Praying in a Car, Drifting Through Syracuse: On Hayden Carruth’s Poetic-Landscapes

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When one is living a meager existence, poetic and novelistic dystopias may have a passing appeal.   After having lived – or rather dwelled – as an undergraduate in the Binghamton and Syracuse area, I can understand the appeal of a landscape that includes – in a contiguous manner – monuments to a prosperous past, empty factories, residential neighborhoods, beautiful parks, and strip malls. But what interested me most was not so much the buildings as the people who drifted in and out of these areas. Like them, I grew up in a rural New York setting. I was always wondering about how the hard working, everyday American would navigate through this mess.   To my delight, I stumbled across a poet who lived in Syracuse and sought to address these very things: Hayden Carruth.

Reflecting on his poems today (which were originally written in 1983), I feel addressed by a simple question: are we, today, to read the odd orientations of people to the late-capitalist landscape in tragic or comic terms?   But there are other questions that follow in its wake: Have we, today, got used to destitution to such an extent that it doesn’t matter what landscape we travel through just as long as we….travel through it and go elsewhere?

In the opening poem of his book Asphalt Georgics entitled “Names,” we bear witness to Sam. He is caught up in a series of movements and flows. He needs to return a broken coffee machine.

I had said improbable. I

always do, that being

who I am. Nevertheless it

stopped pouring. We could bring

the defective electric per-

collator back to where

we bought it, the K-Mart up in

Seneca Mall. So there

We drove, past Hiawatha Pla-

za, Wegman’s, Bayberry

Mall, with all the other pieces

of the strip strung in be-

 

tween. Friendly and Ponderosa

looked o.k., but Carvel

was dilapidated and Mis-

ter Donut had a hell

 

Of a big jagged hole through both

sides of its glass sign. I

saw the killdeer running that has

her nest next to the high-

way on the gravel strip between

Rite-Aid and Sunoco,

and I heard her cry in the gnash

of heat at my window

Sam is not an ordinary man. He is very reflective and notes a line from an Italian poet about the meaning of “once.” But Sam dismisses this as too academic “Once. Tra la.”   He apologizes for the reflection and doesn’t want to get caught up into the depth it suggests. To be sure, he likes staying on the surface geography, amidst places, names, and spatial games:

The main reason for putting that

in is it was written

by a guy well up in his eight-

ies. He knows. In one sen-

 

tence, the past is nothing and we

are in love with it. Prag-

matically speaking we are

in love with nothing. Shag

 

me some more of these fungoes, boys,

before we quite. His name

is Eugenio, mine is Sam –

I like that name, that game

 

He drifts into thinking about baseball and eating food, about how this has something to do with being American.

 

Too, though utterly valueless,

The animal in us

Just sufficiently domestic-

ated, our venomous

 

American aggressiveness

Confined to balls and bats.

O.k. Back to the beginning

The saturated fats

In the midst of this, he drifts into a space in which everything seems to collapse and become odd. But instead of becoming indifferent himself, he tells us that “I found myself praying. It happens all the time.”   Sam calls himself a “poor deracinated numbskull” since he calls on many different religious symbols…but he does so “without conviction.”

He is, like many Americans, wandering through landscapes (external and internal), playing games, but unable to have deep conviction. Nonetheless, he feels the desire for something holy but Sam doesn’t know what to do with it…in Syracuse, New York.

And what do you do with this

amorphous faith, desire,

wanting, let someone else figure,

why me? I was on fire,

 

so was Poll (his companion) next to me, so was

the whole world. To get through,

get to the K-Mart, probably

was all I asked. So who

cares who I asked? Does it have to

be Somebody? It’s better

not. The asking is what counts. Poll

says the same. She says her

mind is always praying these days….

Sam reflects more and realizes that just “getting through all that hot traffic to the K-Mart is good enough for prayer.”   In other words, his prayers come to him as he and his companion, Poll, travel through the landscape of Syracuse, from one store or place to another. And as they do, they can sense that something is wrong and that the past and the world that they once knew has disappeared.  It takes too much away from their day-to-day practical activities to think about it. And instead of praying a Church or a Synagogue, they pray in a car.

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