Friday, August 24, 2012

Stevens Textplication #23: Nomad Exquisite

I have a line from a poem "let's lucid dream the professional boat-naming class" that I love even though I'm fully aware nobody would have any idea what I'm talking about. It actually has to do with the well-documented fact that there are never any good names for boats (probably a vestige of the British tendency to name everything, pretentiously and badly). If only one could imagine a class where one learned how to properly and professionally name boats, the thinking went. Anyway, "Nomad Exquisite," in addition to being a great or terrible boat name depending on your perspective, is one of those poems that seems to many observers too private, too personal for elucidation (some say this about all of Stevens' poems). Stevens' relationship with Florida in these early poems was indeed shockingly personal, addressing it more often as an alluring and fickle lover than as one of these United States. He published quite a number of poems in this vein, full of exotic tropicality and poignant Northern longing. This one, as they all do, has its own special feel:
As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth
The big-finned palm
And green vine angering for life,

As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth hymn and hymn
From the beholder,
Beholding all these green sides
And gold sides of green sides,

And blessed mornings,
Meet for the eye of the young alligator,
And lightning colors
So, in me, comes flinging
Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames.
First, a gentle reminder that this was written in 1919 not 2012. A quick count of the number of syllables in each of these lines shows how thoroughly Stevens was resisting the English meters still conventional in his time (9,2,4,8 9,5,5,7,6 5,11,5,6,7). So many odd syllables, so erratically arranged, yet the diction (and rhythm) is one of portentous solemnity, lush with phrases such as "immense dew," "brings forth," "beholding," "hymn and hymn" (as opposed to "hymn and whore"?), "blessed mornings," "meet for the eye." It's like Milton on a bender. Notice too the progression of vowel sounds, as the "ih" and "aye" sounds of I dance with the "ee" sounds until the final line, where the a's march in and take over. And what's with all these f's, the most confused sound in the English language?

All of these poetic tricks, I would argue, are for a purpose: to create an disarming and off-putting musicality (an appeal to the South* of emotion, love, sensitivity) in order to disguise its far more prosaic (Northern) content, for the substance of the poem is nothing more than a philosophical proposition that reads something like this:
As water creates vegetation,
As the effect of water creates poetic response in the witness
So out of me comes poetry
So simple, yes, but nothing seems this straightforward in the poem itself, does it? We've got the personification of Florida as "immense dew" for one thing, allegedly non-human green vines "angering for life" (what an unexpected blend of sound and sense here, the aggressive growth of tropical plants as passion for life that mimics in sound the spindly way it grows to the human observer), a bunch of "side" dishes (suggesting how the edges of vegetation in sunlight can be distinctly green or gold or an indistinct mix), the well-timed cameo appearance of a "young alligator" (signaling both birth and death in close proximity to the poet), and the sudden appearance of lightning like one of those famous Floridian storms, so intense that the poet apparently becomes the lightning ("forms, flames and flakes of flame" also sounds like lightning - if lightning could talk - in addition to being a good description of the poet's project in general).

All this poetic license with trademark Everglades imagery (and the Florida of Stevens' time was a lot like the Everglades through and through) expresses with Poe-like hysteria how crazy it feels to be in such a strange place, all the more crazy because one can so easily become a part of it.

This delicate relationship between appearance, metaphor and identity is at the center of this poem. We create our identities through metaphor, the lucid images of relationship we latch onto to imagine who we are in the so-much-larger world, and this metaphor is created out of appearance, what we see. Somewhere along the way, however, the metaphor and the real become confused, we get lost and the arboretum becomes a jungle so to speak, and with this shift, who we are becomes an open question. We act as nature, flinging our own "flakes of flames" (like so much glitter) and believing we are speaking as the lightning, directly inspired by the natural world. But we can only imagine ourselves so at one with nature because we are so totally removed from it. And that's always the Stevensian dilemma, how we can become so completely what we are not, to the point where we don't trust our minds, our senses or our spirit. There's no break in the appearance to clue us in that we are dreaming it, no telling us to stop as we assume all of God's creative powers. There's only a feeling that it isn't as it appears.

So we write poems, literally or figuratively, trying to at least document the subtle interpenetrations between self and world to find in them some evidence, in our own words, of who we are and why we are here.

Since this is the first of Stevens' Florida poems we will discuss I will announce that each of these explications will end with a link to Farewell to Florida, a poem from 1936 that was to be the last poem Stevens ever wrote about Florida. I'm doing this not just because I like to spoil any party I'm invited to, but because without that poem these ones would, for me, have no real meaning.

* It has been poignantly called to my attention that my habitual citing of Native Peoples mythology may appear to one not versed in it as the ravings of a madman. Therefore, let me clarify on this point that I am using the concepts of South and North here in the traditional American Indian usage of North as the cold, white, rational, boundary-making father mind that is in this cycle of being in control of the planet, and South as the hot, red, loving, open, all-accepting mother heart that is now in the process of taking over as a new cycle begins.


Anonymous said...

Excellent elucidation!

In one of the only two poetry books I own, I recently discovered a section devoted to Stevens' work. I and my partner have been reading them, basically because of your online series.

James Owens said...

This is the dilemma -- we must step back from things in order to know that we are close to them, or at least in order to say that we are close to them. Simone Weil writes, "We must try to love without imagining -- to love the appearance in its nakedness without interpretation. What we love then is truly God." But it is hard, isn't it?, when language itself is metaphor, when we can't say "Florida" as place without simultaneously saying Florida as metaphor ...

the walking man said...

This iconography of Wallace Stevens Nomad Exquisite is succinct and to the point. Always helpful in that regard. In this piece in particular he seems to come from his humanity riding his poets being. We see therefore we report.

But to another you define yourself in metaphor? Have you found a metaphor adequate to define the poets mind?

If I need a metaphor let it be this poem I will let others decide whether I am observer or observed.

William A. Sigler said...

Jack- That's the best compliment I can receive.

James- All's I know is that the weekend was full of Florida storm stories, I ended up watching two whole pre-season football games played in Florida, and my wife told me she hoped the hurricane would make a right turn into the GOP convention in Florida this week. None of those things exist except as metaphors, because the mind does not deal with the real. If I am scrupulous, I know these metaphors signify nothing but myself.

Mark- Ah, "the metaphor adequate to define the poet's mind." I can't answer such a difficult question because the same emptiness and trust that makes one a poet makes it impossible to define in the chosen medium of words what a poet is. So one creates poses to get across the nothingness of language (poetry is pure because it accepts this nothingness). Stevens has his dandy pose, gratifying our egos with aesthetic cultivations that leave behind a lot of beautiful toys to play with in order to disguise the void he is circumnavigating.

As for Buk, he used the metaphor of the unregenerate drunk, because how else could we see what he shows us without judgment or shame? How else could we acquire his compassion for humanity (and ultimately ourselves)?

the walking man said...

...and that is why his nakedly exposed self in Confession is in my regard the best love poem ever written.