Click here to read: Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931 by Larry Levis
From where does this woman in the painting by Hopper come? To where is she headed? The painting appears to be about a person in transit (and transition) at a historical moment when many Americans were being forced to abandon everything they had ever known. (Think of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.) Beyond this sketch, the meaning of Hopper’s painting remains ambiguous and mysterious.
The poem by Larry Levis invents a story, filling in the painting’s many blanks. According to Levis, the painting concerns a woman whose mother has been committed to a mental hospital. The woman has come to sell her mother’s home and everything in it. Holding a check in her hands for the house and everything else, she plans to leave her hometown forever. At last, she has a chance to make a better life for herself.
But having invented this tale, Levis lets it unravel. “No one” can know who this woman in Hopper’s painting is. She has remained “for forty years” – from the 1930s to the 1970s when Levis wrote this poem – both unmoved and unmoving. What had been elusive about the painting, and then imagined by Levis in his poem, returns to the unknowable. In this process, Levis acknowledges the pleasures – and limits – of imagination.
~ Michael Staub
This woman seems alienated from herself, too, or at least from some ideal self-image. My eye keeps going back to the painting. Is this a woman? Her strong features — the angular, stubbornly “silent” face; the broad shoulders, drawn down and together “as if that could help”; the solid build — keep me looking. Is this, in part, why we’re told her body “fails,” because it does not communicate conventional femininity, a message that the “acceptable” shoes and “one good flowered dress” are to convey, ostentatiously, instead? Would this woman feel differently in good economic times or is part of what she is experiencing a difference, an apartness, based on gender?
And then there is our own position as viewer-readers. These are incredibly intimate portraits, yet we are implicated as witnesses, voyeurs — invited into the scene directly in the painting, by the suggestion of a hallway in the foreground, and vicariously in the poem, through the speaker who describes and imagines for us. An especially interesting moment occurs in the poem’s second stanza, where the detached, objective report of the poem’s opening lines shifts into a more personal, subjective mode — “it feels like,” “I can imagine” — and the third-person “she” becomes the more intimate “you.” The experience of looking at the woman’s silent face, “more silent than this painting, or any / Painting,” brings about this change of perspective: “it feels like the sad, blank hull / Of a ship is passing, slowly, the stones of a wharf / Though there is no ocean for a thousand miles.” These lines, suggesting the slow work of inner experience and of seemingly impossible change, run counter to the stasis of Levis’s imagined, unknowable ending. They point to the possibility, at least, of a shift in awareness, if not for the woman in the hotel room then for us as readers. Drawn into the frame of the painting and the imaginary world of the poem, we are offered a space — awkward, disorienting, fitful — to locate our own thresholds, our own truths.
~ Sean O’Toole
Comment by Sean OToole — October 20, 2010 @ 12:28 pm |Edit This
In the painting, the woman is hardly different from the furniture, her sloping shoulders like the rounded bed-frame, whereas the poem emphasizes the woman within the work. When the speaker remarks that “her face, in shadow, / Is more silent than this painting,” she is divorced from the painting in which she figures, and we as readers must consider her separately: she is “someone” rather than a mere component of the artwork or paint on the canvas. The speaker gives her history – a mother kneeling in fumes who does not recognize her, a house to sell. The speaker aggrandizes her, associating her with migrations and landscapes: in her face can be discerned “the sad, blank hull of a ship”; the harbors of California are undressed, like her. She is thus not only a person, but a type of person; not just someone with a history, but an embodiment of history itself.
Yet the impulse to give some humanity and importance to the artistic subject is not without its perils. The present tense, the abrupt pronoun shift from the third person to the second person (from detached description to apostrophe), and the syncopated and fragmented quality of the poem (particularly visible in the second stanza’s first sentence) bespeak both the urgency and the difficulty of the task. The speaker admits the limitations of his imagination as he conjures up her past: “I can imagine only Kansas.” The speaker must return her, ultimately, to the painting, static and unknowable: she “never moved…kept on sitting.”
The speaker’s desire to make a history for her or to read history onto her seems to fail. Yet the a priori terrifying note on which the poem ends, the fact that “no one…knows why you’ve kept on sitting there,” is also an empowering testimony of the value of Hopper’s painting: many interpretations are to be had from the painting, not just one. Levis thus gives us an example of how to experience art, however terrifying or unmanageable that experience might be, and gives us that same liberty when we read the poem in its own right, as a work of art.
Comment by Matthew Sidney Jones — October 22, 2010 @ 9:56 pm |Edit This
Someone once told me that fugitives in the U.S. nearly always head west. They can’t help it. We associate the West so strongly with freedom, with escape, that its pull becomes irresistible. There is something of that spatial yearning in Levis’s poem. The woman looks down but is inwardly gazing west, “think[ing] of curves, of the slow, mild arcs/Of harbors in California: Half Moon Bay,/Malibu.” She sees the “beaches that stay white/Until you get there” waiting elusively just out of reach. But the beaches are temporally as well as geographically distant, hovering on the other side of “until.” The westward journey she imagines taking, but can’t, reminds us of the temporal one she is forever forced to undergo, which she will never finish: “sitting here for forty years — alone,/Almost left out of the picture, half undressed.”
And yet, look at what happens to time in the poem: a “young woman” in the opening stanza, she is “only thirty-five,” by the fourth, which “is not too old to be a single woman”; by the close of the poem, it is “now…too late.” What has happened? It is as if time is speeding up, and “the young woman” is aging before our very eyes. This is exactly what does not, what cannot, happen to the woman in Hopper’s painting, who remains forever the same age. Nor does it really happen to the woman in Levis’s poem, who stays seated in the same spot from beginning to end, going nowhere. It is Levis’s speaker who has undergone the progress — temporal, imaginative — the poem describes; or, more precisely, it is the readers of Levis’s ekprhasis.
This brings us back to the commenters’ claims about art’s ability to alter or “move” us. Whether or not we decide to engage in the imaginative, self-reflective work the poem invites us to perform, I think that Levis’s poem reminds us we are all inevitably moving forward. Time presses on with the relentlessness of the train the woman does not board. In Hopper’s painting, the woman stays seated, hunched over on the bed in the same place. We continue to travel west.
I read the poem and inspected the painting and I could not help thinking that I have seen this picture, and that the poetry lines are familiar. I googled Larry Levis to see who he is or was, then I googled Edward Hopper to see why he would paint something like the Hotel Room. I however quit my search to see what they meant by their works, so to give me more room to explore what their works bring to mind. I found my self on a similar bench to the previous astute commenters. Art does indeed have manipulative powers.I stare at the painting and the poem and I could only ignore the times in which they were produced and not care to relate to what ever purpose they were meant for. I only applaud the painting’s and poetry’s ability to speak to this time, and most importantly to address me.
I believe we all find paintings and create for them our own stories. Yet, we are paintings ourselves. And others look at our images and imagine what our stories are. Most importantly, we spend an exuberant amount of time to decide what our stories are. We dream of the best places in which our exhibitions will shine, and with these dreams we seek to build the foundation to help stabilize a realistic form of them. Crawling through trials and errors, experiences and observations, we sometimes reach our best places of exhibition where we will happily fit in.
Yet, before we reach our potentials, we are usually harassed by the fear of how far…a satchel, a pair of black, acceptable / Shoes and one good flowered dress” will go, and we do realize that it is too late to go back home, because our mothers would fail to recognize us and therefore fail to know how to comfort us. When we fail to reach our full potentials, we realize that it was too late from the beginning; we never had the chance to beg the painter to paint us in a different way.
So we are indeed stuck with the “…check / Between (our) hands and (our) bare knees…” And we must muster the bravado required to go as far as we can with our lot.