Thursday, July 7, 2011

Stevens Textplication 6: Domination of Black

"The cry of the peacock" as practiced by Lord Krishna

Wallace Stevens chose “Domination of Black” from 1916 as his own favorite poem for the 1942 anthology America’s 93 Greatest Living Authors Present This Is My Best… (Dial Press) with the following statement (p. 652):
The themes of life are the themes of poetry. It seems to be, so clearly, that what is the end of life for the politician or the philosopher, say, ought to be the end of life for the poet, and that his important poems ought to be the poems of the achievement of that end. But poetry is neither politics nor philosophy. Poetry is poetry, and one's objective as a poet is to achieve poetry, precisely as one's objective in music is to achieve music. There are poets who would regard that as a scandal and who would say that a poem that had no importance except its importance as poetry had no importance at all, and that a poet who had no objective except to achieve poetry was a fribble and something less than a man of reason.
This lawyerly masterpiece of circular reasoning (poetry is good – unlike other areas of life – because it is good poetry), inasmuch as it means anything beyond the customary come-hither smokescreen of the artist, suggests that the worth of poetry lies in qualities beyond logical explanation, beyond formal concerns, as inaccessible to laymen as to poets themselves. “The themes of life” are the themes of poetry, but its value lies in something different that is unique to poetry. Let’s see if we can unravel this differance. Here is the poem:

At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
Came striding.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry -- the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?

Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

This poem, read aloud, is a great example of the way Stevens creates his stately yet dynamic rhythms through repetition. The same word emphasized in different ways, in different accentual structures, brings with it an eerie weight that, in this case, where multiple words are carried throughout the whole poem, unifies the whole with a stillness and grandeur. In the 190 words of the poem, the words "wind", "cry", "leaves", "hemlocks", "peacocks", "themselves" and "I" are all repeated five times, while the words "turning" (6), "turned"(3), "fire"(3), "remembered", "loud", "heavy", "tails", "room", "twilight", "striding" (2 times each) are also repeated. The phrases "like the leaves themselves" and "the cry of the peacocks" are each repeated three times (four if you count minor variations). It’s as if Stevens has invented his own style, the mournful villanelle wrought to an extreme. The repetitions encompass the elements (earth/leaves, fire, air/wind), a rare use of the first person (interesting in that context that Stevens chose this as his personal favorite), and a number of words rich in symbolic meanings, most notably the rhyming "peacocks" and "hemlocks."

Dramatically, the poem moves through an extended comparison of a flickering fireplace fire with first the autumn leaves literally reflected from the outside into the room, then to the colors of peacocks tails (and the encroaching night to the dark green of hemlock trees). Then the noise the fire makes is compared to the noises of both peacocks and hemlocks (with some questioning of who is talking and listening to whom), and finally the planets in the sky seem like the same turning of the leaves, the changing of the seasons, a holistic sense of relatedness that soon resolves both in the fireplace and outside to darkness. This encroachment of night scares the speaker, but he remembers the cry of the peacock and feels better.

The attentive reader will notice that I have completed the thought at the end of the poem that most if not all commentators on this poem leave ambiguous, in their apparent desire to have this poem be simply about death and annihilation. The reason why is simple. On the most basic symbolic level, hemlocks are evergreen trees that never change with the seasons, while peacocks replace their feathers annually. Thus, it’s quite easy to see a contrast between the elegant and artistic peacock and her strange cry signaling a continuation of life and the hemlock (also the name of the elixir which suicided the great philosopher Socrates) signaling the “domination of black” – the constant presence of death in our lives due to its unresolvable mystery.

If that’s all there was to it, we’d say “how nice, the voice of the imagination achieves a kind of immortality” and move on, secretly thinking that death has an even bigger hold than the somber lines give it credit for. But I believe part of the reason for Stevens’ reticence about saying anything about his supposed favorite poem comes from the fact that in the word “peacock” he chose one of the oldest and most powerful religious symbols for immortality and direct experience of the divine there is, one that reaches across virtually all spiritual traditions.

Babylonia and Ancient Persia were full of peacock thrones where one gathered around the Tree of Life. Egyptians, Greeks and Romans viewed the “eye” on the peacocks tail as the all-seeing eye that is the higher human nature, aligned with the Gods. In China and Japan, the great Buddha of compassion Quan-Yin always carried a peacock feather, while in Mexico tribes like the Toltecs worshipped peacocks as keys to inner gnosis. The Sufis believed the original spirit was in the shape of a peacock. The great mystic Pythagoras wrote that the soul of Homer moved into a peacock. The Hindus believed peacocks slayed serpents and had their gods Brahma, Laksmi and Lama ride on them.

Christians believed that peacock flesh did not decay after death, and Christianity is full of peacock imagery symbolizing the resurrection of Christ, from annuciation and manger scenes to tomes by Origen and Augustine to stations on the cross to Easter Rituals to the pine cone (signifying the pineal gland, the inner gate) decorated with peacock feathers outside the Vatican.

The Gnostics (and later the Knights Templar) cultivated “Cauda Pavoris” (peacocks tail) as the way to transmute body/matter into spirit, a practice that later become the alchemical transformation of base metals into gold. Peacocks guarded the Muslim gates of heaven. To this day Dzog Chen Buddhists (like the Dalai Lama) wear peacock feathers to signify their true nature and potentiality beyond the maya of suffering/veil of tears.

The “cry of the peacock” is, in other words, a mystical call, a direct perception of the divine that can’t be named or defined, but in our experience of it shows us our perpetual and incorruptible souls. So a single poetic image can yield transcendence.

Doesn’t that make this poem a lot less depressing?