Friday, April 13, 2012

Stevens Textplication 15: Gray Room

Arrangement in Pink and Gray (Afternoon Tea), circa 1894, by Edmund C. Tarbell (1862-1938)

The surface, so elegant and poised, and what lies beyond it, unspoken and unspeakable, that’s the tenor of “Gray Room,” the last of our poems from 1917:
Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
And pick
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl--
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
Beside you...
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.
“Although you sit in a room that is gray…” the poem begins, but the clause isn’t resolved until the very last line: “I know how furiously your heart is beating.” In between this stark demonstration of the gap between appearance and internal reality (the real and the imagined?) there’s a lot of (shall we say) foreplay; straw-paper that is somehow silver, white that is somehow pale, red branches that have to be clarified as belonging to a red willow, the apparent presence of an outdoor plant (forsythia) inside the room, and of course, the revealing actions of the unnamed female, who lifts her beads to let them drop, gazes at the fan that’s supposed to take the gaze off her, moves a leaf in a bowl of water –seemingly innocuous gestures, of boredom perhaps, that are charged, in the final line, as hints of desire, implied as sexual. What qualifies this short-circuit into the secret heart of appearances is that the speaker “knows” it. It is not objective reality, or even the woman’s stated feeling, but the speaker’s subjective perception, whose important and single addition to the Matisse-like arrangement of images is the adverb “furiously.” We all know that woman, barely containing her longing behind the calm and dreary surface, the officiousness that keeps us at a distance from expressing our passion, yet we don’t know her. She has become a moving ornament, opaque in the male gaze. Maybe it’s just the speaker’s heart that beats furiously. As any man knows, imagination and reality cannot be so easily distinguished.

The Little White Girl, 1864, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

1 comment:

Jack said...

I am guilty of thinking my guesses are prescriptive...