pilasters of the theater, suggests an historical dimension of loss. Small things can do that: In Czeslaw Milosz's great poem "Song on Porcelain," a poem of the immediate aftermath of World War II in Poland, millions murdered, every family in mourning and Warsaw in rubble, Milosz writes:
Of all things broken and lost,
I remember this poem being hissed once at Berkeley. I think the person who made that noise would have preferred Milosz to say that of all things broken and lost, the dead Jews troubled him most.
But that did not need saying, and that also would lack precisely the historical dimension of the broken porcelain, product of the old Europe that imagined itself civilized, that painted shepherdesses on teacups and that bit and slashed and tore itself apart.
I ask these questions of my own poem, and invoke such an exacting comparison for it, partly in light of a new national concern with a date. In the first weeks after September 11, 2001, a kindly reader of my work suggested to me that some American poet should devise a name for the suicidal attacks that turned 767's into populated weapons, hurtling into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon. But even that early, it was clear that those events already had been given their name. The name is the date, established by an appalled consensus, beyond writerly volition, as it is beyond official decree.
This may be something new for us. European streets and plazas, and South American ones, are named for dates, as ours are not. There are countries where even a month, in phrases like "The October" or "The August," call up an entire manifold tale of public fate, a textured fistful of cataclysm and shame, heroism and grudge.
Aside from the Fourth of July, such naming by date has not provided an American civic shorthand. The bloodstained passages of our Civil War are called by place names: Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Andersonville. The struggles of our labor movement and civil rights are evoked by the names of protagonists: Sacco and Vanzetti, Rosa Parks, Cheney and Schwerner. November 22 has some force -- and the memorable numerical symmetry of 11/22 -- but that day's significance, which in 1963 seemed to be the loss of large political and cultural hopes, has become something more personal or familial, a crucial unfolding in our national iconography, a matter of symbols more than realities. Only the four digits of 1968, the year of assassinations, of disorders, and a Presidential contest that evoked both tragedy and farce, may have the enduring emotional force that evokes epic memory from the mere laconic stuff of the calendar. Between 1776 and the present, 1968 comes closest to attaining the status of a word as 1789 and 1848 [a year of revolutions in Europe] and 1914 are words. Yeats's "Easter 1916" does not sound like an American title. Can it be that in the United States we shy away from the monumental shorthand of dates and years from an intuitive national preference for the vague, the untemporal paradise of the nostalgic?
I confront that possibility unhappily. I think of myself as having drunk a little history since childhood. One of my covert vanities has been that I have always had some sense of the past, was born with that sense -- though rudimentary and dreamlike in a way that places me as a child in a car watching the slow turning of the swing bridge, that functional interruption of the linear road as poetry perhaps functionally interrupts the linear conception of time.
My great-grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Maybe that immigrant story includes an inherent desire to efface dates and specificities. Like Faulkner's savage would-be founders of dynasties, immigrants -- perhaps Jewish immigrants in particular -- sometimes turn their faces away from the past.
For many Americans, our most central moralized history, our most nearly epic story of what in the Renaissance was called "true history," meaning moralized or instructive history, is the story of how in a generation or less it is possible to become American. No small part of the racial divide in our country has to do with the contrast between that story and the story of the African slaves, denied that process for so long that only recently has the hyphenated "African-American" made its way tentatively into our language.
For me as a child, the history of Jewish immigrants, and of other groups as well, was merged with the remarkable history of my town. Let me become for a moment what the Italians call a campanilista, a pointer-out of local belltowers and such.
Abraham Lincoln visited the seashore resort of Long Branch, New Jersey. In Long Branch famous 19th-century gamblers endowed fire companies named after themselves, the way tamer eminences endowed colleges. In Long Branch, the sporting figure Diamond Jim Brady entertained Lillian Russell, gliding along the ocean at dusk in an early electric automobile, the crystal passenger compartment illuminated and the chauffeur in darkness, so that the large-bodied, extravagantly draperied and tailored lovers could be seen as though in a moving department-store display window. Behind them, a noiseless parade of three spare vehicles in case the main one failed, each with its driver.
On the same promenade, President Grant drove his team of fast horses. To draw the fashionable crowds on the Long Branch boardwalk, Harper's magazine assigned Winslow Homer, whose great painting "Long Branch, New Jersey" hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. When President Garfield was shot one June in a Washington train station by the politicized madman Guiteau, the President was on his way to Long Branch for vacation. Guiteau had stalked him in the Long Branch church now known as "The Church of Six Presidents." After the shooting, Garfield lingered for weeks in the Washington heat, tormented by doctors still ignorant of sepsis, eager for the honor of poking their fingers into Garfield's wounds in search of a missing bullet. The Potomac swamps grew malarial, and to avoid the merciless heat the President on his mattress was carried, past futile muslin sheets soaked in icewater and hung in the White House, to a special railroad car packed with ice and special springs. The car went up the coast to Long Branch, where men worked all night to build a railway spur from the Elberon station to a seaside cottage. People from the hotels brought the workers coffee and sandwiches, and the spur was finished in time for Garfield to be carried, still on the same mattress, from the car to the cottage, where he spent his final weeks comforted by Atlantic breezes.
I could go on. Such are the strands of provincial history for the inveterate campanilista. The town's second glorious period was in the first decades of the 20th century, when it was a prosperous getaway spot for middle class families from New York and Philadelphia. Boats from New York delivered passengers for a night of theater and a shore dinner at Price's Hotel. A good number of these visitors were Jewish or Italian, as were the local merchants. There was a raffish note to the place, thanks to the race track I mention in "At Pleasure Bay."
When I was a child, the town had fallen from both its 19th-century glory and the prosperity of the 1920s, in the '50s still clinging to a fading boardwalk of clam-bars, kiddy-rides, wheels of fortune, pinball parlors, and taffy stands. Summer resorts are elegiac most of the year, and a resort with its best days behind it is doubly elegiac. "The town is not what it used to be." I grew up hearing this resigned sentence, a choral sigh, and a sloppy but impressionable quality in my intelligence prevented me from efficiently distinguishing the decline of business from the deaths of presidents.
My grandfather Pinsky's bar, the Broadway Tavern, was on the same block as the Garfield-Grant hotel. The civic, historical stature of the dead presidents for whom the still-elegant hotel was named blended in my mind with the name "Broadway," which seemed to run from Manhattan to the door of the tavern, with its liquorous perfume. Before the bar, in the prosperous '20s, the family business had been the smuggling and distribution of illegal booze. The tales of gangster days interpenetrated with stories of when the Summer White House was in our town.
That vague, misty, and unquantified past seems the contrary of dates. But after all dates, too, are notoriously sentimentalized, politically exploited, distorted, spun out into fabrics like pink sugar or concentrated into murderous weapons. The tale of the lovers, the provincial Paolo and Francesca in their convertible, the tale of the couple who survive, the names of the boats, the aria, the theater on the water -- all are historical, all come down from dark or brilliant sources upriver from us, all are rooted in our desires and pleasures as well as in what William Shakespeare calls "death's dateless night."