BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
So, okay, for starters, a deserted island book should be long. And sure, it should be complicated enough to make it worth reading and puzzling over again and again. Of course it should be both dense and entertaining in nearly lethal doses. But how about this? I want to be able to read it in any order I like, flip it open to any page and start anew, as if the first sentence my eyes landed on were the beginning of a whole new book, without any loss to the coherence of the whole.
It would also be nice if the book gave me something to do other than simply reading it for comprehension, a project beyond finishing it and then finishing it again. I’d like a book I that leant itself to memory, something with a little form and rhythm, so I could read it and read it until I knew it by heart.
That’s right. I’m talking about a book of poetry. Specifically, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.
I like to make an occasional plug for poetry here on C4 because: (1) I’m told no one reads poetry these days, and (2) I do. More than that, I’d like to make a case for memorizing poetry, a practice that strikes some as old-fashioned and others as outright masochistic. And it’s both, but there’s also a lot more to it than that.
Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is one of the first poems I ever memorized. It’s also one of the first poems that ever made me really angry. My high school creative writing teacher assigned it. I was supposed to be able to recite it and say something about it the next time we met. So I read it:
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In the kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
And then I read it again. It still didn’t make any sense. I blundered through my assignment, memorized the poem and babbled about it in my next class, but I still had no idea what it was about. I was disappointed in myself, frustrated with Stevens, and when the assignment was over, I was ready to forget the whole thing.
The problem was I couldn’t forget it: the coarse alliteration of c’s and k’s in the opening lines; the repetition of long e’s; the surprising details—why “last month’s newspapers”? Once I’d memorized it, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” stuck in my brain like a splinter.
Over time, something started happening. Every once in a while, something in the world around me would brush against the poem in my brain, and I’d feel a pinch of recognition. Shopping for tag-sale furniture, I remembered “the dresser of deal”; watching a Law & Order morgue scene, I remembered “her horny feet protrude… to show how cold she is, and dumb.”
Little by little, the world began explaining the poem to me. An image emerged of a poor woman lying dead in an otherwise mundane scene, neighborhood people standing around, unsure what to do with themselves, looking for something to cover her with, the speaker searching for the profound in all of it.
And who’s the Emperor of Ice-Cream? Or what? I don’t know (and a number of critics I’ve consulted can’t seem to agree either). The poem still holds a lot of mysteries for me, but there it is, in my head, waiting for the world to give it meaning. And in turn, sometimes the poem tells me something about the world around me, when the two match up unexpectedly. They enlarge each other.
Consigned to a deserted island, I’d want the world in my head and the world around me to be as expansive as possible. The more I’ve thought about it the more convinced I am that Stevens’s Collected Poems is the perfect choice: over five hundred pages of some of the 20th century’s most innovative poetry, filled with short lyrics, perfect for perusal between dreamy bouts of staring at the ocean, and longer narratives and poems in suite for periods of greater focus.
More than that, Stevens’s work is marked by all manner of formal games, meter, repetition, irregular and internal rhyme, musical elements that lend themselves to memory. I’m not sure I could ever open my mind enough to fit it all in, but it’s a challenge I’d gladly accept with nothing but time on my hands. I imagine walking laps around the island, mumbling verses to myself, listening for something new in them, looking for something about the island I’d never noticed before, and stopping occasionally to recite “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” to some hermit crabs, trying to get a rise out of them.