Sensuality and Death: Being from Poiesis

4 Sep

“The Emperor of Ice Cream” [1] meditates on the interwoven quality of life at its most physically playful and death at its most solidly, coldly and silently emphatic. The fact of death refuses voice, it does not sing: it is an ultimate poem as life in its sensual self-enjoyment is its own poem and contains the generative act par excellence beyond words that merit recording.

You should have a copy of this masterwork, only sixteen lines long in two eight-verse stanzas, at hand when reading this essay.

The poem starts with an imagist masterpiece, an evocation of physicality bursting from the verb that is a synecdoche for inspiration: “call.” The calling of Stevens surpasses “petals on a wet black bough” [2]; Stevens displaces Pound’s “apparitions” of anonymous public faces and modernist urban alienation with generic but intensely vivid descriptions of localized sensuality, gustation and courtship. The alliteration is percussive and luscious and the image, in which one intuits the big mustachios Stevens needn’t even mention, is pervaded by sweetness, olfactory delight and desire:

Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Muscularity, roundness, glowing, flaring fire and sexual heat are heightened by contrast with the cold curds of cream that focus the gathering of the local wenches and youths who bring the flowers that are the real purpose of yesterday’s papers as we saw, in a more complex figure in “The Man on the Dump.” The lexical archaism of dawdling wenches matches the universal and eternal rite in which flowers are given as a sign of the deflowering that is life to come, life triumphant over signs.

The dominion of life ‘as it is used to wear,’ to clothe and disclose itself, over the image, the use of descriptive images to subvert image work Stevens encapsulates in one of the most memorably curious and denotative prescriptions of English verse: “Let be be finale of seem. / The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” The evocations of these two clauses actually make one declaration, first rigorously denotative and second ‘poetic’ or figurative and embody life and the image, being and seeming opposed and, opposite to image work, life subsumes the image, the figurative mirror exists to explicate the definitive statement of “The the…” the genuine article that is life, that is, the dump where images go to be dis-clothed of their veils and shadowy penumbras of nuance [3].

“Be” is doubled and doubly imperative in the brilliant first verse of the octet’s closing couplet and the sense of an ending is doubly present, once by rich allusion and once by plain statement. The phrase, “let be be finale of seem” thus encapsulates the poem’s entire structure and method. “Let be” is condensed “let it be,” a statement of relaxing acceptance tinged by fatalism. Its most sublime usage is in Hamlet’s rejection of intuited danger and continued role-playing and his acknowledgment of providence and “the readiness” for death, a sentiment perfectly apropos and proleptic of the second stanza of Stevens’ diptych. The dawdling wenches, bouquets of courtship, big cigars and concupiscent curds are the pregnancy of being that needs no invented dialog, that speaks in its depicted action, an eternal action that “holds the mirror up to nature” [4]. The richness of Stevens’ evocation of the local ice cream stand exalts everyday passion without ‘tearing it to tatters’ and, by paradox, a mode Stevens loves, observes the “modesty of nature” in its effulgent concupiscence. Formally and by auditory resonance, the doubling of “emperor” reflects the doubling of “be” and makes the mirroring of image work and its predations by the image subserve the dominion of being.

Doubling is essential to life, as in mitosis and meiosis, the organic model for poiesis that Nietzsche sought, and Hamlet knew that playing was its form. However he insists, like Stevens in this and his most unsparing poems, that the mirroring and paradoxes serve the stripping of metaphor in the tense dialectic of being and becoming repeatedly striving to isolate Being and confront its emptiness unveiled…

The second octet in this elegant poem that suggests and elides ottava rima, more closely approaches, with its half rhymes developing into full ones, the poetic form in the stiffly formal second panel of its diptych, reflects and trumps the first stanza with “take” paralleling and completing “call.” The assemblage in the connoted village square is balanced by a reclamation by death, a form of completion of one member of the company who moves into the last stages of her ripeness: there is a stripping and a simplified covering. Stevens insists that we must “let be” and certainly the corpse that gradually and startlingly becomes the center of the memento mori has “let be be finale of seem.” This is demand for resignation is the core of Stevens’ poetry of celebratory surrender of and by the image. It appears powerfully in late poems like “The Plain Sense of Things” and “A Quiet Normal Life.”

Suiting the word to the action, the syntax drives with ruthless precision to the thing itself: “unaccommodated man” or, in this case, woman, “a poor, bare, forked animal” undressed on “the dresser of deal” stripped of its “three glass knobs” as Lear is of his daughters and Edgar is of his name, station and, almost, his humanity; as a person, or a person’s character is un-charactered by death [5]. In Stevens the “nothing” of death is a thing of unsparing factuality asserted throughout the ‘sestet’ before the closing couplet: “take… that sheet and… cover her face.” It is not only the undescribed face, a source of implicit terror in the ancestry of Geraldine’s bosom and “half her side…a sight to dream of, not to tell” [6] but the brutally precise depiction of the protruding “horny feet” of the corpse “that come to show how cold she is, and dumb.” Stevens subordinates Romantic terror to the hard fact that succeeds ripeness, the cold of the ice cream is now literal in a different way and the eloquent dumb show of the dawdling flirters succeeded by a dumb show more final, the ultimate finale. Shining the light on his emblem of mortality like an old master of the brush, he puts the period to vocation in all its senses, giving the quietus to his “call” even as the dominion of ‘ice cream’ is shown by a gruesomely clever ‘buried’ pun to include the ice of death.

The closing couplet, like that in the first octet includes a descriptive statement stripped, not of allusion but of figuration and the triumphant metaphor that undoes figuration in crowning the facts of sensuality in life and death: “the readiness is all.”

1. Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923) with text from Wallace Stevens, the Collected Poems (NY 1990), 64

2. Ezra Pound, “In a Station in the Metro” (Poetry magazine, 1913)
3. Stevens, “The Man on the Dump” last two words, a non-sentence phrase that hangs suspended as if in air like the moon when it rises not as an image but as “the moon in the empty sky.”
4. Shakespeare, Hamlet 5.2.204-09; 3.2.15-22 and 3.2.1-41 inter alia (NY 2005, Longman Cultural Edition)
5. Shakespeare, King Lear 3.4.105-10; see 2.3.1-21 for Edgar’s literal and figurative unclothing as he is “brought near to beast” and becomes “nothing” to his true self.
6. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Christabel” (1797 – 1816), 250-3, “in the sight of this bosom there worketh a spell that is lord of the utterance, Christabel” suggests how deep may be the references subsumed by the Harvard-educated Stevens whose instructive corpse, at a wake perhaps, also is dumb. But there is no terror, simply the cold, hard simple facts of the room’s furnishings and the feet, modern precision displacing the sublime ineffability and accompanying terror of Romance.

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