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Watching Auroras with Wallace Stevens

An Essay on Poetry

Image by Niko Becker

Just last night, when unable to sleep or to dream, I left my home for the beach. An East-coast beach is quite cold, you know, and it’s bare, and like a barrier at night. And I walked barefoot along the sand – where the breakers crashed in a monic lull like a mind out of word.

I stopped suddenly; the clouds cleared; the Northern Lights leaped above.

I watched them for a time, until I saw a man in a grey suit, looking up at them also, and walking along the beach.

Relieved that a fellow traveler (on this weary road of life) could share in my experience, I caught up to him and said hello. He turned blankly on the sand and faced me. And we made quiet intros, and innocuous small talk, and small trades of our scrapped ideas.

We were both writers, it would seem.

As often happens in these circumstances, I challenged him to a Writer’s Duel. He accepted, we shook hands, separated by ten paces, turned around to face one another, looked up at the Auroras, drew our typewriters from their holsters, and readied. He made the earlier shot.

– ‘This is form gulping after formlessness, skin flashing to wished-for disappearances and the serpent body flashing without the skin.’ Said he.

– Chiaroscuro auroras, in clouds like moving grass, through ion and air, lights in frigid brilliance pass. Said I.

A good volley. But soon he readied again, and as he wrote, a form appeared on the beach, a sandcastle:

– ‘Farewell to an idea… A cabin stands, deserted, on a beach. It is white, as by a custom or according to an ancestral theme or as a consequence of an infinite course.’ Said he.

– And the door swept open and the sand surfed the floor and broke like water upon the wall and dried the couch and the bed, and the way out and the way in. Said I.

Another good exchange. But he was leading and I was following. Ergo he:

– (as he crafts further the sandhouse) ‘Upstairs the windows will be lighted, not the rooms. A wind will spread its windy grandeurs round and knock like a rifle-butt against the door.’

– And the wind will make its drifts, and its hills, and circling, circling eddies across the floor along the feet of the father who sits in

– (interrupting) ‘In space, wherever he sits, of bleak regard, as one that is strong in the bushes of his eyes. He says no to no and yes to yes.’

– And yes to no. And no to yes. And goodbye. Good morning and goodnight.

– ‘And in saying yes he says farewell.’

– He fetches shows from air, carnivals, and turnings of dance. Said I

– ‘Scenes of the theatre, vistas and blocks of woods and curtains like a naïve pretense of sleep. Said he. We stand in the tumult of a festival.’

– We turn in the fest of a tumult… playing in stage, strutting in plays. We frett for curtain falls, we fawn for sleepy applause. Said I. All is brief.

He sighed and turned away and began to walk again along the beach; I heard him say:

– ‘It is a theatre floating through the clouds, itself a cloud, although of misted rock and mountains running like water, wave on wave, through waves of light.’

The sandcastle began to crumble as I followed him a ways, saying nothing.

– ‘It is of cloud transformed to cloud transformed again, idly, the way a season changes color to no end.’ Said he, walking and minding me no longer.

He looked up again at the auroras, shimmering above the black water of shoal and surf. He stopped. And he was angry. He shouted in his anger:

– ‘This is nothing until in a single man contained! Nothing until this named thing nameless is and is destroyed! He opens the door of his house on flames. The scholar of one candle sees an Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame of everything he is. And he feels afraid.’

Perhaps satisfied with this outburst, he again plodded forward along the sand, his hands behind his back, saying nothing. I did not follow him. Following there would be then, and not now; our battle would be again, but not to win. I turned aside and went home.

And I slept well in my own bed and I finished my thoughts there.

Cheers to your Sunday morning…


Wallace, Stevens. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. 2nd. New York: Vintage Books, 2015. Print.

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