W.F. Lantry on Visiting Stevens

"One must have a mind of winter": In 1932, Stevens purchased this 1926 Colonial Revival style house in Hartford, living there until his death in 1955.

VISITING STEVENS

My world is real, but it is not yours. In mine, small electric devices are engraved with lines from Stevens: “The single artificer of the world.” We were in Vermont, and driving home. Shirley was with us. We had to go through Hartford.

Her brother lives there, and Martin. She suggested we stop. Why not? We dropped Shirley off, at a teahouse in the park, and drove to The Hartford building. I expected something reminiscent of the palm at the end of the mind. It wasn’t like that at all, just another square building. He’d made it all up, in his imagination.

I am a yeoman as such fellows go. At least the GPS had brought us here. I called her Mandy, and she spoke to me. James was just learning to read. We parked in the shade.

It surprised me. People were just going about their daily lives, taking buses, ducking inside the church, pushing babies. I felt a little ridiculous. I wanted to jump up and down, shouting, “Honor the poet.” But he was part of the landscape now.

James found the first stone. Kate read it aloud to him. Then she asked me to tell him what it meant. What was I supposed to say? “Among twenty snowy mountains, the only moving thing was the eye of the blackbird.” Try explaining that to a young boy just five, on a hot August day, with the traffic loud behind us. Google it, adding the word ‘meaning’ to the title in quotes, and you’ll see the problem. It was easier to explain the man.

“He used to walk to work every day, and he’d think about the poems when he was walking.” “Could he write on paper when he was walking?” “No, he just thought about stuff. Maybe he wrote it down when he got there.” We were moving along. It was all a mystery, dropped into the center of the everyday. But James had seen the first one, and knew the form. He easily found the next.

So we settled into a rhythm. James would find a stone, Kate would read it, and ask me to explain. My mind was drifting elsewhere. I was beginning to understand him in a way I hadn’t before. I always figured his life was like a sea surface full of clouds. Of course, the street looked different back then. But the elements would have been the same: people, vehicles, trees. The lions would have been fresh, the wrought iron fences unrusted. Behind us, they were rebuilding the cathedral.

So I talked to James about that. Five is a very practical age. He asked, “How can you build a cathedral with just words? Don’t you need stones?” “Like these?” I said.

“Yes,” he said, finding the fourth. Now he was used to the ritual. Kate read it. He turned to me. “You know how you and me and your mom are always together? That would make you the blackbird.” He liked that. It made the poem real to him. Not just a bunch of words chipped into stones that were smaller than he’d imagined. A kind of referential mystery, that he could understand and make his. From then on, he struggled to enlarge his conception of the thing, taking the message of each marker into account.

He couldn’t always get it to make sense. But then, his world doesn’t make sense. There’s this thing, and that thing, and things simply are. There aren’t any grand ideas. There’s just the thing itself. It’s his own private discourse. And there, every cause is indecipherable.

He liked the idea of birds walking around between the feet of the women. That scene he’d seen before, although usually with sparrows. He was just learning to rhyme.

We crossed a river, more like a creek. The bridge was pretty old. “Did he even walk through here in the winter?” “Maybe,” I said. “I think sometimes he took the bus.”

Some of the properties had been sold. They must have looked good back then, when the gardens were still kept up. Now they were a little rampant, the hedge lines untrimmed, the pathways undefined. It got harder to locate each stone. We were moving into the suburbs.

We became less anonymous. Instead of being people striding the avenue, now we were walking between the homes. We were mistaken for intruders. I saw a figure in an upstairs window moving the curtains. We’d become objects of fear, something out of the ordinary.

The churches had grown much smaller, but the houses had multiple chimneys. Some had hand laid brick walls. James wanted to rest under a tree. Hard to blame him: it was hot, and by that time we’d been walking an hour. Then he was up and running, weaving between the shrubs, the markers, the poem forgotten. It seemed appropriate. At last, we stood in front of the home.

I used to live on the Avenue Henri Matisse, in Nice, renamed after the painter who spent a single summer there. In fact, as you walk around the town, there are plaques everywhere, honoring some poet or painter, and people get their pictures taken in front of them. It’s a different world, not ours, exotic and mysterious.

There was no mystery here. The house is just a house. There was a garden behind it, but I couldn’t see it from the sidewalk. He’d made it all up, sometimes from that upper room, or sometimes just walking along that street.

So we walked all the way to the tearoom in the park, where we met Shirley again. We had water and iced tea inside. A few nibbles of whatever they had. I took James outside to the pond, and we watched the ducks. There were a few swans moving about, but the scene was mostly geese. Someone had told me he liked to come to this place, maybe on Saturdays. Why not? It was a constructed paradise in the middle of the city, as real as anything else here. Even the swans were real.

***

W.F. Lantry, a native of San Diego, won the CutBank 2010 Patricia Goedicke Prize and the 2010 Lindberg Foundation International Poetry for Peace Prize in Israel. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Prairie Fire, Literal Latté, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Now Culture and The Wallace Stevens Journal. He currently works in Washington, DC. and is a contributing editor of Umbrella: A Journal of Poetry and Kindred Prose.

3 thoughts on “W.F. Lantry on Visiting Stevens

  1. This is many varieties of fascinating, but firstmost is how the plain text record of the visit furnished forth the materials for the artwork “Pilgrimage” and how this site, plain in its way, was worked up by WS likewise into artworks that have become realer than personal memories for many of us.

  2. Thanks for your comment. This is exactly right. The experience, the poem, the prose, are like three corners of a triangle. The interest is in the lines, or in the blank space between. His daily walk, plain as it was, seems to have been the space that made the poems possible, even if Key West is far removed from Hartford.

  3. Pingback: “One must have a mind of winter”* | Baroque in Hackney

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