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Friday, 6 August 2010

In the Valley of the Actuarial Kings


Pyramids of Giza: illustration in Egypt & Nubia / from drawings made on the spot by David Roberts ... ; lithographed by Louis Haghe. London, 1846-1849 (Library of Congress)

At night an Arabian in my room,
With his damned hoobla-hoobla-how,
Inscribes a primitive astronomy

Across the unscrawled fores the future casts
And throws his stars around the floor.

-- Wallace Stevens, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction

Odd dreams, after a lunch drowned in balsamic vinegar,
Trapped between his paunch and his retirement,
The executive poet, heavy in his Hartford hacienda,
Envisions -- while the constellations pour
Their intense lumens into his room with the familiar
Wild profligacy, almost as though
He had done something once to deserve them --
An Arabian in that endarkened Connecticut
Chamber, inscribing with his damned
Hoobla-hoobla-how a primitive
Astronomy from the unscrawled
Fores cast by a ruined augury
And throwing his stars around the floor
Like the marbles of a child who has too many toys
To count: the light-flood, supremely fictive
Night-spill of images beyond calculation,
The slide from star to pyramid to tomb
In the first valley of the actuarial kings
Already taking him, the emperor, with his
Damned ice cream wagon empire, down
And down -- down and down and down.

File:Graf Zeppelin over Pyramid2.jpg

Graf Zeppelin over Great Pyramid of Giza
: stereoscopic view by Keystone View Company, 1931 (Library of Congress)




Ah, such a a seamless putting together of the Actuarial King Poet in his Connecticut chambre and Louis Haghe pyramids followed by stereoscoptic Keystone View Co. view -- whew. And the words between the two views, as if WS himself were talking (but would he ever take himself "down/ And down -- and down and down and down"?

TC said...


Great question:

but would he ever take himself "down/ And down -- and down and down and down"?

Probably not.

Let me say first that this poem was not meant to be biographical. The Stevens character is a fictive character, not quite supreme.


Stevens' conception of poetry as the Supreme Fiction ("Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame") has always struck me as a conceptualization of a conceptualization, and as such the opposite of poetry -- even, indeed, the best of Stevens' own.

"To create something as valid of the idea of God has been," his stated purpose in this conceptuaization.

I think of him at the time of the writing of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, 1942, in his comfortable life as successful poet and vice-president of the Hartford, a company whose vast riches derived from the exploitation of human anxiety.

His entire life spent in the arms of a smug and comfortable WASP conception of reality as the conceptualization of itself. A registered Republican in a neocolonial mansion with a wife whose head graced the Mercury dime (coinage of the realm).

His fantasy of an "Arabian" in his room, babbling Arabian gibberish. Much as all Indians say "How", all Arabians say "hoobla-hoobla-how".

(Charlie Chan once noted that in the American restaurant, all the waiters seemed to talk the same Americanese gobbledygook...)

The whimsy of the conceptualization running up against the actuality of the moment.

The Depression, the War... how convenient these things never snuck into Wally's boudoir. Imagine the sorts of problematic babble that might have ensued.



Thanks for all this follow up -- didn't know that Elsie's head was on the Mercury dime (so he had connections in those places too). His "comfortable WASP conception of reality as the conception of itself . . . . [t]he whimsy of the conceptualization running up against the actuality of the moment" -- as it appears, here?


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, shadowed green of leaves lifting
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

starting to appear, not more
than those places where

in a picture, literal answer
is a figure, in a sense

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,
wingspan of gull flapping toward ridge


ps. that should be 8.7 . . . .

TC said...


No reference to present company intended!

In an essay-note on "the poetry of war" composed at about the same time as "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," Stevens suggested, to paraphrase, that history and poetry are ultimately divergent concerns, the former moving "in the direction of fact" and the latter moving in the direction of the imagination, "in endless struggle with fact".

How nice that would be for poetry, if it were true.

By the way, as to "down, down, down...": that implication of a declension, whether of Wallace Stevens' gastric contents or of the conceptual structures upon which his poetry is based, was suggested by the image of the Graf Zeppelin seemingly plummeting toward the Pyramids, observed by the several "Arabians", doubtless all babbling their senseless "howda-howda-hows":

in a picture, literal answer
is a figure, in a sense

And btw, on the subject of Stevens and all-too-literal hostilities, I've always been interested in the lore of his drunken Key West fisticuffs with Robert Frost and Ernie Hemingway. Such lonely-at-the-top real-life histories perhaps moving "in the direction of fact", where on the cultural level the return of the repressed often unsettles a too large lunch.

(I "understand" he often lost, and apologized later... though it seems that with Frost, there was a Round Two...)

Bowie Hagan said...


Some notes from Atlanta...

the streets stacked and roll'd
as the great and rumbling conception.

Men and women tried themselves at defense,
talk of the news

Pine trees, a quiet space
where they would be more defined

mushrooms here and there,
Dogs, suburbia

African-american culture,
Hills unto the plains.


Bowie Hagan said...


'plains' shd more properly be 'piedmont'.


Curtis Roberts said...

I've gotten a lot out of all of these exchanges, as well from the original post. Thank you (and I can't imagine a better description of the insurance industry's activities than "the exploitation of human anxiety"). I'm not vastly Stevens-aware, but I've always been stuck on the part about his career and residence in Hartford. When I was quite young, my father told me that Hartford was the cleanest city in America because the insurance industry only generated paper waste. (It really is quite a clean city.) About 10 years ago, I used to commute weekly by car from the Hudson Valley in New York to Boston and the "highlight", such as it was, of that incredibly boring drive was seeing the gleaming insurance buildings of Hartford at the halfway mark, which always made me think of Wallace Stevens.

Marylinn Kelly said...

I will be the voice of the literal naif here and allow myself to be captured by the zeppelin and the Great Pyramid. First, the image, then I will revisit the words.

TC said...


Good to have your notes from the humid hills and piedmont. If only we could take your Georgia weather and divide it by our grey-whiteness of fog we might come up with something like a civilized (?) happy (?) medium.


It seems amazing but in some sense it is indeed real: a nostalgia for good clean paper waste. (As I believe Francois Villon once said, where are the carbon copies of yesteryear?)


That makes two of us naifs. I too was captured by the Graf Zeppelin. Do you suppose that was an express or a local?

If the latter, one might have been able to yank the ripchord and descend gracefully onto the head of the half-buried Sphinx.

Elmo St. Rose said...

I'm ignorant

is Stevens contained
or unleshed?

TC said...

He's dropping, falling... like the blimp.