This Morning the Writing Cafe is Serving

Wallace Stevens’s lovely poem, Sea Surface Full of Clouds. I haven’t thought of this poem in a very long time, but I was reminded of it recently by this terrific writer.

I guess my affection for Stevens is clear. He was the first poet I felt like I understood  — maybe because the poems I first read were the accessible ones and so gave me the illusion of mastering a difficult poet:   Sunday Morning, The Snow Man, and Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.

Stevens was a lawyer. He wrote his poems while he walked to work through Elizabeth Park in Hartford and then he had his secretary type them up. He kept his life as a poet and his life at the insurance company pretty much separate. He loved France and the French. He also really liked good food, and he loved Key West, and he wasn’t above asking people to send him parcels of interesting objects from places like Ceylon and Japan. He didn’t travel, not physically anyway. The next book I write (after I finish radiation therapy and get done with the elusive last few chapters of The Secret War) will be about him.

Here’s the poem:
Sea Surface Full Of Clouds, Wallace Stevens

I

In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And in the morning summer hued the deck

And made one think of rosy chocolate
And gilt umbrellas. Paradisal green
Gave suavity to the perplexed machine

Of ocean, which like limpid water lay.
Who, then, in that ambrosial latitude
Out of the light evolved the morning blooms,

Who, then, evolved the sea-blooms from the clouds
Diffusing balm in that Pacific calm?
C’était mon enfant, mon bijou, mon âme.

The sea-clouds whitened far below the calm
And moved, as blooms move, in the swimming green
And in its watery radiance, while the hue

Of heaven in an antique reflection rolled
Round those flotillas. And sometimes the sea
Poured brilliant iris on the glistening blue.

II

In that November off Tehuantepec
The slopping of the sea grew still one night.
At breakfast jelly yellow streaked the deck

And made one think of chop-house chocolate
And sham umbrellas. And a sham-like green
Capped summer-seeming on the tense machine

Of ocean, which in sinister flatness lay.
Who, then, beheld the rising of the clouds
That strode submerged in that malevolent sheen,

Who saw the mortal massives of the blooms
Of water moving on the water-floor?
C’était mon frère du ciel, ma vie, mon or.

The gongs rang loudly as the windy booms
Hoo-hooed it in the darkened ocean-blooms.
The gongs grew still. And then blue heaven spread

Its crystalline pendentives on the sea
And the macabre of the water-glooms
In an enormous undulation fled.

III

In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And a pale silver patterned on the deck

And made one think of porcelain chocolate
And pied umbrellas. An uncertain green,
Piano-polished, held the tranced machine

Of ocean, as a prelude holds and holds,
Who, seeing silver petals of white blooms
Unfolding in the water, feeling sure

Of the milk within the saltiest spurge, heard, then,
The sea unfolding in the sunken clouds?
Oh! C’était mon extase et mon amour.

So deeply sunken were they that the shrouds,
The shrouding shadows, made the petals black
Until the rolling heaven made them blue,

A blue beyond the rainy hyacinth,
And smiting the crevasses of the leaves
Deluged the ocean with a sapphire blue.

IV

In that November off Tehuantepec
The night-long slopping of the sea grew still.
A mallow morning dozed upon the deck

And made one think of musky chocolate
And frail umbrellas. A too-fluent green
Suggested malice in the dry machine

Of ocean, pondering dank stratagem.
Who then beheld the figures of the clouds
Like blooms secluded in the thick marine?

Like blooms? Like damasks that were shaken off
From the loosed girdles in the spangling must.
C’était ma foi, la nonchalance divine.

The nakedness would rise and suddenly turn
Salt masks of beard and mouths of bellowing,
Would—But more suddenly the heaven rolled

Its bluest sea-clouds in the thinking green,
And the nakedness became the broadest blooms,
Mile-mallows that a mallow sun cajoled.

V

In that November off Tehuantepec
Night stilled the slopping of the sea.
The day came, bowing and voluble, upon the deck,

Good clown… One thought of Chinese chocolate
And large umbrellas. And a motley green
Followed the drift of the obese machine

Of ocean, perfected in indolence.
What pistache one, ingenious and droll,
Beheld the sovereign clouds as jugglery

And the sea as turquoise-turbaned Sambo, neat
At tossing saucers—cloudy-conjuring sea?
C’était mon esprit bâtard, l’ignominie.

The sovereign clouds came clustering. The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue

To clearing opalescence. Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.

The photograph at the top of the post is San Francisco City Hall a few days ago. There were so many clouds, dark clouds, and under them a kind of saturated blue you only see in the fall.

This Morning the Writing Cafe is Serving…

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton’s wonderful autumnal poem, Her Kind. The recommended menu while reading this poem? Pumpkin bread and hot apple cider. (Tea is an acceptable substitute for the apple cider.)

If you’d like to assume the persona of the writer, then you’ll have to put on a slash of lipstick. Your menu would then be a cigarette and a glass of scotch. Don’t be Sexton for too long, though. It was a lot of work being her and it did not end well. But while she was able, she managed to transform the nightmare of mental illness into art. And that is something to be celebrated this autumn morning.

If you’d like to hear Sexton read this poem, you can do that at the Academy of American Poets website. And if you’d like to know more about Sexton, Diane Middlebrook’s excellent biography is a good place to start. The biography made a little bit of a splash when it first came out because it’s based in part on tapes Sexton’s analyst made of their sessions. It’s a compulsively readable book. And Her Kind is a wonderful, accessible poem made to be read out loud.

Her Kind, Anne Sexton

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

(Without question, because of its chill factor and wildness, this poem is on my list of 100 favorite poems. I’m now up to 5 of 100. Maybe getting up to 25 or so would be a good winter project.)

A Quiet Day in the Writing Cafe

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned my devotion to Yeats.  It’s because of poems like The Lake Isle of Innisfree, an early poem, written in the 1890s.  It rhymes and has a regular meter and is the sort of thing you might murmur to yourself when you wake up and want nothing more than to spend the day drinking tea and thinking about what’s in “the deep heart’s core.” Here it is, number 4 of 100 favorite poems (not in any particular order): 

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Tonight, the Writing Cafe is Serving

something cold. For those of us in the northern hemisphere who are VERY HOT right now.

The Snow Man, Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

(photo from Christine Breslin’s Elizabeth Park Series; Elizabeth Park being where Wallace Stevens often walked, composing poems on the way to work)

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

I often see titles borrowed from this poem, most recently Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. (I have actually come across more than one law review article called Thirteen Ways of Looking at [insert legal topic here].) The works that follow seldom have much to do with the poem. And so for a reason no more complicated than that we’ve just thrown fourteen ways of looking at the French out there for your pleasure, I thought it would be a good thing to let Wallace Stevens speak for himself, for once.  You’ll find it below the fold —

Continue reading “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

Tonight, the Writing Cafe is Serving

Jam, of course.


–The Queen and Alice, on hiring Alice as a maid–

`I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!’ the Queen said. `Twopence a week, and jam every other day.’
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, `I don’t want you to hire ME–and I don’t care for jam.’
`It’s very good jam,’ said the Queen.
`Well, I don’t want any TODAY, at any rate.’
`You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,’ the Queen said. `The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday–but never jam today.’
`It MUST come sometimes to “jam today,”‘ Alice objected.
`No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. `It’s jam every OTHER day: today isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’
`I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. `It’s dreadfully confusing!’

-Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass (with thanks to everything2.com)

The Raspberry Jam is done. It is beautiful. Pictures tomorrow. Alice tonight.