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MIKE MORAN
WRITING * PERFORMING * RANTING * TEACHING

  
Empty-Headed
an exploration of Wallace Stevens' “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts”

A student shouts in class that the poem covered is stupid and the teacher stresses about how to reach the student for the remainder of the day. A student gets high marks and praise throughout the day, but can only obsess over the fact someone made fun of her car. In the evening, the teacher turns on and plugs into the television and tries hard not to think. The student locks her bedroom door, puts the headphones on, logs on to the computer and chats online. She tries hard not to think.

A lot of us obsess over the little things. We compensate come nighttime by attempting to fill our heads up with nothingness. The worry gets small, but it never goes away. Wallace Stevens plays with this idea in “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.” Stevens' poetry seems to be an odd mixture of firm structure (with the use of a set number of lines per stanza in many of his poems), and almost playful subversiveness. Reality lacks sense, Stevens tells us, and formal structures are only culturally established forms of perceiving it. Stevens will therefore give the reader rich, beautiful images that make sense only within the realm of the poem. This is what’s necessary for a poem like “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.”

In “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” we open with the line, “The difficulty to think at the end of day”... This line works two ways. First, it is true: it is easy to relate to. A hard day at work with the pressures of children or job, makes thought difficult. Secondly, as if to prove the truth of the line, it is structurally the beginning of a sentence which has no close. The line, “[t]he difficulty to think at the end of the day” leads the reader to expect an answer: “is caused by...” or “is relieved by...” but the reader is never given that. The sentence, two lines later, ends on a dash. It fragments the sentence and the thought.

The second stanza gives us a colorful metaphor of daily pressures: a fat, red-tongued, green-minded, milk-slurping cat. This cat, this pressure or worry for the rabbit, is actually “monumental” in the light of day, but “forgotten in the moon”. The speaker also uses bright colors to illustrate the cat: daytime colors—bright red and green—which will be contrasted later in the poem to the “black as stone” rabbit, when the rabbit takes on its “King of Ghosts” aspect.

Beginning in the fourth stanza all manners of the world begin to exist solely for this rabbit: “the light is a rabbit-light”, it begins, and reaches this wild, grandiose notion wherein the rabbit “becomes a self that fills the four corners of night.”

The cat--the worries of the day--hides “in the fur-light”, the light meant for the rabbit. The cat is also “red.” It is still bright; it is still evident. But in the final line the cat becomes “green”, becomes a “bug in the grass.” It is still present in the poem, but insignificant and easy to overlook. It’s green after all, the same color as the grass.

It is easy to entertain the notion of the poem as an attack on egotism: “It is all for you,” the speaker tells the rabbit. But there remains the constants: you are a rabbit and the cat is still present. "It is all for you," the speaker tells the rabbit, but what does the rabbit do with it?

In the final stanza, the rabbit becomes grotesque, “humped higher and higher, black as stone--”. And the rabbit’s head becomes a “carving in space”, a removal of space, a hole where there once was space. There is nothing there where that head is--it is true emptiness; there is no thought whatsoever. Is that what we do with our evenings? And yet, despite the grand vacant thing the rabbit becomes, the poem ends with the image for daily pressure: the cat. It has grown small, perhaps, but it remains the closing image. The pressure remains and it can be assumed that come tomorrow the cat will grow again to its "monumental" size.

We cannot escape the pressures and the worries of the day. The world after the workday is meant for you--it's all for you. So what should we do?

Do not become like a ghost, like a dead thing, like some great unthinking hulk taking up space. Stay the rabbit. Stay the rabbit and run and dance in the "wideness of night." It's all for you.

It's all for you.

~Moran
The Ninth Circle
4/17/03


A Rabbit as King of The Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur--

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushed down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone--
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.


~Wallace Stevens







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