The book is The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. I think it’s everyone’s favorite book, isn’t it? I was surprised that no one had picked it as a Safety Book before I did. In one of my first meetings with Graham Foust at St. Mary’s he said, “What are your favorite books?” I turned to his bookshelf, pointed to the collected Stevens and said, “I love that book,” to which he said, “Well, that’s the book.”
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
I first encountered the poems in high school probably—definitely by college. The first poem I can remember reading is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and then “The Plain Sense of Things.” I’m sure “The Emperor of Ice Cream” whipped his way in pretty early too. However, it’s more important when I first found my copy of the book itself. This happened when I was cleaning out my parents’ house the summer after my mother passed away, which was also the summer I moved to California to do my MFA. I was making boxes to put in storage because the plan was to sell our house, which would likely happen while I was away at school. I came across the heavy, thick, hardcover, 1976 edition as it was lying face up in a stack of books in our basement. I noticed the WS and gold emblem on the cover and could immediately sense the book’s importance.
The book, the object itself, has some sort influence on me. It does seem to be as Stevens writes, “the planet on the table.” It’s not only that being in the presence of the book calls to mind the great poems therein—poems we all aspire to write, but the specific thing provides comfort to me. It was my mom’s book. She held it when she was alive and read the poems. She read them before she was married—when she still had her maiden name, which is written in perfect cursive in the front cover. I am reading it during the same time in my life—unwed, young, my life ahead of me. She wrote comments in the margins, and now our handwriting rests on the pages together. What stands out in my mind as I write this—in the margin of “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” she wrote “Love is the fruit of life.” I later wrote in the same space, “Think about memory when you read this poem (and love of course).” Though we never spoke about the book while she was alive, I think we are in conversation when I read it.
I hope Stevens has influenced my work. I hope I pay attention to sentences, (“We must endure our thoughts all night, until / The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.”) to sounds, (“Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan”) to a word that pops out of the poem and stays with you (“quotidian,” “brune,” “concupiscent”). I hope I place a jar in Tennessee and it makes the reader cock his head and wonder why—that I trust the world of the poem. I don’t ever want to shy away from moments like “catches tigers in red weather.” Stevens goes for it every time. I fail and fail in my writing, but his poems are perfection to return to and begin again.
There are specific poems I’ve written to imitate his. I wrote a poem about honeybees when I first started writing that is sectioned like “Thirteen Ways . . .”. I also did an imitation of “The Planet On The Table.” Both poems eventually had to be dragged out back and shot. Although, a Stevens word did make it into my forthcoming, first book. The word is “scritter.” It’s a sound word that I stole from “Autumn Refrain.” My poem, “A Lack,” sort of attempts to deal with the problem of Stevens’ poem. It has to do with what is lost in the space between the thing, the word for the thing, and the sound of the word for the thing—that old, elegiac game. Also, my poem has a rat in it, which I can’t think of without thinking of the rat in “The Plain Sense of Things.”
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
My favorite poem in the book, and maybe my favorite poem of all poems, is “Large Red Man Reading.” It begins “There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases . . .” It goes on to notice the things of our world that would make it worth returning to, “the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips / among them,”—the details that make a poem true and real. The ghosts returned to hear the reader read from “the poem of life” and would have “wept to step barefoot into reality.” But also, the poem is about reading itself—the time we give ourselves to dwell entirely in our imaginations. The book changes color (from blue to purple) and is given life as the reader reads it. The poem becomes an argument for what we do and for the importance of poetry.
I remember a conversation I had with my mom in the days before she died. I asked if she was afraid. She said she wasn’t afraid to die, but she was afraid of how much she was going to miss being in the world—the sunsets, the time she spent in her garden, reading in the bathtub, setting the table for a party. Her response feels so much like this poem to me. We are lucky to be part of the world, and we are lucky that it offers itself to our imaginations. Whatever happens to us in our lives, these poems remain. In this way the passage of time feels necessary and natural, not scary at all. When I open this book, the house is quiet and the world is calm. Since this is Rescue Press, it’s worth noting that if my apartment were burning down, I wouldn’t be running into the flames to rescue my mom’s wedding ring . . . if you know what I mean.
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I think all the poets I know have a copy, at least they should. I think I’m going to anonymously put it on the desk of one of the commercial real estate brokers in my office. That’d be someone to give it to.
Bio: Sally Delehant is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California’s MFA program. Some of her work can be found in Calaveras, Columbia Poetry Review, The Cultural Society, Catch Up: Emerging Writers Issue and iO: A Journal of New American Poetry. Her first book of poems, A Real Time of It, is forthcoming from The Cultural Society in spring/summer 2012. She lives in Chicago.