Saturday, July 7, 2012

Stevens Textplication 20: Earthy Anecdote

Imagine it’s 1923, and you’ve just picked up the first book by someone hailed in all the right literary salons as an emerging modernist poet, to be considered alongside Eliot’s existential men, Pound’s troubadour anti-heroes, and Yeats’ jaded dreamers. Among the techniques of the new poetry then developing in little magazines was strict attention to detail, use of exotic poetic forms, the rhythms of cities, machinery and daily speech, structures shaped by stream-of-consciousness and collage, linguistic play, allusive erudition, deep almost impenetrable thinking, the conviction that all was lost. Prepared for the strictest and most elegant practitioner of such effects, this is the very first poem you would confront from Wallace Stevens:

Every time the bucks went clattering
Over Oklahoma
A firecat bristled in the way.

Wherever they went,
They went clattering,
Until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the right,
Because of the firecat.

Or until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the left,
Because of the firecat.

The bucks clattered.
The firecat went leaping,
To the right, to the left,
Bristled in the way.

Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes
And slept.
You have to hand it to Stevens to start off his first book with such a poem. "Earthy Anecdote" has no people, no drama, no believable situation, no recognizable form, its main character is wholly imaginary but not explained in any way, almost every word in it is repeated multiple times. It is like a nursery rhyme without the rhyme, or better yet a cartoon, the primitive kind one would see on movie screens in 1923. It makes perfect sense in fact as a cartoon, you can just see that funny firecat bristling and the poor clattering herd of bucks go veering away.

And just in case you have the idea that this is one big metaphor, Stevens himself wrote, by way of explanation to the editor of the Modern School journal that first published the poem, “there’s no symbolism in the ‘Earthy Anecdote’ (L 204)" ... "I intended something quite concrete: actual animals” (L 209). Except that there’s no such animal as a firecat. And even the biggest predatory cats will quietly stalk a herd of deer, not bristle at them as if they are dogs. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine a clattering of bucks stopping for anything, much less swerving in multiple directions as puppets of an angry feline.

Still readers feel that it makes sense, recognizing the dynamism expressed in it of irresistible force working out some kind of agreement with immovable object, of a social compact between hunter and hunted, of something resembling the human desire to if not control, at least reroute reality through force of will (or as Ryan Wetterling puts it “the cycle of pursuit, evasion, and repose upon the edges of the mind”). Thus this strange firecat has been allegorized as a cougar, lightning, a prairie fire, the sun, God actual or imagined by the bucks, the imagination, the female, Stevens himself, an oil well, a red panda (called a firecat in China), the color yellow – every one of these as symbol has some literal flaw, not the least of which is the scene doesn’t make literal sense in the first place. But then there’s that cartoon logic, which makes perfect sense.

Also bear in mind here that the word "bristle" has three distinct connotations:
  1. strong, free-flowing movement ("the crowd bristled")
  2. irritated response ("she bristled at the suggestion")
  3. a shiny appearance ('the stars bristled")
Stevens the dictionary man has clearly found (with La Gioconda smile) a way to combine all three senses in the personage of the firecat, which already carries within it suggestions of uncontainable force, star-like gleaming, an outsized feline sensitivity to its surroundings. One might offer correlary suggestions about "clattering" and bucks, the more masculine equivalent, suitable for work, romance and any competitive endeavors. But as sharply as they are represented the abstraction is such one cannot see these figures as more than shadows. It is a stand-off between reader and writer, much like the perpetual stand-off between the archetypal animals. The only way to resolve the conflict is to free the interpretations to pure subjectivity, something Stevens throughout his life seemed to encourage.

I for one see in the firecat something of the Sisyphean plight of the individual, seen from the air ("over Oklahoma") and repeated endlessly. It could take the form of the writer redirecting but not capturing reality with his bright eyes and muse-powered will, or the boss with the power to "fire" herding his young bucks off in the right direction but not getting them exactly to follow orders, or the reader who can shape the words coming at him and interpret it left or right but can only end it by inscrutably going to sleep. One sees this dynamic in many human situations, how the negative will of the individual can influence the will of the group, but not in a way that satisfies either side or changes anything. Think of wars, protests, investment, religion, politics, anywhere the unresolved duality of life puts people at odds, there is always someone who can "play the players" to get them to swerve, but it is a limited power the individual has in the social realm, one of influence and not authentic independence.

Perhaps that is part of the key to the mystery why Stevens put this poem first in his introduction to the general public. Or maybe not. “There is a good deal of theory about it, but explanations spoil things,” Stevens wrote of the poem in the 1918 letter (L 204). Anecdote, personal account, from the Greek anekdota (unpublished items), also means “a secret or private, hitherto-unpublished narrative.” So, recognizing that this poem un-"earth"ed may be of something still buried from literal, literary or critical thought (at least mine), I will leave with, apropos of nothing, two interesting Summer anecdotes.

The Legend of the Fire Cat, from Florida Panther Net
In August of every year, according to the tribal legend of the Yakimas and Lummis in the Puget Sound area, a large puma appears as the Great Fire Cat, jumping from the Olympic Mountains to the Selkirks, to Baker, to Rainier, and back to the Olympics, setting fires. It is said that a long time ago a chief of the Lummi Indians on the islands in Puget Sound acquired great wealth and stored it in a huge cave. He captured a large female puma and trained her to live in the cave and guard his treasures. The chief told his two sons that if misfortune should come to them after his death, they should go with fifty men to the cave and tie a fawn at the entrance to lure the big cat out. They then could slay the animal and recover the riches stored inside the cave.

One of the sons grew greedy and gathered fifty warriors with him to steal the wealth. They followed the directions of the chief and killed the puma as it bounded out of the cave. In their greed and haste, they did not realize they killed a kitten of the big female. While rejoicing over the kill, the great guardian cat charged from the depths of the cave and killed the son of the chief with one swipe of her massive paw and then pursued the warriors into the timber, seeking them out one by one until she had killed them all. The beast was so enraged that she clawed the huge tree until the pitch burst into flames and the forests roared with fire. Since then, the great Fire Cat is supposed to return annually in all her fury to fire the mountains in August.

A hunting practice from Stevens' childhood, from Benton News
From June through September, Pennsylvania hunters would often "fire-hunt" deer. Deer would come to streams, rivers, or other bodies of water at night. Hunters would build a fire of yellow pitch pine in the middle of a canoe, and station a man in the stern to steer and one or two others in front to shoot the deer. When the deer or other animals were spotted, the canoe was steered to drift toward them. The deer would raise their heads and stare at the fire. If the deer finally decided to run, it would see its own shadow in the banks and thinking it was a dog or wolf would cry out and jump into the water, giving the hunters another few shots. In this manner, the early hunters could kill one to four in a location and three to ten deer a night.


the walking man said...

I like your thoughts on the firecat Bill. Especially those concerning the individuals ability to turn the herd (or lack thereof).

To the piece itself I like it very much I assumed a cat as a cat and the less than reality of it's hunt as a plausible scenario simply because it was stated as such. The last line is the kicker because the reader never truly knows if the cat sleeps because of exhaustion or satisfaction, which present a (stated) unintended metaphor.

Hannah Stephenson said...

This is freaking fantastic!!

I love reading your textplications---I especially loved how this one started out.

Do you send these out anywhere? I feel you should....

Or at least know they are so very fun to read!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, these are easily among my favorite things to read. Period.

erin said...

and what does this say of our desire, unending, undying desire to impose personal meaning, to extrapolate metaphor from everything? more so, what does this question mean to how we see the world - how we equate over and over again one form to another? it seems we crave comparison because language always rests beside the truth, never as the core of truth. perhaps this is why we resist stevens' firecat. mustn't the firecat be or meansomething else, or what we are really asking, doesn't our existence have more meaning than the simple mechanism of it?

i kind of delighted in my ignorance as i read the stevens' poem. i thought of course, while i do not know what a firecat is, surely everyone else must. i do this a lot inside my ignorance:)


erin said...

have you read robert bly's What Have I Ever Lost By Dying, or his piece, disappointment and desire? this is what i was thinking about the other day by trying to escape metaphor but metaphor seems to be a human condition. it is fallout from consciousness.

disappointment and desire

"When I composed the first of these poems...I hoped that a writer could describe an object or creature without claiming it, without immersing it like a negative in his developing tank of disappointment and desire. I no longer think that is possible.

Our desires and disappointments have such hunger that they pull each sturgeon or hollow tree into themselves. Or it may be that our desires, our aggressions and rages are already inside the sturgeon even before we approach it.

In an object or thing poem, we usually work to keep the imaginative language spare, so that the being does not dissolve into human images; but I have learned also to accept the fantasy that often appears toward the end of the poem. We could say that the complicated soul from which images and language flows is as much nature as the rice grain or the pine cone."

William A. Sigler said...

Thank you everyone for your comments - I really appreciate having people to share this stuff with, especially people who are already such truth-seeking missiles with words.

Erin, you seem to have jumped magically into Stevens' world - of the falsity of metaphor, the only thing there is. Stevens would deny the egoic comfort of Bly's quote (as astringent as it is), finding there is no sturgeon on the other side at all - just the desire that created it in our mind. The real one is always swimming somewhere else. On the bright side, how we can destroy what we can't possess? What better way to keep us focused on our quest for nothingness than "the palm at the end of the mind"?

George Wolff said...

I have written a brief comment on "Earthly Anecdote" in Wikipedia:

You might find it interesting. I like your blog comments very much.