Saturday, October 02, 2010

`The Quiet Art of Keeping Calm the House'

My brother sent a photo he shot from outside through the rear window of his garage. The time is before sunrise, the framing night is black and the light inside warm and pale yellow. Hanging in the window like a Halloween decoration is a large orb-weaver in black silhouette. My brother wrote “arachnavoyeur” on the subject line of his e-mail. Visible inside, in what was once our father’s welding shop, is a book opened on the workbench, a coffee cup, paint can, brushes, pictures pinned to the wall. My brother paints here and reads before dawn.

My first thought on opening the picture was neither a personal memory nor anticipation of Halloween. Rather, the warm colors, the open book, the welcoming scene, reminded me of a well-known poem by Wallace Stevens, “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” (Transport to Summer, 1947). J.V. Cunningham called it “one of the perfect poems” (in “Tradition and Modernity: Wallace Stevens,” The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham, 1978). Today is the birthday of Stevens, born in 1879, and here is the poem:

“The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

“Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

“The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

“Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

“The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

“The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

“And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

“Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.”

Rereading it, I realized I had forgotten Stevens sets the poem in summer. I had, instead, composed a shadow-poem in memory, set in harsh, black winter. I was also struck by how often Stevens renders scenes of reading – probably the reason I thought of the poem when seeing my brother’s photo. I admire Stevens but often have little idea what he’s getting at. This poem is not in the jokey, flamboyant key of his most admired work, but suggests a sober mind at work. Cunningham explains my preference for “The House Was Quiet…”:

“There is no fiddle-dee-dee here. The setting is ordinary, not exotic. It is about a man reading alone, late at night. The phrasing is exact and almost unnoticeable. The style is bare, less rich than `Sunday Morning,’ but with this advantage over that poem, that none of its effect is drawn from forbidden sources, from what is rejected. The meter is a loosened iambic pentameter, but loosened firmly and as a matter of course, almost as if it were speech becoming meter rather than meter violated. It has in fact the stability of a new metrical form attained out of the inveterate violation of the old.”

Helen Pinkerton uses the first line of Stevens’ poem (and the third line and title) as the epigraph to “On Gari Melchers’s Writing (1905) in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002):

“How often did she make such quiet, one wonders,
This woman writing at a covered table—
Full summer light warming the roseate hues.
Mauve, red, and pink of dress and cloth and room.
A Wedgewood pier glass shows three Roman figures
In ritual dance—cool neoclassic Graces—
Beside a clay pot of geraniums.
Her taste eclectic—like our modern lives—
Loving the past but settled in the living.

“She seems meticulous—even, perhaps,
Like Edith Wharton, passionate for order,
Feeling, as she did, that in house and novel,
`Order, the beauty even of Beauty is.’
Stevens, though you sought order in the sea
And grander heavens, the threat of nothingness
Unmanned you. Most women have no time for such,
For fate constrains them to immediate means,
The quiet art of keeping calm the house.”

Like Cunningham, Pinkerton once was a student of Yvor Winters, and in both we hear a common-sensical, quietly iconoclastic echo of their teacher. Pinkerton’s is a nice revisionist reading of Stevens: “the threat of nothingness / Unmanned you” makes me laugh. There is a flamboyant, overdramatized quality to some of Stevens’ angst, all that “poetry is god” business. Famously, he worked as an insurance company executive, but did he ever cook a pot roast, vacuum a rug or dust the book shelves? Someone has to light the lamp and get the kids to bed:

“The quiet art of keeping calm the house.”


WAS said...

The woman tries to shame the man into doing the dishes, mocking how it must be nice to have the leisure time to philosophize, as she writes down her every thought about the meticulous, expensive and pointless detail she luxuriates in. To make sure she is understood, she even accuses him of being lost, an atheist without a flock: “the threat of nothingness / Unmanned you.” So there!

The man tries to evade his henpecked state by doing his thinking in the tower, in the middle of the night, when her prattle cannot disturb his metaphysical precision. She is at the center of his thought, though, always, and at 3 o’clock in the morning, like magic, the perfect rejoinder comes, one that allows him to gobble up all her high-toned Christian fascism like a python consumes a pig: “The quiet was … The access of perfection to the page.” It is silence, not chatter, woman, that is Heaven, it is here as Jesus said, in the interpenetration of book, summer and mind, not in that fancy perfumed place you call a church. (He, of course, could never say any of this to her in person, he didn’t want to piss her off, after all).

The next morning, at breakfast, they are civil as usual. He even offers to beat the kitchen rug.

Who knows what thoughts lie beyond the words in the book on the table? The spider do!

Edward Bauer said...

This has long been one of my favorite Stevens poems, but I had never seen the Cunningham comments. The poem has always connected in my mind with Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" and summed up the similarities and contrast between two of my best poets (as Elizabeth Bishop would put it).

Thanks. I'm looking forward to the rest of the real poetry month.

ken kurp said...

The book is Helmut Newtons autobiography.