Hi sweetheart, up in the aerie at my desk, six p.m., an hour past dark, the temperature's dropping, it's supposed to be around 20 degrees tomorrow. But the pellet stove is cranking, and there's fuel in the furnace. I had a nice day, a walk in the morning while it was still mild, sun peeking through even, and soon after I got home a squall hit - 'lake-effect snow' from the Great Lakes, far away as that, paintballing white tufts this way. I wondered if Native Americans, millenia (or perhaps more recently - right, centuries) ago, knew about the Great Lakes & its effects. I mean, if I were born & raised here, and didn't know better, didn't have mass-media and much occasion to travel -- would I even know that there's an Atlantic Ocean - to my own mind a more compelling body of water than Lake Erie.
Well, maybe I wouldn't know, and there's tons I don't know. But I was surprised this afternoon at the little town library, when an older woman asked the checkout clerk, with regard to a note she'd made for herself, to look into a novel entitled The Snowman, by Wallace Stevens. She wished to reserve this book. And the clerk searched the computer system. My ears had perked up. Suddenly I was on a DIY GE College Bowl. "I don't think you're going to find a novel by that author," I said. "Wallace Stevens was a poet." My unsolicited pronouncement was greeted with polite incredulity & skepticism. "I think you will find that 'The Snowman' is a poem." The woman glanced at her note - oh but I don't think I would have noted a poem, there was some reason I'd written this down. And the clerk - hearing all this - continued her search - found a novel entitled The Snowman - but (ha! score points!) by someone of another name entirely. "Let me search under the author's name. How do you spell it?" Now, voyager, I too suddenly phroze and wondered -- 'v' -- or 'ph'? The elderly woman consulted her scrap. "S-t-e-v-e-n-s." Oh phew - that would have been my guess. The clerk typed it into the computer. "She's right," she allowed, "Wallace Stevens - all I'm seeing is poetry books." I had suddenly gained slightly greater standing. Now I was a Credible Authority. Well I can't think why I wrote down this title, continued the older woman, in a slightly addled way. "Wallace Stevens was also an insurance company executive - so unless 'The Snowman' is related somehow to insurance..." Oh no!, the woman answered with some energy, I wouldn't have written a note about that. "I'm sure you wouldn't have - Wallace Stevens isn't remembered for his insurance work" (except, I thought, maybe in certain business circles in Hartford). So - say, who was this Wallace Stevens anyway? You seem to know a lot about him. The older woman turned to me now, challengingly. The clerk perked an ear from her computer - still searching (snowman, SNOW MAN, keyword, STEPHENS, novel). "He is - was - that is he still is, but he's deceased now - an American poet. An important American poet."
Oh my. I had no idea. You seem to know so much about him. Maybe I should reserve a book of his poetry. Can you reserve one for me? The clerk valiantly embarked on such a search. I suggested, "you might want to just google 'snowman' and 'Wallace Stevens' and I'll bet the poem will come right up." Oh what a great idea! But I don't know this poet - maybe I'll just reserve a book of his. Does this library have one? The clerk frowned. No - but Hudson does. I suggested - it's not hard to come by his poetry - I've got an old Vintage paperback (I thought of my ancient volume, that’s been in my possession since college). Oh - but I would never buy a book of poetry if I don't know if I like it. I nodded. I started thinking, as I stood in line - shit, it was getting late, D needed the car, and here I am like the bird-expert woman in Hitchcock's The Birds...
I started challenging myself. What are Stevens' dates? Twentieth century, I would have said. Name a few poems. Idea of Order at Key West - I'd written a paper about it once upon a time. Emperor of Ice Cream (nice follow up to The Snowman, I thought, thinking perhaps of Italian ices from carts in Central Park). Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Or is that by W.C. Williams - no his was about plums, check, no the blackbird one is by Stevens. And that's about it, the extent of my remembrance of Stevens... She sang beyond the genius of the sea, the something something never [melded?] to sound or voice......
If the woman had challenged me - so - what does he write about? I thought about it on my drive back home. I placed a jar in Tennessee, and all around that hill… somehow that hill was subordinate to that jar. How would I answer this? Lamely. He's very philosophical. He writes of aesthetic experience. I couldn't picture saying this to the older woman, or, for that matter, to the clerk at the checkout counter.
I must run, I really must, I said -- the older woman had offered to let me go ahead of her. (I needed to check out a book I had on reserve, on organ-playing techniques, plus purchase, for a dime apiece, three magazines - two recent Harpers and a December double-issue New Yorker. If I should ever come into big money, I will subscribe to both periodicals, and to Sol Flower Farm (as mentioned by Meryl, on Ellen) - for its flowers - besides.)
I completed my transaction, the older woman left, I was left with the clerk. I murmured to her, I don't think that woman is going to like Wallace Stevens.
But maybe she will. Yes, I can see why - when however she had come across the reference - she had jotted it down ---