One of the Pacific sunsets that took the place of all my poems of nostalgia. Photo: Brian Connolly
Aside from his personal life, he was a happy man ~ a colleague of Wallace Stevens at Hartford Insurance Company.
Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation.
I think these are arguably the deepest lines that Wallace Stevens ever wrote. I had to live a while to understand the meaning. We wouldn’t expect a 15-year-old to grasp them — or a 25-year-old. A 35-year-old — still iffy. I am afraid that there is no substitute for watching someone significant decline and die — especially someone who was once powerful, always in charge, brisk, smart, competent, self-assured. And now — how could this outrage possibly happen? — they are in their eighties. That’s when you get to feel how precious and touchingly helpless they are, how unique and irreplaceable, their memories like antique mosaics.
And that, of course, applies to any old person, a survivor of so much — and now not for long.
There is something touching about the condition of being so old that the person could go any time now. How much swagger we have in youth, when we think we’ll live forever! Aging and dying — we acknowledge that this happens happens, but secretly we think that it won’t happen to us. And suddenly — certain options are closed, giant mistakes can’t be undone, and some important things will now remain unsaid forever; important questions will hang in the air unasked, with no chance of an answer — those who might have answered them now literally “gone with the wind” — we scattered their ashes, we know.
Sure, there are the adorable elderly and the mean, bitter, miserly ones, the hoarders and conspiracy theorists, or the interminable tellers of tales no one wants to hear. But even the mean, bitter ones evoke compassion in the end, often having missed out on love and everything else that truly matters. We can be sure of just one thing — everyone ends up having suffered a lot. And the rich and the mighty — even they end up losing that battle that all of us are doomed to lose. Even the body is not our native land, and will be taken away from us.
I tend to see men as more homeless than women. Women’s domesticity gives them more “agency.” They arrange the environment around them in the literal sense of “making a home.” The simple act of choosing curtains and fruit bowls means creating a micro-universe. Little girl, you’re a queen!
Stevens thought it was acts of the mind that accomplish this transformation of world into home. But I suspect he was closer to truth in “Anecdote of the Jar” (I placed a jar in Tennessee) than in the wishful thinking of the wonderful penultimate stanza of “An Idea of Order in Key West” (which starts with “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” — referring to an unknown woman walking on the beach, singing to herself):
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Most of us would say that it’s the world that shapes the mind. For Stevens, it’s the mind that shapes the world. Both statements are true; it’s a matter of emphasis. Stevens would say that the creative power of the human mind orders, even “masters,” the universe; it names the constellations and domesticates the earth (note that EARTH is an acronym of HEART), building towns, mooring boats at the dock, affixing “glassy lights” because the moon and stars are not enough. The “blessed rage for order” transforms the world into our home.
Or it almost does. The dark still falls as it will, but we have gained a measure of autonomy, and feel more secure. In “Final Soliloquy of the Internal Paramour,” Stevens admits that this is at best a partial security and we are deceiving ourselves:
Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest, and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.
We wrap the man-made comforts around us, and only in that “artifice” (a very Stevensian word) we feel reasonably comfortable:
. . . a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.
“We make a dwelling in the evening air.” But the evening falls day after day, a fact which we suddenly find insufferable when we feel particularly cornered by mortality.
Stevens and Frost, 1940, Key West
I think Stevens declined as a poet as he aged, growing both more garrulous and more abstract. I can’t believe that once I was awed by “To an Old Philosopher in Rome”:
A light on the candle tearing against the wick
To join a hovering excellence, to escape
From fire and be part only of that which
Fire is the symbol: the celestial possible.
Speak to your pillow as if it was yourself.
I used to be awed by “the celestial possible.” Now I finally notice the immense loneliness of “Speak to your pillow as if it was yourself.” Stevens wasn’t fully at home either in the natural or the human world.
But maybe I’ve also declined as a reader, with less tolerance for abstraction. Many poems of my youth now strike me as not amounting to much, though they used to be praised as my best — “all that passion.” Now the hysterical pigeon-soiled windowsills (ah, nostalgias! even for that) of deluded depressive thinking shine through like the lights of Mobil Oil Refinery at night, not to mention the infernal glow of the torch that burned off excess natural gas. (A literal personal inferno, as if my existential ones were not enough!)
The poems of the young Stevens of “Harmonium” can be wildly inventive. Then the vitality dissipates in favor of arid philosophical statements, most of them completely forgettable. But the shorter last poems of Stevens contain some gems, including this one:
THE POEM THAT TOOK THE PLACE OF A MOUNTAIN
There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.
It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,
For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,
Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.
~ Wallace Stevens
This is the poem in which Stevens comes closest to confessing his homelessness, his dependence on the mental world to provide him with a dwelling where he could feel he had a right to be there. To feel native in the world, he had to create his own world. One almost wants to tell him not to try so hard and protest so much, to accept a mountain “as is,” without making it his “his” mountain. But that easy acceptance of the world “as is” was not to be granted to this poet. And that urge to build a mental dwelling may have had its start in not really having a physical dwelling that was truly his own.
I just watched a documentary, The Griefwalker, that examines our fear of death. One of the unexpected statements had to do with feeling homeless — in particular those whose ancestors immigrated to the current country. The documentary doesn’t even mention the immigrants themselves, I think because it’s trying to be subtle, and it would be too blatant to mention such pretty literal homelessness. I still remember the panic that engulfed me when, while ostensibly already "settled" in the U.S., I received the news that my father moved out of Warsaw. WHAT?!! You mean I no longer have a home? I can’t just suddenly up and go to Warsaw, and walk into “my” room?
My room in Warsaw, that first and true home — my refuge, my sanctuary, the holy place where I unquestionably belonged, and which belonged to me along with my favorite parts of the city — MY Palace of Culture! MY Aleje Ujazdowskie, MY river from MY bridge where I stood and stared until the river appeared to stop, and I rushed backwards to the source . . . MY little park of Marie Curie, MY ponds at Lazienki Garden! MY swans! MY statue of Daphne turning into laurel! — gone, gone, utterly gone. I was emotionally homeless for many years — decades — after the terrible news. I thought of those ruthless commanders who burned the ship upon landing, so the soldiers could not dream of returning. It took me forever to construct a new home in every sense of “home.”
(A shameless digression: On my first return trip, I learned that some people wanted the Palace of Culture demolished. True, it's hardly beautiful, and it is a symbol of the Stalinist era. There is the expense of the upkeep. All those things are true. But it isn't, of course, just MY Palace of Culture. A whole generation grew up with it -- mocking it, denigrating it, loving it only in secret. The thought of demolition was unendurable to me. And by now new generations grew up with it too. You love what you grow up with. You love the familiar. The brain goes into panic when the familiar is gone -- that's a big part of the immigrant trauma. But the Palace of Culture is standing still, and I don't predict a quick demise . . . )
My recent experiences have dramatically shifted my perspective, and I no longer feel homeless. Owning real estate is only a small part of it. The important part of ownership is that you have significant say about this piece of land, as I found out when I opted to keep my sidewalk-buckling 75-foot tall tree, Jurassica, and removed the sidewalk instead (not the city sidewalk, but the sidewalk near the house). My bigger point about having a home is AUTONOMY. Co-ownership can’t give this gift, or at least not fully. “His part of the house” and “her part of the house” is a decent compromise. Yet only when it’s all ours, when we can rearrange a pillow here and a cloud there, then yes, we are at home.
Stevens had a miserable, sexless marriage. They didn’t say a word to each other during the last four years of his life. He’d come home from work and go directly upstairs to his quarters, without even nodding to his wife, Elsie, once the belle of her town — and not actually a dumb bunny, since she was able to summarize Stevens in a precise way: “Mr. Stevens is an excellent poet when he is not affected. Unfortunately, most of the time he is affected.”
He knew, no doubt, that Elsie would outlive him and never mourn him. She’d remove the paintings he loved but she didn’t. She’d fire the gardener and hire a new one, tell him to get rid of the old rosebushes and plant azaleas — anything without those huge spines, for God’s sake. And those old books, one more place for dust. Clean it all out! Toss those old curtains that only made the place dark. Her smile at her freedom would be, to her, like the first glimpse of the crescent moon. She’d fully come into her own being, at home in her own home at last.
Because an older woman needs not a lover, but a home where she doesn’t have to ask anyone if they’ll take her in. A place — not a book — that’s completely her own. It’s perfectly natural to call a woman a “home-maker.” And the home she makes cannot be replaced by a poem. (Certainly the cast-iron skillet cannot be replaced by a poem.)
Maybe Stevens never gave thought to how Elsie felt at the thought of being rid of him. She had her separate life, and he had his. And he could write a poem about the opposite of Elsie: Penelope, who preserved a home to which Ulysses wanted to return more than he wanted glory or even immortality.
Besides, he was busy. The act of writing is so devouring that there is no space to think of other matters while this fantastic inner drama is happening.
But there are the times in between. And there is a difference between having a home and having an escape, even if it’s a very effective escape.
I used to adore all of Stevens. Now I almost agree with Elsie. But the poems that continue to nourish me remain. The poem I already mentioned, about Penelope waiting for Odysseus (“The World as Meditation”), is one. “Of Mere Being” (“The palm at the end of the mind”) is another.
And there are always the fabulous passages, never mind if from the young or older Stevens (usually the younger):
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
I lean to “just after” — but the “just after” wouldn’t exist without the whistling first.
But if there is no actual home in the sense of “Better Homes and Gardens,” poetry can indeed provide some shelter. A poem that continues to nourish us becomes a part of our world, a world in which we have autonomy: “a place to go to in [our] own direction.” We own every word of that poem, just as if we had composed its landscape, its pines and rocks and clouds, so that we can get to the summit and rest, recognizing that we are completely at home. That home is unique and solitary just as each of us is unique and needs solitude simply to discover oneself. And then, having been refreshed by a stay in our home, we can come down and tell our story — if we are secure in the knowledge that we can go home again.
How redundant this little paraphrase seems when the poem has the perfection of the most beautiful quartz — the kind that’s pure white with subtle red veins, or the translucent kind.
There was a time when I too thought of books as my home. Or I’d make statements like, “My real homeland is poetry.” Or: “My real home is the republic of the mind, the world of ideas.” The more grand it sounded, the more I thought I was able to conceal my homelessness.
But ultimately there is no substitute for the plain meaning of “home”: your own bed, your lamp, your window. You can travel from there, but you need that harbor where you completely belong.
Not where they have to take you in, but where you have the key to the place, and I don’t mean either a literal or metaphoric key. I mean the garage door opener. Let’s face it, this is America, and you are nobody unless you have a garage door opener.
Still thinking about “The Griefwalker,” I was struck how the first interviewee, a woman dying of cancer, suddenly brought up the fact that she was an adopted child — and that’s when her composure broke. She began crying. She’d never tried to find her biological parents, insisting that she didn’t need to know. “Now, if they came, if they showed up, that would be different.” But they never did, and she was apparently too proud — or too afraid — to try finding the people to whom she’d naturally “belong,” who’d normally give her her first home — but who probably had excellent, praiseworthy reasons for giving her up. At least she didn’t end up in a dumpster. The parents did what they thought was best for the child. And the adoptive parents should be praised as well.
But why did she break down talking about how she never felt the need to know her biological parents? Was she really above feeling abandoned when she was first told? Our very first home is our mother’s womb — what happens if you never meet your mother? Did the adopted girl not feel, at least to some degree, that the home where she lived was not fully her own? That she was not the true daughter of that house, that yard, that street? And now that she was dying, she was going to be homeless again?
Why do so many people say that they don’t want to die in a hospital, but at home? That’s rarely going to happen, and besides, what’s so important about dying at home? Why do some immigrants, after more than fifty years in their “new homeland,” go back to where they were born, specifically in order to die there?
Is home, strangely enough, not the place where you live, but the place where you want to die? And what happens if a person can think of no such place?
This is not to say that Stevens took no notice of the beauty of the real world. On the contrary, he said, “The most beautiful thing in the world is the world itself.” And: “A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman.”
And yet his real life was his inner life, the portable paradise within, the only home he had — and he loved it.
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
And now — and it’s perhaps the strangest thing of all — Stevens lives in his poems, along with the imaginary women who walk through them also. There he gives them outrageous, oxymoronic names (“Blanche McCarthy”) and instructs them how to make a home in the self:
Look in the terrible mirror of the sky
And not in this dead glass, which can reflect
Only the surfaces –- the bending arm,
The leaning shoulder and the searching eye.
. . .
Look in the terrible mirror of the sky.
See how the absent moon waits in a glade
Of your dark self, and how the wings of stars,
Upward, from unimagined coverts, fly.
Ah, the romantic, the yearner. But in spite of his dead marriage, can we be sure that life did not give Stevens what he wanted? To have a home in poetry is no small thing, nor is having a mind that can create such an aerial dwelling.
AGING AND ITS DISCONTENTS — AND SHOCKING CONTENTMENT
Until now, I had never met the word “conspiration” [Oriana: a typo that I’ve corrected once Michael pointed it out] and I hope I never meet it again. It's an ugly word. I can't move it across my tongue.
You wrote, "But maybe I've also declined as a reader." I appreciate the observation. I've wondered about my own declines. The ideas, goals, ideals, and dreams that once seemed so important to me, that once seemed existentially essential, have faded to little more than wisps of memory. And I puzzle over this shift. I puzzle over the "decline."
Rilke wrote "I'm too alone in the world but not alone enough to make each hour holy." Maybe I'm in the process of making each hour holy, and maybe this process is necessary to vacate the castles built in my youth. Like you, I no longer think so many of the poems I once valued are interesting. In some cases I no longer understand them. Books read, authors admired, transformative ideas, lofty goals--done. Gone. Cerebral dust.
Maybe the decline is really a search for that final resting place---a home in which to breathe those final thoughts. Your account of Stevens leaves me sad. I know we get our final home where ever we can but I hope mine is better connected to places and people outside my mind.
Of course I meant “conspiracy.” Maybe “aspiration” was trying to insinuate itself like a dead deity? Both history and life are strewn with dead gods. The moment we cease to worship them, they fall. Rilke intuited it, and felt sorry for his “neighbor god.”
Well, talk about decline. Thanks for pointing out the typo. Yes, I’ve become more prone to the kind of typo where one word fuses with another. Not good.
Decline is very much in my thoughts. I’m still not used to it. The onset is more dramatic for women. Menopause is a major death switch. Afterwards, for women, “memory is not what it used to be,” and tell-tale signs of neurotransmitter shortage reveal themselves in ways no one warned me about. Where are the vivid dreams of yesternights?
And, worse, the decline in creative drive (directly tied to the levels of sex hormones, which drive dopamine) and usually, alas, in the quality (with a few glorious exceptions, and all poets hope they will be Yeats — but no such luck). Non-fiction prose has been my savior since it’s a craft rather than art. It’s not one-tenth as demanding as poetry.
Both our brain function and external circumstances change as we grow older, and we realize that the future doesn’t stretch ahead the way it used to when we were younger. To use the most extreme example, a woman who didn’t become a ballerina or a fashion model in her late teens or at most early twenties will never be one. Someone who learns to play the piano in middle age will never become a virtuoso — though that person may still gain a lot of pleasure from playing the piano, and give enjoyment to friends.
Brain function can be rescued to some extent, and I'm close to enraged (but part of the decline is the sheer inability to get truly enraged) when I think that there is very little interest in what should be one of the primary goals of biomedical research. Dopamine sharply declines, while serotonin holds out longer — hence the common “mellowing with age” phenomenon.
But another feature of aging is that we become less inclined toward ambitious and exhausting projects and, with only so many good years left, we begin to prefer enjoyment. My shorter posts may be easier on the reader, but I confess I made the change for my own pleasure. For the first time in decades I'm writing primarily for my own pleasure.
All studies have found that we tend to become happier as we grow older. Since the future isn’t what it used to be, we are finally able to live in the moment and for the moment. The grand passions of youth that we thought would burn forever are now ashes swept away by the wind of time. But look — a great victory! — I'm no longer weeping and lamenting. How ludicrous to waste what life remains on bewailing the past. The ultimate home is the moment, now after now after now. And that’s still an immense wealth.
And in spite of the unquestionable decline, I have a feeling that I have just begun to live. It’s a new phase of my posthumous existence (posthumous in relation to life driven by ambition and vision of the future). The great, wonderful surprise of it is the abundance of joy.
So thankful for the words you give us and the language and the way you take us into a poet’s life… you are a gift and I appreciate all the time you take to bringing this to your audience. I read the Stevens poems you wrote about this morning; haven’t read him since college and was not that impressed then either, though he is good.. but it’s your own poetry I tend to enjoy the most . . . My favorite lines of his are from “The World As Meditation” — Penelope and her pillow.
Not sure what I’m looking for in poetry, only know it when I experience it and this is what I’m striving for in my own poetry: a place beyond where I am at at the present.
The entire Penelope poem is gorgeous. I know you mean this stanza, and it’s central:
But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun
On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.
The two kept beating together. It was only day.
This is the kind of poem for which we forgive Stevens all kinds of dull other poems. And, after all, it is the best that remains. “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is another one we think will survive. Possibly “Snowman.” “Sunday Morning” is probably too didactic in the long run. Eventually students will not understand about religion, but Penelope remains a human drama that every woman understands.
And that's perhaps the ultimate in poetry: to rise above your time, to be timeless.
As I was explaining to Michael, there are ways to rev up the brain function so that more people could be creative in their older years, but we are stubbornly backward and provide those drugs too late, when people already have Alzheimer’s, say, and are past saving. Falling in love is a temporary potent neurological drug — it really potentiates dopamine and other “happy chemicals,” not to mention providing fresh material.
This is a off the subject, but I keep thinking about the man ahead of me in the checkout line at Albertson’s. He was lamenting being unemployed, “and my husband [brief pause] . . . and my girlfriend isn’t working either.” I wonder how long this will continue, this hesitation about being openly gay. I know it’s not my fault, but somehow I was hoping that tolerance was written in my face. I wish I’d said, “To me you you can say, ‘my husband’ but I thought of it too late. That’s a little poem too, those encounters, and I'm glad I can at least write prose vivid enough to give testimony: this is what it is to be living in our time. Only some poems, the best few, are not a “product of their age” with a 50-year span at best. Aging makes us aware how ephemeral 99.9% of everything is. Still precious, like cut flowers.