Schuyler's Flowers #1: Carl Phillips on "The Bluet"

“Schuyler’s Flowers” is the name of a little project about the poems of James Schuyler and other stuff I like. I will be posting bits here as I finish them —LG

Putrefaction is the end
Of all that Nature doth intend.
—Robert Herrick

Schuyler's deceptive affability lends itself to wishful misinterpretations that approach his poems with such an overdeveloped anticipation of coziness and familiarity that hardly a word is ever actually read. Take for example the poet Carl Phillips's interpretation of Schuyler's 1974 poem, "The Bluet" (here’s Schuyler reading the poem), which he delivered at the Poet's House in April of 2018 (you can read Phillips’s talk here).

Phillips's reading of the poem, in which a bluet is seen blooming in a cold, lifeless October landscape, concludes that "far from estrangement, Schuyler shows how our engagement with the natural world—precisely because of the anthropomorphizing aspect of that engagement—can remind us that a defining part of being human is to be social." The springtime bluet, blooming unseasonably in late October, is a reminder of the deep desire for community and companionship which we discover in the depths of our loneliness. The poem, Phillips suggests, "offers a kind of secular Transcendentalism, in which the speaker is cheered up in a gloomy season."

Phillips focuses on a few instances of figurative language (comparisons between the autumn air and a water cracker, of the flower and the unexpected tear of a friend) in the poem in order to make his point. His suggestion that the snapping of a "crisp [...] Carr's table water / biscuit" is like the breaking of break ("the sharing of [food], the communion that dining can be"), has the same incongruity that Paul de Man finds in the translation from German into French of Brot und Wein and pain et vin, the latter which he points out is "what you get for free [...] in a cheap restaurant," and for that reason "has very different connotations from Brot und Wein."

Early in the poem, Schuyler refers to the bluet as a "Quaker lady," which is merely another term for the flower, and while Phillips concedes this point parenthetically, he cannot help but read it as a metaphor that brings "human companionship for the speaker" and subsequently attempts to read into a single Quaker lady bluet the entire community of Friends. Not only does such an interpretation find no support in anything actually in the poem, it disregards the sense of the solitude in this central image. The flower not only "freaks/forth" but is itself a freak, a nonconformist, something unpredictable or "unexpected," as Schuyler suggests later in the poem; untimely, even ("last / spring, next spring, what / does it matter?"). While every other aspect of nature conforms to the expectations of a landscape in late fall (brown leaves, gray trees, frosty air), the bluet appears as a mad, tragic exception. The poem's final lines—"That bluet breaks / me up, tiny spring flower / late, late in dour October"—seem to teeter equally between a happy surprise at seeing this freak of blue and the sad knowledge of its lonely fate. Such ambiguity exists in the very phrase "to break up," both a sudden burst of laughter and emotional devastation.

Phillips's reading seems unconcerned with the fact that the poem begins with a question: "And is it stamina / that unseasonably freaks / forth a bluet, a / Quaker lady, by / the lake?" This ambivalence that the rest of the poem evokes as if in answer should keep us from agreeing with Phillips that the bluet's "unseasonable appearance suggests a stamina that the speaker (by implication) seems to have despaired of finding for himself." It's just as likely that the lone bluet serves as the objective correlative of a feeling of isolation and loneliness, of being out of joint with the world and not surrounded by a community to which one can belong. The "what / does it matter?" then, whether last or next spring, cannot be taken only as an affirmative “it’s all good.” The "stamina" that Phillips sees as buttressing and salvific takes on by the end of the poem the character of painful, self-destructive compulsion. Were we to push this counter-reading to its limit, we might find the unexpected tear that falls "when someone / reads a poem you wrote / for him," is not a tear of joy, since tears shed at a poem written in love and friendship would not be unexpected—unless the ambivalence of the poet's love only became apparent in poetic form. But that would shade into a willful misreading not unlike Phillips’s.

Few commenters have noted the strain of ambiguity that winds through nearly every one of Schuyler's poems. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes sitting at a window in the early morning in winter or on a Sunday evening in late summer is intimately familiar with the call and response of tranquility and anxiety that never resolve. If one is attentive enough and is not lured into the contentment of platitudes and mild but unreflective optimism, which are the repudiations of thought, what one discovers in the solitude of the windowsill, where the very medium of access is the mode of alienation, is that anxiety is not tranquility's opposite but what remains (or ceases to remain) when the sense of the world as a meaningful totality evaporates. Schuyler’s poems are like the windows from where he seems often to write them, opening onto the world through the frame’s demarcation, the view afforded by a protective alienation. There is something of Mallarmé’s “Une dentelle s’abolit” in all of Schuyler’s windows. And though this poem is not one of his looking-out-a-window poems (including, as it does, a description of the crisp, cider-smelling air), the bluet freaking forth functions like a white splotch of breath contracting on a windowpane, keeping in mind that the word “unanime” in Mallarmé’s poem has its root in the Latin for “one breath.”

Cet unanime blanc conflit
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Enfuit contre la vitre bleme
Flotte plus qu’il n’ensevelit

(This uniform white conflict
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Flees against the pale window,
Floats more than its hides)

In the same way the breath makes visible the otherwise clear window which frames the world outside, the bluet is a mistake whose tragic exception gives focus to the otherwise uniform landscape. The unexpected tear is the effect of the tragic realization of some fundamental incongruence—”last / spring, next spring,” love comes too soon or too late, never on time, though what does it matter? Timeliness, impossible as it is, is a fantasy through which we feed on our own painful disappointment. Schuyler’s bluet is a counter-image to the fantasy of a more perfect union: here is something solitary, a freak, a fragile refutation, counter to everything around it. Alone, it stands (cognates with “stamina” and entstehen like Hölderlin’s Blumen).

The incongruence and untimeliness belongs to nature itself, which mistakenly freaks forth this unseasonable blossom—except not as a mistake. Nature is the mother of freaks only to the extent that nature’s very being is a refutation of wholeness and perfection, without which the very sense of the word ‘mistake’ is lost. We are estranged from nature not because of some human flaw or supernatural faculty but because nature is principally estrangement. If anything, Schuyler is inviting us to love this estrangement not because of its unique and fleeting beauty or because it is a testament to a deeper reality or more persistent truth, but because we have no choice, or rather, the choice is only ill-timed love or no love at all.