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A Postcard From The Volcano

Wallace Stevens

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2004-01-15
Added by: bill sigler
This poem bears an uncanny resemblance to the following lines from Jimi Hendrix:

Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past?
With its old age, its crutch, and its wisdom,
It whispers, “No, this will be the last.”
And the wind cries Mary.

With Hendrix, the wind of the present obliterating the past carries with it redemption. The wind is brave and wise for forgetting and forgiving the past, because it allows the present moment its full glory, unencumbered by all that has come before. With Stevens, the wind that “cries out a literate despair” is powerless to change the forces of time, it can only mourn how even the history that is preserved is lost. In fact, the mournfulness of the wind, equally in the “spring-clouds” or in the sharp air of autumn that affirms life ever more strongly in the face of coming death, is the closest thing to emotion in the whole poem. The children who happily play with people’s bones—all that is left of the past—as if they were toys found for the first time are oblivious; they only detect in the wind something like “a spirit storming in blank walls.” The narrator, too, at first glance, seems to be describing his own coming annihilation in an eerily descriptive, omniscient tone, without a trace of irony.

But the true Stevensian quality of this poem is precisely in the conflict between the narrator’s bare statements of reality and the reality that unfolds under his breath, so to speak. When the speaker states:

…with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt
At what we saw...

He is stating as his “objective” reality what is clearly not the objective reality to the children. To him, the feelings things evoke become part of the thing over time, but to the children, there is only the thing. Thus, when the children “speak our speech” it clearly not the speaker’s speech in the sense of what he meant and felt, it is only the external form of the same language. The only consolation for the past, then, is the ability to read into the present its own concerns, just as the present does by appropriating the gifts that have been left behind without explanation. As Walter Benjamin says “this secret agreement between past generations and the present one is referred to as redemption,” and we see it here played out in all but the sense that there is no agreement between parties, only among parties. The result, as the last stanza of the poem suggests, is that the opulent sun of the present moment “smears” (stains, taints, destroys) the dirty shadows of the past. So, in contrast to Hendrix, where present experience is heightened because memory has been erased, here present experience is heightened because there is a past it can erase.

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