March 9, 2016 | by Marissa Grunes
A vision of Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” at its centenary.
When “Sunday Morning” was first published in the November 1915 issue of Poetry, just over a hundred years ago, Wallace Stevens was thirty-six; the poem was one of his first major publications. He’d recently moved to the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he would spend the rest of his life insuring people against the hazards of sudden change. His professional and poetic lives converged on that fact: everything changes.
A spiritual meditation for a secular era, “Sunday Morning” glows with the ripe colors of late summer and early autumn, brief arc segments of the seasonal cycle whose rhythms Stevens celebrates.
In 2007, my mother, Diane Szczepaniak, a lifelong abstract painter and sculptor, began to memorize “Sunday Morning.” She was unaccustomed to memorization; it became a kind of ritual for her. She kept Stevens’s book by her bed and worked through the poem line by line. As she built each stanza in her memory, she began to paint her experience of the images, music, and emotions carried by the language. The paintings became her “Sunday Morning” series.
At the time, she was painting L-shaped abstract compositions with endless layers of watercolor. She called an early set of these paintings “Dwellings,” and I learned to feel at home in their interlocking fields of color, which she explained represent a cliff fronting sea and sky. In the “Sunday Morning” series, she used this composition to create a large painting for each of the poem’s eight stanzas: expansive watercolors responding to the poem in the abstract.
The interconnected colored fields emerge from thousands of translucent watercolor washes that saturate a sheet of fibrous paper. “I put red on top of blue, blue on top of red, sometimes yellow over everything,” my mother writes, describing the slow, contemplative method by which she applies nearly invisible layers of paint. Over two years, she repeated Stevens’s lines to herself throughout this meditative process, inhabiting each stanza as she translated the poem from page to paint.
So how does an abstract minimalist artist transform the scenes of Stevens’s dynamic poetry into non-figural compositions? In what follows, I’ll suggest ways to run interpretive wiring between the poem and these abstract paintings. The other half of the story, though, comes with the experience of being absorbed into the luminous depth of the paintings, which invites the viewer to look for a long time—the same way Stevens’s shifting images draw a reader into the maze of his poems.
The experiential dimension was vital to Stevens. He knew that his poems, like all productions of “our perishing earth,” are created and received as durations in time. He wrote poems that argue with themselves, refusing to settle down to say any one thing. “The reading of a poem must be an experience. Its writing must be all the more so,” he declared in his collection of aphorisms, Adagia. This “experience” means more than the sequential movement of linear forms such as writing or music. The seemingly motionless visual arts, too, can court “experience.” In the poem “Bouquet” (1950), likely inspired by a still life Stevens owned, the color of a single blossom can be
crowded with apparitions suddenly gone
And no less suddenly here again, a growth
Of the reality of the eye.
Where has reality “grown,” in the bouquet or in the viewer’s eye? Which has changed?
In this spirit, my mother’s “Sunday Morning” paintings ask viewers to look almost as slowly as she paints. The apparently minimal surfaces deepen and change as they take hold of your gaze. They solicit the sort of ardent attention that Stevens pays to textures, colors, smells, and sensations.
In “Sunday Morning,” Stevens meditates on one person’s search for spiritual meaning in the early twentieth century. He imagines Sunday morning spent at home, relishing “complacencies of the peignoir,” coffee, and oranges in a comfortable chair, while the sun glances along a green rug ornamented with tropical motifs. Over this lush scene hover the neglected demands of religious observation, the “holy hush of ancient sacrifice” that for millennia has dictated Western culture’s relation to the material world, morality, and death. When an anonymous woman enters the prismatic, secular setting in the sixth line, she might be any modern reader seeking spiritual answers.
Stevens lived in a period when religious authority was being dismantled at an accelerating pace, and he believed he had a duty as a poet to confront the resulting spiritual vacuum. Setting aside the vexed question of Stevens’s own religion, a reader of “Sunday Morning” is encouraged to find wisdom in the varieties of experience Stevens offers as earthly substitutes for otherworldly bliss.
Stevens rejoices in fleeting phenomena, such as “gusty / Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights,” that exist only where “change of death” holds sway, and that give rise to passions, moods, even ideas. By cultivating imaginative attention to these experiences, Stevens suggests, an observer can discover metaphors that illuminate some aspect of his or her relation to the world. Abstraction is key here—one of his Adagia suggests that “The momentum of the mind is all toward abstraction.”
Some of the visual responses in the paintings seem fairly direct, as in the painting for the first stanza, suffused with the “green freedom of a cockatoo” and acting as herald for Stevens’s verdant poem. But metaphoric relations also occur outside color symbolism. In the almost colorless painting corresponding to the fourth stanza, where warbling birds in the predawn stillness “test the reality / Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings,” faint hues give the mind room to concentrate on composition. The painting’s borders sharpen and assume geometric clarity as an indeterminate pastel color, shading towards marigold, floats from the paper. This colored pathway might conjure the margin of trees or hedges where the birds are sheltering as they test the blankness nearby. No bird has yet entered the field to perceive its full reality, nor will the noonday sun blaze on the “green and actual” world of summer until the following painting.
Taking its title from the stanza’s third line, “Death is the mother of beauty,” the fifth painting uses bold midsummer colors to summon memories of fleeting joy and pleasure’s inevitable decay. Its internal lines hum with energy that surges through the colors. One’s gaze travels not only across but into either field. As one color comes into focus, tension with the peripheral color gathers intensity, until one’s eye is pulled back to the vibrating center, where the balance of space, hue, and contrast is struck.
Subsequent paintings suggest the flecked russet of pears in the sixth stanza, followed by the flaring, “savage” sun of the seventh, and finally the mysterious undulations of pigeons gliding “downward to darkness” in the eighth.
In Stevens’s philosophy, any act of intense perception is a kind of poem. Each such experience joins other vivid, vanishing moments to create the “whole of harmonium”—his projected title for his life’s work. The paintings we’ve been discussing both result from and invite such acts of imaginative perception, participating in the motion and change that “Sunday Morning” celebrates. They conceal themselves from a cursory glance, opening gradually at each encounter.
Marissa Grunes received her B.A. from Yale University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University, where she concentrates on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature. She writes about the literary culture of a World War I internment camp in Germany for Et Seq., a blog of the Harvard Law School Library.