Devouring Eyes in "The Permanent Tourists" and Cry Ararat!

by Kay Stockholder

This is a session on teaching poetry, specifically on teaching "The Permanent Tourists."  But I find it difficult to separate my thoughts on how I teach a poem from my reading of it, though I modify the depth at which I present my reading, according to the level of my students.   In general, however, to further my own and my student's sympathic apprehension, I begin what is finally a psychoanalytic approach to poetry by trying to read from inside the voice of the poem's speaker, and, initially, limiting the frame of reference to the single poem.  But I also tend to read, when I can, a poet's work as a single corpus, and I don't feel in command of a poem until I also feel that I know it as an episode of a larger trajectory.  I like to locate what seem to me fundamental oppositions in the work of a poet, to see how a single poem handles those oppositions, and to clarify or enrich the images and figures of one poem, not with my own associations, but with the relevant associations from that larger context.

     To begin, then, I first note the distance from which the narrating voice places itself from what it describes.  Hovering with it far above those streams of tourists, I see them move, somnolently, from country to country.  That distance renders the image of "their empty eyes" longing to be filled with monuments an aspect of the speaker's imagination rather than observation.  The image becomes surreal, for, the distance from which they are observed not permitting one to see individual eyes, the eyes in the image become one collectively monstrous eye devouring all it gazes on.  The speaker seems both fascinated with and horrified by the image of individuals losing their separate identity as they devour or are devoured by their surroundings.  Having dehumanized them, she protects herself by maintaining her distance from them.1

     The visual distance transforms into a moral distance in the succeeding stanzas which show the tourists thoughtlessly trivializing the monuments of the past.  The image of them as dogs who "move perfectly within their rainy climate" in any weather contradicts previous images that depict them as, lacking intrinsic being, assuming the colouring of their environment.  It maintains, however, the sense of devouring, for they, like dogs pissing to claim territory, desecrate by trying to possess the monuments they visit.   The third stanza, by reversing the image of the tourists' reification of experience, also shows their consequent self- reification as they "lock themselves" into the snapshots of monuments that might, when they cease to be tourists, evoke human reflection.

     The fourth stanza has the most puzzling tone.  The speaker is now both physically and morally distant from the tourists and historically distant from the monuments, which, like the tourists, are thereby diminished.  In the context of this vast time and space, the once living heroic boy and the stolid queen are included in the irony of the monuments that have failed to rescue the politicians they memorialize from oblivion, or from the final merger into death.  The suggestion of death leads to the surge of energy, action and poignant feeling of the last two lines.  It is as though the whole poem has been leading to this image, while obscuring the logic of the process.  The static quality of the previous images of the boy, queen and politicians merges people into stone statues but the image of the "plunging war dead" is so active that it merges the statues into the image of flesh and blood people in the process of dying, a more active version of the snapshot image of the third stanza.  The line "forever and ever going down to death" simultaneously refers to the frozen action of the statue and to the masses of men who throughout history go to their graves in a subterranean stream parallel to the stream of tourists whose desecrating triviality renders vain the monuments that were intended to immortalize the heroic dead.  That contrast between the tourists who, having mindlessly merged with their surroundings, seem exempted from death, and the now equally anonymous soldiers who embrace experience and die leaves no middle ground for a vital relationship between a defined consciousness and its environment.

     To embrace life is to die.  The tourists, unlike the forever dying soldiers, do not create their histories by risking their lives, or even by apprehending the lost life from which arose the cultural artifacts they devour.  In the shifted perspective of the next stanza they constitute their pasts from the meals they ingest in foreign restaurants, and their futures from tea-cup readings.  Their trivialized lives render their philosophy, that travel is broadening, as ersatz as the ferns at their tables, with which they have merged.  The powerful image of death in the preceding stanza has brought the speaker into closer physical proximity (across the road) to the tourists, but she speaks from an even greater moral distance, as she beckons us to join her in pointing a mocking finger, "Look," at the scarcely human creatures.  The nameless tourists represent her desire to lose her ego boundaries, but the accompanying fear keeps her at a distance from them.

     But the speaker, in maintaining distance between herself and those she watches, becomes like them.   While they are in danger of becoming one with the environment they have trivialized, she is in danger of losing herself in emptied space.  The last stanza manages that fear by aestheticizing the reaches of emptied time and space.  The tourists' collectively empty eye becomes "somehow beautiful" when deprived of the last traces of its humanity.  In the surreal image, like that in the first stanza reminiscent of a Margritte painting, the tourists have become a river composed of a single huge, blank, reflecting but uncomprehending eye that has passively absorbed, rather than actively devoured the monuments and the history they signify.  Their eyes are as unseeing as the eyes of classic statues, and their dehumanization has spared them the agony of death.  But since the tourists are "classic in their anxiety," the empty eyes of classic statues, and the unseeing eye of the surreal river associated with them, must for the speaker also carry anxiety.  The anxiety, most intense in this stanza, makes explicit the feeling generated by the nervous discontinuity and strained distance of the entire poem.  That intensity suggests that the speaker's unwillingness to approach closely the living flesh of the tourists, which carries the odour of mortality, leaves her in a beautiful, clean, but empty space, empty like the eyes of greek statues, and that the attempt to aesthetisize it fails to relieve the anxiety that arises from the consequent emptiness and loneliness.

     The merger between the tourists and the monuments on which they gaze is completed in the river image, an image similar to that of the dying soldiers who merge with the statues, or of the photographs of themselves into which the tourists merged before.  The incessantly unchanging motion of the river gives a kind of life to the static ruins that it reflects.   She sees them as "somehow beautiful" only when historical, spatial and moral distance have also merged, obliterating in the process all aspects of their humanity.  The tourists seem beautiful to the speaker only when she sees them as a phenomenon, divested of even the collective and anonymous humanity of the first stanza, and they seem ugliest when seen closest, at the cafe tables.

     On one level I don't like this poem.  The sudden shifts and leaps that make the poem difficult seem designed to conceal the speaker's indulgence in a too easy sense of superiority.  It feels to me as though the different stance of moral superiority seems to be unearned, like Eliot's scorn of the carbuncular young man," and I refuse her invitation, in the fifth stanza, to join her in it.  It would be bad faith to accept, for I have been a tourist, carried a camera, and sat at cafe tables.  I also believe travel heightens consciousness, even in our world of charter flights.  She would have seen me amongst that anonymous river, but she would have been wrong to think me without consciousness, or meaningful individual history, or to assume that watching the watchers makes one superior to them.  I don't like the poem's snobbishness.  In encouraging us to join her in this spurious superiority, it draws on the mass response its overt business it is to condemn, and by my standards is a bad poem for restricting rather than enriching its readers' appreciation of experience as well as their self-awareness.

     If I were teaching this poem to an undergraduate or lower division class, after having gone through, or elicited, this reading from them, I would ask for their responses, and stop there.  But I would prefer to be teaching this poem to more advanced students, because I find myself interested in and moved by the "classic anxiety" involved in the speaker's superior stance — the fear of and the desire for what Freud would call an oral merger.  The surreal quality emphasizes the way in which the speaker uses the image of the faceless tourists as a screen on which to project her fears and desires.  The strongest impulse in the poem, the one that generates almost all the images, is to merge things, individuals into a collective identity, people into photographic images, statues into those they depict, things and their images in water, the present into history.  At the same time, the speaker fears the results of the merger, which she avoids by maintaining physical, historical and moral distance from those she describes.  But that distance isolates and disembodies her, putting her at risk of merging into a kind of abstract nothingness, the classically empty eyes, that she also seeks to avoid.  However, she prefers that disembodied feeling to the flesh which plunges into death.  For more insight into the dynamics involved in the fear of merging and the desire to merge one's individuality into a larger collective entity that the speaker expresses in the poem, I will have to look to other poems.  I have not read all of this poet's work, but have studied the volume in which this poem appears, and will now seek from other poems in that volume some clarification of specific images in this poem, and greater understanding of what lies behind the deep ambivalence I find here.2

     What follows is a very summary and oversimplified analysis of the context in which this poem appears.  The earliest poems in the volume have few people in them, and most have no explicit speaker.  "Landscape with Serifs," and "Cook's Mountains," have intensely discreet natural images, rendered unreal by intermixture with images of the senses that observe them, ie. "two senses / threaded through / a knuckle bone."  The sense of interdependence of the seer and that seen renders the speaker's experience somewhat fragile, subject to changing time and place.  When people enter these poems they disturb the accord between the speaking voice and the natural beauties it describes.  "Brazilian Fazenda" is unusual here in that it acknowledges a narrative voice, an "I", but that voice is discontent with its own presence.  The speaker who was "in a bridal hammock" wishes to return on an ordinary day when she can "stare at the sugar white pillars," without being disturbed by the obtrusive presence of her own drama.

     The poems in the second section, Dreams of Caves and Winter, introduce people, but at a great distance from the speaking voice.  They appear as objects of wonder, their eyes, similar to those of the tourists, hold strange, distant and snowy landscapes, or they are mechanical and somewhat frightening.  In "T-Bar", which has much in common with our poem, the speaker's voice describes lifeless and mechanical people who, like somnambulists, ride the t-bar up the ski slopes.  The frightening mechanical quality becomes associated with sexuality when the speaker sees each bridal couple "wakened" from their "recurring dream" at the summit.  The implied sexuality, suggested by their "tandem trajectory" in the snow, acquires a nightmare mechanical quality in the associated image of the "spastic T-bars" that "pivot and descend."  This poem suggests a speaker who remains in a semi-merged, or childlike, relationship to her environment for fear of awakening from it into a sexual maturity that seems to her grotesque and mechanical.  But the price of drawing back from the adult world appears in the following poem, "The Snowman," in which the spectre of slowly greying and disintegrating snowmen represents a nightmarish "landscape without love" (p. 33).  The divide between childhood, or a state in which the consciousness merges with its environment, and adulthood, in which it is individuated, becomes the subject of the next sections, The Bands and the Beautiful Children, and In times Like These.  In the child state, also associated with the dream state, and with images of being submerged in water, the bright things of nature pervade the undifferentiated consciousness, whereas adult eyes are "incredibly bright stones" and the adult mind holds beliefs like "crash helments." Sexuality, which marks the borderline between the two states, seems at best murky and troubled, and at worst, becomes the "bright hooks" that make earth, rather than entrancing waters, the "natural element for young girls (p. 43).  But the poet cannot simply remain in the enticing realm of the undifferentiated, for, associated with dream, it also brings nightmare visions of being devoured and of dying in the watery depths.  The poet is now caught between images of an empty and trivial life of ordinary adulthood which she defines in terms of an ersatz, unthinking, possessive and materialistic mass society, and those of a merger into some other state that is also associated with death.

     And that brings us to The Permanent Tourists the section of Cry Ararat! from which our poem is taken.  Most of the poems here are spoken by an impersonal and distant observer of the masses.  The figures in these poems are caught between empty mechanical waking and adult lives, for which the empty eye is a persistent image — "The pin men of madness in marathon trim / race round the track of the stadium pupil" — and threatening watery, sometimes sexual forces that move beneath their veneered lives.  "The Permanent Tourists" of all the poems is the most distanced, and the speaker of it seems most self-deceived.  It is, in my view, the worst poem of the volume.  Other poems in this section portray individuals rather than masses, the voice being sometimes ironic, or sardonic, but in some laced with sympathy for the painful emptiness beneath the bizarre surfaces of the lives she depicts.   In these poems as in the entire volume, there are no renderings of present love relations, but the conflict between the fear of and desire for merger that I have been tracing finds some resolution in "Now this Cold Man" in which an old and stiff man doing his spring gardening merges into the kind of intensely precise images of nature that characterizes the earliest poems of the volume.  As his body becomes the soil, and "glistening jonquils blossom from his skull, something rare and perfect, yet unknown, / stirs like a foetus just behind his eyes."  The merger here seems beneficent, suggestive of renewal, particularly because the foetus in his eyes contrasts sharply with the coldly vacant eyes that gaze through other poems.  But this sense of renewal is associated with individuals alone with nature.  Human relationships in "The Puppets," the final poem of the section, are represented by puppets who on their strings enact the range of human passions.

     The poems in A Personal Landscape, as the title suggests, are much more emotionally immediate.  All but one contain a narrative "I" or and all render immediate emotional states, mostly with natural images, but some with other people.  Those emotions are painful — "For us no greeting without bleeding, / no meeting without weeping" — but it is as though some of the painful feelings that kept the voice of the previous poems at such a distance from the fleshiness of life have at last found direct expression.  This new state in which living individual experience and human relations are joined to, rather than opposed to, images suggestive of immersion and merger is encapsulated in the poem entitled "In a Ship Recently Raised from the Sea," in which a past love is rescued from the deeps and integrated into a present moment of love.  The last poem from which the volume derives its title explicitly asserts the need to remain present to oneself: "Return to your head," says the speaker, and "this flora-fauna flotsam, pick and touch, / requires the focus of the total I."

     In the context of the entire volume, "The Permanent Tourists" now appears to me as the turning point in a poetic enterprise to resolve fears that impeded the poetic expression of individuated emotions toward other human beings, perceived as separate entities.   By the end of the volume the poetic voice deals simultaneously with easeful and vulnerable feelings that were presumably experienced most intensely in infancy, and with the experience of oneself and others as discreet and bounded entities.  Since I am now in a position to see the strained distance and brittle judgement that thins both the poem's voice and its subject in "The Permanent Tourists" as a stage in a more generous and open project, they now seem a poignantly painful moment in a large poetic enterprise.  I am also struck by the phenomenon that appears here, and that seems so pervasive in human experience, that that which is best in these poems, the intense and delicate beauty with which they render our interconnectedness with our world, arises from the same emotional source as those qualities I dislike in the poem chosen as the subject of this panel.3


  1. Strictly speaking I should refer only to the poet, but since I know her to be a woman, I will simplify my sentences by using the feminine pronoun.[back]

  2. I realize that the poems were not written in the order in which they appear in the volume.  While it would be interesting to know the order in which they were written, two assumptions underly the following discussion.   The first is that psychological projects are not necessarily accomplished in a strictly linear progression, and, second, that the aesthetic principle on which the author finally ordered the poems would, consciously or unconsciously, be related to a retrospectively apprehended psychological narrative.[back]

  3. I could assume that the poet wanted to draw my attention to the drama I have observed in the changing voice of the poems and its changing relation to its subject.  I do not feel that to be so in these poems, though the title gives me pause.  I think that there is no way to resolve definitively this kind of issue, but I am curious to know when the last poem was written in relation to the rest, and when, in relation to the writing of the poems, the volume received its title.   Assuming the author's conscious intention to render the drama I have discussed would to some measure change my judgement; I would, for example, think "The Permanent Tourists" a very clever rendering of an alienated and self-deceptive speaker.   It would still seem a flawed, or incompletely realized poem, for standing alone it does not invite the deeper reading.  Though this assumption would not alter my description of the experience being rendered in the volume as a whole, it would in subtle and not very rational ways alter my sense of relationship to the voices I hear as I read the poetry.[back]