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Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Rabbit as the King of the Ghosts’

By Greg Gerke.

The “rabbit” poem. Any mention of Wallace Stevens will pique my interest and when Adam Plunkett’s piece, ‘King of the Ghosts’ in N+1 said that David Foster Wallace had this poem on his mind in the last month of his life, I immediately investigated. Soon I realized I had passed over it in my initial meanderings over the complete poems. It also appeared in the collection Parts of a World, which has mostly received scant notice from critics and scholars and then myself, but is just as much a major part of the bedrock that made the man as was Harmonium. Aside from an intriguing title, the verse of the poem mirrors and expands its meanings or lack of them. In a letter Stevens said he was very pleased with the work. Harold Bloom goes into some detail on it in his book Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. I believe what makes it stand out and even, classic, is its inscrutability for a time until it “humps” the reader up higher and higher with its language.

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone—
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

There is narrative to the poem. It has two characters: a rabbit and a cat. The speaker of the poem sides with the rabbit and speaks at him by initially saying, “your fur.” But almost immediately, in the second stanza, the speaker introduces the cat in its summer malaise, though draped in Christmas colors: “Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk.” The rabbit must be weary of the cat and so the speaker creates another reality for it, “without that monument of cat,” and a brief but beautiful trip away from the feline is that which proceeds into nirvana:

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.

A few stanzas on, that infamous flying dream some humans are afflicted with occurs, “And there you are humped high, humped up, / You are humped higher and higher.” Think of the opening dream sequence in Fredrico Fellini’s 8 ½ where the director in the black cloak goes for a ride:

Suddenly it’s a beautiful world, how couldn’t it be when everything is “for you.” Bloom says this refrain echoes lines in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Nature’ essay and four years before Bloom published his book, Bruce Springsteen wrote a song with the same refrain, titled ‘For You,’ a ballad about a woman who attempted suicide. If it was a romantic sentiment one-hundred years before the poem and forty years after, in Stevens it’s posited more as a pep-talk to get higher— for the rabbit needs these realizations to ascend to a crown high in the sky, a trip that not only brings a title but an end to thought. The only romance is how the steely gray of the mind goes blank as it finds the blank of outer space, leaving the earth to its colors.

Because the rabbit is so high the light is “rabbit-light” and parts of the rabbit including its “fur-light” hide the cat away. While the rabbit journeys, the cat’s Christmas colors flicker. “The red cat hides away,” then “the little green cat is a bug in the grass.” On the trip the alliteration builds, with the repetition of “you” in seven of the last nine lines, and then later three “humped”s, three “high”s, and two more h-words, “hides” and “head.” All these “h” breaths blasting out the hot air that makes this rabbit rise.

One can argue it’s the music of the language that makes poetry meaningful and one can say it’s Stevens’s words that are so vital to his design and any sense they make is because of their musical qualities. As he said in his most important essay, ‘The Noble Rider and the Sounds of Words’:

The deepening need for words to express our thoughts and feelings which, we are sure, are all the truth that we shall ever experience, having no illusions, makes us listen to words when we hear them, loving them and feeling them, makes us search the sound of them for a finality, a perfection, an unalterable vibration, which it is only within the power of the acutest poet to give them.

Why the trope of the rabbit? Animals have been poets’ great companions from John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ to Rainier Maria Rilke’s ‘The Panther,’ up to Marianne Moore’s ‘The Octopus’ and Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish.’ But in all art animals have always been a more pregnant iconography from cave paintings to YouTube cat videos. ‘A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts’ was published in the 51st issue of Poetry Magazine in October of 1937 and in May of that year Stevens wrote a very curious passage in a letter to Ronald Lane Latimer, the founder and publisher of Alcestis press, who published two of Stevens’ books in short form. It gives a good view of Stevens at age 58:

…I expect to do very little writing until autumn. This is the time of year for exercise, for cheering oneself up, sitting down to dinner at 8 and going to bed at 9. Last night, after I had gone upstairs, I changed everything in my room so that when the family came up they were flabbergasted. One side of my bed there is nothing but windows; when I lie in bed I can see nothing but trees. But there has been a rabbit digging out bulbs: instead of lying in bed in the mornings listening to everything that is going on, I spend the time worrying about the rabbit and wondering what particular thing he is having for breakfast. (Letters, 321)

Why wouldn’t poets write about what they think? Stevens had a sedentary life after a certain age, though he reveled in walks during early life: “…I have always walked a great deal, mostly alone, and mostly on the hill, rambling along the side of the mountain,” he wrote to his future wife in 1909. He enjoyed looking at paintings and owned some, listening to classical music, and tending to his garden. He did think a great deal about faraway places (and placed them in his poetry) like the tropics, Europe, Africa, and China. One of his most cherished correspondents was José Rodríguez Feo, a Cuban editor, translator, and critic nearly forty years younger than him. He often asked the young man for details of that Southern country, probably to sate his imagination. Feo once said of meeting him, “I realized then that to him a piece of fruit was more than something to eat…It was good enough for him to look at it and think about it.” The experiences of such encounters were filtered into the ornaments Stevens brought into his verse. Birds, rabbits, food, and flowers enlivened him. No wonder he wrote a poem called, ‘Someone Puts a Pineapple Together.’

The year before writing the “rabbit” poem, he said to Latimer:

…I think that I should continue to write poetry whether or not anybody ever saw it, and certainly I write lots of it that nobody ever sees. We are all busy thinking things that nobody ever knows about. If a woman in her room is such an exciting subject of speculation, a man in his thoughts is equally exciting. (Letters, 306)

“A man in his thoughts,” is an apt picture of Stevens’ poetry. His poems speak with the stillness and color splashes of the paintings he ogled, even if at times they speak in surreal tones, like when he begins a poem, “A sunny day’s complete Poussiniana,” making the French painter’s classical visions an intricately amalgamated adjective fused by myriad vowel sounds. His world was his poetry, made by a vibrant and diffusing imagination and a philosophy of sound, as one of his earliest speakers, a small bantam declares to a chief cock in a barnyard:

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

90th Anniversary of Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium

Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, LIT, Film Comment, and others. He lives in Brooklyn.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 1st, 2013.