I first learned about Wallace Stevens in a grad school class where the assignment was to select one of his poems to explicate. I deliberately chose “Sunday Morning” because it was difficult, and I wanted a challenge, and I certainly was not disappointed in the least. Stevens is a perfect example of a Modernist poet who wrote about the world in an intellectual, impersonal, and objective manner. His vocabulary was tremendous, his attention to even the slightest detail was incredibly precise, and his themes were extremely thought provoking, sometimes to the point of making my head hurt. There are many times where his ideas seem to be just within my grasp, but then suddenly they evade understanding again, making me often wonder if he was being intentionally obtuse. Consider this statement from The Poetry Foundation: “Because of the extreme technical and thematic complexity of his work, Stevens was sometimes considered a willfully difficult poet.” Yes indeed. At least I know it’s not just me.
I’ve wanted to use one of his poems as the subject of a blog post for quite a while, but I’ve had trouble coming up with something that I could sensibly relate to my favorite themes of loneliness, loss, and love. It also had to be a manageable length, and not all that well known, with mountains of literary criticism written about it, so that I could be sure that the interpretation of it would be my own. Stevens first important poems were published in 1915, but his greatest fame came after he released The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens in 1955, which contained nearly everything that he’d written, along with a new group of poems under the title of “The Rock.” The following poem is part of that collection.
Vacancy in the Park
March . . . Someone has walked across the snow,
Someone looking for he knows not what.
It is like a boat that has pulled away
From a shore at night and disappeared.
It is like a guitar left on a table
By a woman, who has forgotten it.
It is like the feeling of a man
Come back to see a certain house.
The four winds blow through the rustic arbor,
Under its mattresses of vines.
I wish I could ask you what you’re thinking! Vacancy is a tricky word, right? The very concept of it is defined by the absence of something. We only know that a room is available at a hotel if there is no one occupying it. Similarly, in an empty landscape, we can only know that someone has walked across the snow because their footprints remain, and yet they are gone. This idea goes one level deeper because it’s March, and before long the snow will melt and even the footprints will be erased. We wonder what it is that this person was looking for. In the next six lines, Stevens offers three similes that relate back to seeing those footprints in the snow, all of which are about something that was present, but is now gone. There is a boat that we’ve seen, but in the morning it has disappeared, and the idea of the boat becomes replaced with the idea of its disappearance. There is a guitar left on the table, but the idea of it, and the music that it might have played, are replaced by the idea that it has been forgotten, and therefore silenced. There is a man who has come back to see a certain house (notice that Stevens does not use the word home) and he has the same feeling as the unseen narrator who tells us about the footprints: something was there that is no longer. In the final two lines, we’re taken back to the present moment. There is an arbor, the traditional symbol of home and the hope that a married couple has for their future, but it is empty, and overgrown, with nothing but the unseen presence of the wind rushing through it. It too is something that once was, but is no more, made even more significant by the fact that “the four winds” are blowing through it, the biblical metaphor for the idea of spiritual truth.
What are we to take from all this? There are moments that we all experience where we’re drawn back to a time or a place that exists only in our memories. There is no way for us to return; in fact, if we dwell on the thought of it too much, we’ll begin to view our life in terms of vacancy, or the absence of what we no longer have. Time can be a hard concept to fully understand. It seems to exist on a continuum, because we have the ability to remember and anticipate, but the only moment that is truly real is the present, and that is always slipping away into the past. This is the spiritual truth that is revealed at the end of the poem. Depressing? Maybe. But remember that Stevens is a Modernist who believed that poetry and literature could restore the hope that the very act of living sometimes takes from us, while also helping us to make sense of the things in the world that can be so difficult to understand. His poem gives us an objective observation that seems disheartening at first, yet the very act of reading it, and interpreting it, and becoming aware of its meaning in our lives, has the effect of raising us above that bleakness. And that would have been his very intention.
For today’s cocktail, I decided to take a drink that I made called “A Perfect Fit,” that was based on a very romantic notion, and remove the grapefruit juice. The absence of that one particular ingredient created a brand new cocktail that was certainly different from the original, yet still very good in its own right. It is is defined by vacancy. That concept was so important to today’s post that I hope you’ll forgive me for not using wine as an ingredient. I had to subtract and not add. I used a zinnia in the photo because it symbolizes the idea of someone or something that is missing. Cheers everyone. Happy Monday!
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and stir until very cold. Strain into an old-fashioned glass over one large cube. Express a grapefruit peel over the drink and garnish with it. Enjoy!