JULY 3, 2021
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For Susan Howe
In the metaphysical streets of the physical town
“In the metaphysical streets, the profoundest forms / Go with the walker subtly walking there.” This is Stevens in canto XI of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” Walking in this long poem is a vehicle for meditation and a trope for the writing of poetry. The figure works the other way around too: writing poetry is like walking in a city. In the case of New Haven, as Stevens said in a letter, a walk brings you into contact not with “grim reality but plain reality,” “plain” meaning daily and ordinary, physical and visible, apparent. The world as it is.
Beyond and behind apparent reality are Alpha and Omega, ultimate things and “profoundest forms.” New Haven was founded in 1638 by Puritans from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who desired to build a theocratic community, based in Mosaic Law. More than three centuries later, Stevens’s poem broods on the Puritan foundations of the city. History for the Puritans moved toward apocalypse and the ultimate reality of New Jerusalem. Stevens rejects the idea: “Reality is the beginning not the end, / Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega.”
The Quinnipiac River flows south into New Haven Harbor and Long Island Sound. In Hamden, just north of New Haven, it passes Hobbomock, the Stone Giant, a rock formation honored by the Quinnipiac. They called themselves “the original people.” “Quinnipiac” is an English form of another name meaning “place of the long water.” “Dawnland” was their name for the mountains, woods, and marshes they inhabited in present-day New England. Their treaty with the English settlers of New Haven made them possibly the first indigenous North Americans confined to a reservation.
The first planned city in North America, New Haven was laid out in a grid of nine blocks. The central block was the Green. Puritan city planners designed the area sufficient to accommodate the assembly of souls they expected to be saved at the Second Coming of Christ. The Green had a prison, church, school, cemetery, market, and grazing cows. When the capital of Connecticut was shared between Hartford and New Haven, the statehouse stood on the Green.
The Mende people of the Amistad rebellion were imprisoned in New Haven from September 1839 to August 1840 while their case was tried in District and Circuit courts. Local citizens paid a “New York shilling” each to see the Africans in the Church Street jail where they were held in a cage built for them. Periodically the captives were brought out on the Green for exercise. Today a statue of their leader, Joseph Cinqué, stands on the site of the jail in front of City Hall.
“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” is composed of 31 cantos, each of which consists of six three-line stanzas of unrhymed pentameter. The pattern meant nothing in particular to Stevens. To Norman Holmes Pearson, a Yale English professor, he wrote: “The essential thing in form is to be free in whatever form is used. A free form does not assure freedom. As a form it is just one more form. So that it comes to this, I suppose, that I believe in freedom regardless of form.”
In the 1960s, with a cane and a leg brace we bought at Yale Surgical after her second stroke, but still able to take the bus downtown, scraping her black shoe as she walked, my grandmother, who was born and lived her whole life in New Haven, spent her days sitting on a bench on the Church Street side of the Green, watching people and gossiping with other old women. For my grandmother, my mother would say, “The New Haven Green is the center of the universe.”
In 1979, I was a senior Yale English major living a mile from the campus. Out on the sunny bland avenue, I watched Harold Bloom punctually on Tuesdays walk to teach his class. He advanced a little tilted to one side, his shoulders sloping back, his eyes half-closed, and his mouth moving, without sound. His feet seemed to glide along rather than take steps. The effect was of a sort of ship. He seemed to be at once in the world — on foot, on schedule — and somewhere high and far away.
Stevens walked to his office at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. In his oral biography of Stevens, from 1977, Peter Brazeau quotes Florence Berkman:
Every morning, like clockwork, he used to walk down Terry Road about nine o’clock, just about the time I was standing by my kitchen sink. I’d always get a thrill. In the afternoon, he’d walk back, this very slow stride of his. Usually, if it was summer or good weather, I’d be outdoors with some of the neighbors’ children. I’d make them stop and look at him, and I’d say, “I want you to remember this is a great poet.”
When I was Bloom’s student in 1981, I worked so hard on my papers it was difficult to finish them. I dropped out of school and took a job as a copyeditor, until I was fired for the mess I made of a military history manuscript (topic: American munitions during World War II). Five days a week at 7:00 a.m., I lay on a psychoanalyst’s couch. Often I said nothing, or almost nothing.
Two weeks before he died, I visited Harold and Jeanne on Linden Street. Harold was strapped into a wheelchair. A nurse, the young Black woman who had let me in, sat reading in the next room, so quietly you could forget she was there. Harold’s face, always mobile and expressive, seemed clarified: a skull coming forward. As usual, copies of his recent books were stacked on the dining table. He took two and inscribed them for me, in his shaking hand, “with love.” But he never read those papers on “Resolution and Independence” and “A Child Is Being Beaten.”
By the time I became a Yale professor in 1987, Bloom visited the English Department offices only occasionally to collect his mail, accompanied by a student or assistant. There were rumors about his relationship with X, or with Y. He was very heavy at this point, and he liked to wear a baggy leather bomber jacket. One day, in the mail room, he saw me in a suit and said with surprising sharpness, “My dear, you look like you work in a bank.”
Across from the English Department on High Street stands Skull and Bones, one of the “secret” societies that enroll select Yale seniors — private clubs with their own property, endowments, and lore. The story goes that members of Skull and Bones broke into the grave of Geronimo, in 1918, and brought the warrior’s skull back to the society, where, according to one report, they exhibited it “together with his well-worn femurs, bit and saddle horn.”
Prescott Bush led the party of grave robbers, supposedly. Bush became a powerful banker and a United States senator from Connecticut. His son George served as director of the CIA, vice president, and the 41st president of the United States. George’s son George served for two terms as the 43rd president. The Bushes — three generations of Bonesmen.
I’ve walked past that crypt-like building, the color of dried blood, for more than 40 years, on my way to lunch or class. Usually I don’t notice it.
Stevens composed poetry while walking. Getting his body going must have helped him get his words flowing, a cadence coordinated with a stride. He reacted to his surroundings even as he remained at a remove, arranging phrases in his mind. Comma, clause, enjambment — one leg swings past the other, crossing the avenue.
Richard Sunbury, a mail boy in the office, remembers lunch-hour walks with Stevens: “He most always had some envelopes stuffed in his pockets, and he’d just pull them out and write on the back.” Then Stevens would give what he’d written to his secretary, Mrs. Baldwin, and ask her, “Would you run a transcript of this?” She returned with a typed sheet, saying, “I don’t know what this is all about, but here it is.” “She was an older woman,” Sunbury recalls, “and she was a humdinger.”
Stevens is a difficult poet, an intellectual poet, whose work broods on itself as it hovers above the real. The author of Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate is a difficult critic. There is a sense of Bloom competing with Stevens for the power that comes with the metaphysical view.
In seminar, Bloom didn’t lecture. He asked questions — often the same question, over and over. Sometimes he wanted to know what source was being echoed in a text. Comically, hands would go up and students would try out Bloomian favorites — Shelley, Emerson, Nietzsche? But more often what he was doing was not a guessing game. He was inviting us to join him in his reading of a text, to interrogate it with him, muse on it, and simply stay with it longer than we had thought possible.
There were no answers because he was reading for something that wasn’t there: what the text was silent about. Bloom says in his Stevens book: “A poem begins because there is an absence.” “Surface reading” and “distant reading” are fashionable techniques among literature professors today. Those were not Bloom’s method. But neither was it “close reading.” He was interested in white space, the fugitive, the repressed. John Hollander said to me once: “As a reader, Bloom has X-ray vision. He doesn’t notice the red coat you’re wearing, but he can see where your leg is broken.”
Stevens’s “Professor Eucalyptus of New Haven” seeks divinity “[i]n New Haven with an eye that does not look // Beyond the object.” The clumsy repetition of the city’s name makes fun of the literalism that fetishizes the words on a page. Close readers are too concerned with the verbal icon or well-wrought urn, text as object rather than occasion. They repeat what has already been said.
Eucalyptus: from the Greek, meaning “well covered.” Apocalypse is an “uncovering.” In this anti-apocalyptic poem, shadows and shadings are a good thing. Doublings and disguise. Spies have “cover lives.” An ordinary job allows them to do their real work in secret. The same may be true of poets. Think of T. S. Eliot, the banker, or Wallace Stevens, the insurance man. (See Hollander, Reflections on Espionage, 1976.)
Stevens was uncomfortable in academic settings, formal and informal. One evening he got drunk among a group of Harvard English professors. He tried to amuse them with “smoking-car stories,” until Walter Jackson Bate, biographer of Samuel Johnson and John Keats, stopped him with a scowl. “I’m afraid I’m not amusing you, Mr. Bate,” Stevens said. Bate barked: “You’ll have to be a lot funnier than that to make me laugh, Stevens!” Stevens turned red, and stopped talking.
He had an easier relationship with F. O. Matthiessen, Harvard’s great Americanist. They had dinner on occasion, and exchanged cordial letters, including one in which Stevens carefully explained his cryptic Florida-funeral-parlor poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”
Shadowed by the atomic bomb and a Cold War waged via arcane spy-craft, proxy conflicts, and domestic surveillance, the late 1940s were in some ways even darker and more threatening than the war years had been. Apocalypse is a motif throughout The Auroras of Autumn (1950), the book in which “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” was collected. In 1947, Matthiessen wrote:
All of Stevens’ later work has been written against the realization that we live in a time of violent disorder. The most profound challenge in his poems is his confidence that even in such a time, even on the verge of ruin, a man can recreate afresh his world out of the unfailing utilization of his inner resources.
Three years later Matthiessen fell to his death from a 12th-floor room in a Boston hotel.
The Harvard Crimson quoted the note Matthiessen left indicating his wishes for burial and his state of mind at the time of his suicide: “I am depressed over world conditions. I am a Christian and a Socialist.” “The evil thing, for him,” Stevens wrote to Norman Holmes Pearson, “was that he was a man of ideas who found himself being crawled over by a lot of people from a quite different sort of world. […] I was struck by the fact that he desired to be buried near his mother at Springfield, like a man left alone and intensely hurt by it.” Stevens knew that Matthiessen was being investigated by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, and that he was mourning for his companion of 20 years, Russell Cheney, who had died in 1945.
Cheney and Matthiessen, the younger man in the couple, graduated from Yale a generation apart. Their relationship was an open secret. Both men were members of Skull and Bones. When he climbed out of the hotel window, Matthiessen left his society key in the room.
Stevens spoke at Yale for the first time in 1948, at the age of 69, when Louis Martz, an English professor, invited him to lecture. Before the event, Stevens opened his briefcase and showed Martz how it was organized, with business documents on one side and poetry on the other. He read his essay “Effects of Analogy” and the poem “A Primitive Like an Orb.” He spoke in a voice so low no one could hear him past the third row. When someone asked him to speak up, he agreed, then lowered his voice further.
A faculty dinner followed at Pearson’s home. After it, Stevens worried that he had insulted Cleanth Brooks and his wife, Tinkum. Brooks was mystified when Stevens apologized to him a full year later. “I really was completely shocked and surprised,” Brooks said. “We had had a very pleasant conversation.” He thought Stevens a “true poet” because he let “his imagination oftentimes completely alter his picture of what a situation was.”
Pearson, a Yale graduate, came from a family that had settled in Massachusetts in 1639. He and his wife Susan lived on Goodrich Street in a Tudor-style house with a slate roof and casement windows built for the Winchester family in 1928. Susan Silliman Bennett’s ancestors included a line of Yale scientists on one side and the founder and subsequent presidents of Winchester Repeating Arms on the other.
The maker of “The Gun that Won the West,” Winchester began manufacturing in New Haven in 1871. The company was the largest employer in the city for much of the 20th century. As a high school student during World War II, my mother had a job on the assembly line, turning out the M1 Garand rifle, standard issue for American GIs.
Pearson served during the war in the OSS in London, then helped to organize the Central Intelligence Agency with his former student and OSS colleague James Jesus Angleton, who became the head of American counterintelligence. Pearson’s code name was “Puritan.” Angleton was a Yale English major and a Bonesman.
During the Second Great Migration, Black families from the American South moved to New Haven and took jobs in the Winchester factory as production expanded to meet the wartime demand. Winchester’s fortunes declined after the war, and the Irish, Poles, and Italians, who had held factory jobs for the first half of the century, moved to nearby towns, while redlining confined Black residents to the neighborhood around the factory.
New Haven’s guns had won not only the West but two World Wars. By the 1970s, guns were common on New Haven streets. One evening I opened the door of my graduate-student apartment, and the officer at the bottom of the stairs turned and pointed his pistol at me, his arms locked, as on TV. I put my hands against the wall and spread my legs. He relaxed a little when he saw we both were white.
The conditions that made guns part of daily life in the city have improved, but only so much. In 2017, the so-called Goodrich Street Boys, six men who grew up in the shadow of a factory that once employed 20,000 people, were arrested for a rash of shootings in turf wars with rival gangs. In the same neighborhood, in 2019, Hamden and Yale police fired 16 times at a Black couple who were sitting in a parked car, unarmed. The university employs its own police force, consisting of 93 officers and detectives. So far this year six people have been shot to death in New Haven.
Pearson’s home is currently advertised as a pre-foreclosure sale. Under “What I Love About This Home,” the realtor says: “Postwar CIA founded here.”
Spooks. Ghosts. The word entered American English from the Dutch in the 18th century. In the 1940s, it became a slang term for spies. Around the same time, “spooks” became, for whites, a slur for Black people — because they were shadowy, hard to see. Hard for white people to see.
Rickey Laurentiis’s poem “Of the Leaves that Have Fallen,” published in 2014, is a passionate reply to Stevens’s “Like Decorations…” Laurentiis answers Stevens’s 50-part poem with 50 meditations on the Black victims of American lynching — a “grim reality” that Stevens, with the N-word there in his title, calls to mind and then (brutally, haughtily?) ignores. Laurentiis says:
To negotiate the dark you must open, you must open
To the dark: dirt, the hundred worms beneath you, beneath
Where hands come to claw the dirt, let, and lay you down.
Stevens asks: “Can all men, together, avenge / One of the leaves that have fallen in autumn?” No, he decides, “the wise man avenges by building his city in snow.”
When I was a child, my grandmother had snow-white hair, neatly brushed, and so soft-seeming I wanted to pet it. To Gammie, Black people were “the coloreds.” The word was gravelly in her mouth, as if she were trying to swallow something, or spit it out. Whereas when my mother mentioned Mary, “a colored girl,” her childhood friend, the word was tender. Beside it, “white” meant blank and cold.
“No one living a snowed-in life / can sleep without a blindfold,” Terrance Hayes says in “Snow for Wallace Stevens.” Stevens is Hayes’s “foe, / the clean-shaven, gray-suited, gray patron / of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness / blue as a body made of snow.”
In 2019, someone posted Hayes’s “Snow for Wallace Stevens” in response to a tweet by Saeed Jones deploring Stevens’s racism. Others posted Laurentiis’s “Of the Leaves that Have Fallen” and Major Jackson’s prose comment “Wallace Stevens After ‘Lunch.’” Jones and Jackson were both reacting to a story in Joan Richardson’s biography of Stevens.
Stevens was a judge for the National Book Award in poetry in 1952. All six judges were white men. While they waited for one of the judges who had been delayed “by a snowstorm,” the rest looked at photos of the judges from the previous year. These included Gwendolyn Brooks, who had served on the jury when Stevens won the prize for The Auroras of Autumn. When he saw the photo of Brooks, Richardson writes,
Stevens remarked, “Who’s the coon?” (The meeting, it should be noted, took place after lunch, which for the poet had probably begun with two healthy martinis and continued with a fine bottle of wine.) Noticing the reaction of the group to his question, he asked, “I know you don’t like to hear people call a lady a coon, but who is it?”
In the stream of replies to Jones’s tweet, the playwright Paula Vogel wrote: “Thanks for gluing history to Wallace Stevens. Never knew it; now I can save time and not read him.”
Hayes’s collection of poems Lighthead won the National Book Award in 2010. In “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” included in that book, he asks,
Who is not more than his limitations?
Who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language, have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without
The subject of “A Primitive Like an Orb,” the poem Stevens read at Yale in 1948, is “the central poem,” “the poem of the whole.” By “primitive,” Stevens means primary, original, essential. He is using “primitive” as a noun, personifying the “poem” as if it were a man native to the place, made out of the place. By the end of the poem the figure grows into “a giant on the horizon.” Stevens must have been thinking of Sleeping Giant, the mountain sacred to the Quinnipiac, which he would have seen from the train whenever he passed between Hartford and New Haven.
Stevens speaks of “the central poem” as a “huge, high harmony.” We come upon it “a little,” and then “suddenly,” in the form of “lesser poems,” by which he means actual poems and art works as well as casual perceptions and intimations, stray thoughts and observations, in the course of daily life — where your mind goes when you walk about. These “lesser poems” are parts of the whole, a grand orchestration that they together compose, and that yet exceeds them: reality in its fullness.
Which must remain virtual, always beyond or behind us, because it is a thing “apart,” known only “[b]y means of a separate sense.” Ultimate reality is ever in motion: “It is and it / Is not and, therefore, is.” That “therefore,” insisting on logical proof in a grammar that defies it, is a nice touch. Stevens is parodying, but also appropriating for poetry, the expository prose of the professors in his audience in New Haven.
The poem of the whole: Does it include a Tudor house on Goodrich Street? The manufacture of firearms? My mother and Mary? F. O. Matthiessen, motionless on the sidewalk? What about Mrs. Baldwin, the humdinger? Who typed the copy of “A Primitive Like an Orb” Stevens read in New Haven? Not everyone has a name. Gets a name.
After hosting him in 1948, Pearson encouraged Stevens to give papers on poetics. Stevens did, but he doubted the results. He thought his essays were a “compost pile and should therefore properly be kept out on the back lot. But what has determined this is the idea that my real job is poetry and not papers about poetry, so far as I have any real job.”
In 1949, the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences invited Stevens to read a poem for the Academy’s sesquicentennial. He composed “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” for this event, which included on the program a paper by the biophysicist Max Delbrück and a concerto for trumpet and bassoon by Paul Hindemith.
About his plans for the poem, Stevens commented: “I wanted to have something that would relate to the occasion but not directly. So I just fixed on this idea of a poem about a walk in New Haven, but then branching out.” This procedure was typical of him. “I start with a concrete thing, and it tends to become so generalized that it isn’t any longer a local place.” Before the event, he read the poem to his wife, “as is my custom.” When he had finished, Mrs. Stevens put her hands over her eyes, and said, “They’re not going to understand this.”
“The real is only the base,” Stevens says in his notebook. Then he adds: “But it is the base.”
The cityscape of New Haven is generalized in “An Ordinary Evening.” Houses are “transparent dwellings” in “an impalpable town.” When Stevens refers to the Yale campus and the churches on the Green as “such chapels and such schools,” “such” keeps them generic. “A glassy ocean lying at the door” is Long Island Sound and the “sea of glass” in Revelation. The city is bounded by East Rock on one side and West Rock on the other — cliff formations similar to Sleeping Giant that were created by the retreat of the continental ice shelf about 20,000 years ago. Stevens refers to these mountains as “the rock of autumn, glittering, / Ponderable source of each imponderable.”
Evening, the time of day in Stevens’s poem, is relevant: a time of transition, of doubleness and ambiguity. “If, then, New Haven is half sun, what remains, // At evening, after dark, is the other half,” city of shades and shadows, where particulars are smudged and blurred, and meanings are “less legible.”
In 1942, Stevens had this exchange with a young man from New Haven who had come to visit him in Hartford:
I often get away to New Haven for a weekend — find it a good place to relax, entertain myself.
You mean you actually find New Haven a relief from Hartford?
Strange. That is just the way I feel about Hartford.
There! That shows how silly it is, really. A state of mind.
On those weekend getaways, Stevens probably stayed in the Taft on the corner of College and Chapel streets, a splendid hotel close to bars, restaurants, the Shubert Theatre, and Yale’s Old Campus. In canto IX of “An Ordinary Evening,” he writes:
We keep coming back and coming back
To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
That fall upon it out of the wind.
Those “hymns” are part of “the huge, high harmony” in “A Primitive Like an Orb.” They are also church hymns, like the Anglican “Holy, Holy, Holy”:
Holy, Holy, Holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.
“It is and is / Not and, therefore, is” revises “Which wert, and art, and evermore shall be.” An ongoing present, without past or future.
In canto XV, Stevens asserts: “The instinct for heaven had its counterpart” in “[t]he instinct for earth, for New Haven, for his room, / The gay tournamonde as of a single world // In which he is and as and is are one.” The “he” is Professor Eucalyptus, but it could be anyone meditating on the earthly as manifest in a place like New Haven. When his editor questioned the neologism “tournamonde,” Stevens defended it: “For me it creates an image of a world in which things revolve and the word is therefore appropriate in the collocation of is and as.”
You walk the same streets year after year. Sometimes things change so slowly they seem not to change at all. But they do. So-and-So lived there, Mrs. Pappadopoulos here. Dry leaves skip and skitter. A bare elm in the wind is a skeleton’s pantomime. This whirling world.
My grandfather was born in Vilytsya, a village in present-day Ukraine, near the border with Poland and Belarus. He immigrated to the United States as a boy, then worked as a cook in the army, and after that in a restaurant in New Haven’s Union Station. He died of leukemia while still in his 30s. My mother had a photograph but no memory of him.
His name was Gordya Gabriel Shulick. My grandmother’s name was Sarah Anna McDermott. My mother’s name was Helen Anna Shulick, but most people called her Nancy, after the little girl in the Sunday comics.
The New Haven Courthouse, where Griswold v. Connecticut would be heard in 1962, and Bobby Seale would go on trial in 1970, as protesters supporting the Black Panthers overflowed the Green, is a white marble pantheon built during the global catastrophe of World War I: the law as reason and proportion. On the steps sit two classical orators on tall plinths, their faces eroded from a century of acid rain.
My mother kept asking her mother where her father was. “There, that’s your father!” the angry Irishwoman said, pointing to gray Cicero.
In Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, Bloom defines a visionary tradition in American poetry descending from Emerson through Whitman and Dickinson to Stevens. He uses Freud, Nietzsche, and the Kabbalah to theorize the disjunctions, silences, and absences he calls “poetic crossings.”
Bloom was born in the Bronx, the youngest son in a family of Orthodox Jews. His father was a garment worker from Odessa. His mother came from Brest-Litovsk. His first language was Yiddish. As a child, his father gave him a small pair of shears to prepare him for his future occupation in the garment district.
Yale’s tenured English professors gathered for a photo in 1967. All of them are white. Only two are Jews — Bloom and Charles Feidelson. Standing beside Bloom, on the edge of the group, is Pearson, who, with Feidelson, founded the American Studies program at Yale. Seated in the center is Marie Borroff, the one woman in the group and just the second woman tenured at Yale. Standing behind her at six feet nine inches or more, with his arms crossed, is William K. Wimsatt. Wimsatt and Brooks had made Yale a center for the New Criticism. Their intellectual position, emulating T. S. Eliot’s, was neoclassical, anti-Romantic, Anglophile, and Christian.
Bloom championed Stevens over Eliot, whom he despised for his antisemitism. Belonging to a generation of Jewish intellectuals who forged careers in the WASP-dominated academy, Bloom saw literature as a contest for cultural authority. As such, it was about power and rhetoric, and was written by people in history, with biographies.
After the New Criticism, this was an innovation. The fact that Bloom made the innovation at Yale was not an accident: his theory of literature emerged from his fight to produce it. He dedicated The Anxiety of Influence to Wimsatt. When Bloom was his student, Wimsatt returned his first paper “with the ringing comment, ‘You are a Longinian critic, which I abhor!’” As could have been predicted from its thesis, The Anxiety of Influence opened a path for feminist and other political criticisms that were antithetical to Bloom’s. He abhorred these developments theatrically and for so long it was easy to forget he had once been the iconoclast.
First-year students enter Yale’s Old Campus through Phelps Gate, facing the Green. Inside is a statue of Nathan Hale, the Yale College graduate who was hung as a spy by the British in 1776. Casts of the Hale statue stand at CIA Headquarters and the Department of Justice. The young man’s back is straight, and his heels together. His ankles and fists are bound by rope.
Nathaniel Jocelyn, a New Haven artist and abolitionist, and my great-great-grandfather, was commissioned by Robert Purvis, a Black abolitionist in Philadelphia, to paint an oil portrait of Joseph Cinqué. The painting was part of the campaign to sway opinion in favor of the Amistad rebels as their case went before the US Supreme Court. It depicts Cinqué gazing high and to his right, away from us. His expression is resolute yet mild. One shoulder is naked. Across his chest flows a soft, snowy robe, like a toga — a classicizing touch. In his fist is a cane pole: shepherd’s staff or spear? There’s an African landscape behind him. But that cliff looks like East Rock.
From Henry T. Blake’s Chronicles of New Haven Green (1898):
The town government was finally organized October 25, 1639, and its first act was to try and convict an Indian named Nepaupuck for murder, which it did with alacrity and despatch. We read in the record of the trial that the culprit was arrested October 26, and set in the stocks. Before that time therefore the stocks and doubtless the whipping post had been erected on the market place; and thus these emblems of Christian civilization were the earliest tokens of its dedication to free institutions and public enjoyment. Four days later, that is on October 30, 1639, as the record tersely informs us, “the Indian’s head was cut off and pitched upon a pole in the market place,” this being the second step in the improvement of the Green and the first attempt to put a cheerful face upon the public pleasure ground.
Just now, as I read that book on my laptop, a hand flashed across the screen — the hand of the library worker who scanned it. Dark brown skin, pink close-bitten nails, the knuckles’ wrinkles, fine black hairs, the fan-shaped bones. A hand, pressing on the page.
In 2018, parents and children unpacked their SUVs, and carried laptops, lacrosse sticks, and Ikea furniture through Phelps Gate while across College Street, in view of the Taft Hotel, police and paramedics huddled around motionless bodies on the Green, lying there like piles of leaves, or souls refused at the Second Coming. Local hospitals treated more than 100 people for drug overdoses that day. Two Americas, one street.
In his lifelong effort to articulate a secular vision of ultimate reality, Stevens wrote his poetry in conscious opposition to Eliot and the poets and critics influenced by him. Perhaps that hostility was behind his guilty fantasy that he had insulted Brooks and his wife. Although shy, Stevens, like Bloom, was pugnacious.
Canto XII of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” had special importance for Bloom. He wrote about it on several occasions over the course of his career, each time tracing the trope of fallen leaves back in literary history from Whitman, Shelley, Milton, Dante, and Virgil to Homer — marble men on the white courthouse steps he called The Western Canon.
The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.
The poet speaks the poem as it is,
Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks
By sight and insight as they are. There is no
Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
The statues will have gone back to be things about.
The mobile and the immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees
And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembling the presence of thought,
Resembling the presence of thoughts, as if,
In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
The town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.
Bloom liked to argue from word-roots, as if the whole history of a word were present in every use of it. About “the cry of its occasion,” he says:
An occasion is an event or happening, but its etymological meaning is a falling down, and its Indo-European root means falling or dying. To be the cry of fallen leaves is to be a cry in the etymological sense of crying out or imploring the aid of one’s fellow citizens (“cry” is from the Latin quiritare, in turn from quiris for a Roman citizen).
Section 47 of “Of the Leaves that Have Fallen” begins with a “quick incision. A cut.” Severed “[c]lose but not / Too close to the base,” “the boy’s penis unlocks like a votive door in which leaves / Fly out, falling, and, historical, also having fallen.” These leaves cry out, imploring their fellow citizens to come to their aid. But the white people gathered in the photos Laurentiis is writing about have come to see a boy hang, swaying from a tree or a bridge, over and over, at the center of town, or somewhere in the woods. “To navigate the dark, you must listen, you must listen / To the dark: the wind, a wind in the trees…”
“Wallace Stevens,” Laurentiis says in an interview, “is probably my favorite poet, certainly my favorite Modernist poet.”
Although he won the Bollingen Prize (1949), National Book Award (twice, in 1951 and 1955), and Pulitzer Prize (1955), it was only in the 1970s, when his poetry began to be widely taught in colleges and universities, that Stevens gained the canonical status we take for granted for him today.
It is disorienting when “[t]he poet speaks the poem as it is,” rather than as past poems prescribe. Something new has come into the world, and nothing will be the same again. Even the past has been changed. Soon, however, perhaps as early as tomorrow, “The statues will have gone back to be things about”: objects you walk past, here and there, without really seeing.
In 2016, New Haven prosecutors dismissed charges against Corey Menafee, who was employed as a dishwasher in what was then known as Calhoun College, one of Yale’s residential colleges, located on the northwest corner of the Green. When it opened in 1933, the college was named in honor of the “cast-iron” defender of the “positive good” of chattel slavery, John C. Calhoun. After years of controversy, in 2017, the college was renamed for a computer scientist and US rear admiral, Grace Murray Hopper.
Menafee had been arrested for destroying a stained-glass window in the dining hall, a window depicting slaves picking cotton. “I took a broomstick,” he said, “and it was kind of high, and I climbed up and reached up and broke it.”
Roger Gilbert was a student at Yale when I was. His dissertation became a book called Walks in the World, which identifies a genre central to American poetry, the walk-poem. “For Stevens,” Roger writes, “the walk provides not a narrative armature but an occasion, an experiential node out of which the poem’s ‘never-ending meditation’ flows. That occasion in turn shapes the vision of the poem, which finds motion or traversal to be the ultimate form of reality.”
My mother was 14. A Wednesday afternoon in September. Her dog Lucky had taken the bus to meet her — the driver knew Lucky. They were waiting on the Green to take the bus home after school when the sky grew dark and strange, clouds whirled the wrong way, and the 1938 Hurricane, the most devastating storm in state history, roared ashore a few miles east of New Haven. It must have felt like the end of the world.
The apocalypse in canto XII of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” is natural and historical, not Christian. The storm of time blows away all judges and orators — statues that tumble across the street like newspapers. When the wind blows through the factory’s windows, the poet’s pages are leaves “whirling,” falling “between is and was.” Inner and outer worlds have the same fate, blown away “in a casual litter.” Letters become litter.
In 2012, a woman, who was homeless and living on the Green, discovered a human skull in the roots of a tree blown over by a hurricane. The jaw was open as if to cry out, but crammed with dirt. The bones had been there probably since the 17th century, when the Puritans consecrated the city’s first cemetery. Remember, when you cross the Green, you are walking over thousands of skeletons.
Ultimate reality as “traversal.” The image comes from the final lines of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”:
These are the edgings and inchings of final form,
The swarming activities of the formulae
Of statement, directly and indirectly getting at,
Like an evening evoking the spectrum of violet,
A philosopher practicing scales on his piano,
A woman writing a note and tearing it up.
It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dust, a force that traverses a shade.
Edging, inching, swarming: Stevens’s participles evoke a reality that is virtual because always in motion, somewhere up ahead or just behind us. That phrase “directly and indirectly getting at” has no object; there is only the “getting at.” The man in the physical streets of New Haven is a passerby, a metaphysical shade traversing the dust of this place, himself the dust that a force is passing across and beyond. Nothing solid. Shadows walking, crossing over and on.
Langdon Hammer is the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale. He is the author of James Merrill: Life and Art and, with Stephen Yenser, co-editor of A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill. He is working on a critical biography of Elizabeth Bishop.