Friday, June 10, 2011

Stevens Textplication 3: Tea

1915’s “Tea,” like its title short and resonant, was chosen by Stevens to end his first book Harmonium in both the 1923 edition and the 1931 reprint. In the latter case, he asked Alfred Knopf to place the 14 new poems he wanted to include at the end of the volume, but before “Tea.” This suggests that he felt it to be an appropriate coda that touched on all the concerns articulated in Harmonium: the relationship between reality and imagination, the nature of the divine, the primacy of the mind, the lure of the exotic, the sensibility of the esthete/dandy, and the embrace of free-verse experimentation influenced by painting revolutions such as imagism, expressionism and cubism. It’s all there, in fragmentary form, disguised behind a progression of rich images. Here is the poem:

When the elephant's-ear in the park
Shrivelled in frost,
And the leaves on the paths
Ran like rats,
Your lamp-light fell
On shining pillows,
Of sea-shades and sky-shades
Like umbrellas in Java.

This poem took on new life for me when I first saw elephant’s ears. This well-named leafy ground plant provides a strikingly exotic accompaniment to the flora of the Northeastern United States:

Elephant’s ears calls to mind the Baudelairean ideal of exotic beauty – that which is strange, wild, uncorrupted, luxuriant, languid, free and found in the pilfered cultures of the now-lost European empires (Java for example was exploited – and its population kept from starvation – by the Dutch conquerors primarily for the cultivation of tea). Stevens’ personal appreciation of the exotic perhaps was best expressed in the parcels he received from “his man” in Ceylon: packages of local art, food, fabrics and crafts to be delicately appreciated (Stevens in particular was a tea connoisseur). Such a fancy must run up against the reality of Northeastern U.S. winter at some point, the frost that makes the elephant's ears shrivel, even with the common seasonal image of blowing leaves strikingly visualized as rats scurrying, as if on the deck of a clipper ship on L’Invitation au Voyage, escaping like the poet to a finer world (more explicit nautical imagery referring to the island of Java and umbrellas reoccurs in "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," one of the 14 added poems for the 1931 edition of Harmonium).

The response of the mind to the turn in the seasons, the impinging of reality on fancy, is found in “your lamp-light,” which enlivens the pillows where one would presumably rest or sleep into a satisfying aesthetic experience. How odd that an unnamed addressee possesses this light. There are numerous potential explanations, running from tealights (addressing the tea as a votive) to an actual person (perhaps his wife, an embodiment of beauty bringing the finer things (back) to life). I prefer to see “your lamp-light” as an address to the reader of this volume, who has made it by this point all the way through, and who must carry the delicacy and lucidity forward. The reader is now “on his own” to recreate the poems in the separate world of his own imagination. The poet leaves a final image for that illuminating lamp, an afterimage of what appears to be a very exact and exquisite color: that of the sea and sky as represented in Java batik on an umbrella, something like this:

This is a meditative and expansive color, an appropriate tone with which to end the book. The triple meanings of the repeated word “shades” (hue/shadow/ghost) also play into the image, suggesting the way the actual pattern (whatever it is) may be impinged upon by the imaginative desire to place oneself in an unknown and special place, like a flickering light changes the appearance of a fabric. But the ending, the final note, can only be a metaphor: “like umbrellas in Java.” There is otherness and distance here, yes, but also the reality that, although few of us (least of all Stevens) have witnessed umbrellas in Java, we somehow, magically, through the wonderful powers of our empathy and imagination, know exactly what that looks and feels like.