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Asides on the Oboe -- Wallace Stevens

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul
(Poem #1652) Asides on the Oboe
 The prologues are over. It is a question, now,
 Of final belief. So, say that final belief
 Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose.


 That obsolete fiction of the wide river in
 An empty land; the gods that Boucher killed;
 And the metal heroes that time granulates -
 The philosophers' man alone still walks in dew,
 Still by the sea-side mutters milky lines
 Concerning an immaculate imagery.
 If you say on the hautboy man is not enough,
 Can never stand as a god, is ever wrong
 In the end, however naked, tall, there is still
 The impossible possible philosophers' man,
 The man who has had the time to think enough,
 The central man, the human globe, responsive
 As a mirror with a voice, the man of glass,
 Who in a million diamonds sums us up.


 He is the transparence of the place in which
 He is and in his poems we find peace.
 He sets this peddler's pie and cries in summer,
 The glass man, cold and numbered, dewily cries,
 "Thou art not August unless I make thee so."
 Clandestine steps upon imagined stairs
 Climb through the night, because his cuckoos call.


 One year, death and war prevented the jasmine scent
 And the jasmine islands were bloody martyrdoms.
 How was it then with the central man? Did we
 Find peace? We found the sum of men. We found,
 If we found the central evil, the central good.
 We buried the fallen without jasmine crowns.
 There was nothing he did not suffer, no; nor we.

 It was not as if the jasmine ever returned.
 But we and the diamond globe at last were one.
 We had always been partly one. It was as we came
 To see him, that we were wholly one, as we heard
 Him chanting for those buried in their blood,
 In the jasmine haunted forests, that we knew
 The glass man, without external reference.
-- Wallace Stevens
Every time I read Wallace Stevens I have the sense of being sucked into a
dream. There's the same impression of being faced with something immense and
urgent and terribly meaningful that lies just outside one's grasp. There's
the same feeling of derangement - the coming together of images that are
crystal clear and contradictory and yet strangely right together. And
there's the same sensation, coming away from it, that you have experienced
something truly profound, though what exactly it is you have grasped about
the universe remains elusive, impossible to articulate.

This poem, one of my favourites, is a good example. On the one hand it's a
poem rich with both sharp yet surreal images ("Clandestine steps upon
imagined stairs / climb through the night, because his cuckoos call") and
lines of such simple, aching beauty as "The prologues are over. It is a
question now, of final belief". On the other hand, this is an incredible
exercise in myth creation - Stevens gives us the philosopher's man (another
great figure to go with The Emperor of Icecream, the mountain-minded Hoon
and the man with a blue guitar): part Nietzschian superman, part Orpheus and
part cubist glass sculpture. It's this combination of language and myth that
makes this poem so incredibly multifaceted and beautiful - like staring deep
into the heart of a diamond or listening to a Bach fugue.

Steven's great gift, of course, is that he makes the figure of the
philosopher's man come alive so dramatically - both the vividness of the
image, and the credibility of the idea. If final belief must be in a
fiction, then it's hard to imagine a fiction more compelling than
this one.


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