Eleanor Cook

Eleanor Cook: On "Of Mere Being"

Of Mere Being allows what Stevens has not allowed before, anagogic metaphor, which we may hear in his explicit and implicit word-play:

The palm at the end of the mind,

Beyond the last thought, rises

In the bronze decor,

 

A gold-feathered bird

Sings in the palm, without human meaning,

Without human feeling, a foreign song.

 

You know then that it is not the reason

That makes us happy or unhappy.

The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

 

The palm stands on the edge of space.

The wind moves slowly in the branches.

The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

This slowly moving play of excitation begins with the title and its obvious double sense of "mere." This is mere (bare, only) being and also mere (utter, very) being. On the edge of things, including life, this is how being may be. The implicit pun is on the word "phoenix," which is what this fiery bird is. The Greek word for this fabulous sacred bird is also used for a date-palm. The bird "sings in the palm" and through a pun is the palm. So also the poem is contained in its words or its leaves, and vice versa; it also is its words or leaves. So also space is contained in the mind, and vice versa; it also is the mind.

This use of "is" sounds like the merest play of the verb "to be" or of "being." Yet such a visionary sense "at the end of the mind" is also of utter and very being. These are no longer the "intricate evasions of as"; here "as and is are one." This is being as in the A is B of anagogic metaphor. And we recall Stevens' old play with "B," "be," "to be"--of mere being, so to speak. Anagogic metaphor is paradisal: this is as close to paradisal language as Stevens will allow himself. He echoes the bird of the earthly paradise from the lemon-tree land of An Ordinary Evening in "dangle down," also rhymed on. He evokes the sun once more, for the phoenix lives in the City of the Sun. He uses no language of upwardness and no language of home. The poem is of mortality yet with a sense of immortality, though not personal immortality. It is a kind of will and testament of song. Thus, I think, the touching on Yeats; this is a Byzantium poem of sorts, a land of gold and kinds of transmutation. The "last thought" is the last thought possible before we move beyond reason, whether toward imagination or toward death.

Eleanor Cook: On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

Peter Quince at the Clavier is Stevens' version of the story of Susanah, the story of how a private place is violated. Here, as in Le Monocle, there is tension, tension that is obvious in the poem's plot, its rhetoric, and its uncertainty about its own possible comedy. We have taken a long time to hear the odd disjunctions between the opening and closing lyric voices, and between the figures of Peter Quince and the red-eyed elders. Why is it that we have accepted with so little comment the analogy that follows this: "what I feel, / Here, in this room, desiring you, / Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, / Is music." So far, so good, even if this sounds like no Peter Quince (except as the fruit of desire). It is the next parallel that causes trouble, or ought to, given the tone of the opening lines: "Is music. It is like the strain / Waked in the elders by Susanna. . . ." The simile is so astonishing that it questions itself, and becomes a query or plea: It is like. . . . It is what? Let it not remain like, or why must it be like? Stevens' word "strain" is a fine choice: a musical strain, first of all ("that strain again; it had a dying fall"); the strain of the elders' eyes, and of their desire; most of all, the strain of the simile itself. Why should thinking in desire about a woman awaken thoughts of this story? It is as if a woman, thinking in desire about a man, is reminded of the story of Hosea and his wife, or of Potiphar's wife. And to say this to the addressee, unless the poem is about to turn comic--is this Peter Quince's bumbling?

In the poem's last section, Stevens contains his story of desire, as Peter Quince's drama is contained. Later, he did not contain the better-known biblical story of a woman spied on in her bath, the story of Bathsheba. In a 1924 poem, a man accuses himself, using Nathan's words to David: "You are the man." What husband, what Uriah, what shepherd, has this accused man killed? Peter Quince simply turns back to song and praise on the viol without resolving the strains of desire.

From Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens. Copyright © 1988 by Princton University Press.

Eleanor Cook: On "Floral Decoration for Bananas"

… We sometimes miss the referential force of Stevens’ lines because we are unaccustomed to think of him as a descriptive poet. … I shall argue throughout that Stevens is sometimes a poet of simple, accurate, realistic description. For example, the following lines are a precise description of banana leaves and banana flowers just beginning to set fruit. The first time I actually saw this, I experienced what [art critic and historian E. T.] Gombrich calls inverted recognition, "the recognition not of reality in a painting but of a painting in reality":

And deck the bananas in leaves

Plucked from the Carib trees,

Fibrous and dangling down,

Oozing cantankerous gum

Out of their purple maws,

Darting out of their purple craws

Their musky and tingling tongues.

"Floral Decorations for Bananas" is something of a riddle poem. What are floral decorations for bananas? Banana leaves and flowers, tout court. Stevens’ descriptive accuracy does not dissipate the sense of sexual mixed feelings here, but it does complicate this sense. In the end, the poem’s earlier division between daintiness and bluntness widens into a division between "pettifogging" and "cantankerous," "cantankerous being the one nondescriptive word here.

From Eleanor Cook, Poetry, Word-Play and Word-War in Wallace Stevens (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 69-70.