A POSTCARD FROM THE VOLCANO
Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;
And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
There had a being, breathing frost;
And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt
At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion-house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky
Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look
And what we said of it became
A part of what it is … Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,
Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,
A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.
Wallace Stevens’ A Postcard From The Volcano
Poetry lends itself to nostalgia. Words---like pictures, sounds, smells, and other sensory perceptions---trigger memories. At my cousin Kenny’s wedding this past weekend I spent time with extended family members. It is always special to share updates and swap old stories, but I’m partial to the stories or phrases that remind us of the family members that are no longer with us. A simple word, such as Zulch, immediately and vividly conjures up my grandfather. I can picture him eating the jiggling, brown gelatin meat dish one holiday after another, imploring the rest of the family to join him. It didn’t matter to him that the cow’s brain was primarily used to make Zulch, but to us it did. I’m thankful for memories like this and the weight that a single word or phrase can carry within an entire family.
In Wallace Stevens’ A Postcard From The Volcano words are majestic treasures, especially when coming from the mouths of the next generation. Stevens frames the poem with a complete first tercet. He sets up the characters (children and the collective “we” narrator/speaker), he introduces the primary conflict (time’s relentless cycles), and he supplies a stunning metaphor ( “our bones…these were once / as quick as foxes on the hill”). This thoroughness is not a rarity within Wallace Stevens’ poetry. His writing was lyrical and imaginative, thoughtful and experimental, story driven and sound driven. It would be fair to say that Wallace Stevens endeavored to stretch himself as a poet like a child stretches a piece of taffy.
Many lines from A Postcard From The Volcano have made their way into my memory bank. The distant story and the direct address are balanced nicely in this poem, provided Stevens’ lines to have their maximum impact. For example, the third stanza, chock full of ideas, is nestled tightly between two image driven stanzas. “with our bones / We left much more, left what still is / The look of things, left what we felt.” These lines jump off the page and nearly jump out of the poem. It is a declaration of fulfilled experiences to future generations. They are to carve out their own places in this world, but not before knowing they owe much to their ancestors, much more than they might believe possible. The past generations, for which Stevens becomes a spokesperson in this poem, are naturally creators. Stevens mentions a specific mansion in the wind and summarizes “We knew for long the mansion’s look / And what we said of it became / A part of what it is.” Through their words, the act of naming and describing, they crafted the essence of their times and, as aging requires, they bequeathed these accomplishments to the children growing rapidly into the places they previously occupied. These children, as Stevens points out, “Will speak our speech and never know.”
It might be true that every word, sentence, and paragraph has been written before. It might be true that original ideas are nearly impossible to come by these days. And it just might be true that we owe our art to the generations that preceded us, especially the most recent generation for continuing the traditions and styles. Still, don’t we also deserve credit. We recognize the “mansion” just as others have before us and we don’t shy away from describing it because Wallace Stevens or some other writer, actor, musician has described it as “A dirty house in a gutted world, / A tatter of shadows peaked to white, / Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.” There’s no rule stipulating that only one poem can be written about nightingales, sunsets, marching bands, or a host of other topics. The world would be a bland and uniform place is this was true. Fortunately for us, we have words, tethered to our memories, collectively supplied by our ancestors---immediate and ancient. Because of the generations before him, Wallace Stevens was able to write this poem, shining a poetic spotlight on the diminishing emphasis of gratitude to our ancestors, both blood and artistic. And in a small way, this brief essay continues the fight that Wallace Stevens took up with this poem, a fight he was almost certainly continuing for someone else before him.