Poet's Pick April 14
Wallace Stevens: "The Emperor of Ice Cream"
Selected by Caki Wilkinson
National Poetry Month 2014

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Caki Wilkinson's Poetry Month Pick, April 14, 2014

"The Emperor of Ice Cream"
by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

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.


* Caki Wilkinson Comments:
Following a multi-cavity checkup a few years ago, the dentist suggested I wasn’t brushing for long enough and might try humming a familiar song to measure the time. This is why, having memorized “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” in college, I now recite it to myself most nights with a mouth full of toothpaste (the poem’s grim cheerfulness, I’ve found, really suits the occasion). It’s my favorite of Stevens’s poems, and it was his favorite too, or so he said in 1933, explaining that it “wears a deliberately commonplace costume, and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry.”

It’s a busy poem, carried along by muscular details and the peculiar idiom through which to make ice cream is to “whip / in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” I’ve always loved the sound of those opening lines, plosive consonants and an assonant short i suggesting the kind of excesses the poem goes on to celebrate. That we’re witnessing preparations for a wake isn’t immediately clear, as the poem is staged in two scenes: the frenetic, peopled scene of the first stanza and the almost motionless scene of the second stanza, in which we encounter the woman’s corpse.

One of the great mysteries here is the voice; with the exception of the refrain and a sentence in the second stanza, the poem consists entirely of imperatives. But who is speaking? I like to imagine a sort of impromptu funeral director. The sudden call to action hints that the woman has died without the means or family to handle her funeral arrangements, and our speaker is someone resourceful (or imperious) enough to whip this group into shape. Thus, we follow the assigning of tasks: someone must prepare the ice cream; others must bring flowers, drum up a crowd, or attend to the body.

The poem’s tone, lacking solemnity or any signs of mourning, can seem almost callous—the first stanza’s concupiscent ice cream set against the cold corpse of the second stanza. But Stevens’s treatment of the woman is not without kindness. At the opening of the second stanza, the speaker instructs whoever is listening to

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.

A sheet with embroidered fantails isn’t exactly lavish, but we can assume it’s the best option in the worn-out dresser. The speaker’s attention to this smallest of details proves he’s thinking about the woman, and it reveals a sense of decorum that persists even as he acknowledges the fact of her death—“how cold she is, and dumb.”

Stevens wrote elsewhere that poetry is “the life that is lived in the scene it composes.” Here, the scene is composed around a communal effort, albeit thrifty and thrown-together, to organize a proper wake. But in Stevens’s world there is no god, and so no comfortable suggestion of an afterlife. Instead, these people know only one way to honor the woman—not by mourning the life that was, but by embracing the pulse of appetite: the hasty pleasure and “essential gaudiness” of the life that is.

About Caki Wilkinson:
Caki Wilkinson is the author of the poetry collections Circles Where the Head Should Be (2011), which won the Vassar Miller Prize, and The Wynona Stone Poems, which won the Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books and is forthcoming in 2014.

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