Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
Three things are required:
Of course by this last requirement I don’t mean close to death in the degenerative sense of the phrase, or near death in the temporal sense (although Wallace was very near death when he wrote the poem, having died not long afterward). Nor do I mean a proximity to death, or an acquaintance with death, as in having experienced the death of a loved one, or having, in times of despair, contemplated the idea of taking one’s own life.
Rather, I mean death must be a close friend, a companion, spouse, relative, a fellow traveller, a part of one’s journey through the world, and even of one’s sense of contentment with the world — like the gentle breeze drifting through the branches of a palm. Or a blackbird on a snow-covered tree-branch (a popular Wallace motif; see Edward Pico’s cleverly composed multi-media version of Wallace’s blackbirds). Something pleasant, non-threatening, common and welcome; but very familiar, always there.
Somewhat reluctantly pushed into the relationship by Harold Bloom, I’ve become more familiar with Stevens during the course of these Tuesday Poems (this is the third Stevens poem I’ve posted). The more I get to know him, the more my admiration soars; the more I find myself in the company of a supreme adventurer, a superlative American hero.
“Of Mere Being” is perhaps one of the greatest adventure poems ever written. Let’s be clear: Discovery is not about finding a new and distant truth. It’s about reporting back. With the long, yawning, longing tones of the first stanza (palm/-yond/bronze), Stevens travels as far as anyone ever has — to the edge of reason, the yawning edge of space — and witnesses the inexplicable.
“Of Mere Being” is 75 words long. If we crack the poem into two equal halves, 37 words in one half (from “the palm at the end” to “you know then that”), and 37 words in the other half (from “not the reason” to “dangle down”), the remaining word in the core of the poem — or put another way, the milk in the center of the palm tree’s nut — is, appropriately, the word “it.”
There’s no use trying to define this “it,” for it’s beyond human comprehension. We’ll never figure it out. Aware of its futility, Stevens serves us the romantic image of discovery — palm trees, soft winds, exotic birds. What useless scraps of language must Captain Cook have employed in describing his travels! Or poor Omai (or Mai), the first polynesian to travel to London; how he must have struggled, back on his island of Huahine, trying to express his “it”.
Poetry is the reporting back after one’s distant travels with the Muse. In the last words of “Of Mere Being,” so different in tone than the previous 11 lines, Stevens sends a kind of telegram from the unknown, a last and futile attempt to convey the “it” in the language of rhyme, alliteration, music, euphony. He’s been to the edge of space. He’s seen the shiny bird. “The fire-fangled feathers dangle down.”