Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Domination of Black

I’ve been reading a fair bit of Wallace Stevens recently. I’ve always liked Stevens. I don’t know of any body of poetry that sounds better than his. The precision of his thought, the scope of his imagination, and his manipulation of rhythm put most poets in the shade.

All these qualities are important to the success of Domination of Black, from Stevens’s first collection, Harmonium, which he published in 1923 at the age of 44.

The poem requires the reader to see a fire with the colours of leaves turning in a room, peacock tails in a fire, and loud hemlocks. Normal expectations must be suspended. However literally the images are expressed, the description goes beyond a literal scene, and it goes straight to the heart like a barbed arrow. The overarching approach of night, fear, death – whatever it all amounts to – dominates the poem, and it’s hard as a reader not to feel a chill creeping down your back.

The rhythms are wonderfully effective. Consider the lines:

RePEATing themSELVES,
TURNED in the ROOM,
Like the LEAVES themSELVES
TURNing in the WIND.

Look at those two short syllables in the middle of the first of those lines, followed by the thumping long drawn-out ones, with a line-break stretching out 'selves/turned' further still, and then more anapaestic (short-short-long) syllable sets broken by the near-repeated 'selves/turn' once again on the bridge of third and fourth lines. The ‘turning’ gains emphasis from the controlled rhythm and continues to do so throughout the poem. It’s brilliant writing.

Repetition is integral. It creates a sense of inevitability, an increasing weight of doom, a mesmorising force. The hemlocks have an aura of death. Those peacocks with their awful cry act partly as a warning, partly as protest, partly as helplessness. And yet the poem is so beautiful.

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.

4 comments:

sefton said...

From the Can't Win For Losin' category...

Wallace Stevens' wife, Elsie, was lovely enough to be the U.S. mint's model for the Mercury dime in 1915, and the rumor was that she never forgave him for the release of Harmonium, because it contained a few poems she believed were written for her eyes only.

Ms Baroque said...

Well done, Rob! I promise I hadn't read this when I posted, erm, exactly the same picture of Stevens today... He is a lifelong hero of mine and that poem is mesmeric.

Rob said...

Fantastic story, sefton!

Katy, your articles on Stevens are really good. Check them out, everyone.

Colin Will said...

Thanks for this Rob (and Katy). Stevens is one of those poets by whom one can be influenced without trying to imitate. Stylish, but never allowing style to dominate content.