Those of you who have read Dan’s essays on Cosmoetica may have remembered this little claim that he made in his Wallace Stevens/William Shakespeare essay.
OK, Yellow Afternoon 1st. This is a poem that conceptually is light years beyond the Elizabethan mind. It is in my view probably Stevens’ best poem, yet it is almost absent from anthologies or discussions of Stevens. Not only is it a great poem but it is damned near a perfect poem- something that is a quantity parallel to greatness in that great poems can have flaws & still be great while a perfect poem merely has nothing which could replace it without lessening it. It succeeds so well at what it endeavors that to change it is to destroy it. Oddly, a perfect poem is not always a great poem. I’ve written a few perfect poems & a lot of great poems. Once I wrote a poem called Congoleum Footfalls that was as perfect a dream poem as I’ve ever read- it so totally invoked the dream states, yet in doing so it could not be great. It was just a perfect illustration- nothing else could be construed nor imbued into it. Not a great poem but perfect. Yellow Afternoon, however, achieves this dufecta! I think it stands as both a summation of & a turn away from the rest of Stevens’ corpus. It rivals Plath’s Among The Narcissi, Frost’s Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening, Crane’s The Broken Tower, Cullen’s Incident, Shelley’s Ozymandias, & Berryman’s The Ball Poem as great poems which are perfect, & poems which top off, turn away from &, yet, embody a poet’s oeuvre.
And for those of you who might be wondering exactly what this ‘Congoleum Footfalls’ is all about anyway – well, that’s exactly the poem I’ll be touching on in this article!
Now, my usual method of analysis so far has been a line by line reading of a poem, teasing out the meaning – and showing various interpretations that could be taken by different frames of mind. But I feel that I cannot do such a thing for Congoleum Footfalls for the reason that Dan stated – that, in the end, CF is more of a mood poem than a meaning poem – and it is more about the effect it invokes than a specific comment. Of course, this isn’t to say that interpretation isn’t possible – but that I feel it is a better strategy to attack this poem from the direction of mood, and compare and contrast it with other poems of the same sort that invoke such things – and see how Dan innovates to push CF above many other poems of its sort.
So, before I move into the poem – here is a modest selection of many other poems (taking the entire spectrum good to bad) that have been described as dreamlike, or have had that kind of waking/sleeping imagery imbued into them. If you Google ‘dream poem analysis’, the immediate first result you get is the definitive dream poem – Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. But here are a few others:
A random prose poem from Trakl
Morning of Drunkenness by Rimbaud
A Dream Within A Dream by Poe (less dreamlike than the name implies)
A random prose poem from Surrealist Don Andre Breton
John Donne’s The Dream (Contains more meaning than just being about dreams)
Parisian Dream by Baudelaire
On A Dream by Keats (Also less dreamlike than the name implies)
Relating to Robinson by Weldon Kees
The Solar Anus by George Bataille
And, just for an extra, the short story Super-Frog Saves Tokyo by Haruki Murakami
And, after going through that modest selection – we move on to Congoleum Footfalls!
Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.
This poem is copyrighted by Dan Schneider.
Now, this label of ‘dreamlike poetry’ has been constantly abused for the sake of slapping together varied imagery that has a loose internal logic. Yet, our dreams are a lot more structured than we think – and there is a shifting logic between states even though the content itself is less structured. There is also the overall structure of sleeping to wakening (best shown in Plath’s Ariel) itself. It is more powerful to create a dreamlike vision through enforcing a strong sense of environment, and then twisting it – like what Kees, Coleridge, and Trakl have done. On the other hand, Breton is sloppy:
“The black crown resting on my head is a cry of migrating crows because up till now there have only been those who were buried alive, and only a few of them, and here I am the first aerated dead man. But I have a body so I can stop doing myself in, so I can force reptiles to admire me. Bloody hands, misteltoe eyes, a mouth of dried leaves and glass (the dried leaves move under the glass; they’re not as red as one would think, when indifference exposes its voracious methods), hands to gather you, miniscule thyme of my dreams, rosemary of my extreme pallor. I don’t have a shadow anymore, either.”
Imagine if you had placed this chunk of text as the stuff that Robinson begins spouting in Kees’ poem. It would have made the poem worse, and more overwritten, but it would have given Breton’s text a greater sense of the uncanny through the context it was placed in.
Dan’s poem is one where form follows function, and his structure makes it one of the most cohesive invocations of dream to have been written. The 5-part structure is built like this:
Primary Invocation (process of sleeping)
Sestina (hazy slumber)
Proem (core dream)
Whitman/Ginsberg-esque Anaphora + fragmentary poesy (regaining control)
Repetition of Primary Invocation (process of waking)
Besides that, the environment comes together in spurts through the first part & the sestina, hardens into a concrete place in the Proem, and loosens up by the fourth part. There are even little transitions in between the parts (L’envoy & the “…congoleum footfalls dopplerize”) to further create the flow between states.
I feel like the greatest innovation of the poem is the Sestina in Mindstorm, because of how well it syncs to the title. The repetition of last words in differing order, combined with the setting of the nightmare corridor where the footfalls thud on the Congoleum pushes the sensations all the way – and, in fact, the first connection that my mind made was to the Silent Hill series of horror games, where you wander in dark nightmare corridors fighting off mannequins and twisted body shapes.
But, the structure would also fail if there was no music in its parts, and here are some examples of the music:
Internal rhyme ‘ing’ in “Bedouin scrambling down the halls shrieking”
‘O’ sounds in – “building dark diapasons loosing forth in the congoleum”
“footfalls, renting a dream dying from the limb” – ‘O’ sounds cut off with the comma, segueing into two internal rhymes & ‘e’ or ‘I’ sounds.
“rolling down the chambered hall churning as it envies” –motion invoked through ‘ll’, ‘ch’ and ‘ng’ sounds.
“gangrened in the dissected dolor of this congoleum” – ‘O’ sounds in latter part.
And there are also alliterations in all the lines above.
Then we come to the proem, which shows how you should actually do rhythm for such a form.
“Night. Alone. In a dormitory. Congoleum footfalls dopplerize.” – the repetition of this 7 ‘O’ sounds opening creates a strong sense of somnolence.
A knock. I cast back shadings of the lunar glow as I rise from my bed. A knock. Katydid chirps return to the background fuzz. A knock. I walk to the door and open. Two girls. Fear in their eyes. Congoleum footfalls mean trespassers to them. Two girls fearing for their safety, I reassure. I will check things out. To their room across the hall I send them.
The starting part of this proem utilizes short bursts of sentences before the later parts will go into longer lines with less punctuation. Notice how tight the mood is as opposed to either the Solar Anus or the Breton proem. But it’s a lot closer to Trakl in its style of setting up a dark expressionist environment. When the narrator actually steps into the corridor to search, only then does the poem expand.
Tenigued, I venture down the bare lit hallways suffused in dim amber with footfalls just ahead, just around the corner, just beyond the closed door to the stairwell. Up to the second floor I stride still behind the footfalls cynosial to my quest.
And there are also a lot of Latinate science & medical/biological invoking terms to create that abandoned hospital/zombie movie atmosphere – ‘petri’, ‘fetus’, ‘hypnogogy’, ‘hypnopompic’, ‘corneal’, ‘jaundiced’ etc… I am not sure what cynosial means because nothing comes up on Google, but it reminds me of cyanosis, and the word itself has that medical mood that fits.
(edit: As Dan clarified in comments – Cynosure)
Around halfway through, the mood becomes thicker and ornate in its imagery – doubling up on the grotesque feeling of the circus, bringing up a couple of references (Romero, Alice in Wonderland, Mardi Gras), outlining the feeling of the hallway with thick descriptions of ambiguous horror states (arms & faces coming from the walls, looking into dim mirrors and fearing their pull). A lot of these are horror tropes, seen frequently in movies & video games, taken to powerful extremes through the language. It all culminates into the description of two figures – a vomiting zombie-thing and the narrator’s dad – and then he runs into a crowd of people to chase the zombie-thing, and then the entire crowd warps into zombies too, and the dream peters out into the small bursts of sentences like before.
Moving on to Subsumption – this is where the poem seems to mirror the flow in Ariel – the sense of waking up and regaining control. The anaphora of ‘I am’ pushes the focus in, while also linking up with an earlier repetition of ‘I am’ – yet, the imagery in every part of this section is still in that disjunctive dream state, which helps outline the struggle.
Eventually, the poem ‘dives up’ into the reconstitution of the self upon wakening, also reflected in how the lengthy ‘I am’ lines condense into small spurts of poetry.
Finally, we come to the last part – which parallels the start to invoke the sense of slumber dimming into clarity. The imagery changes from the nightmarish ‘expressionistic horror of a looming menace’ into ‘stone apathy’, ‘no menaced pulse reflecting’, ‘late rumblings of a wraithic gait’ – a softer thrust.
We can see this perfect invocation of a mood in glimpses through past poetry – but everything comes together here. Wakening & fragmentary short poesy in Plath Ariel. Dark atmosphere & prose poetry in Trakl. Surrealistic spasms of imagery done better than many so-called Surrealists. Twisting of the normal into the uncanny from Kees. The ornate symbols of the Romanticists and the Gothics. Congoleum Footfalls encompasses all of them into its structure. It showcases a fine-tuning of all these techniques into a poem that best encompasses the experience of dreaming. Although it lacks a cohesive meaning – it shows more of the poet’s sprawling expertise than anything else.
I think this poem also proves that even if a poet merely wants to invoke a mood or atmosphere rather than meaning – there are also complex and imaginative ways to create such a thing without merely diving into pure feeling or automatic writing like Breton did. Like how composers of Symphonies will have specific structures within their works even though music is all about feeling, the structure of the poem has a sound logic even though the content within is dreamlike. And it is this logic of form, and not the merely the content’s mood – that defines the poem as perfect.