Wallace Stevens, Valentine

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Wallace Stevens




Wallace Stevens, Valentine by Meghan O'Rourke

February 14th, 2013 reset - +

THE POEM that made me fall in love with poetry, when I was 16, is Wallace Stevens’ “This Solitude of Cataracts.” I was a shy child who read a lot of books, but fiction held my heart, and I scribbled stories all day long. Poems intrigued me but I didn’t understand them, I felt. In my senior writing seminar, our teacher asked us to choose a poem from our anthology to write a paper on. Flipping through I stumbled on this poem by Stevens. What I remember is the shiver of the sounds, the amulet-like quality of the last lines — the way they seemed to hit my limbic system with the shock of a gun recoil. People talk of the thrill of shooting, the thrill of competing — but there is also the thrill of reading words that get under your skin and into the blood. Like antibodies, they disquiet your equilibrium, but they seem to be antibodies to the mundane, to habit, to accommodation, to the pretense that language is merely communicative (and also to the pretense that language is fully communicative).

It’s a gorgeous piece in tercets. On one level, it appears to deal with a man looking at a river. It offers a visceral evocation of what a river is like, endlessly moving onward, invoking Heraclitus’ idea “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” It tries to imagine the river becoming a lake. On another level, by the end it has vocalized our desire to come to a “permanent realization” of our place in the world, and included a tripwire that reminds us that we never will. The poem opens:

He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,

Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing

Through many places, as if it stood still in one,

 

Fixed like a lake on which the wild ducks fluttered,

Ruffling its common reflections, thought-like Mondanocks.

Stevens gets criticized for his headiness — or rather when people come to Stevens and recoil it’s often because they find him too think-y, too hard to penetrate. But to read a poem like this is to be reminded of the incredible physicality at the heart of his abstraction. There’s the tactile description to be sure but also the physicality of the words: fluttered, ruffling, reflection. Then there is the clever (thinky) way that the “reflections” in the river work both as a concrete and abstract noun: they are the physical (if ethereal) reflection of the mountains around the river. (Mount Monadnock is a mountain in New Hampshire.) But the word also invokes “thought” or “meditation,” if only subliminally. This secondary meaning-echo prepares the reader for the shift from concrete description to the phrase “thought-like Monadnocks.” There, Stevens turns to describing the natural world as if it were a reflection of mental states. (Is there a literary term for this? It’s a kind of kissing cousin of personification.) The meaning? Mountains have a still, abiding quality that resembles thoughts, or, as Stevens put it in a 1954 letter to his Italian publisher,

The expression “thought-like Monadnocks” can best be explained by changing it into “Monadnock-like thoughts.” The image of a mountain deep in the surface of a lake acquires a secondary character. From the sheen of the surface it becomes slightly unreal: thought-like. Mt. Monadnock is a New England mountain. It is in New Hampshire.

This is poem that — like so many lyric poems — wants to get beyond the finitude and into the infinite, the transcendent. That this effort is doomed is part of its melancholic (and perverse) power: the artist is a madman lavishing oil and elbow grease to get a magic lamp to glow, only the lamp isn’t actually magic. The magic is all the artist’s mind — his desire to rub the lamp until it glows. Which it will never do, fully. Some part of the artists knows he will fail and yet he is driven compulsively to rub, rub, rub, to polish the words to a strange shine. He knows he is impermanent, a unique consciousness, yet he aspires to intransience, to be the river flowing and flowing that is also a lake:

 There seemed to be an apostrophe that was not spoken.

There was so much that was real that was not real at all.

He wanted to feel the same way over and over.

 

He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,

To keep on flowing.

What the “he” of this poem also wants is to walk “under the buttonwoods, beneath a moon nailed fast” and for

his mind to rest

In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks

Or mountains that were not mountains.

It’s in that last line that the poem expands beyond its seeming theme. Paradoxically this moment takes place exactly where the poem acknowledges its failure to “real”-ize its vision. Real mountains like Mount Monadnock are a figure here for thoughts, for the poet, but of course “mountains” in a poem can’t be anything but thoughts. The mountains are not mountains because they are thoughts in a poem and can never be “real.”

This moment subverts the ostensible dream of the poem, which is the dream of transcendence, permanence, some kind of actualization. The poem after all builds to a vision in the moon is “nailed” to the sky (as it might be in the theater) and where one might become permanent,

a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,

Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,

Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.

And yet the “mountains that were not mountains” is the thorn in the rose, the moment where the poem acknowledges its own impossibility. Language aspires to be at the center of time, but it is necessarily transient; it doesn’t exist, really, unless it is experienced by an interpretive consciousness: a speaker, a listener, a reader.

I don’t think I saw any of this when I first read it, I just knew that something about the musicality and the obsessive polish of the language got to me in a way that other language didn’t. The poem may fail in its attempt to transform itself (and its protagonist) from the phenomenal to the noumenal, but Stevens’ polishing of the language — the alliteration, the accumulation of gerunds (flowing, breathing) that suggest actions with no end, the powerful rhythms — made a succulence of sound in which it seemed I might find a depth without end. This finally answered for me the question, Why poetry? It brings us to the place of the mountains that are not mountains.

— Meghan O'Rourke

 

Wallace Stevens, "This Solitude of Cataracts"

 

He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,

Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing

 

Through many places, as if it stood still in one,

Fixed like a lake on which the wild ducks fluttered,

 

Ruffling its common reflections, thought-like Monadnocks.

There seemed to be an apostrophe that was not spoken.

 

There was so much that was real that was not real at all.

He wanted to feel the same way over and over.

 

He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,

To keep on flowing.  He wanted to walk beside it,

 

Under the buttonwoods, beneath a moon nailed fast.

He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest

 

In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks

Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be,

 

Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction,

To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,

 

Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,

Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.

 

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