Jacqueline Vaught Brogan

Jacqueline Vaught Brogan: On "As You Leave the Room"

The ambiguity of the word "still" points to the integrity of Stevens, who does not attempt to hide from anxiety inherent in self-consciousness. A comparison of "First Warmth" and "As You Leave the Room" is revealing here. The first poem says,

I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,

As a questioner about reality,


A countryman of all the bones of the world?

Now, here, the warmth I had forgotten becomes


Part of the major reality, part of

An appreciation of a reality;


And thus an elevation, as if I lived

With something I could touch, touch every way.

The second poem begins with four allusions to earlier poems, including the "one / About the mind as never satisfied" and says that these "are not what skeletons think about." The poem then continues with, "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life, / As a disbeliever in reality." Although Stevens undercuts the despairing tone by saying that skeletons do not think about the poems he has written, including the one about the "mind as never satisfied," he also increases the despairing tone by changing "questioner about reality" to "disbeliever." Similarly, the "warmth I had forgotten" in the first poem is replaced by the "snow I had forgotten" in the second poem. And, whereas the concluding lines of the first poem raise the possibility that he is now living in touch with an original warmth, the second one undercuts that possibility by adding that "Nothing has been changed" (by the poem) "except what is / Unreal." However, the following clause, "as if nothing had been changed at all" further complicates the ambiguity and raises the possibility that something has been changed by and in the language. This complication is, of course, one of the things that makes the second poem superior to the first. The other is the depth created by the ruthless question the second poem asks: whether living in poems has not been a kind of death. However, the restraint has been an inherent part of the poem since the opening lines, in which Stevens quietly reminds us that skeletons do not think. Ultimately, the poem reclaims something of the "finally human" despite its ruthless questioning.

From Steven and Simile: A Theory of Language. Copyright © 1986 by Princeton University Press.

Jacqueline Vaught Brogan: On "Of Modern Poetry"

But in "Of Modern Poetry," written two years before, and later in "Burghers of Petty Death," we find men and women together, more successfully figured as equal representatives of humanity. "Modern Poetry," Stevens says, "has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. / It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time." In the second poem, written in 1946, Stevens says:

These are the small townsmen of death,

A man and a woman, like two leaves

That keep clinging to a tree,

Before winter freezes and grows black--

This "woman," equal in her humanness to the "man," marks a new moment in Stevens in which "she" is not only validated but recognized both as a presence and as a human being, rather than tracing in either idealized or "monstrous" discourse the path of failed signification and signifiers. If I were to indulge in psychological explanations, I would consider the possibility that the sheer, overwhelming and uncontrollable violence of the Second World War reduced all human beings in Stevens' eyes to the position of "women" in the ironically-realized, metaphorical sense of the word. We are all without power, not just women, in this modern world, unable to control the world and possibly our own lives.

From Wallace Stevens and the Feminine. Ed. Melita Shaum. The University of Alabama Press, 1993.

Jacqueline Vaught Brogan: On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

Contrary to most criticism on this poem, it is not the supposedly eloquent and elegantly figured muse nor the assertion that "when she sang, the sea / Whatever self it had, became the self / That was her song, for she was the maker" (Stevens 1954, p. 129) that is ultimately the most striking about this poem, but rather the utterly self-conscious way in which "she" is exposed or appropriated within the fiction of the poem as a figure for Stevens himself and his "rage to order." This particular circumscription may well be the most revealing mark of the nature of the "idea of order" Stevens has in mind: at the specific moment that he breaks into the text, abruptly addressing Ramon Fernandez with the question about the "Mastering" of the night and the "portioning of the sea" (thus implicitly questioning the very idea of order that he is positing), Stevens places himself in a textual and hierarchical order above nature, above friend, and above the muse as artificer, inscribing himself as the author/authority of the world in which he sings. Here logo- and phallocentric assumptions of order coincide, forming a textual crux that glosses over the apparent exposure of the fictionality of the poetic word. It is not without significance that the muse is always referred to in the past tense: she literally is not present in the text. Thus, although the conclusion of the poem may imply that words are much like Derrida's "trace" (only "ghostly demarcations," even de-marcations), the tone of this poem is one of unwavering faith in poetic/phallic dominance. There is none of that uncertainty, reticence, or prolonged and painful questioning so characteristic of Bishop's verse.

From "Elizabeth Bishop: Pervesity as Voice," in Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender. Ed. Marilyn May Lombardi. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.