Since Jim Henley kindly listed me among poetry bloggers, the least I can do is a little poetry blogging, I figure. Remember that endless series on How to Read a Poem I wrote a while back? Thought not, but no matter: it’s practice time. I will take Wallace Stevens’ The Emperor of Ice-Cream, partly because it’s interesting and short, partly because Stevens is one of my favorite poets, partly because it’s inscrutable on first reading, and mostly because AC Douglas suggested it, and I like to indulge AC Douglas. The third-party imprimatur also protects me from accusations of choosing a poem that happens to illustrate my theories, not that I would ever do such a thing.
The Emperor of Ice-Cream
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
My advice was first to paraphrase, and to paraphrase first look up words that you don’t understand in context, “deal” in my case. There is nothing mysterious about “a dresser of deal”: “Deal” is a term from the lumber trade, meaning a board of fir or pine at least 3″ by 9″. (Stevens’ Collected Poems actually has a period after “deal,” which shatters the syntax, so I’ve followed most editors and used a comma instead.)
Now that we know all the words, what the hell is going on? Some sort of social event, whose nature is finally cleared up in the second stanza, when a sheet (embroidered with fantails, in a stab at art) is pulled from a dresser to cover a woman’s head. This is a low-class funeral, with flowers in last month’s newspapers, sloppy wenches, and a dresser with three glass knobs missing.
I also recommended pillaging the poet’s life and work, should it prove useful. Here it does. Stevens was a wealthy and cultivated man who knew Key West well, which is probably where this poem takes place, since ice-cream was commonly served at funerals. His poetry has a single theme: hedonism. For Stevens all is illusion but immediate sensation. “Let be be finale of seem” means “Abandon all effort to give meaning to existence, and take what comfort you can from the roiling life around you.”
Ready to paraphrase:
“Observe the cheap goings-on in this cheap kitchen at a funeral: girls who won’t dress properly, a cigar-roller making ice-cream, a boy bringing flowers in old newspapers.
“Now go to the next room, where the dead woman’s body is laid out, uncovered. Take a sheet out of the drawer and give her a shroud. The sheet is hand-cut, but embroidered with fantails; she tried to make some art out of her life, poor as it was. But the sheet’s too short and her feet stick out, making her look even colder and deader than when she was uncovered. Artifice fails to hide the brute facts. Take a good look. (‘Let the lamp affix its beam.’) Reality is in the kitchen, and there is nothing else.”
If you prefer, Helen Vendler, a reliably awful critic, supplies a more overwrought version. Ignore the prefatory chatter about ur-narratives and ur-forms.
The Emperor of Ice-Cream essentially inverts ars longa, vita brevis, the embroidered sheet being literally too short to serve even as a proper shroud. Vita, if we translate it loosely as animal vitality, is what lasts. Truth resides with the wenches, the muscular roller, the big cigars, and the concupiscent curds. In the idiom of the seventh line, be trumps seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Now that I understand the poem, I don’t like it. Stevens’ immense metrical gift does not desert him; the last two lines of each stanza are beautifully executed tetrameter/alexandrine couplets, which are almost impossible to manage gracefully in English verse, where pentameter is expected. But the poem is snobbish: Stevens invites the reader to sneer at the characters of the poem as from a hill. It is written entirely in the imperative, except for the last line of each stanza, to some unspecified hearer. Imperative tense, used this way, enforces distance: when the boxing announcer says “Let’s get ready to ruuuumble!” you can be sure that you (or he) won’t be doing any rumbling, personally. Stevens takes special pains to remove himself, and his reader, from the scene, the better to hold his nose. Even the pleasures of hedonism are only for the few, and only for a while, and here they have spoiled. Now hedonism is an exceptionally limited view of the world, but it has real compensations, and Stevens has written about them elsewhere, in some of the greatest lines of the last century:
She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.
(Update: AC Douglas offers his own analysis. He doesn’t seem quite as unhappy with mine as the rest of my commentators.)