B.H. Fairchild’s lovely poem both evokes the longing and highlights the absurdities found in movie-inspired daydreams. It also subtly challenges the reader to ask the value of those daydreams for oneself
As one can guess from the title, the 1954 film On the Waterfront, one of actor Marlon Brando’s signature vehicles, is central to B.H. Fairchild’s 2009 poem of the same name. The movie functions as a trope for the teenage narrator’s insecurity about his own identity, specifically his longing to define himself in terms apart from his small Kansas hometown. And Fairchild, fine poet that he is, uses this central trope as a stepping-stone to deeper questions about living life.
The time is the 1950s, and the narrator sees the film repeatedly in his job as an usher at the local movie theater. He identifies it with the New York City of his dreams, a place where
… bebop and blue neon lights
would fill my room, and I would wear a porkpie hat
and play tenor saxophone like Lester Young…
The irony is that none of this has anything to do with the film, which is a brutal melodrama about organized crime’s control of the longshoremen’s union in Hoboken, New Jersey. Fairchild subtly emphasizes the disconnect, such as having the narrator quote dialogue from the film that has no relevance to his musings. Fairchild also hits notes that a reader familiar with the New York City area will understand as discords. Identifying the locale of the film as New York is one, and locating the waterfront of the title as being on the East River instead of the Hudson is another. The film is only of interest to the narrator as a springboard for his fantasies, a role it fills just as well as Fairchild’s complementing tropes of the gas masks at the local Army-Navy store, or of a town veteran’s Purple Hearts.
But Fairchild stays ambiguous about whether these fantasies are a bad thing. He begins the poem with the epigram “Know thyself,” Socrates’ famous dictum, and near the end the narrator has the Latin equivalent, Nosce te ipsum, said to him by another character. The poem ends with him acknowledging that he doesn’t know what it means. The surface implication is that he doesn’t understand the Latin, but the deeper one is that he doesn’t know what the saying means for himself. The reader is left wondering about the latter: is the narrator being told to put these fantasies away and accept small-town life, or should he recognize them as seeds for ambitions beyond it? The answer, I suppose, lies in whether one feels daydreams take one away from oneself, or bring one closer. It’s the best type of ambiguity--one that reads the reader at least as much as it does the text--and it’s a fine ending for this resonantly wistful poem.
“On the Waterfront,” by B.H. Fairchild, was originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of Sewanee Review. It is featured in The Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler & David Lehman. Fairchild also included it in his own collection, Usher.