Unreal Nature

January 9, 2015

When They Are Lived With

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:09 am

… I imagine I am not through thinking about this poem … which … I have been brooding over and arguing with myself about for much of my adult life.

This is from the essay ‘Wallace Stevens in the world’ (1985) found in What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World by Robert Hass (2012):

… As I was rereading the poem in the last few weeks, thinking about writing about it, I made another discovery. I decided that the crucial thing about it in the end is the rhythm of the first six lines of the second stanza that I had neglected to take in twenty-five years ago when I was not very interested in hearing about death:

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

This is as pitiless as any verse in Stevens, I think. That enjambment at the end of the fifth line and the stutter of a stop in the sixth delivers the last two syllables as baldly as anyone could contrive, and the rhyme — bum, bum — could not be more hollow. It is writing that returns the word mordant to its etymological root. And though I still think it is funny, it seems to me now to be, and to be intended to be, point-blank and very dark. And there are other things to notice. I think my disgust with the class-ridden drollery of the first stanza was not altogether misplaced, but it is certainly undercut by that shabby or melancholy or funny, in any case accurate, domestic touch — the glass knobs missing from the deal dresser. Deal is plain pine or fir, a middle-class dresser, spiffed up a bit with glass. And there is a kind of memento mori in the peacock tail that had been — “once,” he writes to suggest the pathos of all our efforts at décor — embroidered on the sheet. And there is also something plain-dealing and very like Robert Frost in the diction — “so as to cover”; and if her horny feet protrude, “they come / to show … ” Every detail of the writing is meant to make this death as homely and actual as … what? Not Guatemala certainly. As any death in Emily Dickinson.

… I imagine I am not through thinking about this poem or about “Sunday Morning” or “The Snowman” or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” or “The Idea of Order at Key West” or “Of Mere Being” or “The World as Meditation,” which are other poems I have been brooding over and arguing with myself about for much of my adult life. But I heard it early and I’ve lived with it for some time and thought that it would serve for one image of the way poems happen in a life when they are lived with, rather than systematically studied. Or alternately studied and lived with, and in that way endlessly reconceived — which seems to have been Wallace Stevens’s basic notion of the relation of the imagination to the world.

-Julie

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