The food they ate, the poems they wrote

Pre-footnote: after the widely unpredicted Republican victory in the presidential election of 2016, many media organizations in the United States dispatched pundits to rural precincts to learn what they had missed. Soon derided by the pundits themselves as “Cletus-hunting,” these expeditions typically involved respectful interviews with citizens lamenting their loss of economic and cultural status and placing the blame on urban elites. Typically, the pundits then wrote up the color red (as in the citizens’ Donald Trump wear) but not the color black (as in Barack Obama’s unclothed skin).

That coverage was truncated not only spectrally but historically. On the record of American history, the cultural conflict between pastoral and anti-pastoral had begun taking specifically literary form at least as early as Crèvecoeur’s Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, with its fictitious political playlet about the sanctimonious neighbors who in non-fictional actual history forced Crèvecoeur to flee his farm and then stole it. The depiction of helpless fury in the face of cant was to become a distinctive genre trait which reproduced itself throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in such novels as E. W. Howe’s The Story of a Country Town, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, and of course Huckleberry Finn. As a mode of reading, the genre remains vigorous. Three anti-Red texts still culturally resonant post-centenary are Willa Cather’s “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” and H. L. Mencken’s “The Husbandman.” Listen, Fox:

And long before Mencken, St. John Crèvecoeur, an eighteenth-century Physiocrat who believed that wealth originated in a pastoral economics of the soil, redefined those who had moved beyond the frontiers of American society as not only post-pastoral but pre-human. More than a century before Max Nordau popularized the term, Crèvecoeur was calling such life forms degenerate. Said he: the degenerates have reverted to an earlier state, of society and of body. Observe what they metabolize, there among the foxes.

After you’ve read this, the Capitol on January 6, 2021, may come to mind, with the shit smeared on the interior walls, the human space. But because there are schools on your side of the frontier, you also have learned to turn off the TV, turn back the clock, and read this twentieth-century poem.

Shreveport (Louisiana) Journal, March 8, 1928, page 2.

Less than two years from this date of publication, the Great Depression will arrive to wipe the dimpled smile off Mr. Blige’s face. But it already looks like a forced smile. Mr. Blige can’t be happy in his apron among the orange squeezers. You see that in the drawing, but you can also hear it in the lyric. Back-translated to prose, O. Blige is proud but poor, loud but little, ever going over his inventory, never peacefully asleep. Rhyming itself into being, his poem has sung him so.

So take the poem seriously, at its rhymes’ words. Don’t let it get its metrical feet on an AR-15. If you do, it will communicate its rhythm to you.

Hat : woman :: machine : machine



Le Corbusier inscribed those words in the second (1928) edition of his Toward an Architecture. The first sentence is one of the axioms of modernism. A century later, you are running your fingers over it on page 151 of John Goodman’s translation (Getty Research Institute, 2007), where it is shelved under the subtitle “Liners.”


Liners such as, en route shortly after the launch of Toward an Architecture:

This one was shaped by the modernist aesthetic of Art Deco. Its three sleeked funnels were unequal in height from bow to stern: first tall, then medium, then short (and the short one was a decorative dummy). Viewed from the side, the pattern communicated a knowingly accepted illusion of streamlined speed. Viewed from the bow, the tall funnel allotted the ship’s proportions the way a hat allots a head’s proportions.


Allotting, the hat inscribed below guides the eye to see a face as a petitesse. Petitesse is a curve and the hat is its generatrix.

Also the hat’s crown rakes back in the illusion of speed while the passive woman within the hat remains still. Also the hat’s ribbon, wrapped halfway up around the domed cylinder of the crown, teaches the senses to imagine ribbon and crown as body parts harmonizing at knowingly accepted cross purposes . . .

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, stereo autochrome Bibi au Restaurant d’Eden Roc, Cap d’Antibes, May 1920.

An eye made use of an apparatus to create this image of a woman designed and curated. She’s more than a century old now but as good as new. You accept the illusion knowingly. You are a member of its comic audience. Defined by the aesthetic of Euclid, a woman is a machine for wearing a hat.

The passing the undying

Ray Wagner Collection, San Diego Air and Space Museum, catalog no. 16_003979. Detail restored.

Falling astern, the obelisk of the Washington Monument sank back into the rainy horizon. As it passed below, it had momentarily been interpretable as a realized intention toward history. But what had passed above it was innocent of intent. Instant by instant, it was only passage. Eventually the silver-tinted body took on a name (USS Shenandoah), a terminus (crashed 9/3/1925), and thereby a history, but that descent from wordless air into inked words was only the end of the body’s passage, not the passage itself. As long as it remains, a shadow cast along time by passage is not history but memory: never not vanished but nevertheless not yet known not to be.