Desolation and Play

3 Sep

Desolation and Play

Wallace Stevens (1879-1954) is the last great poet of the West. Like all great achievers and things, he is the poet of the essence of his culture’s identity, figuration. In the tercets that are his most characteristic form, as if embodying in aesthetic music the trans-historical concept of Joachim de Flores, Stevens constantly interrogates figuration, particularly metaphor about its worthiness as a medium to truth, to reality as he pursues a dual track to transfiguration: by negating and stripping metaphor to expose the ding an sich, “the Emperor of Ice Cream” and by a lyrical play of sound and metaphor startling and surreal, surprising as his occasional rhymes that seem irrepressibly human; they seem at once superbly poetic and new and dismissive of poetic ‘high art.’ Figuration is a glorious fiction, a lie, Stevens repeatedly suggests, expressing the inevitable confession and self-disclosure of his culture, a cult of figuration. Like the West, all figuration inevitably exhausts itself and ends on a dump. The real poetry is the life that is the remains of life, of making (poiesis) and artifice: the dump to which all things (“azaleas and so on”) are coming, will come or are, “the janitor’s poems.”
The twin pillars of his art, if one had to pick two, are “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (Harmonium 1923) and “The Man on the Dump” (1942, Parts of a World). If one were to include another handful they could be “Domination of Black,” “Of Modern Poetry,” “Asides on the Oboe,” “The Plain Sense of Things” and “A Quiet Normal Life” (the last two from The Rock, 1955). This essay will stick mainly to the pillars noted above.

Stevens works at the boundary where craft and insouciance combine; where striving for plain speech and description become so intense they seem to generate figurations of bizarre hyper-clarity that makes the world seem doggedly surreal and nakedly emphatic. “Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up” begins “The Man on the Dump.” Striving to rejuvenate perception, Stevens evokes thoughts of Dracula scaling the wall of his castle, cockroaches, cripples and all that is grotesque and disgusting rather than gloriously romantic. Yet personification remains. While “the sun is a corbeil of flowers” “a bouquet the moon places there,” doubly an artifice, a cathedral ornament, Stevens laughs at his elegance: “Ho – ho” for “the dump is full of images.” The days there “pass like papers from a press” and, as in The Emperor of Ice Cream” “bouquets come in [yesterday’s] papers.” The sun becomes a series of suns both hallucinatory and banal, flipping like an image in the early cartoon technique. The stream of time becomes a mechanical process, old news mocked by new news that mocks itself and the beauty of nature and spring emerges and is buried in the printing. Sun and moon take their place among the debris of discards that are “the janitor’s poems of everyday,” wrappers, dead cats in bags, old corsets, odd knick knacks and tin cans in which fresh water, not long to be fresh, “smacks like the sea against a cocoanut,” not fresh because the sea, and its image, are salt and because of the rust, dirt and decay that are the context of the poem, a poem about the draining of the poetry of all things into the ultimate poem, the dump that is a metaphor for mind. Stevens, Shelley’s heir has taken down “the cloud of mind discharging its collected lightning” and its explicit social, legal and moral renovations and made it a place where “the dewiest dew” and the human ornaments it inspires, the metaphors for natural freshness that is all human work and passion becomes hatefully fraudulent except when it settles “on the dump.”

Springtime and the dump are equally disgusting “(that disgust and this”) and the efflorescence of spring, the paradise of the Renaissance and Romance, are food for the dump, a series (“azaleas, trilliums, myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox) like the days churned out on a press, banal bouquets. All is trash and when recognizes this disgusting end to the disgust of imposture, then “one feels the purifying change” as the romance of spring is replaced by the reality of the dump as the ultimate symbol of life. “That’s the moment” when “everything is shed” and, amid “the bubbling of bassoons… the moon comes up as the moon” and nothing else and is seen by a man (“not like an image of a man”, the simile alluding to the duality made by figuration and to its inescapability). But the end of figuration is emptiness: one is alone with the fact itself amid the tired gray “elephant colorings of tires.”

What, then, is the point of poetry, even in the service of “stripping the veil of illusion from the world” to “reveal the inmost naked beauty of its forms”? Repetitive, relentless, desperate and dull, it is like Los pounding his anvil to compel what is indefinite, delusive, insincere and anxious into particular form: “one sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.” One is hard-pressed to find a more stripped down vision of poiesis. In the rusted lard pail is the truth, one’s own truth: “one beats and beats for that which one believes, that’s what one wants to get near.” One hears in these verses the desperate thrust of Marlow’s narration in Heart of Darkness: the obsessive relation of the traumatic experience of innermost truth is like a dream and “we live as we dream, alone.”

Having identified the truth as the goal of poetry found when poiesis is seen as the primal and un-figured pounding of a drum (another evidence of the West’s regression and its hunger for the primitive and ‘authentic,’ for the end of transfigurative fictions) Stevens ends in a series of questions that challenge the icons of Western romance and poetry. Crows and “the blatter of grackles” displace the nightingale which perhaps tortures the ear and scratches the mind. The grating cackle of grackles, not the euphony of Keats is the “invisible priest” that mediates “the philosopher’s honeymoon” when truth is possessed as what “one finds on the dump.” All these deflations and revisions occur within a series of questions, seven in all, countering the ten sayings of creation’s six days and seventh of rest. “Is it, is it, is it, is it, is it” Stevens pounds it in with his tin lard pail as his searing and witty questions “pull the day to pieces and cry ‘stanza my stone,’ a quintessence of his humorous and bitter paradoxes and tone. As he ejects and tears with his questioning, like someone cutting for kidney stone, he alludes also to Jacob’s blessing of Joseph who “shepherded the stone of Israel” a metaphor for the patriarch and a synonym for the Creator, the model of all poiesis and art, as Tasso famously said. The last question, locating itself in space, is about the definite article isolated in space and doubling – reflecting itself, like an image, the ultimate image, “The the,” a fragment that needs no noun or action or any context but itself for it is the genuine article, the particular, “the truth.” That is the question, the last question of “The Man on the Dump,” the man seeking true articulation amid the repository of life returned from imagery to life, discarded from its uses and genuine at last, alone in an empty sky.

Where was it one first heard of the truth, — on the dump; The truth arises from the mind-dump as “the moon creeps up” and the mind constitutes itself, the Romantic fiction, Wordsworthian epic of the egotistical sublime as the West approaches the nature of the Divine, undoing itself and its constituent fictions. The unformed universe is the dump’s prototype, pure potential, that is power, that contains all things like “the poem of the act of the mind.”

In its death truth at last emerges: “if her horny feet protrude they come to show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam; the only Emperor is the Emperor of Ice Cream.” This is better than Yeats’ mocking of the “drowsy emperor” to whom he fancies he will sing in his paradoxical state, “out of nature” but still in “bodily form” of gold enameling; for Stevens is in dead earnest. No cultist, he is both prosperous and down and dirty with all the impulses of Romance but none of the strained self-delusion of the reactionary Yeats. He is the poet of “the waste of the lilies” where “a rat comes out to see” the stillness of the great pond of mind and, at the end of the ride and glorious imposture, one has to imagine the death of the imagination, as the West has construed it. “The poem of the act of the mind” is a metaphor of the Creator and the universe in which ‘He’ is expressed.

To this death Isaiah and the Scriptures remains the tonic but we will write of that light another time. Neither we nor the world are ready to arise and shine. Those who do are obscured by the media and distraction machine; portrayed, when they are recognized at all as debris on a dump.

1. Thus Nietzsche suggests that Christianity, the meta-transfiguration by which the West constituted itself in multi-layered self-veiling conceits is “the greatest intellectual counterfeit in history” which inevitably strips itself of illusion by the commitment to truth it appropriated from Judaism. “The burning evening sky” of the West reflects the sublimity and truth of Judaism. See Beyond Good and Evil section 250 for the last quote.
2. Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” (1821); see similarly his “The Witch of Atlas” and description of the apotheosis of Asia in Prometheus Unbound II.v. amid many of his images of revealing veils.
3. Stevens, “The Plain Sense of Things” (The Rock 1955)
4. Stevens, “Of Modern Poetry” (Parts of a World 1942); all of Beckett can be derived from a few verses of Stevens: “the actor is a metaphysician in the dark twanging a wiry string that gives sounds passing through sudden rightnesses wholly containing the mind…”


One Response to “Desolation and Play”

  1. Eugene Narrett September 3, 2011 at 5:21 am #

    Sorry the footnotes don’t properly encode in the text. Read Stevens; read Shelley; read Heart of Darkness…

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