Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 8, 2006

When I come across a poem or movie that makes Mother Nature out to be merely sweet and benign in some sentimental humanized way, I think of Wallace Stevens's poem "Madame La Fleurie."

True love pays attention, and in his writing Stevens shows real, loving attention to nature. He recognized that the Earth is, indeed, our mother: We come from it. Earth is the lady of flowers, and we use it to describe ourselves and what we see, as though it were a looking-glass. But the Earth reflects our flowery sentiments or our stormy passions only in our imaginings: The flowers and the storms may supply part of the language of images that we use as a way of thinking, but that doesn't mean we understand them or know them. The flowers and the storms don't share our ways of being, nor do the birds.

The flowers and storms and birds all come to an end, as we do, but differently. Stevens concentrates on that difference in mortality. John Keats, a century before, had written in his "Ode to a Nightingale": "Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird;/No hungry generations tread thee down." The generations of nightingales, each bird singing the same way, don't eagerly replace one another with the individual hunger that Keats recognizes in human poets. Similarly, the generic, collective and plural "jay" in Stevens's poem do not remember the specific, individual blue jay of some particular time:

Madame la Fleurie

Weight him down, O side-stars, with the great weightings of the end.

Seal him there. He looked in a glass of the earth and thought he lived in it.

Now, he brings all that he saw into the earth, to the waiting parent.

His crisp knowledge is devoured by her, beneath a dew.

Weight him, weight, weight him with the sleepiness of the moon.

It was only a glass because he looked in it. It was nothing he could be told.

It was a language he spoke, because he must, yet did not know.

It was a page he had found in the handbook of heartbreak.

The black fugatos are strumming the blacknesses of black . . .

The thick strings stutter the finial gutturals.

He does not lie there remembering the blue-jay, say the jay.

His grief is that his mother should feed on him, himself and what he saw,

In that distant chamber, a bearded queen, wicked in her dead light.

The weirdness of that final image, its genuine but almost cartoon-like horror, has an exhilarating flamboyance. The "crisp knowledge" includes an awareness of our parent nature as life's great force of dissolution, as well as generation. This poem, with its grave yet jaunty manner, like a jazz funeral, pays Mother Earth the tribute of a fresh portrait. A wicked, bearded queen, in her dead light! The image is so startling it can make a reader laugh in recognition of its outrageous, irreverent justice. That response is like the audience's laugh of terror at a moment of shock in horror films, but with an added charge of reality.

In contrast to Stevens's ebullient toughness, attempts to sentimentalize the natural world as a good mommy, or a reflection of human life, or an allegory for ourselves are depressing because the thinking behind such efforts is slack and false. Stevens's poem, with its extravagant funereal strings, its verbal drums and trombones, cheers me up because its reckless energies all serve clarity of vision.

(Wallace Stevens's poem "Madame La Fleurie" can be found in "The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens." Knopf. Copyright 1954 by Wallace Stevens.)

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