Prologues to What Is Possible
There was an ease of mind that was like being alone in a boat at sea,
A boat carried forward by waves resembling the bright backs of rowers,
Gripping their oars, as if they were sure of the way to their destination,
Bending over and pulling themselves erect on the wooden handles,
Wet with water and sparkling in the one-ness of their motion.
The boat was built of stones that had lost their weight and being
no longer heavy
Had left in them only a brilliance, of unaccustomed origin,
So that he that stood up in the boat leaning and looking before him
Did not pass like someone voyaging out of and beyond the familiar.
He belonged to the far-foreign departure of his vessel and was part of it,
Part of the speculum of fire on its prow, its symbol, whatever it was,
Part of the glass-like sides on which it glided over the salt-stained water.
As he traveled alone, like a man lured on by a syllable without
A syllable of which he felt, with an appointed sureness,
That it contained the meaning into which he wanted to enter,
A meaning which, as he entered it, would shatter the boat and leave
the oarsmen quiet
As at a point of central arrival, an instant moment, much or little,
Removed from any shore, from any man or woman, and needing none.
When I was was a graduate student of comparative literature some thirty years ago, one of my professors taught a seminar on the poetry of Wallace Stevens (1879–1955). He did it for sheer love of the work, even though his specialty happened to be Russian poetry. My professor was convinced that Stevens had been a practitioner of meditation. This was a new idea to me at the time, but having read Stevens’ beautiful poems constantly in the intervening years, and having myself practiced meditation for the past decade, I think I see what the professor meant.
A fairly late and little-anthologized Stevens poem is “Prologues to What Is Possible.” The first three of the poem’s six stanzas are presented here. “Prologues” offers a rich array of images that illustrate ideas frequent in Stevens’ work, such as the ecstasy of solitude and interiority. But the poem also presents several salient themes that anyone who has engaged in sitting meditation will recognize. “There was an ease of mind that was like being alone in a boat at sea”—the solitary sitter is at once at rest and in motion, voyaging calmly across an immense element. Nor, it turns out, can this voyager be separated from his vessel. Its motion and substance are his, or he is theirs: “So that he that stood up in the boat leaning and looking before him / Did not pass like someone voyaging out of and beyond the familiar. / He belonged to the farforeign departure of his vessel and was part of it…” The mind becomes part of its surround.
Perhaps the most evocative portion of the excerpt occurs in the third stanza, where Stevens, completing the sentence quoted above, manages to convey the sensation of a consciousness which has dispensed with language. This stanza conjures up a calm inner language at once resonant and rinsed of signification: what an eloquent paradox! Stevens here expresses with lulling beauty a state of mind, at once tranquil, focused, and abstracted, which is very resistant to description. Precisely this difficulty may be hinted at in the poem’s title, which is both promising and elusive. And for the practitioner of meditation, one might add, each session—each moment of each session—is such a prologue.