Poem of the Day: ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’

Like all genuine works of art, the poem is susceptible to several interpretations, but the strongest may be that only the cold is real: the cold of ice cream, and the cold of death.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Russell Lee: 'Soda jerker flipping ice cream into malted milk shakes.' Corpus Christi, Texas, 1939. Via Wikimedia Commons

The generation of Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) is slowly coming out of copyright, which makes more of the second generation of modernist writers available online. For a winter day here in February, the more typical choice might be Stevens’s “The Snow Man.” But there may be something even more compellingly cold about his 1922 poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Like all genuine works of art, the two mostly tetrameter eight-line stanzas are susceptible to several interpretations, but the strongest may be that only the cold is real: the cold of ice cream, and the cold of death. “Let be be finale of seem,” as Stevens writes. “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”

Possibly referencing the poet’s experiences on a visit to Cuba, the first stanza presents a party, replete with sensual images of ice cream being whipped up in a kitchen. The second stanza reveals that the party is a wake in a poor woman’s apartment, her particle-board dresser opened to find the sheet with which to cover her corpse — “how cold she is, and dumb” — from which, in a cruel detail, her callused feet protrude. Both stanzas end with a rhyme and the same conclusion: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” The only thing that’s real is cold, a sign of life in a cup of ice cream and a sign of death in a corpse.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream
by 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.

___________________________________________ 

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul. 


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