The Emperor Of Ice-Cream

January 8, 2017

Lawyers are all crazy in their own, malevolent way and Wallace Stevens wasn't the exception. Boringly earning his paycheck at an insurance company throughout most of his life, in his "spare time" he got into a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway, badmouthed Robert Frost to his very face, and wrote one of the most majestic poems in the English language, i.e. 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.

 

Aesthetically, this poem rolls out of the tongue with a musicality which is frankly inebriating. Anachronisms aside, it melts in the mouth like edible jazz and it is so well crafted it grows into you with every read. However, when peaking beyond its stunning looks, it has an underbelly which carries what matters about life. For a posh dude like Stevens, this is quite an achievement. Just picture it: a wake with body present in a crumbling apartment in the most sordid area of town, badly shaven Oliver Twist-like characters with awful teeth and hookers all there, unconsciously realizing that we are all going to die and, therefore, the only thing that matters is to give oneself to the sensual enjoyment right here and right now. At that's the symbolism that matters, i.e. ice-cream is cold, like death, but it is also decadent. It clogs your veins but, oh gosh, it's almost as good as a good shag.

 

I've found no trustworthy reference but my feeling is that Stevens read or instinctively knew the same Freud spoke about in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. And while the drive to live is defined by not being the drive to die, and vice versa, the paradox is that the more you step on the gas pedal the quicker you will die. When Stevens says "let the light affix its beam" he's basically saying "let's cut the crap", and hammers it in for a second time: the goal of life is death so do whatever you want with that knowledge, I'll stare at the eyes of death with a big, fat cigar in my mouth, a saucy vixen sitting on my lap, and laugh abut the absurdity of it all.

 

There was fire inside Stevens. His words and life walk that thin line between extreme order and extreme chaos. I am quite surprised, honestly, that he checked out at 75 and in such a bourgeoisie manner.

 

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