HARMONIUM BY WALLACE STEVENS

It is with a strange malice
That I distort the world

Of all the books I own, and I own more than is healthy, the one that I most often carry with me, the one that I make sure I pack in my bag if I am going somewhere, the one that I never like to be without, is Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium. That, I imagine, gives you the impression that it is my favourite book. It isn’t. Or it certainly isn’t the book that means the most to me; those books – even the most difficult among them; your Ulysses, Iliad, Proust etc – hit me on a pretty basic emotional level, and memories of reading them bounce exuberantly around my mind like kittens. Harmonium, on the other hand, when I attempt to grasp it, to see it, conjures up images of sharp lines on a pastel-coloured background or makes me think of a glass sculpture that someone has taken a hammer to, thereby reducing something intelligible to rubble, but beautiful rubble, a mess of shards that is more beautiful than the sculpture in its previous form could ever have been. My favourite book, in that it makes me go all gooey and doe-eyed? No. My favourite in that it buggers my brain and makes me want to slide to the ground in foetal-formation? Oh yeah.

Every time the bucks went clattering
Over Oklahoma
A firecat bristled in the way.

So, how do you review something like that? Honest to fuck, I haven’t got a clue. I’m not sure I even know how to read it, let alone review it. A fair amount of my reviews are parodies, or written in the style of certain authors, and I thought about doing that again here, but, for the first time, I felt as though I wasn’t up to it. Call it arrogance if you like, but I’m pretty confident I could write something Joyce-like, or Nabokovian, or whoever, but Wallace Stevens defeats me. And maybe that’s why I like Harmonium so much, because there’s something alien about it. Reading it reminds me of being really young, ten or eleven, and picking through my dad’s Complete Plays of Shakespeare or trying to make sense of Dylan Thomas poems. Back then, I would read anything to hand because we didn’t have the money to buy more books, and libraries intimidated me, and so I read Shakespeare and old poetry anthologies my dad had bought from some salesman or something back when he was a young man. I hardly understood any of it, but I liked the sound of them in my mouth and on my ear. I revelled in them on the level of the pure word, words, most of the time, stripped of meaning and context. Yeah, reading Wallace Stevens is almost like that.

It is true that the rivers went nosing like swine,
Tugging at banks, until they seemed
Bland belly-sounds in somnolent troughs

Of course, some of the poems are easier to understand than others, and there are parts of each poem that are comprehensible, but it’s almost like finding a chunk of that sculpture that hadn’t been smashed up quite as badly as the rest, a nose or a finger perhaps. Indeed, it’s amusing reading reviews of Harmonium because they tend to be really short and pretty much completely devoid of interpretation. Ah, I know your game, people! And I totally understand.

I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools
Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness
Of waving weeds.

It has been said that to understand this book one has to read his entire work, which, you gotta admit, is a fucking brilliant way of avoiding giving your own opinions on the individual poems in it. Stevens himself, actually, was the first one to make that claim, and, apparently, he wanted to call his complete poems something like The Complete Harmonium. And I do really like that, the idea that his entire body of work is one piece. it appeals to that obsession I have with inter-connectedness, my own belief that there is no such thing as individual poems, books of poetry, or even poets.

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill

As I clearly cannot solve the riddle of these poems for you, or give you any great insights, it might help if I made some comparisons, told you who I think Wallace Stevens wrote like, or who has been influenced by him. I see Homer in his work, strangely enough, but there is Homer in everything. I see some Rilke; and Paul Celan, who had a similarly deconstructive [destructive?] style. Also, the great Australian curmudgeon Patrick White wrote longform Wallacean novels. Finally, William Gass is clearly a fan, with Wallace’s rhythm and alliteration serving him well.

an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.

Maybe soon I’ll figure this stuff out, these gorgeous words strung together concussively, and then I can come back and make myself sound ultra brainy and kick sand in the faces of every other poor fucker still struggling to make sense of it all. For now, however, I want to conclude with my favourite poem from Harmonium, one of my favourite poems ever in fact:

Domination of Black

At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
Came striding.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry — the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?

Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

Check that the fuck out. Amazing.

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