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Sunday, 25 April 2010

Wallace Stevens: Ghost Town

File:Bodie Ghost Town Storm.jpg

It is as if we had stepped into a ruin and were startled by a flight of birds that rose as we entered. The familiar experience is made unfamiliar and from that time on, whenever we think of that particular scene, we remember how we held our breath and how the hungry doves of another world rose out of nothingness and whistled away. We stand looking at a remembered habitation. All old dwelling places are subject to these transmogrifications and the experience of all of us includes a succession of old dwelling places, abodes of the imagination, ancestral or memories of places that never existed.


Wallace Stevens: from Two or Three Ideas, a lecture on Baudelaire's La Vie Anterieure, given at Mt. Holyoke College, April 28, 1951 (in Collected Poetry and Prose, 1997)

Storm clouds over Bodie ghost town, California
: photo by Photographersnature, 2009
Mask found in window of Bodie, California ghost town school house: photo by Tahoenathan, 2009




Never have read this, thought it was yours until I read the 'caption' -- reread it and heard the Stevens' words ("whistled away," "transmogrificatins" and his voice as he might have read it on that occasion, almost 61 yrs to the day ago. . . . Hungry quails outside on the table now, feeding. . . .


first light coming into sky above still
shadowed ridge, robin calling on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

nature of body, which other
bodies then free from

run in direction of, second
system, present point

cloudless blue sky to the left of point
sunlit white of terns circling overhead

Elmo St. Rose said...

given the desensitization of the
modern imagination, the poets
will appreciate the California
ghost town images.....the rest
of the world needs, Hiroshima,
9/11, or the swath of yesterday's
tornado in Mississippi, or in other
words some temporal loss to the enth power
to appreciate Wallace Stevens'words

Curtis Roberts said...

This is a very good description of most of my dreams, at least salient aspects of them. I’m unsure about the ancestral part, however, but maybe that’s just me (and my ancestors). This must have been some lecture.

TC said...

The context of Stevens' remarks is a line from Baudelaire which Stevens points to as an evocation of "an idea of an earlier life":

J'ai longtemps habité sous de vastes portiques

(I lived, for long, under huge porticoes.)

The scene of a huge loss might be loud, but then again it might be quiet.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Tom (& Curtis),

Thanks very much for this. There's something archetypal about this image of Baudelaire's that Stevens focuses on. Dream, archetype, and past life ... the realm of the collective unconscious. Interesting, Curtis, that you immediately identified this as dream landscape for you.

You've sent me scurrying back to Stevens ...


TC said...

Curtis, Don,

Yes, certainly, much is evoked in these few sentences, archetypes, dreams, past lives, former habitations, absences where something may or may not have been...

For me dreams (like periods of deep sleep, their origin) are more and more infrequent now, but of those that do come, the proportion spent in exhaustive efforts to relocate elusive or prohibited or otherwise lost former habitations (or even more elusive imaginal habitations that never existed) grows more and more remarkable. And haunted, and melancholy.

Stevens relates this sort of mental searching to the making oneself open to the poem.

Of course in that regard, being a Baudelaire or a Stevens would probably give one a leg up.

TC said...

Here is the Baudelaire poem from Les Fleurs du Mal, with an English translation by William Aggeler (done in 1954, approximately contemporary with the Stevens Mt. Holyoke talk):

La Vie antérieure

J'ai longtemps habité sous de vastes portiques
Que les soleils marins teignaient de mille feux,
Et que leurs grands piliers, droits et majestueux,
Rendaient pareils, le soir, aux grottes basaltiques.

Les houles, en roulant les images des cieux,
Mêlaient d'une façon solennelle et mystique
Les tout-puissants accords de leur riche musique
Aux couleurs du couchant reflété par mes yeux.

C'est là que j'ai vécu dans les voluptés calmes,
Au milieu de l'azur, des vagues, des splendeurs
Et des esclaves nus, tout imprégnés d'odeurs,

Qui me rafraîchissaient le front avec des palmes,
Et dont l'unique soin était d'approfondir
Le secret douloureux qui me faisait languir.


My Former Life

For a long time I dwelt under vast porticos
Which the ocean suns lit with a thousand colors,
The pillars of which, tall, straight, and majestic,
Made them, in the evening, like basaltic grottos.

The billows which cradled the image of the sky
Mingled, in a solemn, mystical way,
The omnipotent chords of their rich harmonies
With the sunsets' colors reflected in my eyes;

It was there that I lived in voluptuous calm,
In splendor, between the azure and the sea,
And I was attended by slaves, naked, perfumed,

Who fanned my brow with fronds of palms
And whose sole task it was to fathom
The dolorous secret that made me pine away.

billymills said...

He was a funny bundle, WS, wasn't he? Lawyer, businessman and serious flake. I love this paragraph, Tom, having never read it before. Thanks for sharing.

TC said...


There's another, slightly more extensive bit from the same talk to the probably mystified college girls, in amongst the mysterious disappearances here.

About the "flake" part of your characterization... one can always dream, I guess.

TC said...

By the by, speaking of Stevensian ghosts -- can't get it out of my "mind" (?) that the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens modeled his design for the head of Liberty on the US 1936 Mercury dime... on a profile portrait of WS's wife Elsie Kachel Stevens.

Along with the fact that the reverse side of the coin was a fasces, that ought to clear everything up nicely.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Baudelaire poem very interesting in light of your dreams. Reminded me of both Hermann Hesse and James Wright, particularly Wright's little volume of Hesse translations simply entitled "Poems." Nearly every poem concerned with home or homesickness.

Home, where we are all eternally attempting to return.

As a brief aside, I've often wondered at the lack of translations of Hesse's poems. He considered himself a poet first and evidently produced many volumes. In English, there is only the Wright volume, "Hours in the Garden," "Crisis," and "Wandering," all very slim volumes, indeed, and long out of print.


TC said...


Have been poking around a bit for Hesse links.

You probably know of the Hermann Hesse Project website, managed it seems by a retired UCSB professor, Gunther Gottschalk.

One of the sub-links there, to a gallery, makes note of a 2008 exhibition of this Hesse watercolour.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Yes, I am aware of Gunther's excellent Hesse site. Back in early 2000, I actually moderated a group book discussion on the Glass Bead Game on the site.

The watercolors are beautiful. One of the first books I bought on amazon the first year they went up with an oversized German produced paperback of maybe 15 or 20 of the watercolors. They had it listed on their site and when they said they couldn't get it, I insisted and they imported it. Won't be getting customer service from them like that now - one and one emails with somebody who actually knew books.

I guess they won't be translating anymore of his poems into English in this lifetime unless there is some kind of unlikely revival. I've recently re-read much of the work and it holds up. Though his 60's popularity brought him to the masses it probably was the association with that generation that always marginalized him as a writer here.

Imagine - marginalizing a Nobel Prize winner.


TC said...


The question that naturally comes to mind: why not have a hand at it yourself (if, that is, you haven't done that already)?

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Yes, I've thought of that myself. Know only one poet who translates German and though I discussed the Hesse situation with him, not much interest evinced.

The translations I've published over the years have come to me either as submissions or via a great ongoing relationship with Dennis Maloney, over at White Pine. I'm about to publish a 4th volume of his translations from the Japanese - this time Yosano Akiko. Perhaps I'll ask him if he has any thoughts on this, since he does so much in the realm of translation via White Pine.

If you have any thoughts about how best to proceed, let me know. You can always drop me a line at lilliput review DOT com, if this strays a bit from topic here.

In any case, thanks for stirring the brain up in this direction. It would be something of a dream come true, as honestly is the forthcoming Yosano Akiko and was the Issa volume I published a few years back.

What a blessed life this can be.