“March… Someone has walked across the snow,
Someone looking for he knows not what.”
“Singeth spells.” The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy. This is the simple truth. Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper. No matter how many theoretical and critical interpretations there are, in the end each new clarity of discipline and delight contains inexplicable intricacies of form and measure. The last poems Wallace Stevens gathered together under the general title The Rock are moving, lyric meditations on the civil and particular. As if from some unfathomable source, knowledge derived from sense perception fails, and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us. As a North American poet writing in the early twenty-first century, I owe him an incalculable debt, for ways in which, through word frequencies and zero zones, his writing locates, rescues, and delivers what is various and vagrant in the near at hand. As Emily Dickinson put it: “The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous— / We learned to like the Fire.”
“Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
Stevens wrote “The Course of a Particular” when he was 73. It was published in The Hudson Review (Spring 1951) along with “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” but omitted by accident (according to the poet) from his 1954 Collected Poems. “The Snow Man,” written almost exactly thirty years earlier, is eerily similar. (Both fifteen-line poems progress in tercets from “one” to “no one.”) Perhaps, sounding its spectral refraction, he subtracted his second cold pastoral accidentally on purpose.
Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.
The leaves cry… One holds off and merely hears the cry.
It is a busy cry, concerning someone else.
And though one says that one is part of everything,
There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines:
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.
The leaves cry. It is not a cry of divine attention,
Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,
In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing
Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.
Most critics read the season as autumn. For me, its lyric
austerity defines late February weather in Guilford, Connecticut. Often on afternoon winter walks out on the quarry during this coldest month, there is hardly any foliage to cry in the raw air. Some brittle oak leaves still cling to their branches like tattered camouflage while tiny salt hay spindles scud across withered grass and frost-worked asphalt. Smoke-drift from indoor woodstoves is another vagrant variant. So is the coldness of green. The idea that green can be cold comes to me from Thoreau, who notes pine-green coldness in winter woods and the way light straggles. For Stevens, “Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind, / Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less. / It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.” “Shapen” is an obsolete past participle. This wild word relic softly and serenely concerns no one. Its pastness echoes in the sound of wind soughing through pitch pines.
On my way home, I see a small stream rushing along under ice. Maybe the nature of a particular can be understood only in relation to sound inside the sense it quickens. Setting sun. A mourning dove compounds invisible declensions.
“Deep dove, placate you in your hiddenness.”
In an essay titled “The Present State of Poetry” in American Poetry at Midcentury, Delmore Schwartz recalled: “In 1936 Stevens read his poems for the first time at Harvard—it was probably the first time he had ever read his poetry in public—and the occasion was at once an indescribable ordeal and a precious event. Before and after reading each poem, Stevens spoke of the nature of poetry…the least sound counts, he said, the least sound and the least syllable. His illustration of this observation was wholly characteristic: he told of how he had wakened that week after midnight and heard the sounds made by a cat walking delicately and carefully on the crusted snow outside his house.”
“On an old shore, the vulgar ocean rolls”
The letter r is frequently indicated as a characteristic mark of vulgarity. “R. is the dog’s letter and hurreth in the sound.” (Ben Jonson, English Grammar, 1640). “R. Young pious RUTH / Left all for Truth.” (New England Primer, 1691). R is the eighteenth letter of the modern, and seventeenth letter of the ancient Roman alphabet. In general, the character denotes an open-voiced consonant formed when the point of the tongue approaches the palate a little way behind the teeth; in many languages, this is accompanied by a vibration of the tongue, in which case the r is said to be trilled. This trill is almost or altogether absent in the r of modern standard English, which retains its consonantal value only when it precedes a vowel. In American English, in all words spelled with r, the sound occurs simultaneously with the vowel after it. The vowels in such cases are said to be recolored. “Like rubies reddened by rubies reddening.”
How carefully did Stevens plan the order for the poems included in The Rock? I often wonder if the many scattered r letters and sound combinations are there by chance, habit, or plot. “A repetition / In a repetitiousness of men and flies”; “A new knowledge of reality”; “Red-in-red repetitions never going.”
“The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.”
There are numerous interpretations of the last poem in his Collected, which he titled “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself”; far less attention has been paid to the first:
An Old Man Asleep
The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.
The self and the earth—your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;
The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.
What two worlds? When is now? Old Man River, are you the reader, or are you the sleeping author your readers read inside ourselves? Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot; self and soil, a blaze of artifice reflected in earthly elements composing it. R as redness read or any other color in the spectrum coming to us through oscillating phonemes. Possibly those little mirror ‘r’s on folded scraps of paper represent time passing. The way certain autumn leaves change colors—bright but not green, neither green nor bright—Now we see through a glass. But
Dumbfounder. Day is done. You rest it at that.
Baruch Spinoza, by profession a lens-grinder, spent the last years of his life in lodgings on the Pavilion Gracht, in The Hague, most of his time in one room, often taking his meals there, and sometimes not leaving it for several days when he was at work on a project. His first biographer listed his final possessions: “The inventory of a true philosopher. Some small books, some engravings, a few lenses and the instruments to polish them.” His desk, containing letters and unpublished works, was sent to his publisher in Amsterdam.
A poem is a glass, through which light is conveyed to us.
To Harvey Breit
August 8, 1942.
I have been away the last day or two and, while away, visited the Dutch Church at Kingston: the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. This is one of the most beautiful churches that I know of…. The janitor told me that at one time there were nine judges in the congregation and that often the whole nine of them were there together at a service, sitting in their separate pews. One of them was Judge Alton Parker; another was Judge Gilbert Hasbrouck. Now, Judge Hasbrouck was as well known in Kingston as Martin Luther was in Wittenberg.
The janitor gave me a pamphlet containing an extract from studies relating to the Reformed Church. The pamphlet consists of an article by Judge Hasbrouck on this particular church. It starts out with this…
“Indeed when Spinoza’s great logic went searching for God it found Him in a predicate of substance.”
The material thing: the predicate of substance in this case, was this church: the very building. Now, if a lawyer as eminent as Judge Hasbrouck went to church because it made it possible for him to touch, to see, etc., the very predicate of substance, do you think he was anything except a poet? He was only one of nine of them, so that, instead of nine judges, there were nine poets in the congregation, all of them struggling to get at the predicate of substance, although not all of them struggled to do so through Spinoza’s great logic.
Another thing that this episode makes clear is that Spinoza’s great logic was appreciated only the other day in Kingston; and, still more, that lawyers very often make use of their particular faculties to satisfy their particular desires.
Very truly yours,
“Pascal called the imagination the mistress of the world.”
For Peter Brazeau’s oral biography Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, Richard Wilbur recalled a Cambridge gathering after Stevens’s 1952 poetry reading at Harvard, when the 73-year-old poet talked at length about his three years spent there as an undergraduate (1897–1900). To Wilbur’s surprise, the professors Stevens remembered were the philosophers, particularly Josiah Royce and George Santayana, while he made little mention of publishing poems in the Advocate, where he had served as an editor. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, the philosophical profession in the United States was dominated by an epistemological debate, of which pragmatism was an aspect, between the many forms of idealism and the even more numerous forms of realism. This debate, to which Royce, William James, and Santayana contributed so much, concerned the process of knowing and the nature of the reality known. Santayana, a charismatic young Spanish-American, born in Madrid, was at the time a popular lecturer in this, the greatest philosophy department America has so far produced. He was also a poet, and he and Stevens exchanged work. “Cathedrals by the Sea: Reply to a Sonnet Beginning ‘Cathedrals Are Not Built Along the Sea’” was written by Santayana in response to one of Stevens’s early sonnets. Over twenty years later, Santayana’s essay “Penitent Art” appeared in the same July 1922 issue of The Dial along with six of Stevens’s poems (later published in Harmonium). Thirty years later, for the Moody Lecture at Chicago on November 6, 1951, titled “A Collect of Philosophy,” Stevens said of his old friend: “In the case of Santayana, who was an exquisite and memorable poet in the days in which he was, also, a young philosopher, the exquisite and memorable way in which he has always said things has given so much delight that we accept what he says as we accept our own civilization. His pages are part of the douceur du vivre and do not offer themselves for sensational summary.” The following year, in March, he sent five poems (“To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain,” “Vacancy in the Park,” “Two Illustrations That the World Is What You Make It,” and “Prologues to What Is Possible”) to The Hudson Review and asked they be set in this specific order. On September 29, 1952, he wrote to Barbara Church: “I grieve to hear of the death of George Santayana in Rome. Fifty years ago, I knew him well, in Cambridge, where he often asked me to come to see him. This was before he had definitely decided not to be a poet…. The reason (like the law, which is only a form of the reason) is a jealous mistress.”
For George Santayana, Spinoza offers an example of disillusioned philosophic liberty. He wrote of the debt we owe this philosopher for the “courage, firmness, and sincerity with which he reconciled his heart to the truth.” In his later work, through intuitive, rational insight, Wallace Stevens appears to have achieved, or yielded to, an understanding of our oneness with nature he names “reality,” similar to Spinoza’s “intellectual love of God.”
To José Rodríguez Feo
April 22, 1949.
“I am returning Santayana’s letter. Your devotion to this superb figure delights me. How strong his handwriting is and how the whole letter convinces one that there is nothing mixes with long life like a strong mind. I love his remark: “I have always, somewhat sadly, bowed to expediency or fate.”
Santayana’s introduction to Spinoza’s Ethics and “De Intellectus Emendatione” (translated by A. Boyle, first published in 1910, reissued in 1938) begins this way: “Spinoza is one of those great men whose eminence grows more obvious with the lapse of years. Like a mountain obscured at first by its foot-hills, he rises as he recedes.”
“The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain”
How can the chosen words “philosophy” and “poetry” ever attain true harmony? Intent on one disciplined desire, you stare longingly at qualities acting and being acted on in the other (“I quiz all sounds, all thoughts, all everything / For the music and manner of the paladins / To make oblation fit. Where shall I find / Bravura adequate to this great hymn?” [“Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” 1923]). Perhaps, at 73, remembering the hero of his early college days, Stevens could look back and recognize that his necessary calling, its faith and risk, was to address poetically the search for truth Santayana, inspired by his master and model Spinoza, had addressed discursively. There it was.
“A place to go in his own direction.”
Santayana is buried in the Tomba degli Spagnoli in Rome’s Verano Cemetery. At the burial service, a friend read some lines from his poem “The Poet’s Testament,” composed during World War I:
I give back to the earth what the earth gave
All to the furrow, nothing to the grave.
The candle’s out, the spirit’s vigil spent;
Sight may not follow where the vision went.
Laying the burden down because noiselessness is tumultuous in its oceanic sense even when the open book is turned over, face to table. Secret perceptions in readers draw near to the secret perceptions in authors. In “A Quiet Normal Life”: “Here in his house and in his room / In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked.” The wings of an open book are the wings of desire. “Only we two may interchange / Each in the other what each has to give.” Each to each over and over. “O you singer, solitary, singing by yourself—projecting me.”
Walt Whitman: The Primer of Words. “The Morning has its words, and Night the Evening has its words.— How much there is in the word Light! How vast, surrounding, falling, sleepy, noiseless, is the word Night!—It hugs is a word that one a man with welcome, vast, unfelt yet living arms—
“Follow after, O my companion, my fellow, my self.”
Here, on a clear night in February I can see so many stars. Before coming in I stop between the car and the house and fixing my gaze on one in particular I recite the same wish. “Star light, star bright, / first star I see tonight. / I wish Becky, Mark, David, Peter, and I won’t die until we are very old.” Very old, I whisper to myself and the celestial constellations—as if I were still very young. I retain the original word order even though David died in 1992 and Peter in 2008. I never do this indoors because looking at a new moon through glass was and is terribly unlucky according to my mother’s divinations so I can’t take a chance of accidental sightings. If this is obsessive-compulsive behavior, so what? Meaning through measure may be transmitted from one generational folklore reality through another.
Poetry is an incessant amorous search under the sign of love for a remembered time at the pitch-dark fringes of evening when we gathered together to bless and believe. In “Somnambulisma,” Stevens’s vulgar rolling ocean follows Walt Whitman’s solitary sea-bird in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” “Soothe! soothe! soothe! / Close on its wave soothes the wave behind, / And again another behind embracing and lapping, every one close, / But my love soothes not me, not me.”
“Sound is sight sung inwardly. I am folding tangled threads of royal purple for a robe wrapped tightly round to keep the breath of the night wind warm. The way women in Irish paintings wrap themselves in woolen blankets, or the way in To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay covers the boar skull on the nursery wall with her green shawl so her children will sleep. As we grow old we return to our parents. Their absent submission to the harsh reality of Death renders the tangle luminous. A stellar pallor hangs on strips of silver bubbling before the sun. The spell is broken. There they are—embarking with other happy couples for Cythera.
“Up from waves scudding over
Sarah Pierpont Edwards’s mother, Mary Hooker, was a granddaughter of Thomas Hooker. In 1636, at the height of the
antinomian crisis, he led his congregation along Indian trails to the bend of the river where Hartford is now.
In my unspeakable fish net spectra version she’s still roaming
Stevens wrote the magnificent ninth poem in the Rock series several months before Santayana’s death at the Convent of the Blue Nuns of the Little Company of Mary, in September 1952, (where he was being cared for by Irish nuns) and three years before his own death at Saint Francis Hospital, Hartford (established in 1897 by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chambéry). Reading and rereading this poem of parallel worlds—the city Rome, and the Rome of pastoral—composed by a poet-philosopher in homage of a philosopher-poet, I experience the wonder and mystery of art—its mortal deception its hawk-eyed majesty.
Rome—the shattering of the hope of the ancients to build a city on a rock and defy the ages. Rome—“at once the Paradise, / The grave, the city, and the wilderness” of Shelley’s Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, Etc. “The threshold, Rome, and that more merciful Rome / Beyond, the two alike in the make of the mind.” How clear and close it is. That silent chorus prescient deep inside us so we remember the night-hymn is there in that parallel perspective both shield and cry. “How easily the blown banners change to wings…” Rome—an essence incarnate in its name. The blood of Empire. Rome during the last violent century—two World Wars followed by a Cold one. “The extreme of the known in the presence of the extreme / Of the unknown.” “Your dozing in the depths of wakefulness, / In the warmth of your bed, at the edge of your chair, alive / Yet living in two worlds, impenitent / As to one, and, as to one, most penitent.”
In the future general progress of things, will Manhattan be a field of ruins, like the ruins near Rome in Poussin’s late landscapes? All canvases turned face inward toward the wall in a room filled with poems that take the place of mountains now turned face down in the cosmic dust of history? “Light the first light of evening.” Illumination means simple understanding. “A Quiet Normal Life” begins as an order. Egotistical and lonely we gather together almost as if to ask the Lord’s blessing. Electric light is artificial. The candle of the scholar reading is light from the central mind.
“As I went to the holy land, / That have come, that have gone.”
Two old men are “dozing in the depths of wakefulness,” and yet they are not human bodies, only representations inside and around the stressed and unstressed syllables of the elegy forming and framing them.
“Horrid figures of Medusa”
“These accents explicate / The sparkling fall of night / On Europe, to the last Alp, / And the sheeted Atlantic.” Fragmentary etymological access…arrest and flow…what will be forever…what was from of old… the barbarous mother…her daughter…polysyllabic rest and flow…
Distant river grass spectra
“There is a great river this side of Stygia.” The haunted shock-effect of the last word of “The River of Rivers in Connecticut” summons mythical associations with European elegiac and pastoral traditions—the river of time that casts souls on its bank but carries away everything else without effort—this unnamed river of rivers, “far” this side of the pagan deathriver Styx, is the psalmist’s river of eternal life (“There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.”) By cutting away the letter n, he interrupts the mythic and European association with the subterranean river named for the Goddess of Death without losing its pastoral and elegiac echoes to place it in an American tradition. “A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction…” Stygia becomes a possible place name possibly in Connecticut derived from the Native American designations Quonehtacut or Quinatucquet, or Quenticut, meaning “long tidal river.” The discontinuity between nature as original creation, and the inward perception or sensation through words clear as crystal formed in rock, up-buoys Psalm 46:4. On its banks, local place names, Haddam and Farmington, gathered into steeples on their village commons, flash and flash in the sun.
Spinoza and us
These days I listen to the high-speed Acela Express rushing through the remaining traces of woodland surrounding this four-and-a-half-acre, exurban almost suburban lot on the Northeast Corridor en route to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. Amtrak owns the land immediately bordering the tracks. Recently there has been a lot of hammering into the rock at night for some reason connected with a five-year plan for deploying free Wi-Fi Internet service on all trains, including slower regional ones.
It’s the new millennium. Post-9/11, spangled bleeding banners, war’s carnage, the global War on Terror, Guantánamo, metadata relationships, fracking, plastic bags, nuclear power plants, climate change, global warming, black holes, possible human extinction. If we have nothing but truth to leave, how do we distinguish ideas of what we were from ideas of what we are in vibrant contemporary compost jargon trash landfill
“So you’re home again, Redwood Roamer, and ready / To feast”
The Connecticut River enters Massachusetts from the north bisecting it. Deerfield—Deerfield River and Millers River. Tobacco belt. Tobacco and onions. Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was printed in 1828 in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“The Roamer is a voice taller than the redwoods”
At Longmeadow, the river is at its widest, then it enters Connecticut. For Webster the letter r is numbered among the liquids and “is uttered with a guttural extrusion of the breath, and in some words, particularly at the end of or after a labial and a dental letter, with a sort of quivering motion or slight jar of the tongue.” He defines a Roamer as: “A wanderer; a rover; a rambler; a vagrant.”
Signal sender, faraway receiver
“A shutter, like the leathern eyelid of a lizard, flickered over the intensity of his gaze and obscured the letter R. In that flash of darkness he heard people saying—he was a failure—that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R—” That’s Mr. Ramsay brooding over his progress through the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet in To the Lighthouse, chapter six. The last line of the first poem “An Old Man Asleep” flows into the first line of the second-to-last poem “The River of Rivers in Connecticut.”
“The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage”
“She scuds the glitters, / Noiselessly, like one more wave. / She too is discontent / And would have purple stuff upon her arms.”
“Of Hartford in a Purple Light”
About the beginning of June, 1636, Mr. Hooker, Mr. Stone, and about a hundred men, women, and children, took their departure from Cambridge, and travelled more than a hundred miles, through hideous and trackless wilderness, to Hartford. They had no guide but their compass; made their way over mountains, through swamps, thickets and rivers, which passed only with great difficulty. They had no cover but the heavens, nor any lodgings but those which simple nature afforded. They drove with them a hundred and sixty head of cattle, and by the way subsisted on the milk of their cows. Mrs. Hooker was borne through the wilderness on a litter. The people generally carried their packs, arms, and some utensils. They were nearly a fortnight on their journey.
Late last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I wondered at how the cold reversal of moonlight on snow from outside brightens the commonplace stillness of the house and how quietly night stands open to us, and sits up for us. Not fastening the door
In January 1538 a woman at Walsingham was carted about the market-place in deep snow and set in the stocks for saying a despoiled shrine had begun to work miracles mingled into the soul of this world a strong sun lording the sky so let us all be as we are under our own roofs
on the beached margin after long pilgrimage, waving to
the quiet moon.
Ring around the Roses
“And one last look at the ducks is a look
At lucent children round her in a ring.”
The second week of August 2003, on what turned out to be the day of the great northeastern blackout, Peter and I drove over to see Elizabeth Park because we wanted to see the place where Stevens had spent so much time. It was a typically hot, hazy, humid, late summer day in a northeastern American city. I like to visit parks when I’m in unfamiliar cities because experiencing them with eyes freshly open I feel (as Henry James once put it) a mystic solicitation, some welcome held out by the atmosphere, the urgent local appeal on the part of everything—immersed in time—to be reinterpreted. The parks I am familiar with, in Boston, Manhattan, New Haven, and Buffalo (all of them designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was born in Hartford but didn’t plan one here), are usually somewhat burnt out by August, but even if the roses, in this, the oldest municipal rose garden in the United States, were by now well past their glory, this was such a wet summer in Connecticut that the grass was a vivid green and still redolent with morning dew. We strolled among rose beds, rosebushes, rose ramblers, bending among them to read their names: Dainty Bess, Carefree Delight, Shreveport Grandiflora, the White Rose of York, Moonstone Hybrid Tea, Pristine Hybrid Tea, Floribunda, Hiawatha Rambler. Across the road in the annual gardens we saw high banks of white phlox, varieties of marigolds (Marigold Galore Orange, Marigold Galore Yellow, Marigold Little Hero Yellow, Marigold Bonanza) we saw impatiens, nasturtiums, forget-me-nots, ugly begonias, all sorts of lilies, some of the tiger ones a gaudy vermilion. I go on with these flower names not only because I enjoy making lists—but also to remind you, the reader, how words supersede and displace the reality of an object sensed in space and time. According to William James: “Both the sensational and the relational parts of reality are dumb. They say absolutely nothing about themselves. We it is who have to speak for them.” This is what Wallace Stevens does—he sounds the myriad, ever-shifting sensations—fragmentary, unpredictable, unspoken, invisible—of seemingly simple objects or events: a summer night’s drive from Cornwall to Hartford, something noticed on the way to the bus, a greenhouse badly in need of paint, the way trees in November “sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort, /
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech, / Saying and saying, the way things say / On the level of that which is not yet knowledge.” This interaction between reality and imagination is the benevolent, relentless vitality of nature and of poetry.
It was Thursday morning, so there weren’t many people around. A couple asked us to photograph them together as they posed in front of “the rustic arbor, / Under its mattresses of vines.” Two elderly women speaking in Russian paused to smell some particular blossoms and then moved on. I read the short stories on Memory Benches:
“In memory of Louis (Gino) Menta
Master Tailor—Good Samaritan”
She loved us all but I was her favorite.”
A young father we had seen earlier pushing his child in a stroller had paused to rest on one of the benches. A woman, seated in the perennial garden gazebo with a baby asleep in a carrier on her back, was writing something into a notebook on her lap—a poem, a list, a letter. Sitting on another bench in the shade of a Pyramidal European Hornbeam—the sort of tree small children love because its short trunk and overspreading branches invite climbing—the stability I felt around me, there in half-light under the Hornbeam, the richness, the calm, the time of day—its mixture of sun and shade, dwarf shrubs, climbers, rock-plants, their magical effects of green, and gold, and gray—the whole “atmosphere” recalled my first experience of Ireland in 1947. After the war, we spent the summer over there, and I used to play in Herbert Park near my grandmother’s house on Wellington Place in Dublin. Hartford was Dublin. Home in the world—away in the world—landscape and language threaded.
To Barbara Church
September 10, 1952.
“As one grows older, one’s own poems begin to read like the poems of someone else. Jack Sweeney (the Boston Sweeney) sent me a post-card from County Clare the other day—the worn cliffs towering up over the Atlantic. It was like a gust of freedom, a return to the spacious, solitary world in which we used to exist.”
During the 1940s, Jack (“the Boston Sweeney”) sometimes drove my mother, my sister Fanny, and myself on Sunday outings to suburb areas beyond Cambridge because our father was serving in North Africa and Europe and we didn’t own a car. Sometimes we picnicked beside the drowsy Concord River near the Battleground Bridge and the Old Manse. This plain clapboard parsonage built in 1770 for the patriot patriarch Reverend William Emerson (Ralph Waldo’s great-great-grandfather) was subsequently occupied by a succession of Puritan clergymen, until Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne rented the property after their marriage in 1842. Here, in an upstairs room overlooking what is now communal ground with its apple orchards, elms, and ash trees, Emerson drafted
Nature, and Hawthorne wrote “The Birth-mark,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” among other stories published in Mosses of an Old Manse. Because of the rarity of glass in eighteenth-century New England, the windows were set with tiny panes. Sophia and Nathaniel left notes etched into the glass with her wedding ring diamond.
“Nath Hawthorne This is his study. / The smallest twig leans clear against the sky. / Composed by my wife and written with her diamond. / Inscribed by my husband at sunset, April 3 1843. In the Gold light.”
A wedding ring is emblematically “and.” The connection between two.
On Receiving the Gold Medal from the Poetry Society of America:
“The other day, in the middle of January, as I was taking a walk in Elizabeth Park, in Hartford, I saw at a little distance across the snow a group of automobiles that had pulled up on one side of the road. A dozen people or more got out of them. They took off their coats and threw them together in a pile on the asphalt. It was then possible to see that this was a wedding party…. The bride stood up in white satin covered with a veil. An ornament in her hair caught the sunlight and sparkled brightly in the cold wind. The bridesmaids were dressed in dark crimson gowns with low necks. They carried armfuls of chrysanthemums. One of the men stood in the snow taking pictures of the bride, then of the bride surrounded by the bridesmaids, and so on, until nothing more was possible. Now, this bride with her gauze and glitter was the genius of poetry. The only thing wrong with her was that she was out of place.”
January 24, 1951.
“Looking across the Fields and Watching the Birds Fly.”
Concord, at the edge of things where swallows weave transparencies. As runs the glass our life doth pass. Words are widows of thought. You can’t see yourself reflected because time has scratched some surface off.
The more I read you—the more I need you—the more I read you—the less I know you—
In The Natural History of Selborne (1789), the parson, naturalist, and ornithologist Gilbert White describes the way in which the female swallow, “while there is a family to be supported, spends the whole day in skimming close to the ground, and exerting the most sudden turns and quick evolutions. Avenues and long walks under hedges, and pasture-fields and mown meadows where cattle graze are her delight.” I own a secondhand copy published during wartime. I suppose the publishers during that troubled year thought English readers needed an idea of Peace-in-Selbourne-Circa-1788. He said the birds appeared around 13th April though he observed earlier stragglers. This wonderful little classic, beloved by Coleridge, Woolf, Frost, and Auden, among many others, consists of a series of Letters addressed to Thomas Pennant, a noted zoologist, and Daines Barrington, a barrister. My secondhand copy was reissued by Penguin in 1941, the same year Pearl Harbor was bombed and Wallace Stevens wrote “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” W.H. Auden couples White with Thoreau in “Posthumous Letter to Gilbert White”: “It’s rather sad we can only meet people / whose dates overlap with ours, a real shame that / you and Thoreau (we know that he read you) / never shook hands.” Stevens’s unnamed River of Rivers may serve as a trope for Thoreau’s Concord River, once called Musketaquid or Meadow.
River of peace and quietness. River of battlefield ghosts—
“Simplicity! simplicity! simplicity!”
“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond.”
“The Plain Sense of Things.”
The great pond—before its pastoral reflection—before the waste and weltering. Frogs, and red-winged blackbirds, other precursor heralds
chip clamor cart-path bug cricket rippleleaf
Letter XLIII, Selborne, September 9, 1778.
The language of birds is very ancient, and like other ancient modes of speech, very elliptical; little is said, but much is meant and understood.
The Past! The Past! The Past!
How is it possible to express a single poem’s sonic force—just as it is— identical to itself—the res.
It must be possible possible possible
April 20, 1948.
Dear Mr. McGreevy,
I took your letter home last night and read it in my room…. As a matter of fact, a man who writes poetry never really gets away from it. He may not continue to write it as poetry, but he always remains a poet in one form or another. Perhaps your book on drawings of Mr. [Jack] Yeats is your present form of being a poet…. If you don’t mind, and if you don’t think he would, could you take a copy of your book with you some evening when you are going to spend an hour or two with him and have him do a profile of you in one of the blank pages in front which both of you could then sign. This would give me something that would be precious to me…. Ireland is rather often in mind over here. Somehow the image of it is growing fresher and stronger. In any case, the picture one had of it when I was a boy is no longer the present picture. It is something much more modern and vigorous. I don’t know whether you feel that change in Dublin. This has nothing to do with propaganda: it is just something that seems to take form without one’s knowing why.
Boston with a Notebook. The Public Gardens. Ready or not! Voices of children playing near the Swan-boats have stopped. They must have been called back. It’s seventy years after.
I don’t often remember Stevens poems separately except for the early ones, but they all run together, the way Emerson’s essays do, into one long meditation, moving like waves, and suddenly there is one perfect portal. The quick perfection. “Night’s hymn of the rock, as in a vivid sleep.”
I have pinned a postcard reproduction of Rembrandt’s small painting The Abduction of Proserpina on the wall of my workroom. Pluto’s lion-headed chariot pulled by a furiously charging horse is dragging her to Hell while Diana and Minerva (who seem to be rising from the waves) tug at what could be her wedding dress. Its white linen or silvered silk acts as a slash of light across the center of the canvas.
“Snow glistens in its instant in the air.” If a line is quick and strong it pierces our glassy earth. It bursts out of reflection on all sides because the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses it already tends outward with a vast force. Come in. Sit distantly close to me Snow Image. Let’s form crosses in the air while reading and sleeping according to reciprocal reflection. This broken mirror is the world, magnified. Seven years bad luck unless you quickly toss its splinters in the river. During the
WW II years reciting secret languages of holy Ireland Molly and Jack clothed as fellow-performers stoop to smell the roses as balm for this cleft earth.
Wait till you see now
Spinoza, I skidded on ice-encrusted roads to our local post-office to get your letter from Europe. You should know [thimble finger turning] I am also reading Emerson, and Hawthorne. Each author’s posthumous name is a label attached to a cardboard mask for communal sharing of two realities. Random connections between public parks as rustic meta-historical archetypes. Ringing round, while performing somersaults in a cage of common purpose we obey the pages turning. Revolving beyond forgetfulness until they reach the rocks around New Quarry Road as they were thousands of years before a working quarry was wrenched from chaos and nothingness. Composed as rustic landscapes public parks are partly dreamscapes set off for communal sharing. A common curriculum waving purple floraisons of imagery.
Revelation in its first pulses is extravagant.
“Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu”
The French word for “wave” is “vague.” Waves are lapping against the waterline. Halyards whack at the masts. Late writing. Its relation to waving and bidding
The Irish Cliffs of Moher
Who is my father in this world, in this house,
At the spirit’s base?
My father’s father, his father’s father, his—
Shadows like winds
Go back to a parent before thought, before speech,
At the head of the past.
They go to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist,
Above the real,
Rising out of present time and place, above
The wet, green grass.
This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations
And the sea. This is my father or, maybe,
It is as he was,
A likeness, one of the race of fathers: earth
And sea and air.
Go dwell upon the sea cliffs. “My father’s father, his father’s
father, his—”(slash slash slash slash)—Oh the bias—so many prior needle eyes under the wet, green grass. Came—and were gone. Heretofore. How can echo-memory be so charged with Life? It’s the way of the world in the west. Pin drop. Hush—
“Ashen man on ashen cliff above the salt halloo”
Predecessor forgive our common fund credit bank corporation guilt trespass. I have risked everything to believe in an immense pattern. In “The Plain Sense of Things” “savoir” secretly goes out to meet “savior.” Watch me nicking messages on hills of Myrrh, and Incense. Mark four monosyllabic cliffhangers—“self,” “earth,” “sea,” and “air” in “Moher.”
The Irish Cliffs of Moher are ragged ruin refugees. The mutinous unuttered t in “Moher” is raggeder than ruin.
“Ashes ashes we all fall down.”
“O ashen admiral of the hale, hard blue…” Whisht. Wherefore. Whistle your neathering—
Oh for that night when the absent parent will restore order by covering the child with a seamless shroud so that wrath is never the last thread in the fold. No, not at all. Plash. Requiescat. Roses, roses, the red red, roses. Fable and dream. The pilgrim sun.
“Women as half-fishes of salt shine.”