Friday, October 21, 2016


The women on the Palmdale bus
Are so beautiful on Friday.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ode to the Smart People

Dead ends in every direction — the limits of a snake's tongue —
Blind mind feels its way through the grooves of the hole
Like they are accidents of design ...

                                                                        That's the way it lives,
All sense and reaction, whatever is out there a black prompt
Which may or may not know, how tongues are predictable,
Draw limited conclusions, and how whatever crack is sensed
Can be re-sealed with ease ...

                                                             How illumination
Is the perishable food, in a trap that sets it free.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Let it go, the water glinting from the moon said,
For everything of earth and sky must move,

And heaven knew these changes a long time ago,
For karma flows like clouds across the blue.

The one who hurt you’s tattooed with the same wound
And pain too much the same to feel yours too.

For all your yo-yo dancing in the typhoon eye
You still believe in one almighty: light

And can endure its many shadows just to find it
Glorifying like your sight the tired afternoon.

Your true self is the North Star, from where there’s
Only love, aswirl in constant orbit, and too entwined to touch.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: Go Under, Beautiful Sun

Go under, beautiful sun, they respected
     You little, and knew of you not, holy one,
          For you are silent and effortless
               When over the laboring ones you rise.

To me, though, you kindly climb and fall, O light!
      Surely my eyes will recognize your splendor!
          For I’ve learned to honor the divine
                Silence, since Diotima healed the mind.

O you of heaven, messenger, how I hear
      My love’s summoner, Diotima! From you
           I saw how this eye of golden day
                Rose in resplendence and in gratitude.

The living springs whispered, the dark earth blossoms
       That loved me began to breathe, the wind sang love,
            And smilingly over silver clouds
                 The aether bowed down in consecration.
Geh unter, schöne Sonne...

Geh unter, schöne Sonne, sie achteten
       Nur wenig dein, sie kannten dich, Heilge, nicht,
            Denn mühelos und stille bist du
                 Über den Mühsamen aufgegangen.

Mir gehst du freundlich unter und auf, o Licht!
       Und wohl erkennt mein Auge dich, Herrliches!
            Denn göttlich stille ehren lernt' ich,
                 Da Diotima den Sinn mir heilte.

O du des Himmels Botin! wie lauscht ich dir!
        Dir, Diotima! Liebe! wie sah von dir
             Zum goldnen Tage dieses Auge
                 Glänzend und dankend empor. Da rauschten

Lebendiger die Quellen, es atmeten
        Der dunkeln Erde Blüten mich liebend an,
             Und lächelnd über Silberwolken
                 Neigte sich segnend herab der Aether.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Stevens Textplication #34: Another Weeping Woman

Navigating the same alienated vein he’d been mining in the last three poems we’ve covered, Stevens applies his new theories of imagination and reality to a love/marital relationship in “Another Weeping Woman,” from 1921, and the results are, if anything, even more disturbing than in Gubbinal, The Snow Man or Tea at the Palaz of Hoon. The poem is commonly taken to refer to a grieving widow, but, as usual, I’m not so sure things are exactly as they seem. Here’s the poem:

Pour the unhappiness out
From your too bitter heart,
Which grieving will not sweeten.

Poison grows in this dark.
It is in the water of tears
Its black blooms rise.

The magnificent cause of being,
The imagination, the one reality
In this imagined world

Leaves you
With him for whom no phantasy moves,
And you are pierced by a death.

The first two stanzas of the poem eloquently but rather uncharitably psychologize the physical effect of watching someone cry. Endless, uncontrollable wailing makes us, the observer, feel like the person is possessed by a demon that will never stop flailing us with its pain. 

But this isn’t just another woman weeping, she seems to be more intimately known to the speaker. She’s characterized as that always unhappy, deeply embittered woman for whom tears would seem to be a humanizing release, but even genuine grief can’t soften (or “sweeten”) her all-encompassing discontent. She can’t “pour” or cry it out. The tears themselves become “poison.” And her bitter heart, the darkness, increases with the tears, being poetically nurtured into “black blooms.” But of what does this bitterness consist?

The final two stanzas provide a prosaic answer: it’s a man. But the phrasing is exceedingly poetic: “The imagination … leaves you … with him.” This seems quite intimate indeed, as if the identities of the figures have to be hidden and the context distanced the emotions are so close. One way of doing that is putting all the weight of explanation on a grand philosophical theorem: “The magnificent cause of being, / The imagination, the one reality / In this imagined world.” It’s as shocking as it is straightforward: Our life is a dream, but we as dreamer created it.

The dreamer wakes up, however, in the last stanza, with a man beside her that she can’t turn into a phantasy (a lighter and more willful form of imagination, where a loved one for example can be turned into a fancied hero rather than perceived into being). “Him for whom no phantasy moves” enigmatically describes someone who could be implacable, impossible to fantasize about, completely unimaginative, or dead. 

The prevailing sense, however, is that when the curtains of the imagination are lifted, there is nothing behind it that is real. We construct love affairs out of pheromones and moonbeams, never thinking that is all there is to it, a trick to facilitate a shared delusion of separate minds. OK, maybe we do, but it is not a good feeling when we do, for it is like, as Stevens so aptly puts it, being “pierced by a death.” The inconsolable weeper truly cannot be consoled, because she is in a different realm.

Thus the grief of the first stanza is, in contemporary parlance, “paid off” by the death in the last. This leads many readers to conclude that the woman is weeping over her dead husband (or son). The widow trope, however, is only a metaphor for the real action, which is the death of a relationship (or the illusion of a relationship) through the awareness that it was imagined into (and out of) existence. Why else would she be crying before the death?

Still, the context remains ambiguous after many readings, in large part because the poem intentionally obscures the relationship between the speaker and the weeping woman. Do they know each other? Is the speaker the subject of her tears? Is it a veiled reference, heaven forfend, to Stevens himself and his wife? The poem exists in a nether world between an uncomfortably close personal – but undisclosed – conflict, and a rigorously strict abstraction about how all relationships are false. I guess that’s what we all do, poets or not, generalize our petty sufferings into universal truths.

Another great American poet, Emily Dickinson, was, in my view, the undisputed master of painting over uncomfortable life events with a luminous veneer of hermeneutic transcendence. Here is a poem* of hers that covers, I think, much the same emotional ground as “Another Weeping Woman.” It has it all – scientific materialism vs. religion, religion vs. occult spiritualism, fate vs. free will, skepticism vs. faith (and that’s just in the first 21 words!) – but in true Dickinsonian fashion, these concepts are conflated and problematized at lightning speed into something eerie and otherworldly: one only has faith because one already has doubt, our perception of memory and all the personal stuff it contains limits our notion of heaven, people are interchangeable and wholly indistinct at the soul level. But underlying all the metaphysical ground that’s covered – what makes the poem so powerful – is some unspoken personal dispute that creates a backdrop of tragic distance: The way “Sister” is repeated wearily, insistently, as the arguments are reconfigured, the way “Sue” and “Emily” are one, although Susan can’t acknowledge such a fact. That, my friends, is poetry.

Morning might come
by Accident -
Sister -
Night comes
by Event -
To believe the
final line of
the Card would
foreclose Faith -
Faith is Doubt.
      Sister -
Show me
Eternity, and
I will show
you Memory -
Both in one
package lain
And lifted
back again -
Be Sue, while
I am Emily -
Be next, what
you have ever
been, Infinity -

* Thanks to the obtuse pettifoggery typical of the academy, this lovely poem is officially canonized as a letter, and can be found, in suitably alien hieroglyphic handwriting, at OMC 246.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Last Surrender

You're free of any dialogue,
That coupling thing's been safely put to bed,
No questions ring the hollows of your heart.

You've been redeemed again in water,
Returned to tempering fire,
Your memory is immortal.

You've burned through heaven once again
Eviscerating love,
A gift you gave yourself to learn

What you have done, but will you?
My gift is not to know.
The infinite I gave must equal zero.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Street Scene

At the indigenous resistance
The drummers are not putative,
They beat the drops of water stolen
And the law comes to enforce
Their submission into silence
With violence.

The feathers on their heads
Came from copters that descended
At midnight on the pens
For the specialists with gloves
Who shoved the chickens into crates.

And their warpaint isn't blood
But communion petrolatum
Still the fracking thunder comes
Like nuclear Kippur
Upon the burning man inevitable
That the organs of the well-informed

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


In the mirror:
The truth-teller
And liar,
The bad black sheep seed
Trying to be good
By naming all the evil,
And the good scapegoat heart
Corrupted by belief
In its own goodness.

It's time for the posing of the problems
That can't be fixed by jumping off a cliff,
Time for posting some placard solutions
Pulled from the short-attention-span heavens
And shattered like china on the ground.

Despite all the snake-eyed lies
We still can't believe our lying-ass eyes
That the pain that begs among us is ours
Masquerading as another hand
Outstretched to our ruinous food,
And that the secrets of the few
Are still locked inside our hearts
Poisoned by the shackles once again.

We are the people who ring other's necks
And feel other's deaths as our own,
Who don't care about what's going on
(Much less whether it's right or wrong)
But who know the cost in our bones
Of believing in what we don't know.

Why not have faith in what cannot exist?
In dragons slain and starlets won,
In justice arriving on time,
In truth as an answer to the sickness inside,
In a voice we can feel as our own.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: I Will Go Every Day ...

I will go every day down other paths, soon
       Through the green leaves of the woods, to the spring soon,
            To the rock, where roses are in bloom,
                   To view the land from the hill, though nowhere,

Nowhere do I find you in the light, my dear,
       And into the air all the words disappear;
            Devout, I have only been with you

Yes, I’ve been far from you, face of an angel,
       And in the fading melody of your life
            No more is overheard of me; O where
                   Did the magical heartsongs go, that calmed

Me once with the stillness of the heavenly?
       How long has it been? O how long! The youth has
             Aged, even the earth, which gave me back
                   Then smiled, has become a different place.

Always good! The soul separates and returns
       To you each day, and it cries to you the eye,
              That it is bright again, where you go,
                    Where you stay, wherever you gaze across.

Wohl geh' ich täglich ...

Wohl geh' ich täglich andere Pfade, bald
       Ins grüne Laub im Walde, zur Quelle bald,
              Zum Felsen, wo die Rosen blühen,
                   Blicke vom Hügel ins Land, doch nirgend,

Du Holde, nirgend find ich im Lichte dich
       Und in die Lüfte schwinden die Worte mir,
              Die frommen, die bei dir ich ehmals

Ja, ferne bist du, seliges Angesicht!
       Und deines Lebens Wohllaut verhallt, von mir
              Nicht mehr belauscht, und ach! wo seid ihr
                   Zaubergesänge, die einst das Herz mir

Besänftiget mit Ruhe der Himmlischen?
       Wie lang ists! o wie lange! der Jüngling ist
             Gealtert, selbst die Erde, die mir
                   Damals gelächelt, ist anders worden.

Leb immer wohl! es scheidet und kehrt zu dir
       Die Seele jeden Tag, und es weint um dich
              Das Auge, daß es helle wieder
                   Dort wo du säumest, hinüberblicke.

Friday, October 7, 2016


Ni'ihau steals another sunset from Kauai
As the lavender smoke of breathing clouds
Roosts in shadow for the night.

The palm fronds edged with rust
Were worthy of our imaginings,
The thick-fingered grasses
Have never stopped waving gold.

The fur-draped mountains
With moving silver crowns
Stayed fiercely protective
Like arrowheads poised in the sky

As the spirits were unveiled inside of me
On their flight to Polihale.

But there's a limit to the generosity
Of spirit.

The stars so pure and piercing
In galaxies woven in webs
Are overwhelmed by blots of cloud
Like figures of a dreamed earth,

But the stars burn through
The overhang
Like eyes,
And the centurions appear again.
The homeland channel throbs.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Loneliness on Secret Beach

Rooster rainbows in the dreadlocks of the waves,
Tumescent moss directs the dripping off the caves,
The bees are making love like surgeons to hibiscus
As couples narrow distances to share the pounding swells
In white release across the folding lace of opening shells.
They take photos of each other in their complementary chairs
Before the endless thrust of surf that vents what it bears
And just as endlessly receeds along the curves
Of long-suffering sand, its bite -- not preserved.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Silence at Maha'aleupo

They say the last white man
       Who'd fled to Nihoa
                     Is gone,
And the faces on the cave
       Were obsolesced
                   In return,
But they are still here
       And I am still here
               Looking on,

And the black rocks have their art
       And still speak in a voice
          Heard by ancient fishermen
That promised secret knowledge
       If one could wear the crown
          Of knowing form was only masking light.

The conscious color won't
       Collapse like other facts
               Into theories of mind
But is pitched at zero point,
       Knowledge not for learning
               But for action.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Kaua'i to Her Groom

She keeps herself pretty,
Every pore of her skin,
Moss on his rock like rouge,
Lipstick flowers on the limbs
That tremble with rain.

Giant leaves run their fingers up
Her tree trunks,
Every fern frond is arranged
To be admired,
Her rivers are alive
With quickened pulse.

Even the fallen green
Doesn't bear the color of grief,
But of held memories,
The dark rich lacquer:
Deep orange, rotten gold.

She lets the mist caress
Her every curve
And leaves a welcome mat of red
On all her shores
With cocks that crow
And offered palms.

The caves he left for her
Swirl with water,
The sound is hollow
But it's enough
For the green stars reaching
From his crags to heaven
To bloom as beauty's virgin.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Ni'ihau to His Bride

One telephone line stretched across the third mesa
Is the final sign, to those who'd know,
That the death of the world is near.
There's not even that here;
They communicate over distances by telepathy or mail.
Once a week the boat arrives, with food stamp rations
And propane, and a chance, Christ willing, for some shopping
In Kauai on the Robinson family dime.

Some say there's over 200, some 70, some 30
Left on this infertile island, spearing fish
In canoes they whittled, spending weeks
Gathering shells for the right shade of prickly pear pink
To braid a necklace for some mainland queen,
Finding water holes to grow breadfruit or taro,
Knowing every stone God by name, and all the grasses
By voice, in day-long prayers to the spirit of the flowers
In hopes that it might be her ...

No time, no money, no power & light, as inconceivable
To us as God delivering our food from our prayers.
It's not that we are jealous, vengeful gods (although we are),
But this can't compete with the Sunbeam hair dryer,
The guava cocktail and dashboard hula dolls
Of the needy people trying to help, be of use, be of service.

Yet to them for all our waste and ignorance 
Somehow it never makes us happy.
In pity, they fancy themselves the same,
Collecting shells before they're pulverized to dust.
Their faith was never taken in that wooden mission church
Like their rain; they gather round the cavern hole to sing
Hymns to the ancestors, the volcano people deep within the earth

Asking is it real love, or did the lava God leave her in the keeping
Of something that could not offend his jealousy?
Still, the lavender light runs softly between the two of them
Holding them together with unbreakable force of love.
Emasculated or protected, alive or dead,
Only the racing clouds know for sure.
The amniotic fire changes form, changes nature,
But is changeless just the same...

Even if there was one last person there, the spirit 
Would still hold, as was written in the holy book of rock.
The mist of endless longing for his woman
Hits the mountains here, and in its sweetness of smoke
The spiriteye sees rainbows across to the island
Always soaking in an indigo cloud, like an illusion
That like everything else important
Can suddenly disappear 
Into nothing but ocean.

Via magic, the old ways always return
Unless there's no more magic,
The sun rising in late afternoon
Can no longer be seen, and an island
Can no longer escape from its shroud
Into something we can learn from.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Stevens Textplication #33: Tea at the Palaz of Hoon

We saw in “Gubbinal” the first appearance in Stevens of the reader of the poems, a consciousness alien to that of the poet with a different imaginative agenda. In “The Snow Man” we saw how the reality of that observer was locked within an imaginative recasting impenetrable as ice. In “Tea in the Palaz of Hoon,” the last of a 1921 trilogy of poems that pre-figure Stevens’ later work, this insight is extended to the poet himself, as he looks upon all his sees as something he has, in fact, created. The profoundly social ceremonial sharing of tea done in many cultures becomes, for him, a solitary and unshareable affair, except of course in the otherworldly iambics of the poem, which reads as follows:

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

The stunning first stanza takes personification of the sunset to a new extreme in the Anglo-American poetic tradition. Here the speaker IS the sunset, descending in a king’s robes through the western side of the sky, so intimately does he feel it. Despite the interiority, there is a social dimension, an implied judgment of the purple color (rich, noble, but also excessive), and an unnamed “you” who judges the twilight to be lonely. Nonetheless, nevertheless, “not less”, he feels singularly himself. The note is not of an ego subsuming everything else, but of a being feeling at long last justified in claiming “I exist” and being able to push away the pressure from other people to think or act a certain way about something.

At this insight, he is immediately bedecked with ancient spiritual symbols of purity and grace: ointment on his beard, hymns he can hear. Yet he is confused where this physical epiphany came from, what “tide swept through me” just now, and “what sea” he now finds himself beholding.

The third stanza seems like an answer: I brought this all on myself. But it is really him continuing to ponder the questions posed in the second stanza. And the provisional solutions don’t make any logical sense: a mind (an abstract function) cannot rain, inside or out, and ears do not create music in any conventional sense. The truth as he’s analyzing it does not match the truth as he experienced it. Yet “the compass”, the measurement, understanding, or sense of direction, clearly did come from inside himself.

There’s a colon at the end of the third stanza, like a classic philosophical theorem, implying that the final stanza will be the logical conclusion. The first two lines of the stanza do carry the thought to a general proposition that restates quite plainly what he has just experienced: maybe not the thing itself, but all his thoughts and feelings and sensings of it came from within his own consciousness, to the point where it couldn’t be said to really exist apart from his perception of it. This is a concept as ancient as pre-Socratic philosophy, and as contemporary as New Age self-help books like The Secret. Despite this lineage, the ancient spiritual principle conflicts with our programming that we are small, dependent and clueless before an indifferent and (what many insist) meaningless world. Thus, the speaker guardedly (and I might say beautifully) asserts how he “walked” in this world, and how everything “came not but from himself.” Still, there was no other explanation (really, officer).

As if to remind us of the limits of philosophy (and that poetry is not so limited), he inserts a semi-colon to this conclusion, and in the final line leaps to an extra-logical revelation: “And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” What we have here is the actual moment of enlightenment, not the fake kind provided by the mind and its attendants who think the sky is lonely, but a mystical apprehension of a deeper reality that can only come in a moment of extrasensory inspiration. It’s a state of oneness with all, where everything is him and he is everything, and he realizes in a flash not only that all he needs is inside his little noggin, but that he never understood before how very wide he was. He contains, like Walt Whitman, multitudes. As such, his journey is just beginning.

Near as I can tell, neither “palaz” nor “hoon” are actual words.* They are, however, quite clear in the context they are being used, a fantasized palace where the speaker sits in the luxury of an imagined tea ceremony, only to realize he’s made the whole thing up, and my, what a vision of reality it ended up being. Stevens revisits this mysterious hoon (clearly a synecdoche for himself, at least as persona) 14 years later, in one of his greatest poems, “Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz,” where he reflects:

“Too many waltzes have ended. And then
There’s that mountain-minded Hoon,
For whom desire was never that of the waltz,

Who found all form and order in solitude,
For whom the shapes were never the figures of men.
Now, for him, his forms have vanished.”

And there’s this, from “Bantams in Pine-Woods” in 1922:

“An inchling … fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos”

“Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” richly conveys the moment of enlightenment—like a disciple being hit on the head in a Buddhist teaching—and it does so in a conscious, human way, along the way suggesting so many tropes, memes, associations and feelings it is impossible to do them justice. The individual reader can quite readily and quite personally savor its wideness. Yet it is the narrowing of vision that Stevens accomplishes here that makes this poem significant. We see in this “aha moment” the seed for the man questioning the world mindset that is the hallmark of the great poet Stevens would become.

* The etymology of hoon as an actual word is quite interesting, albeit Stevens himself was almost certainly unaware of it, given that he didn’t live in Australia. A portmanteau of “hooligan” and “goon”, it is an official word in Australia and New Zealand connoting “anyone who engages in loutish, anti-social behaviours. In particular, it is used to refer to one who drives a car or boat in a manner which is anti-social by the standards of contemporary society, i.e. too fast, too noisily or too dangerously.” The wiki entry provides other interesting details.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Imperio do real I

The Spanish palace
Crowned with palms
Is overrun with sunburned, fat,
Families in sandals.
The flies are happy.
The smell of wasted food
Must pain these creamy domes
How all the bloodshed was for naught.

The palm holds in its limp fingers
The history of the empire
In stately turn and glittering fringe
As its fountain pen still sways in billowing air.
The hands can’t write those lines.
They never could.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Revisionist Astrology

I have a love/hate relationship with the truth.
We disagree sometimes, fight like cats
And I get flummoxed by its hauteur.

But it's like a better mousetrap in the end;
Whacking pest ideas with a mechanical lie:
Some God to go before all else, like Kings back in the day.

Nothing it ever says is wrong, though everything is false,
Out-of-context, screaming, massacring elves and gnomes
And what is left of an open dialogue.

But I love the cleanness of its line, its springy step,
The way it conveys civility in a world insane.
I root for the truth, but it loses the game again and again.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Disappearing Fairy Circles

Washboard ripples,
     moving lines of force
In paper-thin intersections,
     slow across glass,
Lilac foam
     as the lavender surf rolls in,
Rainbows in its wake,
     the curtains loosen and tighten,
     that exist for us only as beauty,
As purposeless as we believe
     our lives to be ...

The last spike of peach holds on
     against the human mind.
Everything else has been denied,
     by being understood.
How could we ever be explained
     by the mechanics?
Our lusts, our thirsts, our drives?
     The wall called
Understanding has been placed
      here between us
As the mystery still
      feverishly swirls.
You want to know
      because you already knew
And were waiting for the moment
      to connect.
But now you are disputed.
      The slut, the whore,
How could she
      want me anymore?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: The Princess Augusta of Homburg

November 28, 1799

Yet kind reluctance separates from your eye
    This year, and the winter sky at evening
         Shines in Hesperian mildness on
              Your gardens, the poetic, evergreen.

And since your party I have pondered and thought,
    What to give you as thanks, yet it lingered there
         On the floral paths, waiting for you
             The flowering crown of what you'll become.

But others prize you, high spirit, the greater
    This more festive time, for the thunder resounds
         All the way down the mountains, see? And
             How clear, like the quiet stars, it goes out,

From long doubts come pure shapes; so it seems to me;
    And lonely, O Princess, the heart of the free,
         Born to a fortune wanted no more;
             Joined in laurel with the worthy hero

The beautifully matured can be genuine;
    The wise men and women as well, for it
         Has worth, the unseen; the ancient ones
             Look on from their rarefied life, solemn.

Shallow seems the dreaming singer to himself,
    Like a child idly plucking at a lyre,
         When from the noble’s joy, from the ply
             And severe of the power awakened.

But I’ve glorified your name in song; the hard
    Augusta! Dare I celebrate; my trade is
         To praise the lofty, and so goes the
             Language of God and the thanks in my heart.

O that this happy day of your birth will I
     Begin as well my age, that finally too
          I’ll become a song within your groves;
             Noble! Prosper, you are worthy of it.
Der Prinzessin Auguste von Homburg

Den 28. Nov. 1799

Noch freundlichzögernd scheidet vom Auge dir
   Das Jahr, und in hesperischer Milde glänzt
      Der Winterhimmel über deinen
         Gärten, den dichtrischen, immergrünen.

Und da ich deines Festes gedacht' und sann,
   Was ich dir dankend reichte, da weilten noch
      Am Pfade Blumen, daß sie dir zur
         Blühenden Krone, du Edle, würden.

Doch andres beut dir, Größeres, hoher Geist!
   Die festlichere Zeit, denn es hallt hinab
      Am Berge das Gewitter, sieh! und
         Klar, wie die ruhigen Sterne, gehen

Aus langem Zweifel reine Gestalten auf;
   So dünkt es mir; und einsam, o Fürstin! ist
      Das Herz der Freigebornen wohl nicht
         Länger im eigenen Glück; denn würdig

Gesellt im Lorbeer ihm der Heroë sich,
   Der schöngereifte, echte; die Weisen auch,
      Die Unsern, sind es wert; sie blicken
         Still aus der Höhe des Lebens, die ernsten Alten.

Geringe dünkt der träumende Sänger sich,
   Und Kindern gleich am müßigen Saitenspiel,
      Wenn ihn der Edlen Glück, wenn ihn die
         Tat und der Ernst der Gewalt'gen aufweckt.

Doch herrlicht mir dein Name das Lied; dein Fest
   Augusta! durft' ich feiern; Beruf ist mirs,
      Zu rühmen Höhers, darum gab die
         Sprache der Gott und den Dank ins Herz mir.

O daß von diesem freudigen Tage mir
   Auch meine Zeit beginne, daß endlich auch
      Mir ein Gesang in deinen Hainen,
         Edle! gedeihe, der deiner wert sei.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Stevens Textplication #32: The Snow Man

“When does a building stop being a product of the reason and become a product of the imagination?” Stevens asked in his 1948 essay “Imagination as Value”. One could ask the same question about a snow man, that anthropomorphized representation of winter that somehow transcends its elementary construction principles to live on as a rather poignant symbol of our own sense of what it is to be alive. To look at one only as an engineering project misses the point, as any child will tell you. Yet focusing on such construction details (the size of the coal, the type of hat, the placement of the carrot) is the only practical thing to do, as any scientist will tell you. For how each of us respond to the particulars of the external world through the prism of our own imaginative facilities creates a unique reality that is not shareable. In other words, to acknowledge the importance of imagination, one has to also acknowledge its isolation. That is the theme of “The Snow Man,” a haunting and austere one-sentence poem from 1921 that has transfixed generations of readers for its unwillingness to translate the feeling its evokes into easy meaning. Here’s the poem:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Notice there are two distinct figures depicted here. The watcher, which one can only assume is some imagined representation of an actual snow man, beholds everything with that cold mind of winter. He is so aligned with the elements he can actually understand what they are, without resort to the imaginative recreation we humans must engage in to comprehend things. The second figure, identified as the “listener,” is implicitly human, the one who associates the sound of winter wind with “misery”, yet who is specifically described as “nothing.” Being nothing, he can only appreciate nothing, much as the “mind of winter,” being of the cold, can only appreciate cold.

These two equivalent figures cohabitate “the same bare place,” yet exist in complete isolation from one another. We feel this as readers before we know it, largely because we are unaware of how completely the poet has stripped the real—or rather the collective illusion of the real—away from this imaginative construction.  

The first line drops us into a state that is not literally possible: “One must have a mind of winter.” Winter, as we understand it, does not actually have a mind, of course. We do, or think we do, however, when we “regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees” in the fantastical manner of being “crusted”, “shagged” [in this sense, piled coarsely] and “rough in the distant glitter // Of the January sun.” By exaggerating what we see, we feel we have a more visceral, shared sense of what winter really is. The use of the verbs “regard” and “behold” gives away that this depiction of winter is not merely seen, but created, in thought and empathy, out of what is seen.

As Stevens wrote in “Imagination as Value”, “it is in the nature of the imagination itself that we should be quick to accept it as the only clue to reality.” But it is important for Stevens to remind us that this scene is not real. We do not have the mind of winter, nor have we “been cold a long time,” so we can’t say our experience is of reality.

This sense of reality denying us is accentuated in the next stanza, when after the visuals the sounds begin, and the normal human feelings the winter wind evokes are foreclosed to us: “One must have the mind of winter … not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind.”

To quote Stevens from “Imagination as Value” again: "'It is art,' said Henry James, 'which makes life, makes interest, makes importance. . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.' The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us."  The next stanza hints at just how desolate such a world would be: “the sound of the land / Full of the same wind /That is blowing in the same bare place.” Stevens has suddenly stripped everything down to its barest bones, almost to nothing.

Then, and only then, does the listener emerge, as a contrast to the imagined “mind of winter” / snow man. This bare wind blows for him, without the possibility of imaginative recreation. Because it is real, it is nothing, and because it is nothing, he is nothing. So he beholds “nothing that is not there.” In other words, everything that imagination uses to create a picture of reality is all still included: the cold, the snow, the trees, the wind, etc. But what is actually beheld is “the nothing that is.” If imagination is taken out of the equation – or more precisely, before imagination is taken out of the equation – nothing is left to see. All that is of value would have been created by the imagining mind. (Here it might be productive to note that this is the point where all the major spiritual traditions on the planet would remind us that “all appearance is illusion, created by the mind.”) Or, as Stevens says in “Imagination as Value”, “the imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.”

Still, this effort to strip away all the illusions in an already stripped-away scene does not resolve to a total nullity: it’s an act of imagination to perceive there is nothing. What’s negated is the reader, who cannot know of what this nothing consists, or who perceives it. The cold, barren feeling is not lack of imagination (the poem is, after all, full of imagination), but lack of human connection. The snow man is singular, and, try as we might, we can’t get inside his head to imagine what the world looks like to him. Yet imagination is our original and primary relationship to the world. If, as Stevens points out in “Imagination as Value”, “we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them … reason is simply the methodizer of the imagination,” then reality is singular. There are not six words for snow, but as many as there are snowflakes. The paradox of being an unapologetic individual in a world that elides individual autonomy is Stevens’ “great subject”, one he returns to again and again, never quite accepting that what is life and reality to him can never be so to anyone else. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016


The pink highway
Turns grey
The gold veins
And we're free once again
To believe
It's empty.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Coastline 2

The seagull lands
In the sheen
Possesses the hollow rock
The green seabeard
Or is it possessed
By another eye
As I 
Reach from somewhere unknown
To the unknowable

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Coastline 1

The sea is breathing
—Wind wool—
Reminding us to breathe
Because we, like fools, forget
How to live,
So busy remembering
Shell names.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: To the Princess of Dessau

From a silent house in a flash will the gods
     Often send their most beloveds to strangers,
          Thus to recall the noble image
              Of how delighted the mortal heart is.

So too you come from the Luisium gardens,
     From a holy threshold where skies are noiseless
           All around, and all around your roof
               Peacefully the gregarious trees play,

Out from the joys of your temple, O priestess!
     To us, for already the cloud bends its head
           To us, long a heavenly tempest
                 ... Changes us over our heads.

O how dear you were, priestess! Because you were
      Protected there in the silent divine fire,
           But you're dearer today, since your time
                 Among the time-bound is consecrated.

For where the pure ones stroll, perceptible, is
     Drawn out of the spirit, and life's dawning forms
            All open with a carefree blossom
                Where a safe and a certain light appears.

And how on a dark cloud the silent one,
     The beautiful crescent blooms, it is a sign
           For a future time, a remembrance
                 Of days of bliss and blessings, that once were,

Such is your life, O holy stranger! If you have
      In the past encountered Italy's shattered
           Pillars, if you saw in the new green
                 Fiercer ages grow toward the future.

An eine Fürstin von Dessau

Aus stillem Hause senden die Götter oft
      Auf kurze Zeit zu Fremden die Lieblinge,
   Damit, erinnert, sich am edlen
         Bilde der Sterblichen Herz erfreue.

So kommst du aus Luisiums Hainen auch,
       Aus heilger Schwelle dort, wo geräuschlos rings
   Die Lüfte sind und friedlich um dein
         Dach die geselligen Bäume spielen,

Aus deines Tempels Freuden, o Priesterin!
Zu uns, wenn schon die Wolke das Haupt uns beugt
     Und längst ein göttlich Ungewitter
          ... über dem Haupt uns wandelt.

O teuer warst du, Priesterin! da du dort
Im Stillen göttlich Feuer behütetest,
     Doch teurer heute, da du Zeiten
         Unter den Zeitlichen segnend feierst.

Denn wo die Reinen wandeln, vernehmlicher
Ist da der Geist, und offen und heiter blühn
     Des Lebens dämmernde Gestalten
          Da, wo ein sicheres Licht erscheinet.

Und wie auf dunkler Wolke der schweigende,
Der schöne Bogen blühet, ein Zeichen ist
     Er künftger Zeit, ein Angedenken
         Seliger Tage, die einst gewesen,

So ist dein Leben, heilige Fremdlingin!
        Wenn du Vergangnes über Italiens
              Zerbrochnen Säulen, wenn du neues
                   Grünen aus stürmischer Zeit betrachtest.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Stevens Textplication #31: Gubbinal

“Gubbinal,” from 1921, has always been one of my favorite of Stevens’ short poems, but until I sat down to write this I’d always assumed the title was an actual word. It turns out it’s not. In the spirit of the refrain, “have it your way,” expertly appropriated by Burger King as one of the 20th century’s most effective marketing slogans, let’s look at what we can make this coined word into.

The title may derive from the British dialectical term "gubbin" or "gubbins", which, no surprise, has three distinct meanings. It is a derogatory term denoting simpleton or country bumpkin. This makes some sense in that the poem at some level is complaining about the understanding of its readers. The term could also refer to gadgetry, so the poem would be "like a gadget." This makes sense too, in that the reader feels subjected to a Mobius strip of repetition that doesn't seem to mean anything concrete. "Gubbins" can also refer to fish parings or refuse, more broadly scraps or bits and pieces. Adding -al to this sense of gubbin seems to this poet a fine way to incorporate lines and fragments lying around unused into an invented poetic form, in this case something resembling the mournful French villanelle, where the 2nd and 3rd line of the first stanza are alternately repeated at the end of subsequent stanzas. Or, all arcane etymological research aside, "gubbinal" could "simply" be a nonsense word—Stevens was no stranger to making sounds into words.

The title could very easily mean any or none of these things, as we shall see. It's a testament to the poetic way information is offered and withheld in it that we truly have to use our own leaps of imagination to interpret it. This is a quality that intrigues with many of Stevens' poems, but this one in particular seems to be about that. Here's the poem:

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.

That savage of fire,
That seed,
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

What gives the poem its particular cloying quality is how the narrator offers bold, unusual and challenging metaphors for the sun (“that strange flower,” “that tuft of jungle feathers,” “that animal eye”, “that savage of fire,” “that seed”), and immediately foists them off for interpretation onto the reader, concluding they are just what “you” say they are. In between he repeats a seemingly unconnected thought, “The world is ugly, and the people are sad.” So this unnamed “you” who must contend with exotic poetic metaphor must also face a blanket abstraction that the world and its people (all that we know) are in dismal shape. Add in the pervasive repetition and the reader gets the feeling of being hypnotized by ambiguity.

But don’t worry. You can “have it your way,” like a giant, sickening Whopper. As if to seal its hermetic obscurity, the poem does not resolve into the larger statement about belief, reality and/or the imagination that are hinted at. Such implications are truly left to the reader to ponder.

On the one hand, the rich metaphors show the interpretive possibilities for the commonest objects (in this case the sun, perhaps the most common object of all). On the other, the metaphors are only as insightful as the eyes of the beholder. If one can't imagine the sun as an "animal eye", for example, one is indeed not only outside the meaning of the poem, but lacking in the mythic intelligence that can use known things as correspondences to inquire about what is unknown, the ultimate nature of reality.

A simpleton, or gubbin, would not see how the eyes of a tiger could be peering from the sun. Or perhaps only a gubbin would, as the prevailing religion of scientific materialism has foreclosed the possibility for respectable thinkers to seriously entertain such fantasies. Without engaging with the person on the other end of his words, the poet seems to be throwing up his hands (or is it quill?) at the possibility of a common understanding. "The world is ugly, and the people are sad" is all one can say, like "how was your weekend?" or "times are hard." It might as well relate to the poet—a mass of humanity that has no comprehension of his beautiful poem—as to the reader—they are missing out on the opportunity to rise above the limitations of earthly life to perceive a meta-reality through the powers of the imagination.

Yet the poet is grafting his perception directly onto theirs. This is where the second sense of the word "gubbin", as a poetic gadget or contrivance, might come into play. "Have it your way" is the inverse of "you can never see it from my perspective." And "[it] is just what you say" is of course the opposite of "I'm telling you the way it is." The poet accedes to the reader as master of reality, free to make of the poem anything they want, but the reader still must accept the poet's reality of the sun as all manner of chimerical figures. It is a dance, in other words, where the refrain is a general opinion that, because it is unargued perhaps, is the only agreed-upon thing: "the world is ugly, and the people are sad." And, of course, the poet is the one playing the harmonium (the title, not coincidentally, of Stevens' first volume of poetry).

To truly become a poet, however, one must leave that stage of approval and agreement and seek a solitary path. And this is where the third sense of "gubbin" comes in. Scraps of lines where he has described the sun in all kinds of uncanny ways will, if enough will and faith is put into them, harmonize with scraps of overheard conversation (like "have it your ..." and "the world is ..."), things from the mundane human realm that have floated up into the poetic aethers. The poet collects them all to make some kind of music of them. There is no need for ultimate meaning. The poem speaks for itself. It is whatever you want it to be. And the you is no longer outside of the poet, but within.

As we mull through these trajectories of meanings, a sense of freedom is slowly unveiled. The freedom of the poet from the outside is no longer something to be pitied but celebrated. What the poet has—however elliptical, uncooperative or nonsensical—is of such a high degree of perception and expression that others need to—and will—seek it out.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Landscape With and Without Humans

The concrete is alive, and singing to my feet,
The shadows wax more poignant than the leaves,
And the tree hears every word from the gossip birds
And shudders as if to turn the earth
With wren and bumblebee.

A seagull stands in a garland of purple 
On a patch of drooling rock  
Skreaking to all we cannot see
As the green suds swirl around.

The people stand around waiting
For something that may or may not be coming
Or sweep off the changes on the rock.
They look so heartbroken
But cannot say anything.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Seemingly Harmless Reality Program

Whatever figures in robes you remember
Have reduced to characters in script.
The stories where orphans are kings in the end
Blacken the names of eyes brightly gazing.
You are not any other;
The invisible they hang across your face
Has peeled, and something that cannot escape existing
Is finally free from the fear.
It sees the illusion's perfection
When it realizes it is real.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Two Tomato Plants

The two tomato plants in the yard
Despite seemingly insurmountable distances
Find each other
And make love.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: My Title

Now in its adundance the autumn day rests,
     The clear grapes are ripe and the orchard is red
          From the fruit, while some of the blossoms
               Have fallen in thankfulness to the earth.

And beyond the path where I, the silent, walk,
     The contented are occupied round the field,  
          Their estate has matured and their great
                Efforts have granted them shares of richness.

And heaven on them gazes down, in mild light
     Through the trees, seeking to share with them their joy,
          For as joyful as their toil is,
               The fruit didn’t grow by man’s hands alone.

And you shine, O gold, even on me, and blow
     Again for me, breath of air, as if to bless
          Me with joy, like I once had before,
               You stray to my breast as to the happy?

Once it was me, but ah, it’s temporary,
     Like roses the pious life. And too often
          It still reminds me that the meek stars
               Are all that remain of the flowering.

Happy is the man with a pious woman
     To quietly love, a suitable oven
          And respectable lives, secure that
               The sweet light on their floor comes from heaven.

For, as plants can’t take root in an alien soil,
     The soul of mortals eventually decays,
          The one with only the light of day
               Is left to wander on the holy ground.

You are just far too powerful! You draw me
     Up in storms to your heavenly heights, and on
          Glorious days you sustain me in
               Your moving breast, your transformative force.  

But now let me trust the still and silent path
     Among the trees, their canopies adorned with
          The gold of dying leaves, and garland
               My forehead with their sweet memories too!

And also that I save my mortal heart,
     As others may attain a permanent home,
          For the soul is the homeless not I
               Over a lifetime of sighing alone,

You be, O singing, my friendly asylum!
     You be, source of happiness, what cares for me
          In love, the garden where I wander
               Among the flowers, the forever young,

And live, in safe simplicity, while outside
     The waves of the mighty ages roar remote,
          And all that is changeable changes,
               And the sun promotes my work in silence.

O powers of heaven! Your blessing is kind
     To mortals, you allocate each to its own,
          O blessed be my title as well,  
               So the fates do not end the dream too soon.

Mein Eigentum

In seiner Fülle ruhet der Herbsttag nun,
     Geläutert ist die Traub und der Hain ist rot
          Vom Obst, wenn schon der holden Blüten
               Manche der Erde zum Danke fielen.

Und rings im Felde, wo ich den Pfad hinaus,
     Den stillen, wandle, ist den Zufriedenen
          Ihr Gut gereift und viel der frohen
               Mühe gewähret der Reichtum ihnen.

Vom Himmel blicket zu den Geschäftigen
     Durch ihre Bäume milde das Licht herab,
          Die Freude teilend, denn es wuchs durch
               Hände der Menschen allein die Frucht nicht.

Und leuchtest du, o Goldnes, auch mir, und wehst
     Auch du mir wieder, Lüftchen, als segnetest
          Du eine Freude mir, wie einst, und
               Irrst, wie um Glückliche, mir am Busen?

Einst war ichs, doch wie Rosen, vergänglich war
     Das fromme Leben, ach! und es mahnen noch,
          Die blühend mir geblieben sind, die
               Holden Gestirne zu oft mich dessen.

Beglückt, wer, ruhig liebend ein frommes Weib,
     Am eignen Herd in rühmlicher Heimat lebt,
          Es leuchtet über festem Boden
               Schöner dem sicheren Mann sein Himmel.

Denn, wie die Pflanze, wurzelt auf eignem Grund
     Sie nicht, verglüht die Seele des Sterblichen,
          Der mit dem Tageslichte nur, ein
               Armer, auf heiliger Erde wandelt.

 Zu mächtig, ach! ihr himmlischen Höhen, zieht
     Ihr mich empor, bei Stürmen, am heitern Tag
          Fühl ich verzehrend euch im Busen
               Wechseln, ihr wandelnden Götterkräfte.

Doch heute laß mich stille den trauten Pfad
     Zum Haine gehn, dem golden die Wipfel schmückt
          Sein sterbend Laub, und kränzt auch mir die
               Stirne, ihr holden Erinnerungen!

Und daß mir auch, zu retten mein sterblich Herz,
     Wie andern eine bleibende Stätte sei,
          Und heimatlos die Seele mir nicht
               Über das Leben hinweg sich sehne,

Sei du, Gesang, mein freundlich Asyl! sei du,
     Beglückender! mit sorgender Liebe mir
          Gepflegt, der Garten, wo ich, wandelnd
               Unter den Blüten, den immerjungen,

In sichrer Einfalt wohne, wenn draußen mir
     Mit ihren Wellen allen die mächtge Zeit,
          Die Wandelbare, fern rauscht und die
               Stillere Sonne mein Wirken fördert.

Ihr segnet gütig über den Sterblichen,
     Ihr Himmelskräfte! jedem sein Eigentum,
          O segnet meines auch, und daß zu
               Frühe die Parze den Traum nicht ende.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Stevens Textplication #30: The Doctor of Geneva

I adored as a young boy a short-lived 1960’s ITC British secret agent TV drama called The Champions. It involved three young Interpol agents (a la The Mod Squad or Lady Antebellum depending on your frame of reference), although what they actually did escapes me, and the twist was they had some kind of super powers from crashing their plane in the Himalayas, although what those were is also unrecoverable. All I really remember – the reason I liked the show so much in the first place – is that each week they stood in front of this immense fountain looking suave and British. It was in Geneva, you see, home of Interpol, so the landmark Jet D’Eau graced every episode.

There are two reasons I recall this in relation to “The Doctor of Geneva,” published in 1921. One is that, contrary to the superficial sense of the poem, Geneva is no slouch when it comes to the power and beauty of water. The second lies in the sheer power of imaginative transport such a detail provided me, and that feeling, I think, is what this poem is really about. Don’t be fooled by all the interpretations of it as the results of a conservative burgher being para-consciously moved by his first exposure to the Pacific Ocean. The poem is actually much more beautiful than that. Here it is:

The doctor of Geneva stamped the sand
That lay impounding the Pacific swell,
Patted his stove-pipe hat and tugged his shawl.

Lacustrine man had never been assailed
By such long-rolling opulent cataracts,
Unless Racine or Bossuet held the like.

He did not quail. A man so used to plumb
The multifarious heavens felt no awe
Before these visible, voluble delugings,

Which yet found means to set his simmering mind
Spinning and hissing with oracular
Notations of the wild, the ruinous waste,

Until the steeples of his city clanked and sprang
In an unburgherly apocalypse.
The doctor used his handkerchief and sighed.

Most readings recognize this doctor as one of Stevens’ many imagined tropes (he often uses doctors, rabbis and professors to evoke studious, serious and noteworthy people), and view his dimly conveyed Geneva as something lifted from books not actual experience. What they don’t similarly acknowledge is that it was highly unlikely at this time for Stevens to have had any actual experience of the Pacific Ocean either.

The fact he is making up both the European and American poles of this vignette is highly significant to the meaning of the poem. Imagine for a moment that this doctor is actually Stevens himself – not too much of a stretch if you think of it. What does it do to the meaning of the poem to know that this “doctor” is not only not a doctor, but has never been to Geneva or the Pacific Ocean? It allows us to read the strange phrasings of the poem so that it finally makes sense!

In the first stanza, he “stamps” the sand and “impounds” the ocean. These are not accurate descriptions of tasks a doctor would do, or what anyone for that matter would do at a beach. They are, however, what an attorney would do, quite frequently and drearily one might add. Who can blame a man for dreaming a little while marking legal documents for future disposition? Oh to be walking the sand by the mysterious Pacific Ocean. Or, better yet, as a distinguished gentleman from an equally strange and mysterious place, Geneva. Or both! He “pats” his stove-pipe hat in approval (with no fear of looking queer on the streets or having it blown from his head by the unforgiving ocean gusts), and he “tugs” his shawl, as if to literarily embellish the story his imagination is unreeling.

A Genevan, as representative of one of the most important lacustrine (lake) cities, would have to contend with the unfamiliar nature of ocean. Staying in character, “long-rolling opulent cataracts” are a great way for him to describe this in the terms of a lake or river, cataracts being waterfalls or white-water rapids that are inexact similes for rushing waves. Inside Switzerland he would not be “assailed” by the ocean “unless Racine or Bossuet held the like.” In other words, he could not appreciate the ocean’s powerful reality unless he had read about it somewhere, which makes sense since he isn’t actually standing in front of the ocean. 

Fortunately, our well-read protagonist could go back to the 17th century and consult the major dramatist Jean Racine (1639 – 1699) and the court theologian to Louis XIV Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627 –1704), both of whom wrote elegantly and fluently (one might say volubly) in the French language of Geneva, and often did so in praise of the power of the ocean.

Here’s Racine from his sea-set tragedy Phèdre, where characters jump or are tossed into the ocean:

“Un effroyable cri sorti du fond des flots
Des airs en ce moment a troublé le repos;
Et du sein de la terre une voix formidable
Répond en gémissant à ce cri redoubtable.” (1507-1510)
[Suddenly, from the depths of waves arose a frightful cry, which shattered the repose, and from the earth’s bosom there came in reply a thunderous groan, as frightening as the cry]*

And here’s Bossuet, to whom “water was the manifestation of God in the world”:**

“Un océan immense où se trouve la plénitude de la vérité” [An immense ocean where one finds the fullness of truth]

“He did not quail” (cower, tremble or flinch) before this imagined scene: “A man so used to plumb / The multifarious heavens felt no awe.” “A man so used to” carries an interesting double meaning: a man accustomed to, and a man in service to. “Plumb” means “measure”, often with a connotation of downward (“plumb the depths”). Here, the plumbing goes upward, which perhaps explains why the water coming down again in a deluge doesn’t concern him. The sense is interesting regardless of context: that one measures the circumference of heaven by viewing real or imagined things. That one is in the service of heaven by observing is even keener. And what he observes, “visible, voluble delugings,” is also striking. Deluge, from the Latin diluere (“to wash away”) most commonly means “flood,” and the sense is of an apocalypse seen and heard, a chatty apocalypse at that. He isn’t afraid of the end of the world as he knows it. That’s because it’s a world he has created in order to comprehend heaven, or something resembling a plan for all that lies below.

Or so he believes. These delugings “yet found means to set his simmering mind / Spinning and hissing.” Since neither an ocean nor a dream would find means in any literal sense, one has to view the deluge more closely, even more metaphorically. It may very well be the workings, the floodings, the articulations, of his mind, not imagined water. Spinning is a particularly interesting word here, implying the Fibonacci spiral, the basic path of life on its growth trajectory, as from imaginings are created ideas, even actual things (if only solid as gossamer things like poems). Spinning also invokes a downward maelstrom, as in water to the abyss. And hissing mimics both the ocean and the snake-like noise taken by so many cultures to be the sound evil makes. Creation may be achieved in these fantasies, but perhaps more so destruction, “oracular / Notations of the wild, the ruinous waste.” The problem is that it is not real. The dream (and the mind that created it) has become unmoored from the senses, from the earth, much like a heavenly day turns suddenly dangerous. It becomes bigger than its maker.

Until, finally, “the steeples of his city” (representing spiritual belief and community) “clanked and sprang,” as if the churches in watchmaking Switzerland were no different than clocks. The apocalypse of a failure of imagination is indeed “unburgherly.” He cannot really be the doctor he pretends to be. The real has intervened, like an alarm clock waking one from sleep.

“The doctor used his handkerchief and sighed,” the poem concludes. All one can do when confronted with the dominance of the real over the imagined is a prosaic act. This quality is far less apparent today than when the poem was written. Today we think of men with handkerchiefs as a distinct kind of rare breed not unlike this doctor: officious, stodgy, old-fashioned, conservative, even burgherly. In 1921 everyone had, and used, handkerchiefs. And the usages were varied: to wash one's face (my preferred sense here, as it would represent the miserliness of real water vs. the torrents just imagined), wipe sweat off (from all the conjuring work), to signal for attention (the narrator could be waving the white flag of surrender to the real), to bandage a wound (to pride or sense of proportion), to clean one’s glasses (and wipe away the rose color perhaps), as a blindfold (to hide the real), and, of course, to blow one’s nose (to move on from the explosion of fantasy). He became, in other words, a normal man again, in some enigmatic way. But he still held on to the doctor title, as if to show us this battle wasn’t over, it was simply marked “to be continued.”

As indeed it would be throughout Stevens’ poetic career.

* And let us not forget Racine Wisconsin, conveniently located near Lake Geneva Wisconsin, an area Stevens did undoubtedly visit. Such a fortuitous combination of historically and culturally redolent names can inspire quite extraordinary fancies.
** Smoot, Jean Johannessen, “Variations In Water Imagery In James Joyce And Bossuet," Romance Notes, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring, 1968), p. 252 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Keanu as Dick Diver on a Park Bench Feeding Pigeons Like a Bum

There are no second acts
Only a past that never was
Projected on a dim screen

The proof is only in
An over-egged pudding
Not eaten

The not having it
That's the dream

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Eternal Subject, Updated

Helicopters circle
       The drain,
Lightbulb eyes peer
        Like voyeur whores
        From street corners,
And listening dishes rest
        Like pigeons homing
        Above the towers
But no one watches
        Or is listening

It is white noise
        What we say
        What we do
As we cruise
        The obscelescing
For signs of our humanity

As does the semi-nude
       On display before
       The barber pole at Rudy's
Looking for communion
       When watching is
       No longer prosecuted

For the same invisible
       Mate still
       Checks us
Despite the best
       Better mousetraps can buy

The eyes of God still
       Glare at us
Behind the blackest
       Rayban shades