The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In 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 the 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.

-- Wallace Stevens

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(image by Anthony Ventura)

I was inspired to post this poem on A|N after serendipitously discovering it through this commentary by Ron Smith, and especially reading his thoughts on the line "Let be be finale of seem".

[...] The characters are no doubt Christians who see themselves as helping their sister into the Beyond. But their actions have a significance their minds refuse or simply fail to comprehend. The poem’s exuberant speaker pretends to make them aware of this other, deeper significance. [...]

Stevens’s insistence on the reality of death is well established in his prose and other poems. His “be” is death. His “seem” is therefore life? No. Stevens’s “seem” is life only in the sense of eternal, ongoing life. That’s the illusion. “Let be be finale of seem” means something like “Let yourself accept the fact that consciousness and identity end with biological death.” To deny death’s solid reality, Stevens believes, is to lie to oneself. [...]

In “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” death is not the mother of beauty, he’s the father of parties. The Emperor is not life, despite that emblem of life, ice-cream. The Emperor is also not death, despite ice-cream’s archetypal coldness. The Emperor is Life-in-the-Face-of-Death, intensification of life because of death.

The quite literal festivities of a wake embody the poet’s deepest belief: Because this is the only life you’re going to get, because the finale is death—yes, seize the day. Celebrate the old lady. But don’t pretend she’s not dead. Her death gives the party its life. But, again, why the Freudian cigar man filling female cavities? Why wenches and boys? Because as Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois will say, the opposite of death is desire, carnal desire—at least in Williams’s greatest play and in this poem. Which is to say, the opposite of death is vitality. Vulgar vitality? Yes, and all the more vital for its vulgarity.

So it’s not a light-weight, frivolous poem at all, even if its appeal to the ear is elemental and immediate [...]

But in these touchy, doctrinaire times, we can imagine another objection. Why would you want to teach a kid a poem that denies the afterlife and endorses hedonism? I think we can dismiss this objection. It’s like objecting to Halloween because of its pagan significance, its pagan essence.

(Cruelly snipped here, with ellipses hiding whole screenfuls of worthwhile reading; emphasis mine. Please look at his whole piece!)

We'd have no reason at all to apologize for teaching a kid a poem that celebrates the value and the pleasures not of an imaginary afterlife, but of actual life!

This is Wallace Stevens spoofing poets, Ron Smith spoofing critics, or Grinning Cat spoofing Atheist Nexus folk.

Thanks for the explanation of how Steven's poem connects to a wake. It was too deep for my brain.

Thanks for the poem. I'm a big Wallace Stevens fan. 

Interesting analysis.  I think those at the wake are wenches, wearing everyday clothes, and boys because the dead woman is poor.  "Deal" is a cheap kind of furniture, and her dresser is missing some knobs.  Her feet are "horny," meaning callused, from going barefoot, and they stick out from under her embroidery.  No one is wasting extraordinary amounts of money on flowers and wrappings or burial shrouds; the boys bring flowers wrapped in old newspapers.  The cigar man has to be muscular because cranking an old ice cream maker by hand wasn't easy.

Stevens once said the he considered ice cream an "absolute good" and that he used "concupiscent" just because he liked the sound of it.

The poem, I think, suggests that death is an everyday thing, not an emperor, and belief that death is a temporary sleep leading to resurrection, is an illusion.  The only emperor is the pleasure, embodied here in the absolute good that is ice cream.



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