Heather Zadra: On "Travels in North America"

Jeff Sychterz has succinctly described Kees’ “Travels in North America” in its relationship to the American Dream, aligning the speaker’s journey with westward expansion and the migration of Dust Bowl refugees; he then links these movements to the politics of economics and cultural erasure. Another lens through which we can approach the poem lies in Kees’ tension with a more “self” oriented concept of the journey, one connected in American culture by the individual’s freedom of escape and the gathering of lived experience. The expected progress of such a journey constitutes a shift from confusion or ignorance to some form of enlightenment, but Kees consistently reframes the implications of the trip, casting an eye of disillusionment on a failed land of opportunity. Despite brief glimpses of beauty, the poem ultimately reveals a cluttered but homogeneous landscape, one whose bleak sameness becomes a reason for searching for “some new enclosure” that, finally, may only be discovered through language. The speaker’s marginality as observer offers, rather than a romanticized vision of freedom from responsibility, the images that point to a post-World War II America sliding or melting into the indistinguishable lines, colors, and dots of a map.

Appropriately, the way in which the speaker actually remembers his trip is through identifying locations on “A ragged map, imperfectly enclosed by seaworn oilskin”—much as the speaker himself is “imperfectly enclosed” in the space of America. The blurred map is a visual reminder of the blending into uniformity that travelling through the United States imprints on the speaker’s mind: “And sometimes, shivering in St. Paul or baking in Atlanta, / The sudden sense that you have seen it all before: . . . / You have forgotten singularities.” Significantly, however, the speaker hones in on events that seem memorable for their specificity and that retain some beauty in their very descriptiveness:

 

brown walls hung

With congo masks and Mirós, rain

against a skylight, and the screaming girl

Who threw a cocktail shaker at a man in tweeds

Who quoted passages from Marlowe and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

 

The act of naming the very moments he claims to have forgotten performs a political purpose, however filled with potential these images might appear to be. Against these and the rest of the poem’s “singularities,” Kees juxtaposes the inescapable existence of the atomic bomb, which could render all journeys meaningless in an instant:

 

The land is terraced near Los Alamos: scrub cedars,

Piñon pines and ruined pueblos, where a line

Of tall young men in uniform keep watch upon

The University of California's atom bomb.

The sky is soiled and charitable

Behind barbed wire and the peaks of mountains--

Sangre de Christo, Blood of Christ, this "fitting portent

For the Capital of the Atomic Age."

We meant to stop, but one can only see so much. A mist

Came over us outside Tryuonyi caves, and a shattered cliff.

 

The anxiety behind these words cancels out all potential for beauty in the otherwise natural setting; and the bomb, like the mist that covers the travelers, overshadows all specific details that come before or after these lines. Hence, though the speaker continues to articulate moments that could be read as negative or simply ambivalent, he “forgets” or subordinates them in the context of an America that, above all, could destroy its enemies (or itself) in a moment. The journey has, to some degree, ended before it has really begun; the following lines act merely as addendums that represent lesser degrees of human error.

No time-based indicators suggesting change interrupt the flow of memory, and the speaker fails to move, throughout the course of the journey, from disillusionment to edification. The continual focus of the poem, despite the multitude of places and markers, is on the impossibility of America eliciting any real sense of calm self-discovery or revelation. The details described at each location produce not a consoling sense of familiarity, but rather a sense of disorientation, as the speaker realizes his inability to ground himself in any distinguishing place:

 

And here, now textured like a blotter, like the going years

And difficult to see, is where you are, and where I am,

And where the oceans cover us.

 

In building up to these final lines, the poem moves through a series of landscapes whose brief moments of beauty are overshadowed by the speaker’s associations with them: “Driving west / One Sunday in a smoky dawn, burnt orange along the landscape’s rim, / The radio gave forth five solid and remembered hours / Of gospel singers and New Orleans jazz, / With terse, well-phrased commercials for a funeral home.” Even the potentially pleasurable remembrance of watching a hazy sunrise while listening to gospel music ends with a journey towards death, an ironic detail in this context—for even that journey has a definable end, which is more certain than the travels the speaker describes. A marked moment of uncertainty blurs these juxtapositions of negative and positive, beautiful and tainted, as the mind begins to lose focus and remains suspended in limbo:

 

[You] have forgotten why you left or why you came to where you are,

Or by what road and passages,

Or what it was, if anything, that you were hoping for.

 

Around the same time that Norman Rockwell was painting an idyllic America in scenes like "The Prom Dress," "The Soda Fountain," and "The Marriage License," Kees refuses to situate his verbal images in any such comforting familiarity. Rather, the familiarity he endorses effects a sort of mental paralysis, the result of viewing widespread contamination that overwhelms potentially redeeming qualities of the landscape. In place of the latter, we are given the reality of nuclear warfare, the cluttering of landscape with industrial markers and refuse—“rubber plant[s]” and “brownish film”—and the waste of America’s throwaways on the incoming tide. The notion that individuals still seek personal revelation in the midst of such debris becomes, in effect, absurd; though the speaker, like most travelers, reminisces about his “sightseeing” across America, his sight sees much more than the stereotypically romanticized journeyer. For the most part, he perceives a depersonalized void of "formica and television aerials / And rows of cars that look a little more like fish each year," images that render illusions of charming, idyllic scenes of America ridiculous. Instead, the vision is one of waste, of a civilization’s slow self-destruction represented in barren and broken things.

Indeed, it is better not to have seen some places—"Wetumka, Oklahoma; Kipling, Michigan; / Glenrock, Wyoming; and Chehalis, Washington / Are momentarily the shifting centers of a dream"—for then one can still imagine the possibility of their being untarnished, untainted with everything that has come before. Though the speaker’s reveries about the possibilities for each place allow him a brief reprieve from the depressing realities surrounding him, he cannot finally escape “that smell of rubber smoldering,” the grim reality of most towns he encounters. And even the most peripheral information renders the unseen towns somewhat sad in their implied likeness with the others:

 

Dalton, Georgia, “Center of a thriving bedspread industry, where rainbow lines

Of counterpanes may be observed along the highway. Here

The man whose Home, Sweet Home is known to all,

The champion of the Cherokee, John Howard Payne, was tried.”

 

To forget, perhaps, would be the greatest blessing of all, and to some extent, the speaker has forgotten specific elements of his trip. But he cannot forget the overwhelming impression of the memories on his mind, the fact that the journey has really never been more than “marking out a distance, / Or dealing with the past, however ineffectually, / Or ways of searching for some new enclosure in this space / Between the oceans.” And yet, this way of approaching the journey—representing it through language to “mark” not only distance but also the extent of desolation, and to seek a new place as yet unstained—is, perhaps, the only way in which one can also approach North America. The “enclosure” that the speaker seeks may not, finally, exist, for he brings with him, like the blurring map, the unerasable “stains” of his memory; but the act of articulating these memories may leave room for some alternative—if only suggested in its very absence from the scene he represents.

 

©Heather Zadra 2001

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Criticism Overview
Title Heather Zadra: On "Travels in North America" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Heather Zadra Criticism Target Weldon Kees
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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