Kenneth Lincoln: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

This little nonsense ditty takes a serious turn at the stanza break. Someone and somethings are missing. The woman's dresser, where she "used to wear" lingerie, lacks "three glass knobs" (three-in-a-jar trinity?), and her bedding may be too short to cover both head and feet. Her prone body, mocking how the wench lived, lies flat in the indignity of death. "If her horny feet protrude," those limb ends tell us "how cold she is, and dumb."

So a wench is dead, stretched out cold at the ice cream party. The dresser deal "knobs" transpose to "horny" bunions, glass to skin calluses. No empty jar lies here, rounding the wild, but a woman's body in its cool opaque skin, thickened from walking the earth. Her "horny feet" index a prosaic, if bewitching reality, bunioned and "dumb" as the "slovenly wilderness": feet are the earthen root, nonetheless, the vulgate "base" of a poetic meter iambically shamanic. She embroidered "fantails" on her bedsheet, her tail-end art. Those curlicues may rover her face, if they cannot mask her feet, which grounded her in reality, finally in death. So, for a fourth and final call, "Let the lamp" of nature "affix its beam," the sun its sundown flame, as the seeing eye celebrates an inner light in mortal darkness, a comeback optics of imagining sunrise reborn at sunset. As elsewhere, the well dressed man with a beard finds,

After the final no there comes a yes 

And on that yes the future world depends. 

No was the night. Yes is this present sun.

Dreaming jouissance is critical. The imagination, Stevens said in his Letters, is "like light, it adds nothing, except itself." The "supreme fiction," lighting us to the end, is to believe in our world, "my green, my fluent mundo," as one lives and faces death in others (no less than Emily Dickinson a-wake or Sitting Bull the sash-wearer). Poetry is to imagine well what must be. "The final belief is to believe in a fiction," Stevens wrote in Adagia, "which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly" (reflective chronotope turned precept).

With rhyming comic finality (come/dumb/beam/cream), the refrain rides on a boisterous iambic pentameter, "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." The fourteen syllables curdle in a spondee (as with the twelve-syllable, shaggy last line of "The Snow Man"). There's a youthful break in the pace, a jump-rope skip completing the Falstaffian form. From bunioned foot to embroidered fantail, earthly base to fanciful end, this elegy resists loss by making art of what seems to be, seeing what is, delightfully. It is an act of the imagination at a wake; the final test, to return to childhood joy in "cream" made of "ice" (Carolina "aspic nipples" sweetened). A concupiscent summer is whipped up from winter's absence, the snow man's "nothing" curdled by sweet belief.

From Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Board of Regents of the University of California.


Criticism Overview
Title Kenneth Lincoln: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Kenneth Lincoln Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Sing With the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999
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