Friday, November 15, 2013

The Idea of Order in Key West

It's Poetry Friday and I'm rambling on about my recent trip to Key West. Be sure to stop by Jama's Alphabet Soup for her latest concoction of poetry!

 Last week the hubs and I took a much needed November vacation. We flew to Miami and rented a car, drove down into the Keys, through the mangrove swamps lining either side of the road, across the seven-mile bridge, all the way to Key West. We stopped in Key Largo for Cuban coffee (oh, so good!) and a glimpse of the African Queen, the old steam boat famous for the scenes between Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. The Queen currently takes sightseeing tours out into the Atlantic on motor power, but the steam engine is currently being recreated, and she will once again sail on her own steam. 

They say Truman's Little White House is one of the best kept secrets in Key West. What great history this place holds. It was originally the Navy Commandant's House until Truman began using it for his presidential trips to the Keys. He originally went on doctor's orders for rest and loved the place so much he once wrote in a letter to Bess, "I've a notion to move the capital to Key West and just stay." Some pretty historic documents were discussed and signed here--The Marshall Plan, the firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and the executive order integrating the armed forces. 

Chickens roamed the grounds! Many other presidents have visited and stayed here. And when they go, they actually have to pay to stay. 

Truman's catch of the day--a six-pound grouper and a three-pound yellowtail. 
U.S. Navy photo, Harry S Truman Library
I am making my way to the literary world of the island. Hemingway's gorgeous house is a full of light and air. He was prolific while here, and I can see why. Such a beautiful place to write.
Hemingway's House in Key West is still home to 50-75 poly dactyl cats--all descendants of Hemingway's original brood of felines. 
A well-fed, fat cat on Hemingway's bed.
Hemingway's writing studio.

And finally to poetry! 

Wallace Stevens loved the island, too. He once wrote, "It was very much like a cloud full of Cuban senoritas, coconut palms, and waiters carrying ice water."

Stevens and Hemingway reportedly had a fist fight in Key West. Both were inebriated. Stevens insulted Hemingway to his sister. She went home crying and Hemingway went looking for Stevens. They met in the street where Hemingway knocked Stevens down, but Hem was still wearing his glasses. Bystanders called for Hemingway to take them off. When he did, Stevens punched him the jaw, but only succeeded in breaking his own hand in two places. After that, Hemingway thrashed him and left him in a puddle. Later Hemingway wrote in a letter, "But on mature reflection I don't know anybody needed to be hit worse than Mr. S."

Don't you just love hearing the stories, the stuff life is made of?  Hemingway fightng his demons, most likely he was bipolar with a history of suicide running through the pages of the family album. Stevens wrestling with his own disassociated worlds of poetry and  business. 

Oh, but the art. The words. 

From Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea:

“He always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as 'el mar' which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”

Sunset cruise on the Schooner America 2.0. (I even got to steer!)

The Idea of Order at Key West
by Wallace StevensShe sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Read the rest here.


  1. I've never been to Key West -- what a fascinating and beautiful place. Loved all the photos, tidbits and stories you shared. Interesting about Stevens and Hemingway! And all those cats -- who knew? Thanks for the mini tour. :)

    1. Yes, there are cats roaming everywhere, and apparently they are treated so well they never leave until they are buried in the cat cemetery on the grounds.

  2. You sold me on a visit to Key West! I am listening to Wallace Stevens read the poem as I type this. He had a marvelous voice.

    1. It's quite an interesting place. Long drive, but definitely worth the visit.

  3. I just had a vicarious, culturally and aesthetically rich vacation via your words! Thank you

  4. I loved seeing the photos here and on Facebook Dori. It sounds like a wonderful time. I love going to Florida on vacation, a different world! Thanks for the poem, too, what a story he told!

    1. It was a wonderful, much-needed rest. Key West has a unique charm that's all it's own. Like being in a completely separate world from the rest of reality.

  5. Such a treat to see photos of your vacation Dori. It sounds glorious. How beautiful are these lines:

    "For she was the maker of the song she sang.
    The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
    Was merely a place by which she walked to sing."


    1. I remember studying this poem in school. Stevens is exploring the relationship between art and reality, the imagination, the idea that art can change the way we look at the world. It's a pretty cool poem when you start to dig into it.

  6. I love the opening image of the sea fluttering its empty sleeves. I've always wanted to visit Key West. Thanks for this travelogue + poetry. Does visiting the place change your experience of a place poem?