Monday, December 8, 2014

Early Sunday Morning - Edward Hirsch

I used to mock my father and his chums
for getting up early on Sunday morning
and drinking coffee at a local spot
but now I'm one of those chumps.

No one cares about my old humiliations
but they go on dragging through my sleep
like a string of empty tin cans rattling
behind an abandoned car.

It's like this: just when you think
you have forgotten that red-haired girl
who left you stranded in a parking lot
forty years ago, you wake up

early enough to see her disappearing
around the corner of your dream
on someone else's motorcycle
roaring onto the highway at sunrise.

And so now I'm sitting in a dimly lit
cafe full of early morning risers
where the windows are covered with soot
and the coffee is warm and bitter.

The narrator of this poem is plagued by bitter memories of his youth, his "old humiliations" which revisit him in dreams, making noise, dogging him into rising early every Sunday.  In his youth, he mocked his father and his father's friend for this same thing, rising early for Sunday coffee, and now, in his own words, Hirsch is one of those chumps.

The resigned attitude Hirsch has towards this new Sunday ritual is interesting to me.  He knows that "no one cares" about his old humiliations, that girl who stood him up forty years ago, but he seems to now instinctively seek out the company of other people in similar situations.  I particularly like the image of Hirsch himself as "an abandoned car" with a string of empty tin cans rattling behind him.  The tin cans are empty, because they are memories of dreams unfulfilled, and they rattle, because these old humiliations still bother him greatly.  

The cafe itself sounds like a dismal place of small comfort.  Grimy, full of old chumps who can't sleep because of their pitiful dreams (at least Hirsch depicts himself as pitiful, not pitiable), it doesn't sound like the most pleasant place.  The crumb of comfort is the coffee.  While the memories may be bitter, thinking of "warm and bitter" coffee warms my bones a bit.  Bitter is a good thing in coffee, so far as I'm concerned.  Sure, the place may have sooty windows, and be full of old people dragging about their old humiliations, but at least the coffee is warm.


  1. The image of tin cans rattling behind a car brings to mind the decoration affixed to the cars of newlyweds as they drive off on their honeymoon. Was the author here jilted at the altar? The impact on his psyche is as strong as if he had been. For newlyweds, the rattling cans shout out "Look at us here in our car, we're so happy." The author's car is empty, emblematic of unfulfilled expectations he had for the red headed girl. No one is looking because she never got into this car with him. Like the chic young woman in those old cola commercials of the 1970's, she's ridden off on the back of someone else's motorcycle, following her own passions, incomprehensible to the one left behind.

    Cola: cold and sweet. Coffee: warm and bitter. Too far a stretch? Nothing else in the poem to suggest this comparison (weren't cola cans metal 40 years ago?, was the RC Cola woman red haired?) Still, a hallmark of art and what makes it enjoyable to mull in our imagination: the artist has taken something real and tangible to him, presenting it to us in a highly condensed form. When we rehydrate it with the juices of our own imagination / experiences / memories, personal and cultural, a multitude of products are obtained, some the author intended and some due to our own idiosyncratic memories.

    I like the image of waking up early enough to catch something disappearing around the corner of your dreams. Despite the unresolved tension of this disappointment, the author is clearheaded enough to suggest to us what's lurking in his subconscious dreams, even if the man within the poem fails to address it head on.

    Bitter: at first glance I took this as the pejorative hurt or angry. But as the commentary above suggests, bitter can also mean sharp, unadorned, clear sighted, not covered up and hidden under obsequious sweet platitudes. I'm can see the case for either interpretation of bitter, but I see more support for hurt, angry or disconsolate: The sooty windows suggests this pessimistic view of his memories. Soot can obscure our vision, and in contrast to rose tinted glass, sooty windows gives its own dismal cast to what we see through them.

    1. Wonderfully insightful comment, Joe, thank you very much for sharing.