Friday, May 21, 2010

"Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird" by Wallace Stevens

For many weeks now a sole blackbird has been singing outside our window, morning and evenings. Sitting in one of the large trees it keeps unfolding its neverending and everchanging repertoire of variations over the present.

The colour black was never more fitting than on the hue of this bird. The deep peace the blackness promises keeps flowing from its orangish beak, and the rich silky texture of a deep and quiet layer of existence unrolls itself from its tones. They give me the sense of liquid black.

Wallace Stevens gives a series of haiku-like interpretation of the blackbird in this poem.

You don't know where the blackbird ends and silence begins.


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs


This poem was published in Stevens' first collection of poetry, Harmonium - from which "The Wind Shifts" also comes.

Like the blackbird, Wallace Stevens is circulating the stillness and emptiness ("When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / of one of many circles" is one example). The whole tone of this poem seems to me that of simplicity emerging from a deep spring, just like the blackbird's song does.

And then there is the mysteriousness of the unwordable sensations the black and the blackbird evokes in us: "The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying." This I can very well understand, but can I explain it? It's like that other poem of his, "The Plain Sense of Things" -  "The great pond, / the plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves, / Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence/ of a sort". How do you explain the plain sense of things? You don't, you sense it and know it directly. In the same way existence plays itself out. 

Poetry and other kinds of art keep circling the circumference of something much more mysterious and deep than we tend to know, in this way hinting at a vast unspoken dimension. Wallace Stevens' take on the blackbird does this so beautifully and obviously that I probably don't need to write another line about it.


Alina said...

Nice blog... I am happy I came across it, and look forward to more posts!

I guess of the "13 ways of looking at a mocking bird," my favourite is number 11. So unsettling...

Alina said...

blackbird, of course :-)