The shadow of his equipage

It has been snowing, here in the Southern end of Blighty. A mere couplet of inches, and yet the public transport system is staggering about in hiccups (it took me more than two hours to get to work yesterday morning, and an hour and a half to get home again) and everything is trampled into grey slush and dirty sheet-ice. But the park I walk across was spotless, yesterday, but for the bird and squirrel tracks, and the last few autumn leaves falling onto the snow. There was a blackbird singing in a plane tree, and I thought, ‘that’s a poem. I know there’s a poem about a blackbird in the snow. Where’s Google when you need it‘.

And then I went back to work and more or less forgot about it until this evening. Oh yes! Friday! Poetry! [Oh, give it a rest - Ed]. So I did look it up, and the poem I meant was Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens. And I had been particularly thinking of the thirteenth, and last, section: ‘It was evening all afternoon./ It was snowing/ And it was going to snow./ The blackbird sat/ In the cedar-limbs.’

The odd thing is, I had remembered the poem as being rather affected and only intermittently interesting. And now, the more I read it, the more I like it. The haiku-like structure. The quasi-mythical outbreaks hinting at whole worlds of untold story in sections VII and XI. The strange journey it takes you on, in and out of simplicity, from one blackbird in the snow, to an ‘I’, a man and a woman, multiplying into heraldic creatures haunting the poem, as sign and countersign of themselves (and a small part of my brain says, sable a blackbird countercoloured Or, to go with the coach and equipage), hunting something, someone, through the sections, before collapsing back into a numinous starkness, crossing the river (rivers are Highly Significant to poets who know their mythology. Lethe. Styx. Etc.) and coming to rest as the single blackbird in the snow again.

[On the other hand, Section XII still sounds like a spy's sign and countersign in a Terry Pratchett spoof. As for 'bawds of euphony' in section X? Oh, FFS, really].

Eh. No doubt there are people out there who love the bawds of euphony, infelicitous as they may sound in a poem based on a kind of zen, stripped bare, imagist aesthetic. On balance, I still like it very much. I think I see what he wanted the bawds of euphony for, for the echoes of ‘bored’ and ‘phony’, and the grubby taste of tawdryness, of prettinesses for popularity’s sake, against the unadorned birds and the green light. It possibly sounds much dafter to a 21st century ear than it did at the time – it was published in 1917. Think on that.

Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird

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

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

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

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

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

VI
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.

VII
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?

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

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

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

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

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

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

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2 Responses to The shadow of his equipage

  1. allison says:

    His equipage is big enough to cast a shadow? Props.

  2. Ben says:

    Thank you for this. Please keep the Friday Poetry bits going. I learn.

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