Dan Schneider’s Poem: Midnight at a White Castle in Bloomington, Minnesota

Edit:

Dan recently wrote to me about the onions part that I was not clear on. He had this to clarify:

In the White Castle poem, sliders are what the little square hamburgers are called, and they are cooked with onions so that they smell and taste oniony- which is why the reference to onions recalling.

(08/05/17)

This is a poem that Dan himself commented on and analysed because he was critiqued by someone who couldn’t even follow Dan’s diction in the poetry. So you get a bit of an insight into how he went through the process of its creation:

Midnight at a White Castle in Bloomington, Minnesota

The girl recalls 7:37 p.m.,
and its twilit heart that the nighthawks whiled by,
as she presses her nose against the smudgeless glass
to watch them eat. A colder lean in to learning
engages her eyes as the customers glide by
the burgeoning white, that vanishes up close, as
the night loses dominion within the light square
and she drools for a slider, a hunger that stems
from a place that she shares with them: unawareness
undiscovered. The manager sees her prying
gaze, and orders the child away. So, she leaves
the bushes, till onions recall. It is not fair–
this notion of unawareness that no one grieves
for, or reflects: a boundary which never was.

I won’t paste that text – but you can read it over here. I agree with Dan – this isn’t a hard poem to follow in terms of the narrative, at least, if you have significant experience with someone who uses a higher level of hermeticism like Wallace Stevens. It also has a lot of subtle turns that, once again, are hidden under the surface of what seems to be a prosaic stretch of text. If a critic cannot follow the general thread of the words in this poem – that critic has no right to be a critic – but, even a critic like that may miss out on some beautiful ambiguities hidden within.

But I want anyone who is reading this analysis to stay on this page first, because there is a secret theme to this poem. And there is a reason why Dan wanted to keep it a secret. I will reveal it at the end of this analysis.

There’s a bit of background that Dan says you might need to know though: “Note that the ‘White Castle’ is in Bloomington, Minnesota- an affluent suburb in 1 of the ‘whitest’ states in the union.”

The poem also makes a reference to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

With that in mind, let’s get into the poem:

The girl recalls 7:37 p.m.,
and its twilit heart that the nighthawks whiled by,
as she presses her nose against the smudgeless glass

At the start, we get a girl recalling a specific time – 7.37pm – and this is the ‘twilit heart that the nighthawks whiled by’ – referencing Hopper while also giving a kind of atmosphere of the place, set between the dimming of darkness and rising of light. It recalls the lonely austerity of the painting. We get a description of the girl ‘pressing her nose against smudgeless glass’ – with an emphasis on that ‘smudgeless’. Why the emphasis, will be teased out in the rest of the poem.

to watch them eat. A colder lean in to learning
engages her eyes as the customers glide by
the burgeoning white, that vanishes up close, as
the night loses dominion within the light square

As she watches them eat, there is a ‘colder lean in to learning’ – something seems to be gained inside her, but we don’t exactly know what yet. Only we know it’s ‘cold’ – so it must be a bitter truth. But this truth ‘engages her eyes as the customers glide by’ – the descriptor ‘glide’ giving the customers a ghostly feel. Then, they glide by the ‘burgeoning white’ – which recalls the painting again, where this white diner seems to be a sanctuary against the surrounding darkness. But, following the grammar of the whole sentence, the next ‘vanishing up close’ seems to be linked to the ‘colder lean’ – which, if this is a White Castle burger shop – implies hunger and the outside elements. Her colder lean (possibly hunger) vanishes up close to the White Castle shop. Yet, it also, within the line, links up with the white – which makes them more ghost-like in the image. These white and ghostly customers, almost like divine angels, float up before the eyes of the girl.

Then, night loses dominion within the light square – which is exactly the effect that Hopper’s painting achieved.

and she drools for a slider, a hunger that stems
from a place that she shares with them: unawareness
undiscovered. The manager sees her prying
gaze, and orders the child away. So, she leaves

And the point about the hunger is reinforced – but that isn’t the only ‘colder lean’ in the text. The next bitter truth will be coming to her next. She has a ‘hunger that stems from a place she shares with them’. But this place she shares is revealed as ‘unawareness’ – of what? What are they both unaware of?

Perhaps, each other – as she is a ghost to them in the realm of darkness, and they are ghosts to her in the realm of light. She shares their hunger, yet dissipates in their vision – a human being they cannot empathize or acknowledge.

And then, ‘undiscovered’ – the manager comes and chases her away. Why? Why does Dan enjamb at ‘prying’? What does the manager think she’s infringing on? Some kind of lifestyle?

the bushes, till onions recall. It is not fair–
this notion of unawareness that no one grieves
for, or reflects: a boundary which never was.

‘Onions recall’ is the bit of abstraction that I’m not clear about, but it could be a subversive way to describe how the girl is crying – she is crying to the point where the food and desire for it has melded within her. But that’s just one view. But, there is a kind of injustice over here. It’s not fair, this sudden removal from the premises – she is forced to leave ‘the bushes’ a kind of smaller place of poverty compared to the internal light of the White Castle.

What isn’t fair to her? This ‘notion of unawareness that no one grieves’ – linking back to the above statement, calling back that separation that the both of them have, a metaphysical rift now. No one knows.

But, it reflects (and this is both a physical reflection and a mental one) – the ‘boundary which never was’.

What is this boundary?

With all the things teased you may have guessed it. The colours, the talk of Minnesota, the subversion of Edward Hopper’s lonely light sanctuary in the darkness.

To put it simply – Racism.

But, that would be too simple.

This is a great poem that talks about the metaphysics of prejudice, and how reality manifests to both the oppressor and oppressed – they both view each other as ghosts, and just that one is a ghost in a realm of darkness, and the other – a ghost in the realm of light.

Dan himself has repeated how many times that he hated politicization and agitprop in poetry – the political impinging on the art. And thus, in order to prove everyone that it could be done – he wrote a poem that could be, in micro, specifically about American Racism – but, in the macro, speaks about all kinds of prejudice in the world, and how the perceiver and the perceived view it – and how even the victim is trapped within the boundary. The phenomenological perspective of it. Just think about all the people who fall into aggression and radicalism for the sake of some ideology, even if it stands for something good. Even if it helps the victim.

You can apply this poem to all sorts of prejudice, even the divide that occurred from the American elections between separate ideologies that see each other as figments and bugaboos in the night – while they view each other from their own lonely Hopperian sanctuaries – bleeding their hunger into one another.

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