Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Reviews Of Books I Have Not Read

The Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens
I found this book on the free shelf of my local community center and it's no wonder someone gave it away when presented with this author's photo on the cover. With a mug like this who wouldn't give you away. Except your mother maybe. Nevertheless, here is Wallace Stevens in all his latter year glory, finally come into fruition like a rotting pear on a Sunday morning, as the full-blown renowned poet whose enigmatic work could, in the words of Stevens scholar, Prof. Phil Runts, of Nibster's Community College of Omaha, from his essay, "Bird Songs and Droppings in the Poems of Wallace Stevens,""make a nightingale sing loud enough to erase all traces of Maurice Chevalier."
Let it be said that the photo of the author adorning the cover of this volume shows a smartly dressed but dour man and the image does not betray the reality. For dour he was, toiling away for years at the Mutual of Omaha head office, upset that he didn't get the role of host on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and instead was left at a desk adjusting insurance premiums while Marlin Perkins got to cavort with very personable chimps and all manner of wildlife he encountered on safari. Meanwhile, Stevens lived a dullard's life and, ironically, it was this routine that was the impetus for him becoming the great poet that we remember today. His words took us to places we'd never been, nor had he for that matter, holed up in Nebraska most of the time except for the odd occasion when he traveled out of state with his bowling team. They were the mid-west bowling champions of 1964, eliminating Moe's Milwaukee Marauders in a nail-biter that required a recounting of every frame. Stevens composed an epic ode to the event, "Gutter Ball of Bathsheba." Here's the first stanza.

Gutter ball screamed the parakeet;
How often its disgusting little feet gripped the
glint of false light
of morning,
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.
The loathsomely fetching Tilly Svenson (on the right), seen here posing with Stevens' mother, Clutchy and his grandmother, Yeggdrasil (sitting). Three peas in a pod? You betcha and it's difficult to say, if I hadn't told you, which of these women was not born into the Stevens family, so alike are their features. It's as if Tilly Svenson could have been sprung from the very loins of either of the other two women in the picture. The photo, incidentally, was taken at Tilly's engagement party where she churned butter relentlessly while reciting ancient Nordic sagas about the death puffins that line the fjords of Bjornvalhallagoothen and carry the souls of great Viking warriors across the water to Jornsen's Furniture Outlet and Broadloom Emporium.
On the subject of reptilian roughhousing, it was Stevens' talent for alligator wrestling that he was sure was going to secure him the spot as Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom host. For Stevens, wrestling alligators was like a kind of poetry in motion, so it's no great mystery that when the 'gator wrestling didn't pan out, Stevens turned from reptiles to rhyme. Still, that didn't help to lessen the blow when he wasn't given the Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom host position, even after providing upper management with breathtaking photos of himself wrestling these fearsome beasts and demonstrating his own special move that would later, in 'gator wrestling circles, be dubbed the Stevens Gator-ator Sleeper Hold.
In his younger years, Wallace Stevens was a formidable alligator wrestler, a difficult pursuit when you realize Nebraska is not an alligator epicenter. It was this photo that Stevens submitted to Mutual of Omaha when they were launching their Wild Kingdom TV show, figuring the skills displayed in this image would make him a shoe-in for the host of the program. After losing out to Marlin Perkins, whose mustache Mutual of Omaha was taken with not to mention he looked better in a safari suit, Stevens turned his back on wildlife and the foliage it liked to hide in and embraced poetry in the great sorrow that was to shadow his life until he died. Hence, one must only witness the constant references to parakeets, goats, rattlesnakes and mating orangutans to understand that his initial dreams never left him, but were transferred, and, one might add, transcended, the commonplace into beautiful poetry in a voice so modern, many critics could only shake their heads in bewilderment, disbelief and occasional bouts of ptomaine poisoning.

In fact one of Stevens' most famous poems, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, was originally composed as Twenty-Nine Ways of Looking at and Rasslin' an Alligator, but he was convinced to change it by his friend and fellow insurance agent, Mortie Shugmeyer, who felt the alligator imagery might dissuade readers from enjoying the more lyrical passages and subtler metaphors of the piece. Amazingly, some of the original stanzas still exist on a waxed paper sandwich wrapper found in the back of Stevens' desk at the insurance office where he toiled until his death. Here's a sampling.

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,
Happy fecundity
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.

The above diagram illustrates the four essential steps for performing the Stevens Gator-ator Sleeper Hold that has been adopted by 'gator wrestlers from the Everglades to the Louisiana bayous. Little did Stevens know that as his poetry would gain immortality so would his famous alligator wrestling move. Circulating amongst and influencing these two cultural circles, one could say, was Stevens' greatest accomplishment, bringing poetry in all its forms to both the common man and the higher spheres of learning. Many's the time Stevens was quoted as saying, "Any poet that can't wrestle a 'gator is a poet I'll never understand."
Again, Stevens' acuity and versatility with language makes one forget that he was raised in a chicken coop as a child and until the age of ten could only scratch in the gravel with bare feet and cluck whenever pleasure or pain was visited upon his body. But if it's true that childhood provides the most formative years, one can only wonder if he wouldn't have become as erudite and philosophically far-reaching if he hadn't first lived among the chickens and gained a sense of nature and its disharmonious relationship with the growing modern world, understanding that one day chickens and insurance agents would never see eye to eye despite the fact that in the past they both pecked happily from the same overfilled trough. But then reason flies out the window with poetry, as well it should, because if you've ever tried to shove the two of them through one windowpane, well you'd end up with a lot of broken glass, splintered wood and a repair bill that would seriously deplete your beer and pickled egg fund. And yet, paradoxically, Stevens was able to meld the two realms, reason and poetry meeting on uncommon ground as his insurance acumen and poetic perspective and embodiment, right down to the socks and boxer shorts he wore, pushed the boundaries of verse and provided policy holders with something to think about when their houses burned down or their property was stolen while they were having martinis with the Lundquivsts at the tennis club. Circumstance, happenstance or just part of the cosmic dance, all questions one has to ask as it has been rumored Stevens was prone to burn down the homes of policy holders to teach them the hard lessons of poetry. There is a cruelty to his beauty and god help anyone who dismissed him, especially if there were any sharp objects or flammable materials around. And yet Stevens was not above the lighthearted and lyrical touch as evidenced so well in his famous poem, The Emperor and the Ice Cream Truck, reprinted without permission below.

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?
Beep, beep,
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.
Pictured here is Prof. Phil Runts demonstrating his patented Stevens reading device. The volume of poems is strapped to each side of the head as Prof. Runts has discovered that the poetry is best enjoyed and deciphered using extreme peripheral vision. How he has come up with this theory remains a bit of a mystery but I have tried the device out myself and can only say am wowed by my new understanding of Stevens' work, although I did get a splitting headache and was wall-eyed for a few days.