Journeying through the world, --
To and fro, to and fro,
Harrowing the small field.
Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 290.
I'm content to harrow my small field.
Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975), "Studio Window" (1934)
Here is another way of looking at it: are any of us the same person we were a year ago? Who knows what revisiting a poem might reveal? Thus, each year I beg your indulgence as we revisit a rabbit in August, "the most peaceful month."
A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts
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 in 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.
Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (1942).
I've lived with this poem for 35 years or so, but I am not able to "explain" it. I once made a feeble attempt at "explanation," which may be found here, for anyone who is interested. But I confess: the first time I saw the title, I was certain I would love the poem. And that's how it turned out.
There's no accounting for these things, is there? At a different level, I feel much the same way about, for instance, Glen Campbell singing "Wichita Lineman," circa 1968. Some things find their way to you and just stay with you. But there is a single thread that winds through them all.
I acknowledge that some of you may regard the poem as nonsense, as a trifle. I completely understand that reaction. But I would gently suggest -- without twisting your arm -- that you give it time, let it revolve in your mind for a while. Come to think of it, that goes for "Wichita Lineman" as well.
Josephine Haswell Miller, "Winter Afternoon"
The following poem features a more down-to-earth rabbit. It is a compendium of the lineaments of rabbit-hood. Or so it seems.
The Rabbit's Advice
I have been away too long.
Some of you think I am only a nursery tale,
One which you've grown out of.
Or perhaps you saw a movie and laughed at my ears
But rather envied my carrot.
I must tell you that I exist.
I'm a puff of wool leaping across a field,
Quick to all noises,
Smelling my burrow of safety.
I am easily frightened. A bird
Is tame compared to me.
Perhaps you have seen my fat white cousin who sits,
Constantly twitching his nose,
Behind bars in a hutch at the end of a garden.
If not, imagine those nights when you lie awake
Afraid to turn over, afraid
Of night and dawn and sleep.
Terror is what I am made
Of partly, partly of speed.
But I am a figure of fun.
I have no dignity
Which means I am never free.
So, when you are frightened or being teased, think of
My twitching whiskers, my absurd white puff of a tail,
Of all that I mean by 'me'
And my ludicrous craving for love.
Elizabeth Jennings, After the Ark (Oxford University Press 1978).
Jennings admired the poetry of Wallace Stevens (although I am not suggesting that "The Rabbit's Advice" owes anything to "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts"). The following poem by her sheds some light on what Stevens was generally up to.
(Homage to Wallace Stevens)
Wonder exerts itself now as the sky
Holds back a crescent moon, contains the stars.
So we are painters of a yesterday
Cold and decisive. We are feverish
With meditations of a Winter Law
Though Spring was brandished at us for a day.
Citizens of climate we depend
Not on the comfortable clock, the warm
Cry of a morning song, but on the shape
Of hope, the heralding imagination,
The sanguine making and the lonely rites
We exercise in space we leave alone.
Prophets may preside and they will choose
Clouds for a throne. The background to their speech
Will be those fiery peaks a painter gives
As a composer shares an interval,
As poet pauses, holding sound away
From wood, as worshippers draw back from gods.
Elizabeth Jennings, Growing Points (Carcanet 1975).
Stevens's characteristic vocabulary appears throughout the poem. "Meditation" and "imagination" are his talismans. "Winter Law" (line 5) may refer to "The Snow Man" (although winter is a recurring presence throughout Stevens's poetry). "Citizens of climate" (line 7) echoes Stevens's poem "The Poems of Our Climate." The lines "The sanguine making and the lonely rites/We exercise in space we leave alone" apply to the poetry of Stevens as a whole, but they also provide a clue as to what is happening in "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" in particular: "You sit with your head like a carving in space."
Josephine Haswell Miller, "Memories of the Sea" (1936)
As I have observed in the past, Stevens believed that the constant interplay between Imagination and Reality is the essential human activity. There is, however, a risk of coldness and abstraction in acting upon this belief. Stevens seemed to realize this in his final years. Consider the opening lines of "First Warmth": "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life/As a questioner about reality,//A countryman of all the bones in the world?"
Still, in a poem that was published one year prior to his death, Stevens returns to his great theme.
Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour
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, in 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.
Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954), in Collected Poetry and Prose (Library of America 1997).
The poem feels like a restatement and a reaffirmation of "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts." We are the rabbit: "The whole of the wideness of night is for you,/A self that touches all edges." And we are the interior paramour: "We make a dwelling in the evening air,/In which being there together is enough."
Perhaps these are abstractions, but, if so, they are deeply felt, profoundly moving abstractions. Think of what is at stake here: "We collect ourselves,/Out of all the indifferences, into one thing." What could be more human?
Josephine Haswell Miller, "The House on the Canal"