Friday, May 24, 2013

Stevens Beyond Key West: Critical/Practical Inquiry

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely the place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
--Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West"

I take the lines of Stevens as a point of departure and form to fill. Whatever I have come to believe or to do in the 30 years since first reading them, they have become a part of my literary genetics, first as words in themselves, then as words about a place with which I've become slightly acquainted, one including but not limited to Key West. These are words that express a peculiarly American romantic breadth in the midst of mundane subject matter. They also address perennial questions of consciousness and form. They are great lines of poetry. My intention here is to ask whether they define and fix reality of the life of imagination or whether they indicate what is instead an open frontier.

She Was the Maker

The narrator of this poem pretends not to be the source of its power. As in Wordsworth's "Solitary Reaper", the subject and power of the poem come from the song of an overheard singer, and, as in Wordsworth, the song itself has no direct presentation. Stevens is a beneficiary of the song which he interprets, as is his companion Ramon Fernandez.¹ This at once seems an unfortunate situation, but the poem enacts the romantic trope of the unsingable song, and a certain amount of clumsiness in representing such a lyric is inevitable.
     "Maker" recalls the Greek root of the word poet and the lyric poet as one who makes songs. The singer in this poem is no one but. She is not a personification of nature, but one who gives order to it. Stevens allows little ambiguity in this identification. Her singing presence is the presence of mind apart from but reacting to the surrounding world. She is a representation of creative power itself.

Tragic-gestured Sea

The sea of this poem is a world of inhuman, unconscious form. The immediate, naive, question might be how the inhuman can make tragic gestures, and yet we understand the image and its connotation of the world that at best does not conform to our wishes. The sea, then, stands in for all the world as we know it with its striving and suffering.
     "Tragic-gestured" also comes to us referring to drama and the performance of actors, and so Stevens adds a great deal of ironic distancing from this reality and also shows the inextricable relationship between imagination and reality. I often refer to the phrase inspired by Allen Grossman about how poetry is, to one degree or another, reality mediated by imagination, or what he calls its "cybernetic" (regulating) function. Here the image of the sea, the image of the overwhelming, keeps the experience of actual tragedy at bay, as it were, so that the meaning of the poem can happen. More crudely, we don't experience a poem while drowning.²

Merely the Place
In encountering life there is a perceived choice between engaging with "things as they are" (as Stevens baldly put it in "The Man with the Blue Guitar"), whatever, whenever and wherever they may arise, and the option of withdrawing from that responsibility. Either choice leads to an annihilation. To opt out of engagement is to destroy one's identity as an autonomous entity and threatens the functioning of a wider community. To engage with reality in all its forms, to problem solve whatever the problem, also destroys, essentially making all situations the occasion for the same action, assigning no peculiar value to one problem over another. Personal identity of a sort remains, but the identity is like that of Sisyphus constantly rolling a boulder over hills in hell. Human value survives, but barely.
    The singer in "Idea of Order" also engages with reality, and she also performs an annihilation of a kind any competent problem solver does, so the reality of the place where she sings becomes "merely the place by which she walked to sing." It is a reality without value, a place interchangeable with any other place, a problem or a reality interchangeable with any other.
     If the singer walks through the world of suffering and orders it, if she has performed her mediation of reality, the for the moment of her song, for the time Stevens and Fernandez hear it, a community of the artist and audience has dome into being (Stevens also acts as that community's high priest). But "The Idea of Order at Key West" is a poem very much aware of its impermanence of feeling. And, in any case, the singing takes place in a world desolated by its own success. In making meaning it reveales a world barren of human meaning. Frank Kermode has referred to Stevens as "the poet of metaphysical poverty," in that Stevens always ran up against the inadequacy of imagination, the inability to form what he would call a "Supreme Fiction" that would resolve the problem.³
    At this point in the analysis, which takes place, after all, outside the poem, what further function can imaginative making perform? The very real sea of problems still exists, and it is desolate as ever. And we might prefer practical solutions to poetry, and yet our solutions also desolate.  Representation itself, which misrepresents as it describes (what sea wears a hood?), seems more and more dangerous in a world where stereotypes harm and generalizations breed ignorance. And if the singer's song is a limited moment for an insular audience (at Key West!) do we see a limit, finally, for any at all for imaginative representation?

We Should Ask This Often
"Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew/It was the spirit that we sought and we knew/That we should ask this often as she sang," says Stevens. It is a question within a poem; in fact it is a question limited by a song sung within a poem. Yet this limited question offers the most hopeful course of action, a program that can be taken outside of the poem and applied in a world where imagination and reality interact.
     It is in fact a strategy Stevens must have employed himself, to ask "Whose spirit is this?" or, more simply, "Who am I in this world of suffering?" For Stevens this question was too great to answer with a supreme fiction. On the other hand, the question fueled his poetic career all the way to the poem "Of Mere Being," which begins, "The palm at the end of the mind,/beyond the last thought, rises...." it attests to a life spent paying attention and asking a question.
     The question must be asked often; the details keenly perceived. Beyond the thought of the sea is the sea itself, its uses and dangers, whatever our desires craft it into being beyond water molecules or quantum foam or whatever coldest form is we can imagine. And then there is the human life that contains and creates the poetry. It has already created all the problems poetry will create. The trick is to deal with them as they arise and ask what they are. If our images create problems, perhaps we can take solace in the fact that they don't last forever. Critics such as Grossman have expressed dire urgency about the problems of representation and how the world goes on. But what other action can be taken by artists than to go on?
     At this point I sense that I have evaded my own question, that I have posed big problems about the utility of representation, refused to so solve them and then reached outside of literature to make another point. My original question, however. was about life and imagination and where there is room for them to continue. I have looked where Stevens's lines have pointed. The option for the poet is to continue or stop, whatever anyone says.
     Perhaps I can pick up some of the other issues at another time.

Postscript, 5/28/13. I've been mulling over whether this article is worth leaving up. It's pretty muddy. Also, since I reference Allen Grossman and talk about "annihilation," I need to clarify how I'm using the term differently than he would. Again, this may all be revisited at another time.

¹I abandon the controversy of whether Fernandez as figure in the poem or as apostrophized fascist literary critic. To someone coming cold upon this poem, Fernandez can only be a figure within it.

²For Grossman's critical account of what happens when this regulatory function fails in this literal way, see his astounding article on Hart Crane collected in The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle (University of Michigan Press, 1997).

³"Solitary Confinement," Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticism 1958-2002 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Autumn Journal

How long is the work, and what gets made?
In these hotter days of August,
in among the bluer weeds,
the insects work hard
at their music.

And some struggle in silence:
the mantis for instance. She collects
well-fed crickets
in her spurred and stealthy hands.
That's her business
among the cries of sparrows
and the crackling tread
of humans in the milkweed.

How dare you take my arm
and smile like a sister,
and lead me through this field,
me, a man who keeps his counsel?

So what if the chill comes? We'll stand.
The field will flatten out,
and we'll be alone in the waste.
The curse will miss us
just barely.

So you press me tighter.
So it's the season of the thistle's leaf.
Time for a rattle to start.
We worry a little. We gather
and we sweat
to save some cornflowers,
too busy now, too modest.

Look here how
the pods go brown and ready
to scatter a generation
into the tangle of what sings.


Persephone turns from her mother
and curls into the king's dark arms.
The child-bride smiles at the last
thunder of summer. For her the chill
feels like a shudder of spring.
It promises the steely taste
of pomegranates, the funereal
boquet of thick lotus she smells
already. She sees their pale heads
resting on a river's far bank
down in the rift where she reigns
at the right hand of Hades.

One day the girl was just another
one of the children on the face of the earth,
one with a mother who couldn't watch
all the hours of the year. One day,
mother, a god rose from his hole,
his chariot adorned with black skulls.
A diety, a common pervert, wealthy
with grief of mothers, drunk with it,
he snatched your girl and that was that.

Demeter, I have tried to sing your grief.
Not in the days you searched her out
everywhere but the Hell where she married.
No, I have tried to sing the bitterness
of this particular and recurring turn
from you, year after year, the small
fingers loose from your fingers, the
parting, sly smile she leaves you with,
the way the old man's hand slides down
her back and they vanish and you curse.

But, Demeter, curses, like deaths,
are sometimes sacred, and your anger
belongs to you like an eternal daughter.
I won't try to take her from you, ever,
with my faltering voice and mortal words.

And I won't mock the goddess
who endures just barely what mortals
only barely endure.
Bless me, Demeter, with one
half-turned oak leaf,
green at its base and catching
the red at the edges where rage
and death waited to flare,
and forgive me if I feel
a soft pull toward the earth.

Let's share this leaf a while.
Let's hold its outraged green.


If the summer has meant something,
then the cicada knows.
She left her skin
split and quivering
in the hazy grass.
She flew on glassy wings
to the top of a tree,
and there, without need
and without effort, she began to sing.
As the nearby roof cools
and the air cools, she grows
drowsy, takes a rest.

Above the shell of her skin
at the edge of her droning song,
roofers carry their bags of nails.
They work upon a house
ramshackeled by a century.
They don't have time to listen,
not time even to think
how this house might last
another hundred, given
their best work

All that matters as the sky
turns down earlier each night
is their own pushing  through
their own fatigue. All
that matters is air pounded
and air saved,
not the cicada.
Men climb steadily
into a gray twilight
over bright-headed studs.


Admit it.
This is not summer.
This is not kneeling
in baked grass
under an overcast sky.
This is not the full confusion
of yourself and the scent
like hay and clover fermenting,
fermenting and regenerating at once.
Not that moment. Not it's quick.

Now roofers make zinc squeal,
demolish metal, make it ring.
They rip out the dry rot, pull
nails free with iron claws.
Wood moans and lets go.

Cold-hardened hammers call
at windows. Hammer fix fresh
tin, make proof against rain.

Who did we think we were
in loose clothes, in air as thick
as our own breath?
Summer was just
our breathing,
just puffs on dandelion heads.

This is not summer. This is the beat
of the heart of a roofer. He touches
a flame to a cigarette. He destroys.
He wrecks with one arm. The other
fastens the roof back better than before.


It had been an ill season:
all that fermenting and coiling
in the depths of damp grass;
the crazy swarms that rose
in clouds to trouble eyes.

Every shadow, every beak
and spur issued a song
winding higher in pitch.
Summer's own music
tumbled over itself:
cicada, cricket, blackbird
all out of synch until
summer struggled,
did not know
what it struggled for.

When the foliage dies back,
then you see the earth again.
You see the footprints. Then voices
of roofers crack their jokes
between wails of saws.

So in the coolness autumn
touches what summer made:
grasshoppers, aged so each
plate articulates with the next.
From scarred tangles of shrubs
they leap and fly a while
on dark, dusty wings.

Free of their fevers,
large crickets rotate
their heads and clean their eyes.
In cooler air they keep time
with difficulty and grace
on their weathered joints.

Now listen. This music ripens
and will not last.


Look up
between stars
where all radiance
In the first real chill
put on your coat.
That warmth gathering
along your arms
is your own.

Look at candles, and look
at the yellow curtains
of the neighborhood:
all separate light,
all too little.

Gather the dry bits
that once bound themselves
up on green.
Gather the crumbled
rakings and set them alight.
Their last life
reaches up and cracks.

No wonder the children
plan to frighten us.
They'll take up lanterns
and form their parties.
"Make way! Make way!
Honor us and all who pass!"
And they will wander out.
And we will call them back
to our pale homes,
under this very sky.

Back when people
worked across a desert,
when they the pitched their shabby tents,
their single god had a voice
like broken sticks,
had a heart at moments
out of control.
That's how it seemed
in the sparks
of their scattered camps.

So Moses heard a voice.
So Moses pulled his robe
close to his thin arms
and leaned over, careful
not to burn his beard.
Maybe it was October--
who knows?--when he found
himself by a smoldering pile,
alone with the stars and the law.
He looked out over the plains
and shivered. He was
a wreck of a man, fallen
from warm Egyptian nobility.
What was this law
to a vagabond, a no one
on a mountain, shivering
against October? Then
he looked down longing
for the fires of his people.


A maple across the street
turned early and let go.
Its black trunk slicks
with mist.
                  And from hands
of roofers blued slate
and crumple d gutters crash.

And the head roofer checks his watch,
and he looks at the driveway
where wet
leaves have stuck.
They've turned their points up.
The pavement
appears covered in thin
burning oil. The roofing
needs to come to its end.

So he grasps the chipped yellow
paint on the scaffolding.
His hands were made
for strength and dexterity
to last into old age,
and beneath the browned skin
the tendons and joints
shift at their tasks.

He works his weight
from one boot, presses
the other foot, climbs
into the familiar, blunt
debris a young man makes.

The forman pushes a branch
of golden elm, clears the way
and rises in one move.
How practiced climbing
has become, rung after rung
until the top,
three stories high.

He rests where the damage
is done, up among
reddened leaves.
He pushes through his own
boredom to touch
the boy's shoulder,
the familiar heat, the damp.
He tells him, "Here. Lift
this plank and the whole
rotten side of this gable
will go."

near the ruin of the Eagles Club

Say it's a voice that's all
imagination. Say it's old
as autumn and one of many,
this one bitter with memory.
Why would such a voice
bother me? Why would I listen?

"Look at what's real. Feel
the blast. Hear the cricket
singing, but barely today.
Prepare yourself to rise
from warm dreams.
I dare you to try to long
for my snows and the sound
of teeth biting the air.
I fill the starling's breast
with lice that cling harder
to the bird's warmth. Bundle.
Before I freeze a single puddle
you will know my deep hate.
I will not, will not,
let go of my daughter."

Why would I listen today
in an alley, on a journey
just to buy cigarettes
and some doughnuts?
The real sounds are diesel
from a block away, and between
us lies upturned earth,
clods of it grizzled
in flurries. Men buried
what couldn't be salvaged
of the lodge that stood there decades.

At the filling station/convenience store
Joe leans on his cash box and says:
"You seen my nephews. I spoil them.
Take them to multiplex movies
three times a week, and ain't
no one done that for me.
And these boys complain.
My dad complains, but he's
not long for this world.
I want everyone to appreciate
the sun is shining, that it's
the Earth they're standing on.
You hear? Charlie quit his job.
He's now a lobbyist
for family values.
Always politics. Always
people telling you you ain't
doing nothing right."

In the alley my hands push
into empty pockets. I burn
a cigarette down to it's cork.
Why do I listen to the same story,
make this same trip over and over?
Sometimes all that matters
is what always mattered
but lies beneath the chatter
and the bloody shards of brick.
That's why I bite sweet rings
of dough and try to remember
everything I shouldn't, all real voices
that become unreal as surely
as October vanishes November One
and we berate the whole Earth,
we cling to it as ghosts.

Postscript, 5/29/13. Somehow in my studying English literature, I did not develop conscious awareness that a poem by this same title was written by Louis MacNeice.  My choice of title, which I never cared for, came through the dullest application of practical description. Since posting I've deleted two sections. They have probably been archived forever by a bot in the meantime.