Portrait of Madonna and Child, Perryton, Texas, 1967†
by B.H. Fairchild
In many respects, B. H. Fairchild’s “Madonna and Child, Perryton, Texas, 1967” represents archetypal Fairchildian fare. The visual form (a blocklike monostanza) houses lines of what I would call roughneck blank verse, which, at least in my definition, requires much artful shoehorning of alexandrines. The syntax is customarily breathless, the entire forty-four line poem utilizing only three full stops, with the majority—all but the first four lines—getting by on a mere two. The backdrop, as in many of his poems, is equally rough, as we begin outside a border town near Del Rio, Texas. The protagonists—because this, like the best of Fairchild’s work, is interested in story—are roughnecks themselves or at least drunk hooligans in their “grievous / late-night stupor and post-marijuana hunger.” As is also fitting, raucous humor ensues, coming in the odd lexical shifts of certain lines, and the slapstick alliteration and assonance of others. The boys, for example, “curse the cookie section and all its brethren,” and, later, just stand there with “[their] sad little plastic baskets full of crap.” Fairchild has built a career out of these types muscular, bombastic phrasings, most of which serve to render in stark detail the same types of working-class, oil-rigging scenes. In so doing, his poems become part loving critique, part celebration of dustbowl, flea-ridden towns in Texas, Oklahoma, and middle-of-nowheres everywhere.
The poem is mostly interested in comedy and a kind of redneck grotesque. The “pink neon and samba music” that color the opening lines also seem apt descriptors for the poem itself: gaudy like pink neon, jaunty and crazed like a sexed up samba. The gist? The guys are stoned and looking for munchies, and the store owner’s daughter has a kid who will not, for the love of all that is holy, stop screaming. Few poets do this sort of thing with more panache, and I am fairly certain Fairchild could make a second career merely out of his descriptions of babies crying. In reading this poem again, I am reminded of an earlier piece, “In a Café near Tuba City, Arizona, Beating My Head Against a Cigarette Machine” (in Local Knowledge, 2005), in which the narrator describes his daughter’s cry:
The infant we have misnamed after a suicidal poet writhes
in harness across my back, her warm urine funneling between
my buttocks, and her yowls rip like sharks through the grey heat. (5-7)
A good portion of “Portrait of Madonna and Child” is likewise dedicated to preserving, in as much vivid detail as possible, both the sonic potentiality and the terrorizing shockwaves of this infant’s battle cries. For they are first “squalls” that “rip through the store like a weed-cutter / shredding the souls of the carnal, the appetitious.” Later, it’s a “cry ascending to a shriek, then a kind / of rasping roar.” Right after that, it becomes “the harangue of the gods, / sirens cleaving the air, gangs of crazed locusts / or gigantic wasps that whine and ding our ears.” One might encourage Fairchild to start reserving seats in the front of airplanes.
The madcap velocity and shininess of the poem, however, only serve to accentuate the transformation, as the owner’s daughter unbuttons her blouse to feed the screamer. A simple scene, yes, but one that Fairchild handles deftly, even religiously (per the implications of the title). The baby’s mouth invokes “the great suck of the infinite / making that little nick nick sound,” and the boys stand transfixed, not in that frat-guy skin-flick way but rather in a way in which the boys themselves seem incapable of articulating, since they remain “speechless and dying a little inside.”
The fact that the poem turns on the sacred and profane—the sudden iconographic embodiment of Madonna and Child amid the fluorescent convenience store—is, in itself, not terribly surprising for American poetry in general and Fairchild’s work in particular. His best work—“Beauty” and “Body and Soul” come to mind—turn on similar motifs: the hagiography of scrabble farmers, machine shop workers, and crazed rednecks everywhere. What is notable in this particular poem, however, is how late the poem turns and winks at its title. Here’s the ending:
whispers no llores, no llores, mija, mijita,
no llores, and the child falls asleep, lips
on breast, drops of milk trickling down,
we can even hear it breathing, hear ourselves
breathing, the hush all around and that hammer
in our chests so that forty years later
this scene still hangs in my mind, a later work,
unfinished, from the workshop of Zurbarán. (36-44)
That clever deployment of “hangs” in the penultimate line—as if the scene were literally a canvas on a wall—transports us from the glare of the garish minimart to the hush of a tastefully lit museum. As such, we are not meant to see Rosa and her baby as embodiments of Mary and Christ. Rather, we see them as embodiments of a representation of that famous mother and child, life imitating art. And the equally clever detail of the painting’s “unfinished” state allows the scene to recur eternally.
Chad Davidson is the author of From the Fire Hills (forthcoming , 2014), The Last Predicta (2008), and Consolation Miracle (2003), all on Southern Illinois UP, as well as co-author with Gregory Fraser of Analyze Anything: A Guide to Critical Reading and Writing (Continuum, 2009) and Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). He is a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia near Atlanta.
†For a more complete and accurate reading of the poem, we encourage interested readers to consult the print version from B.H. Fairchild’s Usher. New York: Norton, 2009.