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The Emperor of Ice Cream

Posted by acdtest on May 31, 2003

The Emperor of Ice Cream

t a suggestion of mine of some weeks ago, weblogger Aaron Haspel of God Of The Machine takes a crack at an explication of Wallace Stevens’s cryptic poem, The Emperor of Ice Cream. As, unlike Aaron, I’m no student of poetry, I offer him my gratitude for his effort. However, neither my gratitude nor lack of qualification will prevent me from disagreeing in parts with Aaron’s take on this superb and enigmatic poem, which goes,

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

My first disagreement with Aaron is on a general point of approach to poetic analysis. Aaron asserts that in an attempt at such analysis, “pillaging the poet’s life and [other] work[s]” may be “useful.” To my way of thinking, such an approach is a cardinal error in the analysis of any artwork. Such an approach is not only never useful, but often times can be positively misleading. Any work of art worthy of the name is always self-contained in the sense that it contains within itself everything necessary for its complete understanding, even when it alludes or points to something outside itself to convey or capture meaning.

And so it is with this Stevens’s poem, notwithstanding Aaron’s,

I also recommended pillaging the poet’s life and work, should it prove useful. Here it does. Stevens was a wealthy and cultivated man who knew Key West well, which is probably where this poem takes place, since ice-cream was commonly served at funerals. His poetry has a single theme: hedonism. For Stevens all is illusion but immediate sensation. “Let be be finale of seem” means “Abandon all effort to give meaning to existence, and take what comfort you can from the roiling life around you.”

None of this is useful in understanding TEoIC, and in fact can lead the reader to a central misunderstanding as it did Aaron, which misunderstanding will become apparent as this little piece proceeds.

Aaron objects to Stevens’s use of what he (Aaron) calls the “imperative tense.”

[T]he poem is snobbish: Stevens invites the reader to sneer at the characters of the poem as from a hill. It is written entirely in the imperative, except for the last line of each stanza, to some unspecified hearer. Imperative tense, used this way, enforces distance: when the boxing announcer says “Let’s get ready to ruuuumble!” you can be sure that you (or he) won’t be doing any rumbling, personally. Stevens takes special pains to remove himself, and his reader, from the scene, the better to hold his nose.

But Stevens neither “hold[s] his nose” nor employs “imperative tense.” The entire poem employs the rhetorical device of apostrophe, giving the work an urgent force and weight it otherwise would lack. The poem’s tone is elevated, but is absent so much as a trace of “snobbish[ness]” or nose-holding.

So, what is this enigmatic poem about anyway, and what is it saying?

The first thing that arrests one (this one, at any rate) is the striking duality embodied in the poem’s two-stanza totality. The duality of Eros and Thanatos, of Life and Death, existentially (and psychoanalytically) considered. The unrestrained libidinous exuberance of lines 1-3 of the first stanza:

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

in resonant and polar opposition to the ashen morbidity of lines 4-6 of the second:

And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

And then the homely details of ordinary life and custom at this homely and ordinary wake — of the living in lines 3-6 of the first stanza:

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.

and of the dead in lines 1-3 of the second:

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once

And then the kickers; first, in the closing two lines of the first stanza:

Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

and last, in the closing two lines of the second:

Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

both of which closing couplets refer to the same thing.

We’re at a wake. But despite what a wake is (the “seems”), it’s not death — which is an ending — that should be our concern, but the will to the here and now (the “be,” which is always a beginning) of vital, superabundant, ongoing life with its “concupiscent curds”, which will should always be “the finale of [every] seems,” even a seems such as this, and on which will the “lamp” (i.e., the sun) should “affix its beam,” so that we may the more clearly see that it’s truly “the only emperor…the emperor of ice cream,” which is the life force itself in all its rich and overflowing concupiscent yumminess.

Or something like that.

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