Sunday, June 3, 2012

"4 A.M" by Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961)

"4 A.M" By Kenneth Fearing

"It is early evening, still, in Honolulu, and in London, now, it
must be well past dawn;
But here, in the Riviera Cafe, on a street that has been lost and
forgotten very long ago, as the clock moves steadily toward
closing time,
The spark of life is very low, if it burns at all.

And here we are, four lost and forgotten customers in this place
that surely will never again be found,
Sitting, at ten-foot intervals, along this lost and forgotten bar,
(Wishing the space were further still, for we are still too close
for comfort)
Knowing that the bartender, and the elk’s head, and the portrait
of F.D.R.,
(All gazing at something of interest beyond us and behind us,
but very far away)
Must somehow be aware of us, too, as we stare at the cold
interior of our lives, reflected in the mirror beneath and in 
back of them.

Hear how lonely the radio is, as its voice talks on, and on, un-
Notice how futile is the nickel dropped in the juke-box by a 
How its music proves again that one’s life is either too humdrum
or too exciting, too empty or too full, too this, too that;
Only the cat that has been sleeping in the window, now yawning
and streching and trotting to the kitchen to sleep again --
Only this living toy knows what we feel, knows what we are,
really knows what we only think we know.

Soon, too soon, it will be closing time, and the door will be locked;
Each of us will be alone, soon, with something ravaging for
a name --
(Our golden, glorious futures, perhaps).
Lock the door now and put out the lights, before some terrible
stranger enters and gives, to each of us, an answer that is
the final truth.

They say the Matterhorn at dawn, and the Northern Lights of
the Arctic, are things that should be seen;
They say, they say --------- in time, you will hear them say anything,
and everything.
What would the elk’s head, or the remote bartender say, if they
could speak?
The booth where last night’s love affair began, the spot where
last year’s homicide occurred, are empty now, and still."

When I read this powerful poem by Kenneth Fearing, the Nighthawks of Edward Hopper came flying in and the Riviera became Phillies. Kenneth Fearing was a pulp fiction writer, an editor and one of the best poets of the American Depression era. In this poem it’s getting late. These are the wee hours that the trembling voice of Junior Wells reluctantly pronounces in the opening bars of the classic blues song. But this bar is closing and the remaining customers are going to have to face the truth about themselves and their lives. Alcohol can no longer be consumed. It can no longer cloud the mind and dull the senses. The poem is straightforward and uncompromising in its depiction of that moment of lucidity between drinking bouts of which Fearing himself was no stranger. But it takes some guts to write a poem such as this one and Fearing was not scared. In 1950 during the time of the infamous communist witch hunts, he was subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C.; when asked if he was a member of the Communist Party, he replied, "Not yet." 

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