by Wallace Stevens
Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl–
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.
My sister Wizzie once invented useful terms to describe social situations related to boredom. “Bororalflatulence” (boring oral flatulence and yes, we like bathroom humor) is boring chatter that goes on endlessly. One can be subjected to another’s bororalflatulence, one can participate in it and still see no way of getting out, or one can be the sole source. This last situation can lead to the second term: “constaboreka” is the sudden realization of one’s own boringness. This epiphany usually occurs mid-sentence. The building block words are “eureka” and both “constant” and “constipated.”
I experience constaboreka when I think I’m talking to a dull person. I assume my conversational partner doesn’t know or care about the difference between “fascinating” and “today I folded laundry,” and so I use the opportunity to blabber on and on until I notice stifled yawns. It’s always a mistake to label someone boring. A dull person may actually be an electric soul hampered by introverted or socially awkward manners.
A sense that feverish life pulses beneath even the dullest of persons and places was the reason I left Wallace Stevens’ “Gray Room” at the orthodontist office. Dullness is positively viral at an orthodontist office. (Perhaps Wizzie should invent a term for the contagion of boredom.) One of the most boring spots on earth, and I include in that comparison the hardware store and theaters playing Last Year at Marienbad, orthodontist offices are usually gray or beige, with stacks of dog-eared magazines that promise new new new and latest this latest that but prove stale and tedious. People thumbing through those magazines rarely converse and avoid eye contact.
But reading this poem reminds me that if we only knew what everyone in the waiting room were thinking or had been through or were waiting for or dreaded or dreamed about, if all those thoughts zoomed our of our heads and zinged around the room, the beige office would rock like a nightclub. Look, here comes sad-eyed Dr. B, our orthodontic Walter Mitty, bursting into the waiting room, twitching and thrusting in his gray trousers, growling out his suppressed desires.
The day I left Steven’s poem at Dr. B’s office also happened to be the day my daughter got her braces off. This was one of the most anticipated events of her life so far. Surely her heart was beating as furiously as the woman’s in the poem and surely there were other excited souls nearby. But we all sat there like hungover frat boys in a lecture hall, slumping, silent, and hoping for a text message. Had we only a poet to show us what was hidden, the time might have passed faster.
In Stevens’ “Gray Room” the poet’s careful examination of the room and the woman occupying it becomes an animating force that uncovers energy and color. The gray room, dull at first, is actually decorated with tones of silver, white, green, red and yellow. The woman too is not what she seems. She moves the leaf with a single finger, lifts and drops her necklace. Her languid movements signal more than boredom. She is filling the room with her intense sensuality. The organic materials Wallace mentions—straw, willow, leaf, forsythia—-highlight the throbbing life underneath her tedium. Like those of us trapped in the orthodontist office, this woman is waiting for something.
My favorite line is the abrupt What is all this? Stevens calls her out, in today’s lingo, on her pretense of ennui. Wouldn’t it be astounding and marvelous for someone to walk into the waiting room and say that? What is all this? We look up from last month’s People magazine with our hearts beating furiously. What does each of us answer?
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) must have known something about boredom, working as he did in the insurance industry. His early ambition was to be a writer, but after a stint as a journalist, he went to law school. He joined a law firm, left to work in insurance and eventually became vice president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. So there’s his gray room. In his 3-piece suit he looks like a gray man, a softer Herbert Hoover, but looks, as we know, are deceiving.
I’ve never been fond of Stevens because his poems are too difficult for a lazy reader like me. But this poem and two facts endear me to him:
1. He seems to have dealt with a writing block that is usually the province of women writers. Parenthood made it hard to write, he said, and he stopped writing for nine years after the birth of his daughter Holly. Some of his most important work was written after age 50. I do love a late-bloomer.
2. When he first published poems he wrote under the name “Peter Parasol.” Such a silly pseudonym for a man Harold Bloom has called “the best and most representative American poet of our time.”
Since I’m making lists, here’s another:
1. Fun fact: Stevens’ wife Elsie was the model for the face of the Winged Cap Dime, in use from 1916-1945. (Roosevelt’s profile followed.)
2. A less fun fact: I’ve spent over forty hours of my life at this orthodontist office. Four kids with braces times 1 hour each visit times an average of 6 visits a year times 2 years (minimum). I could go on but yikes I’ve been struck by constaboreka.