Edward Hopper. Gas, 1940. Oil on Canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
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
where the tourist from Syracuse stopped in to ask about a place to stay for
the night. Or possibly the station where Al and Max, Hemingway's killers,
gassed up on their way to Summit to kill the Swede, Ole Andreson.
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 and the film's director Robert Siodmak arouse,
I am strongly affected by the deep loneliness and sense of isolation it
Interestingly, however, the first work of literature I thought of when I
recently revisited this painting was not "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
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:
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
reminiscent of the shadows closing in around Hopper's gas station. And
he 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.
The full text of the poem is here:
(An earlier version of this essay appeared in
After the Art, Issue 6, December 2019.)