Navigating the same alienated vein he’d been mining in the last three poems we’ve covered, Stevens applies his new theories of imagination and reality to a love/marital relationship in “Another Weeping Woman,” from 1921, and the results are, if anything, even more disturbing than in Gubbinal, The Snow Man or Tea at the Palaz of Hoon. The poem is commonly taken to refer to a grieving widow, but, as usual, I’m not so sure things are exactly as they seem. Here’s the poem:
Pour the unhappiness out
From your too bitter heart,
Which grieving will not sweeten.
Poison grows in this dark.
It is in the water of tears
Its black blooms rise.
The magnificent cause of being,
The imagination, the one reality
In this imagined world
With him for whom no phantasy moves,
And you are pierced by a death.
The first two stanzas of the poem eloquently but rather uncharitably psychologize the physical effect of watching someone cry. Endless, uncontrollable wailing makes us, the observer, feel like the person is possessed by a demon that will never stop flailing us with its pain.
But this isn’t just another woman weeping, she seems to be more intimately known to the speaker. She’s characterized as that always unhappy, deeply embittered woman for whom tears would seem to be a humanizing release, but even genuine grief can’t soften (or “sweeten”) her all-encompassing discontent. She can’t “pour” or cry it out. The tears themselves become “poison.” And her bitter heart, the darkness, increases with the tears, being poetically nurtured into “black blooms.” But of what does this bitterness consist?
The final two stanzas provide a prosaic answer: it’s a man. But the phrasing is exceedingly poetic: “The imagination … leaves you … with him.” This seems quite intimate indeed, as if the identities of the figures have to be hidden and the context distanced the emotions are so close. One way of doing that is putting all the weight of explanation on a grand philosophical theorem: “The magnificent cause of being, / The imagination, the one reality / In this imagined world.” It’s as shocking as it is straightforward: Our life is a dream, but we as dreamer created it.
The dreamer wakes up, however, in the last stanza, with a man beside her that she can’t turn into a phantasy (a lighter and more willful form of imagination, where a loved one for example can be turned into a fancied hero rather than perceived into being). “Him for whom no phantasy moves” enigmatically describes someone who could be implacable, impossible to fantasize about, completely unimaginative, or dead.
The prevailing sense, however, is that when the curtains of the imagination are lifted, there is nothing behind it that is real. We construct love affairs out of pheromones and moonbeams, never thinking that is all there is to it, a trick to facilitate a shared delusion of separate minds. OK, maybe we do, but it is not a good feeling when we do, for it is like, as Stevens so aptly puts it, being “pierced by a death.” The inconsolable weeper truly cannot be consoled, because she is in a different realm.
Thus the grief of the first stanza is, in contemporary parlance, “paid off” by the death in the last. This leads many readers to conclude that the woman is weeping over her dead husband (or son). The widow trope, however, is only a metaphor for the real action, which is the death of a relationship (or the illusion of a relationship) through the awareness that it was imagined into (and out of) existence. Why else would she be crying before the death?
Still, the context remains ambiguous after many readings, in large part because the poem intentionally obscures the relationship between the speaker and the weeping woman. Do they know each other? Is the speaker the subject of her tears? Is it a veiled reference, heaven forfend, to Stevens himself and his wife? The poem exists in a nether world between an uncomfortably close personal – but undisclosed – conflict, and a rigorously strict abstraction about how all relationships are false. I guess that’s what we all do, poets or not, generalize our petty sufferings into universal truths.
Another great American poet, Emily Dickinson, was, in my view, the undisputed master of painting over uncomfortable life events with a luminous veneer of hermeneutic transcendence. Here is a poem* of hers that covers, I think, much the same emotional ground as “Another Weeping Woman.” It has it all – scientific materialism vs. religion, religion vs. occult spiritualism, fate vs. free will, skepticism vs. faith (and that’s just in the first 21 words!) – but in true Dickinsonian fashion, these concepts are conflated and problematized at lightning speed into something eerie and otherworldly: one only has faith because one already has doubt, our perception of memory and all the personal stuff it contains limits our notion of heaven, people are interchangeable and wholly indistinct at the soul level. But underlying all the metaphysical ground that’s covered – what makes the poem so powerful – is some unspoken personal dispute that creates a backdrop of tragic distance: The way “Sister” is repeated wearily, insistently, as the arguments are reconfigured, the way “Sue” and “Emily” are one, although Susan can’t acknowledge such a fact. That, my friends, is poetry.
Morning might come
by Accident -
by Event -
To believe the
final line of
the Card would
foreclose Faith -
Faith is Doubt.
I will show
you Memory -
Both in one
back again -
Be Sue, while
I am Emily -
Be next, what
you have ever
been, Infinity -
* Thanks to the obtuse pettifoggery typical of the academy, this lovely poem is officially canonized as a letter, and can be found, in suitably alien hieroglyphic handwriting, at OMC 246.