Sunday, April 10, 2011

Poetry Review: Farewell to Florida by Wallace Stevens

The four 10-line stanzas of this poem have captured my attention even better than Stevens' better-known poems like The Idea of Order at Key West and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. I want to get better acquainted with the poem, so I'll show it here and then do some criticism/analysis/explication afterward.

"Go on, high ship, since now, upon the shore,
The snake has left its skin upon the floor.
Key West sank downward under massive clouds
And silvers and greens spread over the sea. The moon
Is at the mast-head and the past is dead.
Her mind will never speak to me again.
I am free. High above the mast the moon
Rides clear of her mind and the waves make a refrain
Of this: that the snake has shed its skin upon
The floor. Go on through the darkness. The waves fly back

Her mind had bound me round. The palms were hot
As if I lived in ashen ground, as if
The leaves in which the wind kept up its sound
From my North of cold whistled in a sepulchral South,
Her South of pine and coral and coraline sea,
Her home, not mine, in the ever-freshened Keys,
Her days, her oceanic nights, calling
For music, for whisperings from the reefs.
How content I shall be in the North to which I sail
And to feel sure and to forget the bleaching sand ...
I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools
Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness
Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms
Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones,
The trees likes bones and the leaves half sand, half sun.
To stand here on the deck in the dark and say
Farewell and to know that that land is forever gone
And that she will not follow in any word
Or look, nor ever again in thought, except
That I loved her once ... Farewell. Go on, high ship.

My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime
Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds.
The men are moving as the water moves,
This darkened water cloven by sullen swells
Against your sides, then shoving and slithering,
The darkness shattered, turbulent with foam.
To be free again, to return to the violent mind
That is their mind, these men, and that will bind
Me round, carry me, misty deck, carry me
To the cold, go on, high ship, go on, plunge on."

At first I thought this poem was about a woman who lived in Florida, then for a long time I thought it was about Florida itself with the woman as a metaphor for it, and now I'm back to the "it's a woman" theory. But whichever you think the poem is about, it is clear that the speaker is running for his life from Florida and from "her".

The speaker is traveling on a ship, and it can't go fast enough for him. He keeps mentally encouraging the boat to go faster and it's almost like he's being hunted by his memories. The speaker keeps trying to say that he has cut all ties to Florida: "the past is dead," "I am free," and "she will not follow in any word," but it's hard to believe him. Sure, keep telling yourself that you've moved on. He's desperate to believe that he has escaped Her, but he can't stop thinking about the place he has left--his whole being is wrapped up in Florida. The speaker is styling himself as the Stanza 1 snake who has "shed its skin upon the floor," leaving behind a trace of himself while escaping into a new life, but what is he actually escaping from and what is he running toward?

It's interesting that Florida and all things related to Her sound rather pretty and pleasant. Stanza 2 has gorgeous descriptors like "Her South of pine and coral and coraline sea" and "her the ever-freshened Keys". But in with these nice snapshots, there are also hints of ugliness and death, at least from the speaker's point of view: "a sepulchral South"(making the whole area a graveyard), "the bleaching sand," and "trees likes bones". Why does he keep inserting these images of decay into a place so full of life? It could be that he was feeling the death or dissolution of his own personality. "She" seemed to totally dominate his life in Florida: "her mind had bound me round". Maybe he's trying to get out while he still has the will to move.

The place he's sailing toward certainly doesn't seem welcoming, but it is his place: "my North of cold". He's leaving a wild, natural, feminine place for a regimented, civilized, male place: "My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime/ Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds". He's thrilled to be going to this slimy place full of smoggy skies and crammed streets. What's up with that? What is it about either his relationship with the insidious She or his relationship with Florida itself that makes him hate the pools and "vivid blooms" and want to exchange them for the city? I'm not quite sure, but it looks like something was seriously dysfunctional about his time in Florida, and something even more concerning about his longing to return to the wintry slime and the "violent mind" of the guys back home in the North.

The complex emotions and motivations in this poem are very attention-grabbing, but the words and sounds are equally intriguing. There's something purely delightful about the steady rhythm in the first lines: "Go on, high ship, since now, upon the shore,/ The snake has left its skin upon the floor". The beat of the syllables emphasizes his steady progress away from Florida. You can envision the ship sailing with the "silvers and greens spread over the sea" and the fading shore, sunken "under massive clouds". Stevens paints a few scenery pictures and then goes off into the inner turmoil of the speaker, and both are beautifully done. Check out some Wallace Stevens when you have a chance!

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