The Man on the Dump, Wallace Stevens, 1942
From the collection, ‘Parts of a World’, the parts of which are reproduced in the Faber ‘Collected Poems’ (2006; p 176)
Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho…The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.
The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.
The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says
That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs
More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.
Now in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums,
Myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox),
Between that disgust and this, between the things
That are on the dump (azaleas and so on)
And those that will be (azaleas and so on),
One feels the purifying change. One rejects
That’s the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon
(All its images are in the dump) and you see
As a man (not like an image of a man),
You see the moon rise in the empty sky.
One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes, and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.
Man, with its phonic echoes of moon. Dump, the place of death, the end where all things come. The stuff of life strewn about unordered.
The poem starts at dusk – “day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.” It is an unclassified time, neither day, nor night and there is nothing romantic about it – the silly ‘corbeil of flowers’ metaphor is quickly terminated. “Ho-ho”, he says, “The dump is full of images”. The list of things he finds there are containers which no longer contain – so “the wrapper on the can of pears” is freed from its purpose and flutters loose. The “corset” is empty and restrains no more. The Esthonian [sic] box and the (Chinese? Indian?) tiger chest end up in the same place. My favourite, of course, is “the cat in the paper bag”: Schrödinger’s problem – the cat is neither alive nor dead.
So we begin to see that the poem is an attack on romanticism and symbolism. The attempts of humans to mimic nature in art and freeze the cycle of life and death, to aim for vain perfection (the necklaces makde to look as “heads / Of the floweriest flowers dewed withe the dewiest dews”) is futile and ridiculous. Nothing is new, “the freshness of night has been fresh a long time”, nothing is perfect. “one grows to hate these things except on the dump”, where they are levelled and freed from their associations.
And so, in spring he feels the “purifying change”, not of death to life but perhaps of death to death again, between “the things that are on the dump (azaleas and so on) / And those that will be (azaleas and so on)”.
To the bubbling of bassoons, realism triumphs. “everything is shed” and we have lost the manufactured, Romantic associations. “The moon comes up as the moon / (all its images are in the dump) and you see / As a man (not like an image of a man) / You see the moon rise in an empty sky.” Literally, the moon’s images (its reflection) are in the dump. Simultaneously, its poetic metaphors are dead. Moon and man are what they are, no Shelleyan metaphor.
Instead of pale ladies wandering companionless, we have, not metaphors, but double literals. “You see / As a man (not like the image of a man), / You see the moon rise in an empty sky.” As the pun lets us know, we can see the moon rising exactly as a man rises. Or we, a man, see the moon.
Finally we are left with the image of ourselves beating a can, “for that which one believes”. Triumphantly mad, the man on the dump, trying to become, like the moon, “merely oneself”. And it is not as an artist, but as a creature that receives and understands, that we find redemption. It is “the ear” that triumphs, not the voice of “peevish birds”.
P.S. What is the strange trinity at the end?
- “aptest eve” – most apt evening? The dusk at the dump, among the “mattresses of the dead”, the neither day nor night, the twilight space?
- “invisible priest” made out of the “blatter of grackles” – the meaningless sounds of the world?
- “stanza, my stone” – what does this “cry” mean? Is this the stone with which he beats the old tin can?
Stevens is difficult – too philosophical for my understanding -, but he gives me this impression that he might be right about things. It is gloriously upbeat in a acid-jazz kind of way. Searching for, and finding, “The the”.