Emperor of Ice Cream

August 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROBERT PINSKY: Summer is supposed to be a time of hedonism. This summer, for example, is supposed to mark the 97th anniversary of the invention of the ice cream cone.

But summer can also be a time of hedonism’s exhaustion, the subtle depression that dogs the pursuit of pleasure– even simple, sensuous pleasure. Wallace Stevens wrote great poems about pleasure, about pleasure’s subtle, gloomy underside, and sometimes about both at once. Stevens has a way of making even despair seem like a rich, sensuous experience. 

Here’s his poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.