Robert Hass on Wallace Stevens

My nineteenth birthday was also the birthday of one of my college friends. I went to an early class in logic that morning. I think we were reading Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, because when I got back to my room a group of my friends was there with several bottles of champagne and I remember that in the ensuing hilarity there was much speculation about the comic possibilities in the title of that treatise. My friend Tom had been to a class—it was a Catholic men’s college, Saint Mary’s—that somehow involved the Latin names for various illicit sexual positions, coitus reservatus, coitus interruptus, coitus inter femores, and so on, which was also the source of a lot of buffoonery that blended nicely into the subject of posterior analytics, and at some point in the proceedings one of the more advanced of us got out the volume of Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems in its handsome soft blue dust jacket and read “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” I had never heard the poem before and it seemed to me supremely delicious. It was March in California, high spring, the hills still green, with grazing cattle in them, plum trees in blossom, the olive trees around the campus whitening whenever a breeze shook them, and after a while a group of us was marching through the field full of mustard flowers and wild radish in the back of the dormitory, banging on pans with spoons and strumming tennis rackets and chanting out the poem, or at least the first stanza of it, which I find now is what I still have in memory:
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 the finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

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