Saturday, August 21, 2021


The angled, honey-yellow afternoon light has taken on the aspect of autumn, and the shadows of trees have begun to lengthen across the evening fields.  Yet still the swallows skim, swoop, and curve just above the dry meadow grasses.  Once again, the time has come to visit my favorite poem of August.

       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 (Alfred A. Knopf 1942).

I will not attempt to pick apart this thing of beauty.  Long-time readers of this blog may recall my position on these matters: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  As it happens, it appears that Stevens may share my view: "once a poem has been explained it has been destroyed."  (Wallace Stevens, letter to Hi Simons (January 9, 1940), in Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1966), page 346.)  However, despite this statement, Stevens wrote several letters to critics and translators responding to their inquiries about what certain of his poems "mean."  This gives me license to offer two tentative thoughts. First, it may be helpful to recall Stevens' references in "An Old Man Asleep" (which appeared in my previous post) to "the two worlds": "the self and the earth."  Second, think of "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" and "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" (which also appeared in my previous post) as a lovely, complementary pair.  The self and the earth.

But we mustn't get carried away.  Consider this.  "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" was first published in the October, 1937, issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  Five months earlier, Stevens wrote this in a letter: "One side of my bed there is nothing but windows; when I lie in bed I can see nothing but trees.  But there has been a rabbit digging out bulbs: instead of lying in bed in the mornings listening to everything that is going on, I spend the time worrying about the rabbit and wondering what particular thing he is having for breakfast."  (Wallace Stevens, letter to Ronald Lane Latimer (May 6, 1937), in Holly Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, page 321.)  A rabbit.  Just a rabbit.  Or not.

Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"

On a hot and windless afternoon, birdsong nearly ceases.  The swallows vanish.  But, if you walk beside a meadow, you can hear the clicking and crackling of grasshoppers, unseen, jumping in the tall grass.  If you enter a dark wood, you may notice rustling in the bushes beyond the path.  The source of the sound remains a mystery. Everything is in its place.

                         One Almost Might

Wouldn't you say,
Wouldn't you say: one day,
With a little more time or a little more patience, one might
Disentangle for separate, deliberate, slow delight
One of the moment's hundred strands, unfray
Beginnings from endings, this from that, survey
Say a square inch of the ground one stands on, touch
Part of oneself or a leaf or a sound (not clutch
Or cuff or bruise but touch with finger-tip, ear-
Tip, eyetip, creeping near yet not too near);
Might take up life and lay it on one's palm
And, encircling it in closeness, warmth and calm,
Let it lie still, then stir smooth-softly, and
Tendril by tendril unfold, there on one's hand . . .

One might examine eternity's cross-section
For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection?

A. S. J. Tessimond (1902-1962), Collected Poems (edited by Hubert Nicholson) (Bloodaxe Books 2010).

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "The River" (1924)

"To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time."  To "examine eternity's cross-section/For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection."  Easier said than done, of course.  All of the ordinary days intervene.

"I wonder if you are haunted to the extremity that I am by this half-peaceful half-fretting sense of the incessant insecurity & fugitiveness of everything.  Every moment of the present wears a vaguely surmised suggestion that it is only pretending, that the conspiracy is just coming to an end.  I always seem to be on the brink of something; & so the future is hateful because it can't possibly come, or if it does, will only lead to other futures that can't.  And I long to get things over, to have them safe in memory -- beyond the guessings of foreboding and anxiety.  Even you are almost best in memory, where I cannot change you, nor you yourself."

Walter de la Mare, letter to Naomi Royde-Smith (April 24, 1911), in Theresa Whistler, Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare (Duckworth 1993), page 183.

De la Mare wrote the passage in the letter the day before his thirty-eighth birthday.  In his eightieth year, this poem was published:


The longed-for summer goes;
Dwindles away 
To its last rose,
Its narrowest day.

No heaven-sweet air but must die;
Softlier float,
Breathe lingeringly
Its final note.

Oh, what dull truths to tell!
Now is the all-sufficing all
Wherein to love the lovely well,
Whate'er befall.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1953).

De la Mare died in June of 1956.  Eleven months prior to his death, he said this: "My days are getting shorter.  But there is more and more magic.  More than in all poetry.  Everything is increasingly wonderful and beautiful."  (Theresa Whistler, Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare, page 443.)

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)


Anthony Hill said...

Beautiful consolations again, thank you. To my shame, I have never heard of Tessimond even though he went to school across the River Mersey from where I live, and he went to our university. What a fine piece that is from him.

Always Stevens, of course, but your regular references to de la Mare have led me to recognise his graceful poetic mind and the compassion he had for us in the world. That he should have shown such capacity for joy so close to death is very touching.

GretchenJoanna said...

You are breaking my heart! How is it you can find three extravagantly sweet and evocative pieces, then be wildly generous to give them all on one day?? I will need many days merely to begin to absorb them.

It's a pleasure to know you here. Now.

Esther said...

Stevens worrying about the rabbit eating the bulbs brings to mind Edna St. Vincent Millay's Hyacinth.

"...On nights when the field-mice are abroad he cannot sleep:
He hears their narrow teeth at the bulbs of his hyacinths.
But the gnawing at my heart he does not hear."

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hill: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post.

That's a nice coincidence that Tessimond was from your part of the world. No need to be ashamed of not having heard of him: I happened upon him solely by chance in an anthology (I forget which one) some years ago, which led to me tracking down his work. The poem by him that is usually anthologized is "Where?," which includes the lines: "Perhaps your country is where you think you will find it./Or perhaps it has not yet come or perhaps it has gone.//. . . Perhaps you will find it where you alone can see it,/But if you can see it, though no one else can, it will be there,/It will be yours." I was lucky to stumble upon him. He is unjustly neglected. The edition of his Collected Poems that I cited in the post appears to be readily available. I highly recommend it.

As for de la Mare: I cannot say enough about him. My affection for him has continued to grow over the years. By the way, I was delighted to recently discover that Faber published a new book about him earlier this year: Reading Walter de la Mare by William Wootten. It contains a selection of his poems, nicely annotated with background information by Mr. Wootten. Given the state of culture these days, I was heartened that Faber would undertake such a venture. There are occasional glimmers of hope.

As ever, thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

GretchenJoanna: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you so much. It's always wonderful to discover that the poems I am fond of may resonate with others as well. My sole purpose in being here is to bring these beautiful things to the attention of others, and it is humbling and gratifying when they find new homes. I am only the messenger.

With respect to the three of them appearing together, it was just happenstance. I have been revisiting Stevens and de la Mare the past few weeks, and "Now" popped into mind after a visit to "A Rabbit." Then, for some reason, Tessimond's poem bubbled up. You've heard me say this before: when it comes to poetry, one thing leads to another. At a certain point in life (if one's memory holds), perhaps all the things floating around inside us begin to make connections now and then, begin to sort themselves out. One can only hope. In any case, I'm pleased you like the poems.

Thank you very much for stopping by again. I hope that all is well with you and your loved ones.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: That's an unexpected connection! As I said in my response to GretchenJoanna's comment: when it comes to poetry, one thing leads to another. This is a perfect example. Thank you for sharing it: it is new to me. I tracked the poem down on the internet, and discovered the preceding two lines: "I am in love with him to whom a hyacinth is dearer/Than I shall ever be dear." Ah, yes.

It's always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again. I hope you are keeping cool in the intolerable August heat of Japan. (But I recall the sound of the semi with fondness, as well as the sight of an occasional glowing hotaru beside a river or stream.) Take care.

Esther said...

"The intolerable August heat of Japan" is correct! There was a strangely cool week earlier in the month when the country was inundated with rain, but the temperature and humidity are back up now, the much-appreciated cicada have been dropping like flies, and people are in the throes of "natsu-bate" (drooping from the summer heat). However, the evening bell crickets give us hope that autumn will eventually be here.

If you saw hotaru, you must have been near some good-quality water! We have kingfishers on our local river, which is also a good sign, but I have yet to see any hotaru there. We do sing about it frequently in Japan, as you may know, since the Japanese version of Auld Lang Syne (sung at year's end and every imaginable closing ceremony) is called Hotaru no Hikari (The Light of the Firefly).

In your replies I sometimes sense a wistfulness for Japan, and hope one day you can visit again!

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you for your follow-up thoughts. Yes, I suppose there is a wistfulness in my thoughts about Japan. I am no doubt romanticizing a lost world and life of nearly 30 years ago. Who knows how I would feel if I were there now? But I do hope to visit again some day.

Regarding seeing hotaru, I lived in Tokyo (in Kinuta) for a year, but during that time (and on several subsequent visits) I had occasion to stay in Mitaka. The house where I stayed was located near Nogawa Kōen, and I often went for walks or runs along the Nogawa. As you know, "rivers" in Tokyo usually flow in concrete channels. However, the Nogawa did have some short bucolic stretches within the park. At that time, the park had an area near the river which was a nature preserve, with a meadow, wetlands, and trees, and an effort was made to provide a habitat for fireflies. This is where fireflies could be seen. (Not in the numbers that they can be seen in the countryside, of course.) Whether that area is still there, I don't know.

Thank you very much for the reference to "Hotaru no Hikari," which I wasn't aware of. I found a version of it on YouTube: lovely.

Thank you again for your further thoughts.