Friday, June 10, 2016

Stevens Textplication #28: Infanta Marina

“Infanta Marina” from 1921 is a veritable sonic landscape mimicking the sounds of the sea: stately undulant rhythms, rich sibilants, drones that call to the ear the rising (“rumpling of the plumes”) and falling (“creature of the evening”) of the surf. Better yet, this is one of the rare poems that Stevens was recorded reading. It might be good to listen to the way he recites the poem as you read it:

Her terrace was the sand
And the palms and the twilight.

She made of the motions of her wrist
The grandiose gestures
Of her thought.

The rumpling of the plumes
Of this creature of the evening
Came to be sleights of sails
Over the sea.

And thus she roamed
In the roamings of her fan,

Partaking of the sea,
And of the evening,
As they flowed around
And uttered their subsiding sound.

The title suggests the basic sense of this poem. “Infanta” means the daughter of Spanish royalty. This is interesting in that Florida, where this poem undoubtedly takes place, was once under the Spanish crown, its daughter so to speak. The word also brings out the Latin root of “infant”, īnfāns, which literally means “not able to speak.” In other words, this princess takes dominion by letting her fan-waving wrists do the talking. “Marina” has a double connotation of “belonging to the sea” (from Latin marīnus) to the more common “place for boats to dock”. The poem deliciously conveys both senses, in that the figure (character would be too strong a word) projects herself out to sea as a sail with the aforementioned wrists but in the end is moored to her “terrace” (from the French “terra”, or earth), only “partaking” of nature, not joining it.

Each stanza creates a distinct impression in the sound and word choice, so that emotions outside of the “action” bubble up to the surface.

The first stanza, “Her terrace was the sand / And the palms and the twilight”, places her in direct relation (or is it opposition?) to the sea. The sense is of a beautiful image, and someone standing inside of it, not quite knowing what to say because it is so beautiful.

“She made of the motions of her wrist / The grandiose gestures / Of her thought.” Her fan (moved by her wrist) becomes an extension of her thought; she makes meaning with it, perhaps to express, share or enact this beauty. Interestingly, thought (for an infant at least) is not represented by words, but gestures, much like nature herself speaks. Characteristic of Stevens, who liked to strip away sturdy English prepositions in favor of more open-ended French ones, he puts an awful lot of “of’s” (rhymes with love) in this poem (10 to be exact, out of 72 total precisely-chosen words). The amazing thing is how the meaning of each one is unambiguous throughout the poem (“of” has about 10 different meanings, ranging from “caused by” to “possessed/controlled by”). Now there's a writer in charge of his message.

“The rumpling of the plumes / Of this creature of the evening / Came to be sleights of sails / Over the sea.” We move immediately away from the perspective of the Infanta to some third party, who views her as a “creature” with “rumpled” feathers. A creature of the evening yet, with its insinuation of lady of the evening, or prostitute. One whose actions are illusory, hallucinatory. In a note to an Italian translator (L 869), Stevens wrote “by the words ‘sleight of sails” I mean the passing of a sail at a distance on the sea, in sight or out of sight, which is a very common thing on exceedingly bright days. The appearing and disappearing are like sleights of hand or, say, sleights of sails.”

Whatever gestures she’s conjuring with her wrists, they seem lost on the observer.

“And thus she roamed / In the roamings of her fan,” as if the lack of our understanding takes her further away from us. She seems to fall away as she roams, like a broken troubadour, her fan an instrument of alienation, not delight. Whatever is happening with her and her fan is beyond us.

“Partaking of the sea, / And of the evening, / As they flowed around / And uttered their subsiding sound.” As the poem concludes, she samples the ocean, the night energy, but she doesn’t become nature, as her conjuring sails promised, nature merely flows “around” her and gives its characteristic “subsiding sound” of withdrawing waves. While she may have started with a desire to express this inexpressible beauty, neither humanity nor nature “hear” her gestures.

This poem can be seen as a pre-curser, or ur-text, for the later “The Idea of Order at Key West.” In that poem the woman on the beach opens her mouth to sing “beyond the genius of the sea”, which is “ever-hooded, tragic-gestured”, with “fluttered empty sleeves” and “heaving speech of air.” Unlike the Infanta here, who creates a response only to be surrounded by the sea, the woman in “Key West” masters the sea with her voice, giving it “keener sounds.” It is a peculiarity of Stevens’ muse that that poem is even sadder than this one. Nature is somehow diminished when humans control it, whereas here humans are seen as noble in their futility to commune with nature (or at least express its beauty).

I guess we will have to be content with the sound, a pure poetry of a kind that calls with its crackle and hush the mournful ocean to our hungry souls.

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