… The California Quarterly consistently lent its support to verse that mounted a critique that was more or less surreptitious, depending on just who was reading it. A favorite disguise borrowed trappings from the thriller. This example had its own distinguished origin in W. H. Auden’s cryptic, flat descriptions of cityscapes in the 1930s that ominously conveyed something dangerous but out of sight. "Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string," Auden began "Brussels in Winter," one of the sonnets collected in Another Time (1940), "Coming on fountains rigid in the frost, / Its formula escapes you; it has lost / The certainty that constitutes a thing" (123). These hollowed-out European cities, with their shifting frontiers and double agents, went over with surprising ease into the American idiom of the roman noir with its long and vacant avenues more welcoming to automobiles than people, its blurry zones where officials and detectives sought a clue to a mystery whose exact dimensions kept shifting. The pages of the California Quarterly highlighted verse in which the format of the crime novel or detective story was not used for simple background detail but as a self-conscious heuristic device that could best articulate a crisis specific to this time. In this respect, too, the journal shows its regional roots: noir, as a politicized genre, was a product of postwar Hollywood. Noir films with their "contempt for a depraved business culture," as Mike Davis has reminded us, amounted to "a kind of Marxist cinema manqé, a shrewdly oblique strategy for an otherwise subversive realism" (41).
In earlier years, Weldon Kees had been first to reclaim Auden’s perspective by drawing upon noir material in "Crime Club" and "Xantha Street," both of which appeared in Poetry in 1943 and were collected in The Fall of the Magicians (1947). Relocating to the West Coast in 1950 only enhanced Kees’ drop-dead tone. In "Travels in North America," the travelogue-poem he completed soon after his cross-country drive (at 110 lines, the longest work in Poems 1947-1954), the Bomb appears without fanfare in a middle segment:
The land is terraced near Los Alamos: scrub cedars,
Pinon 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.
Here as elsewhere Kees is incapable of being scandalized. Corruption is so integral a part of all he sees that mere description alone discloses truths so bitter they are best not pursued. Tagging the Bomb as the "University of California’s" is enough to suggest that someday every university will have its own, just as they now boast their own sports teams. Within that laconic exaggeration lurks a darker anatomizing of the arms-race as a competition between act-alike rivals. Characteristically, Kees stands as the witness who, having seen it all, has grown to expect nothing. To the noir sensibility, the other side of the tracks is everywhere. The plainest description discloses menacing portents. "An ancient gull," he writes in one signature passage, "Dropped down to shiver gravely in the steady rain." This ravishing blend of assonance and consonance produces an extravagantly sumptuous surface just heavy enough to arouse an immense distrust. What is being hidden? Why does that gull, so wise and ancient, knowingly shudder? About the "Sangre de Christo" mountains, then, there is little to add except to remark that nothing in these times can be shocking. After all, the irony of locating the site for the all-destructive bomb next to these mountains, named so long ago, has already been finessed in what Kees presents as the commercialized language of the travel brochure.