The Emperor of Ice Cream

Where does joy begin?  Is it possible to move through and beyond pain into joy?  Florence, a reader, posed questions like this at the same time there was an exchange going on over my challenge to the adage “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

It is long past time for me to answer Florence and to talk about joy.  In this post I want to present a poem that brings us to experience joy and fun in the context of a somber occasion.  This poem is Wallace Stevens‘ “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.

 When I first encountered this poem in college, I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I loved the sounds and the rhythm of the words and the delightful refrain, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”  Whatever that meant.

It turns out that the poem concerns the death of a poor woman, whose neighbors have come into her apartment to prepare the place and her body for the wake, including the muscular cigar maker whipping “concupiscent curds” into ice cream .  Like my mother’s funeral this is going to be an ice-cream party.

Except for the refrain, all the sentences in the poem are commands—call, bid, let, bring, take, spread.  Their tone is such that the speaker does not sound like a funeral director or a member of the clergy.  In my mind, “the emperor of ice-cream” has always been the one speaking.  Someone so at ease as to be in command and playful in the face of death, at ease with poverty (flowers wrapped in newspaper, broken handles on the dresser drawers, a sheet too short to cover the body) and death (the cold, dumb face of the woman, her horny feet).  “Let the lamp affix its beam” to her partially covered body.  Face death and celebrate.  “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”

The joy experienced in this poem reminds me of the joy felt by the Zen master Soko Morinaga Roshi when he learned of the death of an old woman who had been very serious for years in her Buddhist practice and in housekeeping for the monks.  What filled Morinaga Roshi with joy were the last words of Miss Okamoto:  “Looking back, I have led a pretty stuffy life all these years. So I think I’ll just take a ball and go out and play in the woods now.” He rejoiced that she had reached the “samadhi of play.”



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