Thursday, June 2, 2011

Stevens Textplication 2: Blanche McCarthy

The wonder of "Blanche McCarthy," an altered villanelle from 1915, is the way it seems to arrive fully formed, as from the head of Zeus, to announce Stevens' unique poetic program. It's a mature and perfectly representative poem after 15 years of (on and off) struggle with fragments, awkward traditional forms and prose that galloped away like a horse. The detail is precise, the tone elegant and the implications vast, befitting the first selection in The Palm at the End of the Mind. Why this was never collected in his lifetime is a mystery, perhaps it has something to do with a very alive Blanche McCarthy (is this the same person they named the Blanche McCarthy Senior Center in Winsted, Connecticut after?) Here is the poem:

Look in the terrible mirror of the sky
And not in this dead glass, which can reflect
Only the surfaces - the bending arm,
The leaning shoulder and the searching eye.

Look in the terrible mirror of the sky.
Oh, bend against the invisible; and lean
To symbols of descending night; and search
The glare of revelations going by!

Look in the terrible mirror fo the sky.
See how the absent moon waits in the glade
Of your dark self, and how the wings of stars,
Upward, from unimagined coverts, fly.

The first line seems so familiar, yet so strange. The thought of the sky as a mirror just crystallizes the romantic dilemma; since all things are alive within a larger life, they express their connection with a higher consciousness, how could someone be satisfied with mere surface? The only place to look is in the "invisible" and "terrible," the great unknown. Any respectable post-Romantic (or more particularly, post-Shelleyan) poet must look beyond the portraiture in "dead glass" carefully described in the first stanza.

Once the mystic gaze is seized, one must look to "symbols of descending night," which I take to be stars, which provide as they have since antiquity "the glare of revelations." Stars provided the foundation for the coming of the Christ as fish (avatar in the age of Pisces), for the apocalypse (and its interpreters from Nostradamus) in the Book of Revelation, for the architecture of the pyramids, the navigation of the seas.

But there is something missing in a night full of stars: "the absent moon" that Stevens often uses as synecdoche for the uniquely human - the "self" of dreams, desires and imagination. The speaker urges us to see what is dark, what can't be seen but may be felt. Seeing in this sense would be an imaginative act, a re-creation of what one felt or dreamed it to be. It "waits in the glade of your dark self" to be given life.

The speaker also asks that we see another thing that can't be seen: the upward trajectory of stars, imagined as bird wings flying. This could compensate for what the stars by themselves can never provide, dynamic motion, a purpose, a rising, an earthly meaning. To make that more accessible, the stars must be like game birds flying from "coverts" (thickets). These hiding places are "unimagined" while the rest of the speaker's prescriptions rely on the imagination.

It appears there are limits to what the imagination can do. The arc of stars can be conjured as a familiar aspect of life, the rising and setting of Earth's rhythm, but their source, their nest, can't be conceived. We must work without this compass, using the tools of our minds and the physical world to create our heaven.

On this note Stevens' proper poetic journey begins.