Friday, July 10, 2009

"The angel at the center of this rind": Wallace Stevens & Hawai`i's pineapple culture

Nothing quite says Hawai`i vacation to the tourist like a pineapple. Airplanes leaving Honolulu fill with travelers whose carry-ons include pineapples packaged in neat boxes, the Dole logo displayed prominently in red. When my father returned from his yearly business trip to Hawai`i in the 1970s, he always brought us a pineapple. More oddly, perhaps, a neighbor in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I taught for a year and a half in the late 1980s, flew a pineapple flag outside the front door. When I asked what the pineapple meant, I was told it was a sign of welcome, of hospitality. Googling "Williamsburg and pineapple," I find pineapples galore in the architecture and culture of colonial Williamsburg, along with ads for pineapple door stops, a table top pineapple votive candle holder, a handmade pineapple mug, pineapple glassware, pineapple soap, pineapple garden stake, a "folk art Santa with pineapple needlepoint, a pineapple snow globe bottle stopper, pineapple rugs and mats, pineapple plaques and flags, pineapple night light . . . I could fill this blog box and more with pineapple kitsch. Suffice it to say that the pineapple is both more (and less) than a fruit; it symbolizes leisure time, hospitality, even Christianity (Christopher Wren used pineapple finials on churches in the late 17th century).

None of the pineapples I've mentioned thus far appears in a field of red earth, irrigated by water contended for by more than one part of an island, picked by laborers and machines, shipped thousands of miles, placed on store shelves; instead, these "pineapples" rest on tables or stop doors or hang from poles. The pineapples my father brought home had nothing to do with ground, but everything to do with ornament (of the kitchen counter, the dining room table) and with an exotic sweet-sour taste that I never quite took to. Though, to be fair to my father, who grew up on a farm, he marveled at Hawai`i's red earth when he saw it. My mother also used pineapples out of cans, which cut the sour and added considerable sweet to the equation.

Wallace Stevens wrote "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together," a poem he left out of his collected, but which can be found in the Library of America edition as part of "Three Academic Pieces." Less likeable than Stevens's poem on two pears, this excursus on fruit and the imagination presents the pineapple as a replacement skylark. Where Shelley used the imagined bird as fertilizer for his metaphorical frenzy, Stevens uses the real pineapple as a goad to figuration, as well as a warning against it, ending with what he terms "prolific ellipses," or the gaps rapidly (rabidly) filled in by the poet's imagination.

In the second stanza, we find the pineapple already tabled:

It is something on a table that he sees,
The root of a form, as of this fruit, a fund,
The angel at the center of this rind, (LoA 693)

Stevens, who called money poetry, calls this fruit a "fund." Lucky they don't grow in hedges. Fundamental to his observation of the pineapple is its appearance as "imagined artifice," not a double negative for "real fruit," but a marvelous description of a fruit that looks so baroque it might well be imagined. And so, since "These casual exfoliations are / Of the tropic of resemblence," at once tropical in origin and trope-ical in trajectory, Stevens riffs on them:

Day, night and man and his endless effigies.
If he sees an object on a table, much like
A jar of the shoots of an infant country, green

And bright, or like a venerable urn,
Which, from the ash within it, fortifies
A green that is the ash of what green is (694)

Elsewhere in the poem he refers to the pineapple as "a table Alp," doubly displacing the fruit from its soil in the tropics to Switzerland, albeit making a fine visual (if not a pleasant sounding) pun on the pineapple as Matterhorn. Can the pineapple as clockworks be far behind?

According to Gary Y. Okihiro, in Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones (UC Press 2009), the tropics have long presented the temperate zones with a conundrum. From the tropics come wealth and good food, danger and illness. Hence (to make a very long story short) the plantation system, where natives and workers/slaves from Asia and Africa performed the hard labor in the tropics, and well-to-do citizens of the temperate zones (from Scotland to Williamsburg, Virginia) enjoyed the shoots of those infant countries, shoots that also (in ways that few tourists carrying their boxed pineapple can imagine) killed. Stevens was more incisive in his view of the imagination when he wrote that "poetry can kill a man"--if not poetry then what inspires it, the pineapple and the labor it takes to grow it. Something Stevens may not have imagined. These days, "It Must be Abstract" gives way to "It Must be Material." For better and for worse.

Reading Kane`ohe: A History of Change, one of the marvelous 1970s-era reports on the archeology and natural history of the windward side of O`ahu that I find in the Public Library, I see that I live in an area that was farmed with pineapple in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pineapple, rice, and sugar were planted by outsiders, and replaced the indigenous culture of taro. There was a large cannery at Matson Point nearby, where the old Pineapple Hut (crumbling tourist trap) has been crumbling for decades. This cannery was built on the site of a heiau, or Hawaiian sacred site, and was rumored to have failed because of it. Pineapple has moved away from Kane`ohe, from Lana`i, from most of Hawai`i, where it is too expensive to produce compared to Thailand or the Philippines. But my husband brought home a "Maui Gold organic" the other day, a pineapple with a large label designed to appeal to anyone who likes his fruit hand-picked, organic, and locally grown.

Okihiro's book is very good at showing how Hawai`i pineapple became an object of desire more than a fruit, as much artifice as foodstuff, and hence an object of advertising. (The photos here are of a neighbor's garden down the hill; the pineapples are ornamental, nearly as artificial as the other objects in the garden.) Georgia O'Keeffe got a three-month junket to Hawai`i from the Dole company to paint; she came up with many paintings of Hawai`i, but only one of a pineapple, and that a bud. James D. Dole himself said: "Perhaps the romantic nature of the pineapple hit me, don't you think? You know it has a personality; an 'IT'" (129). Or, as Stevens writes: "the incredible, also, has its truth" (695). The advent of plantation culture and advertising meant that no longer were pineapples the province only of the rich, but also of the middle class. While a 1909 Ladies Home Journal ad for Hawaiian Pineapple shows a worker bent over in a field of pine, a large hat on his head and floppy sack on his arched back (146), other ads highlighted practical uses for the pineapple, and emphasized the can more than the field. "The freshness and tenderness of ripeness, the flavor of Nature, canned on the field in sanitary cans" reads another LHJ ad from 1909 (145). Agency is gone: who canned them on the field? Part of the sanitation, it seems, is the "ellipsis" where labor was. Pineapples are magical, after all, objects as notable for what the observer does not see as for what Stevens does:

The small luxuriations that portend

Universal delusions of universal grandeurs,
The slight incipiencies, of which the form,
At last, is the pineapple on the table or else

An object the sum of its complications, seen
And unseen. (696)

Among the pineapple's qualities--more aptly, those of its observer--is its status as a waystation between beauty and danger. Okihiro quotes one of King Ferdinand's envoys to the "new world" as writing that the plant has a "very sharp thorny thistle with long prickly leaves . . . very wild," even as is was "lovely" and "delicate." "Paradise," Okihiro concludes, "Europe's Orient, was indeed both civil and savage" (89). In "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together" Stevens tries to mitigate the natural dangers (if not those of the "evilly compounded, vital I" as he puts it elsewhere) by absorbing nature into thought:

The fruit so seen
As a part of the nature that he contemplates
Is fertile with more than changes of the light

On the table or in the colors of the room. (694)

And a few lines later: "There had been an age / When a pineapple on the table was enough" (695). Stevens intends a sufficiency before thought, ratiocination, scholarship. He expresses a nostalgia for the object itself. But as Okihiro points out, Stevens's own desire had a historical basis. "Captives of those wants and initiatives, Indians and their material culture, including the pineapple, were spoils of imperial designs, annexations of conspicuous wealth and power than encircled the globe. . . But it was expensive, that mastery over nature" (92). I do not want to do a "Stevens is insufficiently aware of the ramifications of imperialism and capitalism" riff. It would be too easy to accuse a businessman from New England (where the missionaries hearkened from) of such a lack of imaginative knowledge. Stevens has his strengths. Among them, even, is his awareness that the pineapple is an amazing work of natural art, one that can inspire a poet as much as bird or vase or constellation. But I do want to add a layer to another of his poems (a better one) about table-gazing, "The Poems of Our Climate."

Okihiro spends many dozens of pages at the beginning of his book on the meanings accorded to climate by scholars of geography and race; much of this chronicle is profoundly depressing. The globe, as divvied up by scholars like Ellsworth Huntington (in 1915) or Ellen Churchill Semple (in 1911), was divided between temperate zones and their industrious folk, and the tropical zones, with their lazy louts. Whether framed as an issue of climate or one of race pure and simple, these early scholars ("the forfeit scholar coming in," to take Stevens out of context) justified empire as enlightened behavior rather than remarking on the theft it was. Read in this context, Stevens's poem on climate is not simply an allegory of the mind, but of the mind in such a world, one that creates unfulfillable desires for a paradise where fruit grows and savages need to be saved. His poem begins with a "brilliant bowl" on a table, a simple day in which the poet's mind (is "evilly compounded, vital I") still "would want more . . . need more"):

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Not that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds. (Collected 193-194).

While Stevens misses out on the material history of the bowl (I'm seeing in my mind's eye a picture of one of the crystal bowls from Williamsburg, decorated with pineapples), he gets at something profound about the western mind and its desires. He was publishing these poems in the mid-1940s (in war-time, in other words) and the early 1950s (the age of suburban abundance). [Hat tip to Jon Morse for pdf and dates.] What is worst (and best) about the Western imagination is its propensity to want. The poet's imagination (metaphorically) travels in search of desired objects. The strength of Stevens's imagination, in this poem if not in the later pineapple poem, is in his awareness that what paradise there is involves search more than finding.

And, via the pineapple, Stevens is also aware of the dangers of making metaphor at the expense of the object. In an earlier piece, "Poem Written at Morning," he avers that:

A sunny day's complete Poussiniana
Divide it from itself. It is this or that
And it is not.

His proof text is the pineapple:

By metaphor you paint
A thing. Thus, the pineapple was a leather fruit,
A fruit for pewter, thorned and palmed and blue,
To be served by men of ice. (LoA 198)

But the truth is more complicated, involves "experience," touch, "the total thing." Unable to resist his own desires, the poet ends with metaphor, but this time it seems well earned (urned?): "Green were the curls upon that head."

So, to Okihiro's assertion that desire was created in the "'inarticulate longings' of white middle-class women," and the pineapple was rendered "safe for the homefront even as Hawai`i's annexation and the absorption of other distant colonies made their products 'domestic'" (190), I would respond yes, but. That desire was evoked in the ever so articulate longings of Wallace Stevens leaves us with poetry that explores (if not with the historical and material consciousness we might wish) the process of travel and desire in the western imagination. Stevens's pineapple poems may seem to this reader too abstract in some ways, but they are not ever safe.

[added a bit later: painting by A.M. Cassandre]

1 comment:

Cloudia said...

I nominate you for
Pineapple Princess, Sistah!

Comfort Spiral