Floral Decoration for Bananas

Mark Halliday: On "Floral Decoration for Bananas"

In a more mischievous mood, he gives instructions in "Floral Decorations for Bananas" whereby the too obviously sexual bananas – "These insolent, linear peels" – ought to be either replaced or disguised. The danger of blatant sexuality, however, turns out to be focused here not in hungry masculinity (as those phallic bananas might have indicated) but in teasing femininity: "The women will be all shanks / And bangles and slatted eyes." While this is a humorous poem, it is nonetheless a palpably uneasy expression of Stevens’ fear of the force of female sexuality. He goes on to recommend an accommodation of those bananas which will make them less drastically noticeable, but the floral decorations meant to surround them have a moist vigor of their own which takes over the poem’s last stanza and gets the last word:

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.

Female sexuality is felt to be something that can get out of hand, and drive a man crazy. Stevens’ sense of feminine attractiveness as a terrible threat to a man’s composure is reflected in this alarmingly discomposed remark from [Stevens’ essay on poetry entitled] "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words": "Democritus plucked his eye out because he could not look at a woman without thinking of her as a woman. If he had read a few of our novels, he would have torn himself to pieces."

From Mark Halliday, Stevens and the Interpersonal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 48.

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.