The Emperor of Ice-Cream is one of Wallace Stevens’ best poems, also one of his strangest.

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.

Opaque as hell, but critics (like Helen Vendler in Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire) cracked the basic narrative well enough. A reasonable overview:

In a city somewhere, probably in a hot climate, possibly in Key West (where Stevens vacationed from 1922 on), an old woman has died. The narrator is tasked with dignifiying the death and possibly preparing the body. Life continues to go about in a kitchen (maybe the dead woman’s own kitchen). Young people are flirting, a muscular man is making ice cream (this is described in remarkable lustful language: ‘whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds’). These kitchen events are likely a preparation for a wake.

Analysis of the poem usually focuses on the contrast between the life in the kitchen (vulgar as it may be), and the cold scene of death in the bedroom. The refrain “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” is interpreted as an affirmation or acceptance of life over death. The tricky “Let be be finale of seem” is interpreted as an acceptance of the way things are. Vendler makes the point here:

Faced with life (however slovenly and appetitive) in the kitchen and death (with its protruding horny feet) on the bed, one must, however unwillingly, acquiesce in the reign of life…. In choosing to “let the lamp affix its beam,” as in a morgue, and in acquiescing to the command, “Let be be finale of seem,” Stevens makes his momentous choice for reality over appearance.

Maybe that’s right, and would make for a very satisfying poem. I’ve always read it this way. But now I’m not so sure.

There’s a tension here, maybe not immediately recognizable. We have two binary opposites in the poem: life vs. death is one, reality vs. appearance is the other.

Vendler and others interpret the narrator’s choice of life as an acceptance of reality. But these two dichotomies don’t match up that well. Consider another approach: life should be associated with imagination, and death with reality. It is the death of the woman that is real: this is the way things are.

The poem then takes on a different meaning. To say “Let be be finale of seem” is instead to say: accepting reality as-is is accepting death. And the profound refrain is not an affirmation of life or reality at all: it’s sarcastic — to say “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” is in fact a dismissal of the implied premise. Ice cream is trivial, fleeting, transient; Stevens isn’t taking seriously the idea that the life in the kitchen is the answer.

Years later, in Imagination as Value, Stevens wote: “The imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos”. In his poem Mrs Alfred Uruguay, he speaks of “The ultimate elegance: the imagined land”. Perhaps.