Ago 31, 2014

Notes on Wallace Stevens’s "The Emperor of Ice Cream"

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.


D— This is carnival-speak in the first stanza, almost a step-right-up! "Let be be the finale of seem." Comes in, a surprise among surprises, how we make the carnival, the poem, the emperor real by the sheer power of "Let," by entering into it (as taking "from the dresser of deal.")

I hope others chime in soon as this is such an intricate "sheet" you spread for us here.

D— It seems to me the backstage ("dresser") or the admin office ("deal"). The "she" is a puzzle for me, though I have some ideas... but perhaps following you, alas, no AHA moment. That "sheet" too: is it fabric or paper, music sheet, contract, or bed sheet (or poem)? Need we entertain sheets in ice-cream making, like that paper rolled around the cone? But anyway, putting it over her face like that, for protection maybe (though markedly insufficient) or for the preservation of something? Notably, it seems she is not at all absorbed by her design, her fantails so close to her face that she most likely won't be able to see them. But visually, for the reader, the design encompasses her, save for the protruding feet.

On those feet, they're part of the seeming now, the design. As the fantails are, in the duration of the poem, a part of the being of this "she" (for we know more of this sheet than of the character, as if even in words she is covered by it).

An off-tangent: that lamp which somehow counters cold/dumb reminds me of the hot lamp (peri-light) they use on the mother's wound postpartum.

A— i've been avoiding reading the second stanza as a deathbed scene, though in many ways it is, with the sheet over the face, cold, dumb, so forth. maybe because i'd like to see something else other than capital D death in the emperor of ice cream. because if that's the case, then i think 'let be be the finale of seem' means that only death is real, or nothing but death takes us beyond performance, seeming, projecting. thus: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream."

D— Yes, it's another Stevens poem. And what a title coming from the maker of "The Idea of Order at Key West"! Looking forward to your take.

D— Aside from the fleeting taste and density, the surprising inclusion of ice cream seem to involve other things: children, childhood, leisure, Sundays. I am reminded of the Buddhist meta-parable where the father uses enticements (toys, carts) to draw his children out of the burning house.

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