Under the Superstition Mountains

Context:

The Superstition Mountains are in Arizona.  According to Native American legend there is a hole in the mountain which leads to the underworld.  This creates a link to Skirrid Hill. Thus, the collection itself is connected to this place; we can expect to see many of the collection’s themes borne out in this poem.  Notably, the connection of Wales to America through the similarities identified between the two mountains, creates the impression of a common globalisation of culture, as well as the suggestion that the depiction of society in the poem isn’t dissimilar to that in Britain.  The themes of legends and heritage are also implied here.

Sun City is a place in Arizona below Superstition Mountain. In 2000, according to a census, there were no inhabitants below the age of 18 and over 80% of those living there were above the age of 60 years old.

Many of the other examples of textual analysis I have read on-line suggest that this poem is voiced by a private eye; however, I would prefer to offer a more autobiographical interpretation. Owen Sheers visited Sun City with a photographer, David Hearne, who was completing a project on aging. The first person narrative suggests that this is an account of this experience. The reference to the Eels song, ‘Susan’s House’, also reinforces this idea; Sheers signposts that he is influenced by his present experiences, not just his heritage.

Consider the rest of the collection:

  • What evidence is there that Sheers has often used his personal experiences and reflections on them in this collection?
  • How often and when has Sheers used first person? Does this support or challenge the autobiographical interpretation of the text?
  • Why might the themes of heritage and legends be significant when exploring the other ideas such as Sheers’ presentations of ageing, relationships, death and life-cycles in this poem?

 

Analysis:

The reference to ‘Susan’s House’ by The Eels also introduces the idea that this poem will explore the idea of a society in breakdown. The quotation he has chosen from these lyrics suggests that the people of Sun City, America or society itself are not honest about their decline. The ‘white picket fence’ is a famous symbol of American suburbia and the American dream: success from endeavour, domestic bliss and harmony. Thus, we see this breakdown applies to more than just Sun City.  Indeed, the conflict created between the statement ‘Nothing hiding behind’ it and the images of violence and crime depicted in the rest of the song, suggests a lie in the symbol of American perfection and presents the notion that this society is clearly displaying its vices for all to see.

 Consider the rest of the poem:

  • Might the name ‘Sun City’ remind you of another place name in America which might be alluded to here? How might this support the interpretation of a society in breakdown?
  • What other symbol of America’s golden age can you find in the poem? How is it described: consider what it is doing and the language used to describe it. How does your analysis support the interpretation of the poem as reflecting America’s breakdown?
  • How might analysis of the title support the meanings drawn from his reference to ‘Susan’s House’?
  • Research Lowell: how might an understanding of his poem and his status as a confessional poet support this interpretation also?

Analysis:

The concept of voyeurism is introduced again in this poem: the voice of the poem describes reading a Lowell poem, suggesting that he is fascinated by the lives of others. Also, the fact that it is him who is awake as the photographer ‘sleeps’ could demonstrate that he is more interested in observing the lives of others than the person whose occupation it is to do so.  The idea that he is visiting with a photographer at all supports the idea that this visit is allowing them to indulge in watching the lives of others.  Perhaps we might make a link to the dangerous depiction of cameras in ‘Show’ and the negative representation of voyeurism Sheers creates in this poem.  We can also make links to the theme of relationships and their importance in defining us.  In voyeurism, there is danger: we don’t truly know people; they don’t touch us; we just look on. Thus, we cannot be complete or truly matter.

Consider the rest of the collection:

  • Where else do we see voyeurism? How is it represented? Are the ideas expressed consistent? Why do you think this is?
  • Where else do we see the notion that human contact is crucial to our own identity?

Consider the rest of the poem:

  • What evidence is there in the poem to suggest that our voice is not the only one guilty of voyeurism?
  • What further evidence can you find to suggest that this is not a positive society in which to live?

 

Analysis:

The poem explores ideas surrounding ageing as a part of our life-cycle as it is set in a ‘place where only the old are allowed to live’. This statement in itself appears paradoxical and unnatural, as we would ordinarily associate death with the old, rather than living. We see that Sheers presents the life here as abnormal. This conflict is developed even further through the irony of the ‘man in a track-suit taking his oxygen tank for a walk’. Here the implication that relationships are with things and are self-centred.  The modern practice of clinging on to life with medical support is exposed and almost ridiculed through this.  The symbol of the Mustang being ‘idle’, a classic car model left to sit doing nothing, suggests the waste and emptiness which may come with age.

 

Consider the rest of the collection:

  • Where do we see references to life, death and medicine? Are the ideas Sheers expresses here similar to those elsewhere in the collection? How might they develop your analysis of the theme of life-cycles in this poem?
  • How does Sheers present age elsewhere in the collection? What meanings are reinforced and developed?

Consider the rest of the poem:

  • How far has Sheers presented ageing as dangerous?

 

Analysis:

The theme of nature is evident in the poem also. Its enduring power is symbolised by the mountains themselves, and the idea of regeneration and life-cycles is created by the rattlesnake which ‘shakes itself alive’.  The fear and danger associated with the shake of the rattlesnake’s tale are juxtaposed with the idea of the snake itself being scared as it ‘shakes’.  Perhaps suggesting that this is a frightening place or experience for everything there.

Consider the use of birds:

  • What might birds symbolise in this poem? What meanings might be created by Sheers’ use of birds here?
  • Where else do we see birds in the collection? Are they presented similarly or differently here? What meanings are created through these comparisons?