Our poet-friend came visiting, The New York Review of Books in hand, with Dan Chiasson’s review of the new Selected Poems by Wallace Stevens. We pored over the review, trying to find in poems the things Chiasson said were there to see. I felt I had tiptoed up behind a group of elders, Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom chief among them, peaking over their shoulders for a glimpse of Susanna.
My own Vintage paperback of Wallace Stevens’s poems, purchased for $2.95 over thirty years ago, is split in two at page 158, where resides “The Poems of Our Climate.” That one poem has carried me through many troublesome times. I used to tack it up at work and repeat, as a mantra, “The imperfect is our paradise.” I didn’t need to know what Stevens intended; I needed only to know that he spoke to my condition.
Now, it seems, I must know more. Chiasson writes, “The problem in Stevens is not his abstractions but rather his abstracted abstractions.” I am unable to fathom what he means. But I know there is a problem, and Chiasson’s choice of “Description without Place” is a fine example: “It is possible that to seem—it is to be,/As the sun is something seeming and it is.”
My brain stops working when I read these lines. I long for “pale Ramon’ to guide me; I reach back to Harmonium, to “Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair/And the green freedom of a cockatoo.” I linger over “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” where, even if I don’t understand what Stevens meant, I revel in the rhythms and the sounds: “The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds./It was a small part of the pantomime.”
But Chiasson tells us we must move on, for Harmonium is only the first of Stevens’s books. We cannot tarry there, but must venture deeper, into his abstracted landscapes, arriving at “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” where “The poem is the cry of its occasion,/Part of the res itself and not about it.”
Chiasson says, “Having a mind and wondering what to do with it is not an intellectual predicament: it is a human one. . . . Most people are baffled their entire lives by the problem of what to think about, so they think about whatever the moment requires.” This, of course, I recognize: how trying to do the hard job of imagining gives way so readily to the list of chores.
I’m not one of the elders. Those celestial bodies circle above me in an atmosphere where I can’t breathe. But I’m not prepared to cede Stevens to them just yet. Each time I read, I get a glimpse of something more, “As if we were all seated together again/And one of us spoke and all of us believed/What we heard and the light, though little, was enough.”
The final quotation is from Wallace Stevens's poem “Two Letters.”