Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts by Wallace Stevens

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten on the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone—
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

I am, generally speaking, a prose man. Though I love poetry, novels are my preferred reading materials, and so my strongest connection to Wallace Stevens' incredible "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" is to John Updike's Rabbit, Run tetralogy, to one of which it provides an epigram. I don't remember which book, and I don't remember which stanza of the poem, because the two complement each other so well. Updike's Rabbit Angstrom is an egoist, whose sense of self is so strong it overpowers his concern for those around him; Stevens' rabbit is experiencing a Rabbit-like moment in which its self has become the supreme thing in the universe. I don't believe that Updike wrote the first book with this poem in mind, but the connection is uncanny.

Stevens was, with Frost, probably the eminent American poet of the 20th century*, and gains a slight edge as his poetry is more typical of that century than Frost's. He deserves such eminence. Has anyone ever made eight common words sound as emphatic or transcendent as "Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk?" How subtly Stevens slips "green mind" in between two ordinary descriptors ("red tongue," "white milk"), as if it were nothing more than the rabbit's observation of colors. But the rabbit is more observant than that; it knows that the enemy cat has a "green mind" fertile with schemes, among them, making the rabbit his dinner.

Really there is no conflict between the two; they never actually interact. It isn't clear whether the cat even knows the rabbit exists. But one of these is certainly triumphant, its triumph an inner triumph: For whatever reason, in this moment the rabbit's sense of self becomes so strong that it seems to expand, obliterating the cat, sending it to the moon. The words are unusual but the feeling, I think, is familiar--that once-in-a-blue-sensation that you are invincible, can do no wrong, nothing can stop you, even death, whether you are actually challenged or not. Rabbit Angstrom has this feeling:

Becky, a mere seed laid to rest, and Jill, a pale seedling held from the sun, hang in the earth, he imagines, like stars, and beyond them there are myriads, whole races like Cambodians, that have drifted into death. He is treading on them all, they are resilient, they are cheering him on, his lungs are burning, his heart hurts, he is a membrane removed from the hosts below, their filaments caress his ankles, he loves the earth, he will never make their mistake and die.

The feeling may be, as it is in Rabbit's case, erroneous, but that doesn't make it less powerful. Who doesn't long to "feel that the light is a rabbit-light / In which everything is meant for you / And nothing need be explained?"

I love "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" because it provides a strong counterpoint to Frost's "Desert Places." Frost looks inward and sees a wasteland, but Stevens' rabbit finds glory and strength. You may argue which is the better poem, and which is truer, but not which gives more personal satisfaction.

*If you call Eliot British.


Unknown said...

Looking for the poem "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts," I came across your blog, and enjoyed your thoughts about the poem, one of my favorites for years. I've read Updike's short stories (including some excerpts from the Rabbit novels published in The New Yorker) and a couple of his novels. Liked the stories better than the novels. Now that you've connected with this poem with the Rabbit novels, I want to read them. Thanks.

Stephanie Barbe Hammer said...

yeah, he's good isn't he? thanks.