‘Tis the Stevens

December 7, 2012

The closest feeling to those anticipatory Christmas Eves of childhood comes courtesy of Wallace Stevens. I find myself often reading Stevens in the winter and especially over the holidays, when the pairing of Stevens’ chilly voice and those spices of sound connect so well to the Christmas atmosphere. As a child, the strange notion that Santa Claus actually entered my home and left gifts under our tree filled me with both a giddiness and that special detachment that comes with the suspension of disbelief (as a child, I had no evidence that Santa could be real—even if I didn’t know the laws of physics and was scientifically ignorant, I had never seen anything but a bird fly and knew how tight our chimney flue was). I kept myself distant from the reality to preserve the illusion. In other words, Santa Claus resisted my intelligence, as Stevens said a poem should. Now, I read Stevens with the stillness of anticipation, expecting the impossibility of the verse, believing it despite not understanding it. From “Snow and Stars”:

The grackles sing avant the spring
Most spiss—oh! Yes, most spissantly.
They sing right puissantly.

Perhaps I read Stevens this time of year because his poems reflect the only type of Christmas atmosphere I can endure: mostly solemn, mostly isolated, and if there is to be cheer, it must be diluted thoroughly into the first two attributes (The hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” encapsulates this dynamic). On Christmas Eves the midnight ritual at the Episcopalian church of my childhood was somber, liturgical, and ornate. During the candlelit mass, I groggily sang from the hymnal while the robed clergy led the congregation. Despite experiencing the heights of anticipation (Christmas morning was just hours away), it was all incredibly peaceful, too. And dark. I think many of Stevens’ poems reflect this solemnity and peace, “The Snow Man,” a particular holiday favorite, especially.

Christmas is still a time of expectation, of long-waiting, and of solemn, low-grade cheer for me. Our cheeks grow rosy with the cold. We have our families and our homes, but the very act of gift giving reflects a perpetual lack in, or limit to, our lives. Stevens’ poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” reflects the familial solidarity I feel during the holidays. It is wistful, mysterious, and humble. Its deliberate tercets deliver a complex syntax that makes reading it aloud a lovely, private carol. It is a poem of candlelight and warmth against the cold, of the private experience of togetherness that embodies this season:

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

Ben Glass

Benjamin Glass lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and daughter. His work appears in Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Unsplendid, and The Wallace Stevens Journal.

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