:: Article

A Year with Wallace Stevens

By Greg Gerke.

A few summers ago I returned to Eugene, Oregon, a town I once lived in for six years. The pragmatic, but cold and sterile University library named Knight, one of my favorite haunts for its quietude, stands on a slope, straightened onto earth that rises into the damp soil of a small, nearby cemetery maintained since 1873. Douglas Firs dot this rectangular plot of death, while chatty crows fling themselves off branches and strut on a small grassy field, just west of the reposed souls, an empty field dominating the back of the big library’s purview.

Upon entering, many times I went directly to the fourth floor where I could look out through the high windows on this greeny scene, angling my chair so the beige carpet and all those upright books, impenetrable and otherwise, could not stare me down and I could see into landscape, where from the ground up I saw a field, a music school, and finally a slanting, verdant butte named Spencer’s a few miles in the distance. In seeing into space I could reflect space into the fiction I inscribed into the blank artist’s book balanced on my lap—space in story and character but not in sentence. Though in the midst of studying literature, that gargantuan or miniature unit called the sentence had not been inked into my consciousness as the crucial crux it is. Lines of verse were isolated in poetry classes, but fiction studies were more centered around character, theme, and the often pained circumstances of the author’s life. Why was this author writing like this? Well, her husband used to cavort with thick-legged women and her legs, while long, were not large. Yes, that would certainly screw a person up. What? Did you say “screw”?

One afternoon I visited my poetry professor and triumphantly exited heartened and envy-proof. She covered her cigarette-tinged breath with a slurp of coffee before taking up my most recent work and telling me how different I was from other students. You can actually write, she said in an uncelebratory tone, my paper on Gwendolyn Brooks choosing that time to droop in her small hands, my flabby sentences embarrassed at her edict. Though my quiver of critical words was evidentially apt, I tirelessly pursued the muses of fiction so mine would float too, kneeling at the altar of James Salter and John Berger, two wizened men come to the world in the 1920s, while many swayed to the delights of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace.

In years since that day, what have I done? I’ve often wasted my energy on unmeaningful games or hectoring my soul to enjoy the women my wiles and fortune had contrived to place close to my face, delighting in their bodies or images of their bodies in cracking color or a videoed haze — the simulacrum of reality without commitment. Though I wrote in that time, I had no concept of form and maybe this helped. Following my endearment with elders, I swallowed a sea of Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy, and J.M. Coetzee. These lodestars led me to others, to minimalism and then to maximalism, now weaving in and out of poetry I crept into the pages of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. Crane awed and his verse led back to Emily Dickinson with his iron sonnet of tribute. In sampling Stevens, I mostly hung around Harmonium and those early poems of fancy, composed by both a mind addled and delighted by colors and repetition in such lines as: “A red bird flies across the golden floor,” “Beholding all these green sides/And gold sides of green sides,” and in a combination of the two, in harmonized opening of “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”:

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

Here was a poet enfolded enough to know logic is anathema to a startling image as in “Metaphors of a Magnifico”:

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.

and able to assemble a breadth of space around his verse as evidenced in the dollop of stanza XII in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

When I couldn’t write much that winter I stayed with Stevens, checking into his babble in an effort to replace or at least hijack my own language overgrown with keen and neat metaphors, pedestrian locution, and sentences speaking of verve but not vivacious themselves. My odes to Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and other exemplars of the plain style were now deeply unfulfilling.

And for a good year, a rather unproductive but mind-deepening one, Stevens informed me. His answers were not easy — they weren’t even answers, but patterns, conquests of thought, tomfoolery, and music and word motion contained inside ideas swerving and both raw and cooked. Stevens was a seer seeing as if stationed in outer space, seeing beyond any kingdom, into the dark infinite. He became the glorious mentor I never met, the father who only begot verse upon verse of beauty. What he could be and remain, for everyone and not just me, was his own prescription: “[t]he dauntless master, as he starts the human tale”. Did I deserve him? He made me happy to have his words list themselves into focus over my askew head, more so than many other authors I had taken to my internal ear before combat with Stevens’s word-war. “Deserve” is perhaps the wrong stratagem where Stevens was concerned. He can be friendly to every reader who comes to his table. Can initiates reply in kind? Let him lead — one cannot change him or staunch the flow. He goes on, he goes around. A poet, in the guise of a blackbird or river, always moving.

On a cool August day I visited the Knight library — that building of books serving as a steel and brick bubble to many pained and quixotic emotions I could only bear to spill when no one but those closed carriers of consciousness dwelt in my ken. I had examined a few first editions of Stevens’s poetry books at the New York Public Library in the high-ceilinged reading room on Fifth Avenue, slapping down request slips to the cavalcade of collegian-aged desk jockeys. Yet not Harmonium. To my shock the University of Oregon had the 1931 edition — a first edition of the second version Knopf put out eight years after the original publication with fourteen new poems and three deleted. It was in a special box, yet in the stacks — anyone could take it out for three weeks.

When I pulled up a fat chair to those same high, south-facing windows overlooking the empty green plot of grass and took the book in hand, I caressed its hard contours, opening as I opened it, and revelled in its craft: the heavy, expensive pages, the alluring title page with the title, the author, and publisher (including the leaping borzoi) surrounded by cranberry red swirls of lines, with miniature double triangles surrounding it. Inside the book, a linotypeface called Estienne made up the words and was described on the last page thus: “The limpid, flowing grace and charm of the lowercase letters with their tall ascenders and long descenders makes reading easy…” This type was a strong improvement over the darkened 12-point Electra typeface of Knopf’s Collected Poems and the 10-point Liontron Galliard of the Modern Library’s Collected Prose and Poetry. Here was a book released on July 24, 1931 (with a new dedication to wife and daughter) where each poem was given its proper space with none trailing into the page of another — all set on their own, as Stevens originally wanted it.

I held the book, I smelt its age, I turned the pages and, fixating on the easeful type of “Anecdote of the Jar”s most indelible line, “Like nothing else in Tennessee”. I wept.
It is strange to say but I badly believed everything in my life had happened in order to bring me back to that library, quaking before this book. So many times I have heard people say, “Poetry doesn’t make anything happen,” but I believe they say that out of chagrin at the way poetry is treated by the popular culture. It’s viewed as arcane, difficult, effeminate, and as useless as some humanities people regard geometry. Most poetry makes things happen off-camera. One reads it on a sofa and a line overwhelms and his or her regard for life is colored by a burnishing of the words and sounds. Stevens and his poetry brought me there, but the rest of the answer surely lay beyond the barrel-chested man and his blue words.

Living with books, with cats, with women — none could compute my coercions, my fancies, my drip dry emotional pandering. Something else had to intrude to make art that fully represented me. Here was my purpose — to scrap out all the gunk and unnecessarily foggy ideas and words that making a piece of writing blur in the hands of the reader, yet where I went wasn’t where I thought I would be going. I only had the book and my mind to work with. No one else, no other mentor could get between me and the words I made. Book as object had become book as traducer — what seemed like epiphany sat repulsed and I sat still in the same chair warmed by the sun, my same brand of isolation winking, circumscribed and faultless, signaling from its prominent tower that: No, I was the same person as yesterday and pretty close to the guy that thought of a yesterday ten years earlier or at age ten, when memories were thin as twigs and time took its time rather than racing to cap the day with night. I stayed the same, but the way I ordered and produced words would have to change. Would I grow into a man eager for early newspapers where truth stood silly, enjambed with lies to mash hope and dissemble disgust? Or would I continue to write and find the truth that had seemed not even to belong to the popular culture that had dug and groveled in its own finite pit of reality.

When reading Stevens’s essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” I had no choice but to concur that the function of the poet was not to lead people out of confusion or comfort them, but “to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others.” From the other side of the page, I could assure Stevens this was happening and also admit other benefits, as I was surely more thorough and better capable of evincing a burr, berry, or blandishment in my own vocabulary, instead of the same old treats. I became better able to see objects in isolation, to pull focus like an adept cinematographer with a Cézanne spin tinting the lens, enabling me to make out the most furious crag in the sleepiest mountain. After coming close to masterworks, I’ve always thought I could place myself better and lean toward the colder side of life with more compassion and a greater honesty around all I rarely appreciate. That I could handhold the most challenging people I so easily loathe, but who often only display aspects of myself I haven’t deigned to contemplate much less admit.

The world of Stevens and other masters is often the world I wish existed and so I attempted to expand it by sharing these differing climes with friends and family. Sycophantic though it might be, I consider it my duty to bring others into these realms, even at the cost of hampering the relationship, because as according to the Bard, “the play is the thing.” As much as I stuffed my mother with the films of Kubrick and Bergman and my girlfriends with the work of Bishop, Glück, and Sebald and the more that miniature nine-line poem in Harmonium, “Life is Motion,” played its abbreviated music in a friend’s ear:

In Oklahoma,
Bonnie and Josie,
Dressed in calico,
Danced around a stump.
They cried,
Ohoo” …
Celebrating the marriage
Of flesh and air

…the more that greater culture reigned — with reflection and color and the reflections of color and sound superseding the unlovely emotions distributed by TV networks and the sad funk of people pulverized by work and by others who had merely loved them to the letter of their own aggrandized ego. If life is motion (and at gunpoint I would always contend it to be and never otherwise) then celebrating the marriage of flesh and air must be primary, no matter if Stevens meant the flesh of backs and breasts or the flesh of imagination. The clear or contaminated thoughts that train one to persuade beauty to make a bed at the base of a chapel or cesspool, whether in Oklahoma or Oahu, are born of such alchemy.

A week later, I drove south to San Francisco, fortunate to meet my future wife at the airport and enjoy the Edenic environs of Big Sur with her. Fog drenched hills — sometimes green, sometimes golden — and sheared cliffs overlooking a sea stretching so far away; at that height it could only be majestic because so out of touch. When we could, we stayed in the sunnier spots where the sky’s light dyed the ocean blue. At a famous waterfall we climbed south of the tourists onto cliffs obscured by brittle coast trees six and seven foot in size. Into the high dirt not yet eroded, those scattered seeds must have grown into themselves while often in contact with the great gales and gusts of the Pacific, who turned the growing wood askew—their branches trailing east-bound like tresses of a long-haired nymph caught by the wind and frozen. There we merrily ate lunch with only the boom of sea slamming rock below, the other sensorium of sight reduced to the horizon and the green swirls of seaweed kettled near the shore.

Is late afternoon the best time for poetry? With a sinking sun and the stories of our lives in repose after the often fitful midday, aren’t the siesta hours most befitting to an artform so benighted by dreams, the sleep of dreams, and dream-like imagery? With nothing to remind us that civilization existed, except the cheese and crackers we ate and the sleek and sporty shirts and shorts we wore, I brought out The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. With her permission, I skipped only a few pages into the thick paperback and read her “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” the haunting, twelve-part poem (the eleventh poem in Harmonium and its second-longest), and unwittingly, perhaps, the most imitated. Why read a poem about sloughing off love to someone one is in love with? Why dwell on the rusty thoughts feelings can become? Why? Riddle me only slant rhymes because the only surety thirty-seven years of living had taught was that we knew nothing, except how unpredictable life could be.

Is it for nothing, then, that old Chinese
Sat tittivating by their mountain pools
Or in the Yangtse studied out their beards?
I shall not play the flat historic scale.
You know how Utamaro’s beauties sought
The end of love in their all-speaking braids.
You know the mountainous coiffures of Bath.
Alas! Have all the barbers lived in vain
That not one curl in nature has survived?
Why, without pity on these studious ghosts,
Do you come dripping in your hair from sleep?

This saucy third canto ends with a last question busky enough to make Frank Kermode wax thus: “…its last two lines are among the most beautiful in Stevens and I do not know what they mean”. The hair canto. The smell of barbershops could not make me weep after reading these twisters, because the lines left hair stuck in my nose and mouth. Hair. Hair to some heads including mine is sex. So sexual it is less than a quarter gallop from tongues being tied. It is its own weapon and Stevens knew what power lurked and, to great effect, milked its awing honeycomb.

Three of the six questions in the poem occur in this third canto. Steven’s questions have no answers and they aren’t truly questions, but glories of thought and form capable of the right weight of nudge or scintillating admixture of perversion. Later, Stevens even titled a poem, “Questions are Remarks.” “Why…[d]o you come dripping in your hair from sleep?” might just be Mon Oncle’s way of proclaiming, “What are we doing with our lives?” but with a more celestial and somnolent reckoning, including the slake for a surrealism that the Renaissance sonneteer in Stevens would have to patch over, freeing the eerily familiar romantic imagery into a handsome deck of cards fully shuffled, yet parsimoniously dealt.

As I read on, I read relaxed, though concerned, that the offertory of this verse might not sway or bombard as it did to myself while sitting in a lonely corner of a library a year before, passion punctured by loss of love, endlessly micturating a morose discord of blight, while in search of people who had endured greater endings and torment — poets who made life in margins miraculous while leveling their abiding lusts. “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” is the perfect credo for the philosophically crestfallen. The “I” of this poem “mocks,” “wishes,” “uncrumples,” “greets,” “beholds,” “quizzes,” “finds,” “knows,” “observes,” “pursues,” but also “never knows” and shall “not play.” Easy enough — we’re talking love. Reading again the sonorous retroflexing words, I heard how Stevens’s exclamations and reconnoiters were echoed in the work of many that followed him, even if they knew him not, even if Stevens himself echoed Shakespeare and Wordsworth, among others.

Like a dull scholar, I behold, in love
An ancient aspect touching a new mind

was an example of verse showing its face in everyone from Hart Crane to Kurt Cobain.

Beside the unglamorous aspects of history that remain as the sea remains blue with sun, my lover and I stayed together on that broken cliff with Stevens’s music. My eyes were on her reception of the work, and hers were on my voice-box interpretation, because, hearing it for the first time, I could not spin words accurately enough to gather meaning, because the first time with Stevens is like that other “first time” — nothing prepares you.

Where do certain apexes of emotion burn? Does what moves us have to grow or does it appear with a pop like a ghost? If it proclaims fittingly and enters one’s bloodstream — one sinks, opting to go all olive under the skin, with outward dandy decimated in a flash. Words dart about and because of this, water is often associated with them, as our saliva builds the more we speak. From Stevens indicting the lines in 1918, to the book, to off the book, into my eyes, out of my mouth, and into her ears, with any leftover syllables floating out unguarded on the bald Pacific—this train of sound had a fanciful but roughened journey to any understanding.

Did what we want to do to each other after the experience of Stevens resemble the unbuckling of a simple belt? In reading this poetic tale of hot and cold, hard and soft, and mind and body, I believe we slowed ourselves to find Stevens, but of course we were still stuck on ourselves. “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” — it’s French, en français.

If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.

Were our “wished-for” words or the words of his poem making a change? Changing up our relationship or our relationship to the poem? Or were we fomenting at the promise of desire dying? With language, does one settle the self in the world with ideas of order inside sweetened syllables or does one rear to rush back to silence, because the sound of words frightens with promises of what might be and what is? Whatever the structure, his imagination was now ours—fulfilling the ultimate aim. But if a curtain is drawn in real life or even in Vermeer’s Delft and a view is revealed, the structure will glisten for a time and go out. What the poet had given I carried like the song I had to keep humming.

After I read, I felt all my sins — real or imagined—everything about myself alert and well past summoned. My memories had been drained — the archness I carried like a bludgeon ceased — and I touched only what I saw and smelled the future finally falling into the now. Living by Stevens for a few moments made myself up to myself, and “Mon Oncle” stood gamely about, but almost immediately I broke the blue of the Stevens moment by asking what she thought of the poem — to fulfill myself I had to know. There reigned quiet and sea, all these scapes like so many poems and scenes in fiction and film: sun, sea, spume, and the bare skin of bodies gone grainy from intimacy. I don’t remember what she said (I do) — but it became immediately unimportant, like time spent waiting for the ones who mean the most to us.

If she or I come dripping in our hair from sleep or not, neither case will disqualify us from longings to burn over the ancient and the revolutionary of our time. How we regard color and motion won’t impede the delicate horror of one’s allegiance to another’s soul. On starry nights or sunny afternoons, I can’t but believe I will be removed from the earth only to live again and already am, and that however many more turns I take reading “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” or however many times the tingle in my back, at the sight of her or at the sound of poetry, reminds me to regard living as only a joy, or if hallowed love hoists itself only to get shadowed into an irreal, unkempt creation, no matter then — the globe cannot be so haunted by realities apart from art. We are at home in the parlor of dreams. Felicitations, Mr. Stevens.

Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Film Quarterly, and others. A book of stories, My Brooklyn Writer Friend, is out from Queens Ferry Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 20th, 2018.