Sunday, October 14, 2012

Stevens Textplication #26: The Emperor of Ice Cream

In memory of Katherine Hollands

If there is any one poem Stevens is known for, especially among the general public, it is “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” with its strange gay-90’s imagery, unusual word choices and its glad, fearsome and inexplicable last line “there is no emperor but the emperor of ice cream.” The poem represents Stevens in any poetry anthology you’d care to mention, an unlikely number one hit for the unlikely rock star, an ordinary surety bond lawyer from Hartford, Connecticut.

The Wallace Stevens industry in American academia, having decided (for reasons that have nothing to do with Wallace Stevens) that he was a post-Nietzsche “death of God” atheist, confronts in Emperor a poem so thoroughly at odds with that stereotype it must double down on its error by reading the poem as a “live now for tomorrow we die” Hallmark card sentiment. Normally there’s no harm in such things, good poems after all support wildly divergent interpretations. In this case, though, there’s a far more important point that may be missed. In a humble attempt to set the record straight, here is the poem, from 1922:

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

The “essential gaudiness” of the language (as Stevens himself put it) makes even the poem’s relatively straightforward narrative hard to identify. In simplest terms we’re talking about someone giving directions for a wake (in much the same way as William Carlos Williams does for a funeral in “Tract”). The strong cigar-roller can handle the manual labor required to press the curds out of the whey to make cheese (or cheese curds, a farm delicacy) to serve at the gathering. It might be of interest to note that the Connecticut River valley around Hartford has long been the main place in the U.S. to grow the tobacco leaf for the outer wrapping of cigars, so it would not be strange there to go out looking for a cigar-roller for this task. These curds are “concupiscent” (amorous, lustful), suggesting not only the pleasure derived in eating them, but how close that pleasure is to sexuality as well as death (a hint carried also in the “horny” feet of the second stanza). “Let the wenches dawdle in such dress as they are used to wear” is a particularly striking way of saying the young women have to get dressed up so they should be forced into idleness lest they soil their Sunday best. The boys must be put to work bringing the flowers for the viewing, wrapping them in appropriately obsolescent old newspaper. The party promises to be free-spirited and gay, with ice cream as the dominant element.

The second stanza makes clear that this party is actually funereal. The dresser “missing” three knobs, made of “deal” (fir or pine wood, especially when sawn into standardized planks) is actually a description of a one-handled coffin. The “sheet she embroidered fantails once” is used as the deceased's winding-sheet, or burial shroud, a poignant image of how symbols and mementos of one’s life are kept with the body after death. “If her horny feet protrude,” in other words if the nasty reality of the corpse’s appearance is revealed, it helps remind us that she is no longer with us. The lamp must be directed correctly for the presentation. The most important thing among the protocols is the ice cream.

Having set the scene, so to speak, we can delve deeper into the meaning, starting with the most obvious question: why is death presented as being so full of life? The inescapable answer to this question, of course, is that it is not about death at all but about the living. Death may be the pretense, but the interests of the people are completely on their own lives: what to eat, how to dress, what to do, how to act. There’s an eerie lack of any real relation to the dead body. No clearer indication of that exists than the fabled last line: “death has no dominion” because ice cream is king. Why would the poet then take the time to set this in a funeral — as opposed to ice cream — parlor? And why is ice cream, seemingly so unrelated to death, so important?

Let’s approach this question by thinking a little about what ice cream may suggest at a more metaphoric level. Much of the force of the poem – its impact on readers – is in the surprise appearance of the ice cream. Ice cream is so redolent of childhood magic, the pure unalloyed joys of life, the wide feeling, the ultimate pleasure, it is as much an experience as a word. And, as much as any word can be, it is a window into our own hearts, a momentary and transient glimpse into what is natural and real inside us. The joy it brings at an unconscious level, here associated with death (not normally a joyous subject) suggests that in the celebration of life after a death (which is what a wake is supposed to be about) there is a chink that allows us a glimpse into the endless. The stained glass when cracked lets in a small glimmer of light that is enough for us to wake up inside of the dream. One can sense the real, see its structure revealed, know the lord because one knows the actual. At some point, one must “let be be the finale of seem,” we have to eventually step into the real of conscious awareness of our own immortality, and overcome the illusion of appearance and separation, the left-behind corpse we are profoundly alienated from that bears so little relevance to our lives. We get a glimpse of that other country during the ceremony of death's passage, but it's how we take that into this life that's what's important, and in this life, ice cream is the word.

Ah, but it melts. Ice cream, like life, like all form, is impermanent. What is not impermanent is the emperor, the one who dispenses the ice cream. The emperor of ice cream never dies. That’s why he’s the emperor. And that emperor is inside us. That’s why he’s the only emperor over us. We must find the divine within ourselves, step away from the "cold and dumb" bodies of other people and their rules, ideas, accountabilities, because how can they help us when they’re laid out on a slab, how, in fact, did they ever give us what we thought they were giving us when they were alive? The speaker points out the usefulness of the disgusting feet of the corpse protruding, for it reminds everyone that she is dead, as if they needed such reminders, as if nothing really changed with her death. The people gathered and ordered to their tasks in the poem, with only a dim understanding of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, will learn little to nothing from the awesome proximity to death other than it was a party. Direct the lamp beam of the outward light within instead. The only rules and the only enforcement, the only understanding and the only transcendence, come from there. 


the walking man said...

The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream in this situation because the dead have their face covered with their past and only the living can taste the ice cream(life) so let life rule sweetly while there is yet life.

Jack said...

It may seem perfunctory at this point, but, thanks for the great series. I thoroughly look forward to each update.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Yes, you are dead on (pardon the pun).

It would be so wrong to misread this as a depressing poem---it is downright gleeful in the first stanza.

I always enjoy the word "Let" in both of these stanzas--Let be be finale of seem, let the lamp affix its beam....these things are true already, just let them be (let it be....).