Welcome to Our
25th Year of Publication

July 2024

David Alpaugh


Wallace Stevens




          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 finale of seem.

          The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream


          Take from the dresser of deal,

          Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

          On which she embroidered fantails once

          And spread it so as to cover her face.

          If her horny feet protrude, they come

          To show how cold she is, and dumb.

          Let the lamp affix its beam.

          The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


All poems have a You and an I—although they don’t always use those pronouns explicitly. In the simplest instances the “I” is the creative presence we call The Poet—a wise, perceptive, linguistically brilliant speaker such as Keats in his Odes or Shakespeare in his sonnets. Whatever the subject, the Poet’s “I” speaks to his or her receptive reader’s “You.” Poetry is the most intimate of the verbal arts and it is largely the You & I dynamic that makes it so. When it is working it provides the energy source that generates what we might call the current or electricity of the poem.


Wallace Stevens says that the poet’s goal is “to confer his identity upon the reader.” Whether the poet speaks to us directly or silently through intermediary voices called personas if we feel entertained and enlightened the spiritual fusion between poet and reader will take place.


In “The Emperor of Ice Cream” Stevens confers his identity upon readers by asking us to collaborate with him on creating the poem. More like GPS or Siri than your usual bard, he pretends that his role is simply to give directions.


You, reader, are asked to drive almost everything that occurs in the first stanza. You call the roller of big cigars; you bid him whip concupiscent curds in kitchen cups; you let wenches dawdle in warm weather dresses; you allow boys to bring them flowers wrapped in old newspapers. You initiate, actualize, allow, or confirm everything that happens in stanza one. All the poet does is reiterate his title in the last line, implying that your actions prove it to be a true statement.


The imaginative ice-cream you create is a symbol for the creative impulse that Henri Bergson called élan vitalan impulse that issues from what jazz artist Clifford Brown later called the “Joy Spring” of the human spirit. You have succumbed to the imperial power of that season of life where robust health, blissful sexuality, and pure delight in being are so strong that what’s on its way in Steven’s second stanza has no dominion here.


“To give a sense of the freshness or vividness of life,” Stevens remarks elsewhere, “is a valid purpose of poetry.” You finalize your endorsement of the creative enterprise by allowing “be” to “be finale of seem.” Only after you acknowledge that you are as alive and vibrant as the fictional lads and wenches you have seemingly consorted with does the poet assert what you have proven regarding imperial power: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”


Of course, there’s more to the story. Steven’s first stanza takes place in late spring or early summer. The light and warmth of the sun sustain its joyous mood and activity. But Stevens’ second and final stanza suggests that he may have had Shakespeare’s classic Spring / Winter companion poems in mind as the élan vital of spring is suddenly replaced by inclement spiritual weather. 




Stevens began by placing you in a warm, sunlit kitchen where ice-cream was being made. Now you are in a cold, dark room lit only by lamplight. All the elements associated with ice-cream melt away. The girls and boys and muscular ice-cream maker are gone. Life and vigor are replaced by the numbness and nothingness of death. You alone remain to contemplate the corpse of a dead woman. The poet asked you to take four actions in stanza one. Now, although still in the driver’s seat, you need only take two.


First, you are told to take a sheet from a dresser to cover “the face” of the woman lying in wake. The dresser drawer, “lacking its three glass knobs,” is a symbol of entropy, the tendency of all things to diminish and fall apart— to move towards death and disorder.


In stanza one boys courted girls with “flowers in last month’s newspapers.” The only vestige of joy and beauty here are the “fantails” that the woman once embroidered on the sheet you use to consign her to oblivion.




We try to cover death with art, but, as the poet explains, death frustrates the attempt by making its presence known:


          If her horny feet protrude, they come

          To show how cold she is, and dumb.


All our poet can do here is give you his second and final directive: “Let the lamp affix its beam.” You obey, knowing that it is not the beam of the sun but artificial light that you “affix.” (That word suggests that you are trying to attach something that doesn’t fit.) You are not illuminating death since the beam shines not on the woman but on the embroidered sheet that you have taken from “the dresser of deal” to cover her face. Does Stevens expect us to notice the irony in the fact that the word “beam” marries the words “be” and “am”—states that no longer apply to what lies under the sheet?


Had Stevens designed his stanzas as separate companion poems, as Shakespeare did with Spring versus Winter, poem one might have been entitled “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and poem two “The Dresser of Deal.”


The personification hidden within a detail describing a piece of furniture would then provide a less subtle contrast to the outright personification of Stevens’ title. “The Emperor of Ice Cream” personifies life. “The Dresser of Deal” personifies our poignant, but futile attempts to evade the reality of the stacked deck that can only deal death.


The Dresser of Deal tries to hide what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “the blight man was born for” by dressing death up with art. What was once a bed sheet is now a shroud bearing images of beautiful birds. Countless poems use art to evade death, the most famous being John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud,” where readers who believe in an afterlife are assured that death itself “shalt die.” Still, despite all efforts to cover death up, we can’t help but notice how insistently the dead woman’s feet “protrude”; or ignore the fact that we simply cannot experience death literally or imaginatively because it is impossible to perceive one’s non-existence.


Stanza two leaves us without a scoop, not even a dab of ice cream and all it stood for in stanza one. Its emperor has been deposed, no longer exists. It may be startling, therefore, to hear the poet conclude grim, sobering lines by again claiming that “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” (I can’t help hearing T.S Eliot’s Sweeney mutter “That don’t apply.”)


Of course, it does apply, reflexively. It’s Stevens’ way of saying there isn’t any emperor of ice-cream—here—in this spiritually disturbing domain. Such an emperor depends on life and can only have dominion in stanza one. All we need do, however, is re-read the first stanza to find winter genuflecting to spring once again. Life is ever vibrant for the latest generation of girls and boys. Your own being as you read stanza two and try to deal with death represents your continuing “finale of seem.”


By whipping his readers into his metaphorical ice-cream Stevens is the emperor of the realm he creates in both stanzas via his variation on poetry’s You & I dynamic. We are the community of living subjects to whom he issues edicts that help enhance our understanding of the human condition. Because Wallace Stevens is a benevolent, entertaining emperor we allow him to confer his identity upon us and gladly join him in creating his shared imaginative world.


Who knows how many subjects he reigns over at this moment as readers experience the power of this marvelously playful poet. Unlike most historical emperors, with their wars, persecutions, and taxes, our Emperor of Ice-Cream “only” offers sweetness and light.




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David Alpaugh ’s newest collection of poetry is Seeing the There There  (Word Galaxy Press, 2023). Alpaugh’s visual poems have been appearing monthly in Scene4 since February 2019. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a finalist for Poet Laureate of California. For more of his poetry, plays, and articles , check the Archives.

©2024 David Alpaugh
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