Monday, October 1, 2012

Stevens Textplication Special Birthday Edition: Pecksniffiana

The first published collection of Wallace Stevens’ poems (other than the occasional handful of poems printed then as now in journals and magazines) was a 14-poem portfolio called “Pecksniffiana” that appeared in the October 1919 issue of Poetry magazine. What makes this doubly significant is that it marked the month of his 40th birthday in the magazine that first and most prominently published him.

In honor of Stevens’ 133rd birthday today, I’ve decided to do something a little different and reproduce the entire batch of poems as they appeared 93 years ago. Six of the 14 would be “eligible” for textplication anyway (Fabliau of Florida, Ploughing on Sunday, Banal Sojourn, Anecdote of a Jar, The Place of the Solitaries and The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage), having appeared in The Palm at the End of the Mind (my reference point for this series). Some of the others have never been re-published.

Pecksniff is a term coined by Charles Dickens (from Martin Chuzzlewit), referring to an arrogant and hypocritical bully. The poems may not show direct reflections of this word, but taken together they display a variety of comic, self-mocking personas that reveal Stevens in a more human, less serious light, more playful and idiosyncratic on the whole than philosophical and incantatory. As such I will forego detailed explications to let the works speak for themselves, with a brief note at the end for every poem. Happy birthday, Wallace Stevens, wherever you are!


FABLIAU OF FLORIDA1
Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.


HOMUNCULUS ET LA BELLE ETOILE2
In the sea, Biscayne, there prinks
The young emerald, evening star—
Good light for drunkards, poets, widows,
And ladies soon to be married.

By this light the salty fishes
Arch in the sea like tree-branches,
Going in many directions
Up and down.

This light conducts
The thoughts of drunkards, the feelings
Of widows and trembling ladies,
The movements of fishes.

How pleasant an existence it is
That this emerald charms philosophers,
Until they become thoughtlessly willing
To bathe their hearts in later moonlight,

Knowing that they can bring back thought
In the night that is still to be silent,
Reflecting this thing and that,
Before they sleep.

It is better that, as scholars,
They should think hard in the dark cuffs
Of voluminous cloaks,
And shave their heads and bodies.

It might well be that their mistress
Is no gaunt fugitive phantom.
She might, after all, be a wanton,
Abundantly beautiful, eager.

Fecund,
From whose being by starlight, on sea-coast,
The innermost good of their seeking
Might come in the simplest of speech.

It is a good light, then, for those
That know the ultimate Plato,
Tranquillizing with this jewel
The torments of confusion.


THE WEEPING BURGHER3
It is with a strange malice
That I distort the world.

Ah! that ill humors
Should mask as white girls.
And ah! that Scaramouche
Should have a black barouche.

The sorry verities!
Yet in excess, continual,
There is cure of sorrow.

Permit that if as ghost I come
Among the people burning in me still,
I come as belle design
Of foppish line.

And I, then, tortured for old speech—
A white of wildly woven rings;
I, weeping in a calcined heart—
My hands such sharp, imagined things.


PETER PARASOL4
Aux taureaux Dieu cornes donne
Et sabots durs aux chevaux….

Why are not women fair,
All, as Andromache—
Having, each one, most praisable
Ears, eyes, soul, skin, hair?

Good God! That all beasts should have
The tusks of the elephant,
Or be beautiful
As large, ferocious tigers are.

It is not so with women.
I wish they were all fair,
And walked in fine clothes,
With parasols, in the afternoon air.


EXPOSITION OF THE CONTENTS OF A CAB5
Victoria Clementina, negress,
Took seven white dogs
To ride in a cab.

Bells of the dog chinked.
Harness of the horses shuffled
Like brazen shells.

Oh-hé-hé! Fragrant puppets
By the green lake-pallors,
She too is flesh,

And a breech-cloth might wear,
Netted of topaz and ruby
And savage blooms;

Thridding the squawkiest jungle
In a golden sedan,
White dogs at bay.

What breech-cloth might you wear—
Except linen, embroidered
By elderly women?


PLOUGHING ON SUNDAY6
The white cock’s tail
Tosses in the wind.
The turkey-cock’s tail
Glitters in the sun.

Water in the fields.
The wind pours down.
The feathers flare
And bluster in the wind.

Remus, blow your horn!
I’m ploughing on Sunday,
Ploughing North America.
Blow your horn!

Tum-ti-tum,
Ti-tum-tum-tum!
The turkey-cock’s tail
Spreads to the sun.

The white cock’s tail
Streams to the moon.
Water in the fields.
The wind pours down.


BANAL SOJOURN7
Two wooden tubs of blue hydrangeas stand at the foot of the stone steps.
The sky is a blue gum streaked with rose. The trees are black.
The grackles crack their throats of bone in the smooth air.
Moisture and heat have swollen the garden into a slum of bloom.
Pardie! Summer is like a fat beast, sleepy in mildew,
Our old bane, green and bloated, serene, who cries,
“That bliss of stars, that princox of evening heaven!” reminding of seasons,
When radiance came running down, slim through the bareness.
And so it is one damns that green shade at the bottom of the land.
For who can care at the wigs despoiling the Satan ear?
And who does not seek the sky unfuzzed, soaring to the princox?
One has a malady, here, a malady. One feels a malady.



THE INDIGO GLASS IN THE GRASS8
Which is real—
This bottle of indigo glass in the grass,
Or the bench with the pot of geraniums, the stained
Mattress and the washed overalls drying in the sun?
Which of these truly contains the world?
Neither one, nor the two together.


ANECDOTE OF THE JAR9
I placed a jar in Tennessee, 
And round it was, upon a hill. 
It made the slovenly wilderness 
Surround that hill. 

The wilderness rose up to it, 
And sprawled around, no longer wild. 
The jar was round upon the ground 
And tall and of a port in air. 

It took dominion every where. 
The jar was gray and bare. 
It did not give of bird or bush, 
Like nothing else in Tennessee.


OF THE SURFACE OF THINGS10
I
In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.

II
From my balcony, I survey the yellow air,
Reading where I have written,
“The spring is like a belle undressing.”

III
The gold tree is blue.
The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.
The moon is in the folds of the cloak.


THE CURTAINS IN THE HOUSE OF THE METAPHYSICIAN11
It comes about that the drifting of these curtains
Is full of long motions; as the ponderous
Deflations of distance or as clouds
Inseparable from their afternoons;
Or the changing of light, the dropping
Of the silence, wide sleep and solitude
Of night, in which all motion
Is beyond us, as the firmament,
Up-rising and down-falling, bares
The last largeness, bold to see.


THE PLACE OF THE SOLITAIRES12
Let the place of the solitaires
Be a place of perpetual undulation.

Whether it be in mid-sea
On the dark, green water-wheel,
Or on the beaches,
There must be no cessation
Of motion, or of the noise of motion,
The renewal of noise
And manifold continuation;

And, most, of the motion of thought
And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitaires,
Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.


THE PALTRY NUDE STARTS ON A SPRING VOYAGE13
But not on a shell, she starts,
Archaic, for the sea.
But on the first-found weed
She scuds the glitters,
Noiselessly, like one more wave.

She too is discontent
And would have purple stuff upon her arms,
Tired of the salty harbors,
Eager for the brine and bellowing
Of the high interiors of the sea.

The wind speeds her,
Blowing upon her hands
And watery back.
She touches the clouds, where she goes,
In the circle of her traverse of the sea.

Yet this is meagre play
In the scurry and water-shine,
As her heels foam—
Not as when the goldener nude
Of a later day
Will go, like the centre of sea-green pomp,
In an intenser calm,
Scullion of fate,
Across the spick torrent, ceaselessly,
Upon her irretrievable way.


COLLOQUY WITH A POLISH AUNT14
Elle savait toutes les légendes du Paradis et tous les contes de la Pologne. Revue des Deux Mondes
She
How is it that my saints from Voragine,
In their embroidered slippers, touch your spleen?
He
Old pantaloons, duenna of the spring!
She
Imagination is the will of things…
Thus, on the basis of the common drudge,
You dream of women, swathed in indigo,
Holding their books toward the nearer stars,
To read, in secret, burning secrecies…



1. A Fabliau is a rhymed comic narrative of 100-300 lines from 12th to 14th century Europe, remnants of which appear in classic literary works like The Canterbury Tales and Gargantua and Pantagruel. They almost always have explicitly sexual and scatological themes involving characters like cuckolded husbands, greedy clergymen and stupid peasants. Since none of these elements appear in “Fabliau of Florida,” one can only assume Stevens is referring to the Fabliau’s characteristic use of verbal tropes like double entendres and puns to achieve their effect. In this case, the initial word “barque” sounds like the bark of a palm tree in Florida, but it also signifies barque as the boat in ancient Egypt that transported the dead to the afterlife, most notably the pharaoh himself through the Milky Way to his throne in the sky. Thus, the poem can be read on two levels, as the literal disappearing of palm trees in the moonlight and as a metaphorical voyage away from the earth in a “black hull” to the milky-white heavens.

2. The title would be roughly translated as "The miniature human model and the beautiful star." The narrator speculates here how the rich and sensuous Florida milieu, “Good light for drunkards, poets, widows, ladies about to be married” would appear for Platonic and religious philosophers, who ascetically seek to strip away the veneer of the senses to get to essential forms. His conclusion is that such extreme sensuousness would profoundly torment and confuse them, even as they would be mesmerized into animal contentment. Instead of being turned from a life of sin into a life of piety, they would be turned from a life of piety to a life of sin, because of all the life their pose of abstraction denies.

3. An uncharacteristically personal poem, as exemplified by the “weeping” “I” of the burgher, a complacent middle-class man that Stevens also most assuredly was. Just as the mind turns the normal frustrations of everyday life into pleasurable fantasies, so too the poetry that comes out of such diversion disguises the sickness of the heart that impelled its creation, leaving behind only the immaculate work of hands, the poem, to be enjoyed but not understood.

4. The French epigram translates as “God gives the bulls horns and the horses hooves.” This appears to be a cryptic inner dialogue over women's beauty. Peter Parasol was the name Stevens used when he first sent poems to Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine in 1914, but whether this slight poem refers to Miss Monroe’s physical appearance is supposition at best.

5. This poem is so politically incorrect it might actually have become cool. The scene is of an over-the-top Cinderella-like carriage with an African-American woman in it wearing an embroidered loincloth (breechcloth). One can only guess that Stevens is making fun of the pretensions of respectable woman here.

6. Stevens called this poem a “fanfaronade,” meaning boasting or flaunting behavior. The flaunting boast of the narrator that he is ploughing fields on the Lord’s day, especially with the bravura he expresses, seems to invite a kind of comeuppance. Stevens elsewhere suggests it was inspired by listening to Dvorak’s Symphony Number 9 (“The New World Symphony”), which gives one another good glimpse in: at the American doing his own free-form version of a jaunty European dance, whereby Remus the co-founder of Rome is morphed into a kindly ex-slave, and all of North America is brought into the field, like an expansive Walt Whitman tribute to America.

7. See my explication of September 14, 2012.

8. A cute little riposte to the so-called debate between Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Neither the imaginary and poetic “indigo bottle of glass” that represents Stevens nor the realistic bench and geraniums etc. like something out of a Williams poem serves to capture reality at all, even if these two poetic visions are combined. Stevens however reserves his version as a title.

9. See my explication of June 15, 2012.

10. One of the more interesting of Stevens’ lighter poems, where the absurd descriptions of natural phenomena convincingly appear as accurate surface descriptions.

11. A poem ponderous and funny at the same time, the vague ruffling of curtains effortlessly becomes a symbol and indicator of all forces in the universe, and in fact becomes the universe showing itself, but that provides no help in deciphering the meaning behind it (“the largeness”).

12. A beautiful sounding poem full of o's and s's and "ions", it seems to revolve around the idea that other people provide the essential stuff and dynamism of life, the thing we react to and act upon. Or as Stevens once said in another context, "life is a matter of people and not things." For one to be solitary (ironically plural here), the natural world must have some constantly shifting, unpredictably exciting movement, which of course it does. Or as Stevens said in another context, "one who is alone is never really lonely."

13. This strange and enchanting image of some Botticelli Venus jettisoning her half-shell to glide upon the water like some goddess on water skies is made stranger by the adjectives used to describe her and what she does: "paltry" and "meagre." The "later, goldener nude" surpasses her, even though she does the exact same thing. A wry comment on progress (and the ambition underlying it) is undoubtedly what is intended here.

14. The French epigram translates as "she knew all the legends of paradise and the stories of Poland." This she, presumably the Polish aunt, and presumably some kind of "duenna" or chaperone assigned to protect some young lady's virtue, is taken aback that her seemingly innocent slippers embroidered with pictures of the saints would provoke a response of spleen (anger, melancholy and ennui) from the male character. This is obviously not about slippers. The male responds that the pantaloons are too old, cover too much, and crimp his style, to which the female replies that he has made too much of the woman in question, not too little, using imagination to make her less common and more desirous. This colloquy, or conversation especially with religious connotations, ends with an ellipse, preventing us from seeing any more than the distinct perspectives of the two.

2 comments:

Hannah Stephenson said...

It's Wally's birthday?! I didn't know! Happy birthday, Wally!

This is a wonderful tribute. Excellent and insightful explications.

Wallace Stevens is now older than Bilbo Baggins.

Jack said...

I would not enjoy these nearly as much without the explanations.