Tom Clark
from Cento Magazine

Stolen Riches
From Edward Dorn: A World of Difference by Tom Clark
(North Atlantic Books, Spring 2002)


From 1956 to 1959 the poet Edward Dorn (1929-1999) dwelt with his family – his first wife Helene Helmers, their son Paul, and Helene’s two children by a previous marriage, Fred and Chansonette – in Burlington, Washington. In these years Dorn worked at a bewildering variety of casual-labor jobs, meanwhile struggling to make his mark as a writer. From this period date most of the poems in his first collection, The Newly Fallen (1961), as well as the groundwork of his novel The Rites of Passage (1965; later reissued as By the Sound).

Stolen Riches

New Years Eve Carl took Mary downtown for a glass of beer…. Mary turned once to find herself being stared at by the man on the next stool…. He said, You’re Canadian. She replied, No, I’m not…. [He] asked more questions and was generally skeptical of the couple’s local residence. To him they remained Canadian. This word, along the coast from Blaine to Seattle, is commonly used to mean odd ball.
-- The Rites of Passage

The marks of the Dorns’ difference were easily noticeable if not always readily identifiable: "Canadian," as Fred Buck notes, meant "weird and poor" to the family’s middle-class Burlington neighbors. In his writings of this time Dorn not only refused to conceal the evidence of their strangeness but took pains to flaunt it. In one of his most telling poems of the Skagit Valley stay, "The Argument Is," he adopted this against-the-grain strategy, perversely locating value in one set of distinguishing signs of material deprivation. In this poem the children’s second-hand clothing is worn as "a secret burden" in the double sense, both as a social emblem of shame weighing them down and as a reverse badge of honor, declaring their innocence of "the ways of society" (and thus freeing them from responsibility for its complex injustices). The poem shows Dorn’s "political" thinking at its nontheoretical concrete best, revealing an empirical truth about life in the sociological "basement stratum" – where, paradoxically, the only true grace, a careless, casually-fitting castoff or "stolen" freedom, is to be found.

Helene confirms the scene of the poem is Burlington, and that it is "definitely ‘true to life.’" "Not sure who the little girl is," says Fred Buck, "possibly my sister."


That worn clothes look

as nice

on the children down the road

playing and running in the afternoon

that these clothes are used,

these castoffs

we are castoff from – all the elegant

running little retailers, here

and in the next crossroads town.


         But the dress one little girl

blithely wore, unaware

an argument as to the ways of society

was going on around her –

a long yellow dress


pulled in at the waist, nearly

sweeping the ground.


Oh, they are now pagan

these old castoffs,

but as rationale one sees the grime

sees the face broken in dark lines of consumption.


         Of wearing secretly a burden,

costumes fitting as casually as though

they were stolen,

from the wealth

of the nation.

"We kids got shit in school," says Fred, "for dressing weird (Goodwill clothes etc.) and one of the taunts I got from neighborhood kids was literally ‘Poor!!’ Poor was weird then and weird usually meant poor, and as Ed wrote somewhere in the novel, weird and poor was also tagged ‘Canadian.’ So we were all of those and in isolation in so many ways in those Burlington years, not part of the town, hanging with the other weirds like Norma and Gordon in their pea shack, John the wino singing to us ‘I’ll buy you a rainbow’ so sweetly and drunkenly, ‘202’ and his toothless wife and their ragbag kids roaring up to our house in their banged up car and raising cain and roaring away again. True people and friends in the weirdness all melted away to whatever future we’ll never know, but still in our heads and hearts and Ed’s writing, bless him."

The fellow "weirds" Fred Buck refers to were to become key figures in the basement-stratum landscape depicted in Dorn’s narratives of this period. Norma and Gordon appear in The Rites of Passage as James, a "desperately poor… flunky carpenter" with a drinking habit, and his equally hard-drinking wife Ramona, an Eskimo from Nome with a radiant smile. In the chapter called "The Difference," the struggles of this couple, shack-dwellers in a local migrant-laborers’ "pea-camp," provide Dorn salient evidence of the multiple effects of class and race exclusion; particularly impressive is his drawing of the ironic contradictions of Ramona’s character, candidly posing her "low" habits and qualities against her natural dignity and aspirations to a decent life. "202" – "no idea what his real name was, we called him ‘202’ because he had a bumpersticker on his car saying Vote no (or yes?) on 202 [a union-busting ‘right-to-work’ bill]," says Fred – became another of the novel’s main characters, Billy Hendersson, a temperamental, independent-minded hard-hat whose irrational explosiveness affords him a way to temporarily break out of the System, but also assures him trouble wherever he turns. Another case-study in ironic contradictions, this character figures in several pivotal scenes (in chapters "The Unemployment Office," "By the River," "The Deer," and "The Tunnel") as a latter-day manifestation of the frontier temperament now reduced to a self-destructive anachronism. (Billy/"202" also makes a cameo appearance as "Fletcher" in "Notes About Working and Waiting Around.")

Presenting "odd ball" images of scarcity amid excess, delineating scenes of actual poverty calculated to expose and undermine the easy assumptions of the Age of Affluence, it is little wonder Dorn found himself doomed to occupy a tenuous position in relation to the mainstream mass-market literary audience of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The very names of the ephemeral journals in which his writings were now beginning to appear – Between Worlds, Migrant, The Outsider (where both "Like a Message on Sunday" and "The Argument Is" would first see the light), Wild Dog (his own mimeograph magazine, done from Idaho) – bespeak this marginal stance. The characters of Dorn’s writings of that era before the birth of the "counterculture" live out an edgy outcast/outlaw ethos; the lyric-realist graces of those writings seem "stolen," both in the sense that they must be stealthy (such is the outlaw attitude) and in the sense that they represent fugitive moments, precious time taken away from the central basement-stratum business of putting food on the table.

Fred Buck has a vivid recollection of casual food-gathering banditry undertaken with other children near "the pea factory where the peas Norma [Ramona] picked got trucked to. My friends and I would wait at an intersection up the street for the pea trucks to come by and slow down for the turn then grab a handful of vines off the truckbed. Good Eating! Sweet as candy. I guess they ended up in cans or birdseyed when they got to where they were intended." The sweetest of forbidden fruits, furtive pleasures "stolen, / from the wealth / of the nation," poems like "The Argument Is" were to my own generation (I started reading Dorn in 1959, as a college student) a secret sustenance, plucked fresh from a little-known writer’s surprising and nourishing candor in an otherwise barren cultural moment.