Years ago I read the poet Wallace Stevens and tried to understand him. I was reading the language of his earlier poetry, full of color and sensuality. Because it was the early sixties in San Francisco and I was also reading Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, I was especially puzzled that he was an insurance executive. Business seemed to me the most foreign of foreign worlds.
Lately, I’ve been trying to understand him again, and so far it’s well worth the trying. Dan Chiasson in the The New York Review of Books (11/19/09) alerted me to the poet’s pondering a memory of his mother in one of his later poems (he died in 1955 at age 75). Stevens, he says, examines “the encroachment of time, first upon the mother herself (“dissolved” along with all the contents of her house by night, then “destroyed” by age), then upon his memory of her.” He quotes Harold Bloom: “memory itself grows old.” The poet is looking for his mother through the ravages of time, where memory itself has aged and left even less than what once was.
Writers can’t just remember, especially, I think, older writers. There have been so many years to forget. They must find the truth of what’s only vaguely recalled in images and words that have currency in the present. Sometimes, I think, that many of my memories are no longer truly memories of actual people or events, but of subsequent memories, stories- many-times-told. To bring them to life, I have to call on my imagination. And even then….
Which is what Wallace Stevens explores in this poem (excerpted from his The Auroras of Autumn):
Farewell to an idea… The mother’s face,
The purpose of the poem, fills the room.
They are together, here, and it is warm.
With none of the prescience of oncoming dreams.
It is evening. The house is evening, half dissolved.
Only the half that they can never possess, remains,
Still-starred. It is the mother they possess,
Who gives transparence to their present peace.
She makes that gentler that can gentle be.
And yet she too is dissolved, she is destroyed.
She gives transparence. But she has grown old.
The necklace is a carving not a kiss.
The soft hands are a motion not a touch.
The house will crumble and the books will burn.
They are at ease in a shelter of the mind
And the house is of the mind and they and time,
Together, all together. Boreal night
Will look like frost as it approaches them
And to the mother as she falls asleep
And as they say good-night, good-night. Upstairs
The windows will be lighted, not the rooms.
A wind will spread its windy grandeurs round
And knock like a rifle-butt against the door.
The wind will command them with invincible sound.