Coney Island, New York, February, 1901
‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’
Just as the door to Mr Place’s room
begins to close, you glimpse a pistol in
its holster, sort of thing they use out West.
But mindful of his tip, you think no more
of it, until a few days’ later, when
you read how Pinkertons have chanced upon
a photograph of members of the Wild
Bunch outlaw gang. And there he is, him with
the classy broad in tow, the Sundance Kid
no less. You recognise the piercing eyes
from the adjacent suite, Butch Cassidy,
would you believe? You dine on him for weeks.
They leave next day, the Argentine, some say.
Whatever, they are never seen again.
How do we understand figures that span history and myth? In ‘Mr & Mrs Harry Place & James Ryan’, Peter Branson explores those spaces between, connecting perception and memory in his account of Butch Cassidy, Etta Place and Harry Longbaugh.
The poem’s title highlights the question of nomenclature, and of codes approved by society. It also creates a mystery: what is the relationship of this married couple (identified as Mr & Mrs) with James Ryan? What do those ampersands denote? Additional context is provided by a place and a date, and by the lyric of a movie song.
The first of these manages to be both precise and obscure. It gives us a milieu, a certain knowledge that Butch & Etta & Sundance did visit that place, at that time. But we cannot know what they saw, or what they said to one another. Historians cannot even tell us their true relationship. Was Etta the lover of one outlaw, or both? Was she a schoolteacher or a prostitute? And what was her place in the homosocial construct that was ‘Butch & Sundance’?
The 1969 film version of their lives has become the dominant interpretation of those figures, as flip, wisecracking heroes, played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. And in that movie, Butch and Etta (Katharine Ross) snatch a moment of happiness as they ride a bicycle through the countryside, accompanied by B.J. Thomas’ song. Is Branson condemning this potentially trite moment? Or is he acknowledging Hollywood as one of the ways we understand and approach mythic history?
If I tend toward the second reading it’s because Branson positions us with a bellhop, snatching a glimpse of a pistol as the door swings shut. In doing so, he re-establishes Butch as a figure of mystery, without losing his glamour. When we read of ‘the piercing eyes’, it’s difficult not to think of Paul Newman’s baby blues.
William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for that 1969 movie, once observed, ‘One of Butch’s weaknesses was he loved having his photograph taken.’ For me, this is a great triumph of Branson’s poem: it focuses us on the idea of imagery, on the way we represent ourselves, and the way others think of us. And Branson is clear-headed enough to recognize this as a carnivorous process – we consume Butch, we ‘dine on him for weeks’.
If the last line asserts the ultimate impossibility of knowing these figures, it does so in the sure knowledge that we do carry their pictures in our heads. And in this small, perfectly formed poem, Branson adds to the imaginative history of Butch, Etta and Sundance: I will not forget the door closing on a glimpse of the West, or the empty rooms they left behind.