by Gregory Luce
A gas station at night, the only bright spot on a dark, lonely road. Bright red pumps, a fading red Pegasus, and a man at the pumps probably closing up for the night. It might well be the place where the used-car salesman stopped for a six-pack on the way home from the sales convention. Or possibly the station where two men, Al and Max, gassed up on their way to Summit to kill the Swede, Ole Anderson. Or where the tourist from Syracuse stopped in to ask about a place to stay for the night.
Hopper’s Gas, with its mostly muted colors, its shadows and patches of window light, the darkness descending from the deep blue sky, evoked for me the opening scene of the 1946 film version of The Killers in which the hit men arrive in the small town and approach the diner, a small pool of light in an otherwise dark setting. While Hopper’s painting lacks the sense of menace that Hemingway’s story and the film’s director Robert Siodmak arouse, I am strongly affected by the deep loneliness and sense of isolation it depicts.
Interestingly, however, the first work of literature I thought of when I recently revisited this painting was not Hemingway’s story “The Killers,” but a poem by one of my favorite poets, Donald Justice, called “The Tourist from Syracuse,” which in turn takes off from a line by the great thriller writer, John D. Macdonald: “One of those men who can be a car salesman or a tourist from Syracuse or a hired assassin.” Justice sets an uneasy scene from the very first lines.
You would not recognize me.
Mine is the face which blooms in
The dank mirrors of washrooms
As you grope for the light switch.
One immediately thinks of the gas station bathroom not shown but implied by the picture. Further:
My eyes have the expression
Of the cold eyes of statues
Watching their pigeons return
From the feed you have scattered….
The inhuman gaze and the suggestion that “you” are being watched like a pigeon are decidedly unsettling, as are these lines, reminiscent of the shadows closing in around Hopper’s gas station:
If I move at all, it is
At the same pace precisely
As the shade of the awning
Under which I stand waiting
And with whose blackness it seems
I am already blended.
And then the speaker of the poem finally identifies himself—somewhat:
I am the used-car salesman,
The tourist from Syracuse,
The hired assassin, waiting.
He stands on a corner (and I imagine it is a winter evening when the sun is almost gone and shadows lengthen), “[t]he corner at which you turn/To approach that place where now/You must not hope to arrive.” Perhaps this is the corner where the Swede’s boarding house is found (though he has already arrived and waits stoically for his killers), or maybe it’s the corner of your street or mine.
It’s true that none of these things appear in Gas itself. But just as the image opens the imagination to what has just occurred or will occur in the next moment at Hopper’s lonely outpost, so my recent viewing led me to imagine a series of events whose starting point could well have been this isolated oasis in a growing sea of darkness.
Justice’s poem in its quiet way creates its own sense of menace and isolation. It is characteristic of this poet to convey so much with so little: no flourishes, no high-flown rhetoric, no fancy language. Just as Hopper presented the atomization of modern life and the alienation many feel in urbanized, mechanized America in simple, clear images and with his remarkable depictions of light, so Justice in simple, straightforward language and equally clear images leaves us shaken by the darkness that both surrounds and lives inside us.
Gregory Luce is the author of four collections of poetry and numerous poems published in print and online. He also writes a monthly column on the arts for Scene4 Magazine. Retired from National Geographic, he works as a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC and lives in Arlington, VA.