Tag Archives: Wallace Stevens

“Scissors” by Alan Gould

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

by Alan Gould

They have become her fingers.
Her present ends
possess no closer friends.

Silver twins, dividing their estates,
they follow the invisible maps
she laid there, years ago perhaps.

Without this risk there’s no precision,
And so they come this far
absorbed in their decisive mission,

a slish then slish
that parts one stillness from another,
the blades swimming like two slender fish.

The room grows dark, this draws
all light toward her fingers.
There is, as well, you note,
her smile so calm for interests
so utterly remote.

“Scissors” is published with the permission of Alan Gould

Woman Ironing, by Pablo Picasso, 1901 (1881-1973)

Woman Ironing, by Pablo Picasso, 1901 (1881-1973)

Zireaux’s comments on this poem
So where do we cut a 17 line poem called “Scissors”? Right down the middle of course. Line 9. “Absorbed in their decisive mission.”

Not since Emily Dickinson’s description of a snake in the grass — “his notice sudden is” — have I encountered a more effective sibilance of subject matter. But these words, “decisive mission,” are perfectly selected not just because they sound right (“slish and slish”), or even because they look right — the double-ss in “mission” mirroring the double-ss in its scissoring twin — but rather because they cut to the very core of the poem itself.

The current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words in current use, and 47,169 obsolete words. This, then, defines the monumental task of all great English novelists and poets — making choices, selecting which word goes where. It’s really no more complicated, and no less daunting, than that: Minute-by-minute decisions, revisions, changing one’s course, changing one’s mind.

But how to decide? And for what purpose? “You note,” writes the poet in line 15, addressing himself in much the same way Wallace Stevens commands himself to “Note that” in line 22 of “Poems of our Climate.” Poets are notetakers, record-keepers, observers of detail, passionate scientists, ship captains with exhaustive log-books, and what we have in “Scissors” is a poet with an extremely sharp vision.

He catches something vital in the act of scissoring, namely, the way the scissors “follow invisible maps” from “years ago perhaps;” and that in so doing, in using the past to guide their “present ends,” the woman’s fingers are able to pursue a “decisive mission.” There’s an important truth here for all great artists, for all observant poets, namely — and here’s the lovely part — “without this risk there’s no precision.”

Precision. Yes, note that.

I’m wary of poets who work to create moods of transcendence. I’ve struggled, as my readers know, with Wallace Stevens, his wintry mind, his snowy smells. But it takes a fine poet to write about poetry. Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, Wallace Stevens (and now Alan Gould) are some of the poets who, as I’ve noted in previous posts, successfully capture the poetic mind. What they all have in common: a devotion to precision, to the careful selection of words.

“Poets’ poets,” they’re often called, and this would make sense if, in fact, the majority of poetry readers weren’t themselves practicing poets. Or put another way, with the exception of certain half-developed homunculi like Vladimir Putin and Rick Santorum, there’s a little poet in everyone.

And artistry, craftsmanship, will always captivate the discerning poet (see Jenning’s brilliant poem on Rembrandt). Gould’s enchantment with the lamplit task of the female homemaker, his observation of cutting and stitching (his “Scissors” is followed by another poem, “Needle”) brings to mind, for example, Picasso’s and Degas’s infatuation with women ironing clothes. You’ll note (note that!) the dark eyes and peculiar smile on the lips of Picasso’s “Ironing Woman,” as if she, too, is “calm for interests / so utterly remote.”

Or even reading, shaving, showering, smoking, driving a car — these are the moments of the poetic mind (see my post “The Poet as Absent-Minded Neuroscientist“).

Gould is a Canberra-based poet, and Canberra (with its regular readings at the Gods Cafe, or my chance encounter with Gould, who I’d never heard of before, and who was discussing his latest novel at the local Canberra library) is surprisingly rich with writers and poetry. But Gould is also an immigrant with seafaring blood, and it’s this past that rises to the surface in “Scissors” — the scissor blades (splash and splash) “swimming like two slender fish.”

Appropriately, the collection in which “Scissors” appears is called The Past Completes Me, and the past is certainly a guiding source of inspiration for poets. But there’s something more here, too — that despite the precision, the years of dedication, the painful hours of agonizing selection from an ocean of hundreds of thousands of words, there’s a poetic acknowledgement that on the shifting estate of water, alas, is where the poet’s words are inevitably writ.

For some more great words on water writ — and by memory preserved — readers are encouraged to visit some of the other Tuesday Poets at Tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com.


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Tuesday Poem: “Of Mere Being,” by Wallace Stevens

John Gould and R. Bowdler Sharpe: Paradisea Decora, Salv. et Opdm. (Grey-chested Bird of Paradise), from Birds of Asia

John Gould and R. Bowdler Sharpe: Paradisea Decora, Salv. et Opdm. (Grey-chested Bird of Paradise), from Birds of Asia.

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Of Mere Being
Wallace Stevens

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.

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
How do we read a Wallace Stevens poem?

Three things are required:

  • First is silence. A quiet room or a lonely park in winter.
  • Second, one must have the time and patience to re-read a poem a dozen times, and then repeat the process two or three times more.
  • Lastly, one must be close to death.
  • 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.”

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    “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens

    Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

    Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955)

    Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955)

    The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    A sentence diagram of The Snowman, hung like a mobile

    Zireaux's diagram of The Snow Man. Click on image for full size

    Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
    Stevens! Our tramping boots sink deep into your snow again! How? Samuel Jay Keyser, the great linguist professor (emeritus) from MIT, calls “The Snow Man” the “best short poem in the English language, bar none.” The poem is composed as a single sentence and Keyser claims to have diagrammed it — and even built a mobile out of it with snow-white notecards — although I’m skeptical. So I decided to diagram the sentence myself, horizontally at first, and then gently lift the strung-together coat-hangers from the uppermost hook (that opening word, “One”) to let the entire structure dangle down from above. Click on the right-hand image to view the full-size diagram.

    As you can see, with its seven conjunctive “ands” (five visible, two implied), the poem indeed produces an intricate, albeit not quite perfectly balanced mobile. I suppose some readers, like Keyser, will find beauty in this. Can’t say I’m one of them. The “shagged with ice,” the sibilance of the few leaves, and the cold “o” sound in words like “bough,” “behold” (used twice) and “sound” (ditto) produce, I suppose, a poetic sensation, a shiver of wakefulness; and I’m not about to question Keyser’s taste. But next week, by extreme contrast, I want to look at what I believe can rightly be called the best poem — of any length — in the English language (bar three or four very close competitors).

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    “The Poems of Our Climate” by Wallace Stevens

    Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

    Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
    Pink and white carnations. The light
    In the room more like a snowy air,
    Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
    At the end of winter when afternoons return.
    Pink and white carnations – one desires
    So much more than that. The day itself
    Is simplified: a bowl of white,
    Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
    With nothing more than the carnations there.

    Say even that this complete simplicity
    Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
    The evilly compounded, vital I
    And made it fresh in a world of white,
    A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
    Still one would want more, one would need more,
    More than a world of white and snowy scents.

    There would still remain the never-resting mind,
    So that one would want to escape, come back
    To what had been so long composed.
    The imperfect is our paradise.
    Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
    Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
    Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

    Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
    We now turn from the poet’s obsession with another person to the poet’s obsession with his or her own life and death. Nabokov’s imperfect closing rhyme in last Tuesday’s Humbert’s Poem, “hardest/stardust,” perfectly captures the sentiment expressed in the final lines of Wallace Steven’s “The Poems of Our Climate” — which, less poem than koan, was mediocre in my opinion, until the fat Harold Bloom (fat in a Falstaffian way) convinced me of its merit. The imperfect (hardest/stardust), says Stevens, is our paradise. The imperfect (hardest/stardust) is “hot in us” — hot as in that burning desire, that wanting, wanting climate which heats us all internally and keeps us alive.

    “Delight,” he concludes, “lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.” Whereas Poe, Shakespeare and Nabokov stir us along with breezy meters, Stevens switches off the song entirely. A meditative silence, fresh and brilliant-edged. Snow, clear, pink, white, cold, brilliant — these are words of emptiness. They smell like snow — that is, like nothing. And they are precisely the words which Stevens gathers, examines and finally, in the penultimate line, burns away with his own eternal summer, his own volcanic heart, his own too hot (“sometimes too hot the eye in heaven shines“), evilly compounded, vital I.

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