Gutter ball screamed the parakeet;
How often its disgusting little feet gripped the
glint of false light
heroics left to the shadows of
naked dwarfs bulging with
the rocking of ramshackle clouds
after the railroad train
pulls out of Peking
and the creamery shutters
bang in the piebald heat.
One might say this stanza is exemplary of Stevens' poetry. Personal and yet detached, the embracing of the everyday but in abstract thought, contemporary and yet classic, all contextualized with an underlying sense of revulsion for life that makes one think Stevens must have thrown up after finishing each line. In fact, the Smithsonian has, in its archives, some vomit splatters attributed to Stevens on Mutual of Omaha letterhead paper upon which were the jottings of an early poem, The Bananas of Doctor Horst. This poem is famous amongst lovers of Stevens' poetry because it documents his first foray into cosmopolitan life after a rare visit to New York to see a highly recommended podiatrist for his severely fallen arches. Is he the Dr. Horst to whom Stevens alludes? And what is the connection between podiatry and bananas. The poem vaguely answers this in Stanza Six although Doctor Horst still remains a bit of a mystery as does his relationship with bananas. Doubt me? Read this!
Back at the Waldorf
The world hummed in his handkerchief,
Naked tragedy clawing at the tunky-tunky-tunky
planks of bananas, masculine and feminine crowded like poodles under parasols.
Oh, mother, do not enter the foliage
where paratroopers with unhealthy appetites
bear barren fruit of bleak illusion,
and an old man on a mountain is only the anatomy left of tragic puppet spray.
Plinky, plinky, plonk, piano keys of loquacious salad beds,
never were the sounds so unsmelled
than in the labial gardens of Dr. Horst and his bananas,
the arches of Minneapolis fallen in the savage debris of disillusionment.
The great sweep of Stevens' philosophical questioning, his charm and wit and irony are all as evident in this piece as the melanoma moles upon his face and his stoicism is surprisingly derailed by an underlying fecundity as lusty as overripe breadfruit that hang like the well-suckled breasts of a mother of sixteen (Stevens had sixteen siblings and so this simile is not so far off the mark of Stevens' impressions of his own mother's breasts, especially since he was the last born and those breasts were ready to fall from the tree, in a manner of speaking, by the time he got his little lips around their life-giving, albeit, somewhat hairy and saliva-eroded nipples). On the subject of his mother, Clutchy, Stevens' love of her was so great that in later life he sought a marriage partner who could have been his mother's doppelganger. Thus his betrothal to Tilly Svenson, a loathsome girl from his old neighbourhood where he grew up, who blossomed into a loathsome woman with strong-as-an-ox buttocks from her obsessive-compulsive butter-churning disorder and a fetching smile that many storekeepers and trolley car operators always said could've landed Tilly in the moving pictures industry if she'd only stop carrying her butter-churning bucket clutched to her hefty bosom, was a marriage made in heaven from Stevens' perspective. Her cool, Nordic blood turned out to be a good match for Stevens' deeply buried lusty urges, which he was usually only able to release through alligator-wrestling.
A man and a woman and an alligator
Wear sagging pantaloons
And smell of summer fields, skeletons and meat gravy,
Their shadows traced by blotchy blackbirds with grim hallucination.
I was of three minds,
The alligator, the blackbird and a discarded mouth-organ
Left on the shore of a blobby sea
Dark marine with the hems of beggar's capes,
You phantom glass-blowers of North America.
Yowzah, yowzah, yowzah
O thin tailors of Vesuvius,
Your warbling is like the blindness of ground beef,
The inescapable rhythm of newspapers blown by the coughing
That brings poetry
To the pineapples of artifice.
Is that an alligator in your pants
Or do you just want to rassle me
Under the sassafras tree
Greased with the jelly of a perplexed machine.
The alligator rests but the blackbird is wary, taciturn,
A paper mache ventriloquist dead on a sofa near Lake Geneva
Knows this and remains as bitter as a dried leaf
Pressed between the pages of a nudie picture book
Begetting tubas and purple prunes of engorgement.
Roll out the barrel,
And yell hap-hap hallow,
For the wench is but a horny-footed cataleptic polymathic hierophant vassal
Born of Mrs. Pappadopoulos.
Ice cream, ice cream, we all scream
With gawky beaks
And the emperor rubs himself
With weak facts and an old fantouche,
Lacking a personalia and a dog-eared vocabulary,
It's just booming vulgarity
In vanilla or chocolate.
So don't even ask for coconut
You lewd opiate of chastity and musty teeth.
So affix your fuzzy wig
To your swollen and knobby head,
And inhale the odors of the fantails of Oklahoma,
And then ask yourself with trembling lip and palaver of hand
what do you want, a rifle-butt or sugar cone?
Don't touch my bumper of doom
You concupiscent curd of an excuse for a human,
for I am the Emperor of the ice cream truck
and no, I don't have any pistachio.
Here is Stevens displaying the full range of his poetic maturity, or as Stevens scholar, Prof. Phil Runts of Nibster's Community College of Omaha, has put forth, it's this poem above all others that makes him itch as if he were being eaten alive by fire ants. This simile proves to be all too apt for it's this discomfort evoked by images of comfort that makes Stevens' poetry the equivalent of sleeping on an old sofa bed where the springs protrude and the mattress is stained with urine and withered cherry blossoms. Such beauty cannot be held in the hand or mouth or even kept in an old shoebox in the back of the closet with the mothballs and silverfish. It can only be felt and held in the heart except if you have a pacemaker, in which case you might need a good-sized piece of Tupperware, preferably with a properly fitting lid. Or in the case of Prof. Phil Runts, the full impact of Stevens' poetry can best be enjoyed by employing his patented Wallace Stevens Head Harness. Either way, Wallace Stevens is here to stay and if you have a problem with that, well, then, go wrestle an alligator and see if you don't get your head chewed off. Then maybe you'll understand the greatness of this man who had the soul of a poet, the heart of a reptile and a face not even a mother could love.