At first, in Harmonium, Wallace Stevens found the exotic – and he found it attractive – where you might expect him to find it: in the fruitful, sexualized, warm South, in Georgia, Florida, and the Caribbean. But he could not envision himself comfortably amid it. Stevens's later poetry looked more often to Europe; it also tried to find what had been tropical virtues – sexuality and femininity, but also bright colors, sharp tastes, sensuality generally – in wintry, Northern scenes and things. Sometimes his poetry says that he can do so, by re-describing them; often it concludes that he cannot. And when he cannot, his poems of the 1930s end on dejected, frustrated, even sarcastic notes. Stevens's late poetry (from Transport to Summer onwards) sometimes imagines that he does not need the exotic, neither in subject nor in treatment: something drab and ordinary and homogenous, something he would designate “mere being,” or “being there together,” or being “here,” might be enough (476, 444, 270). But neither that position nor any other could give permanent satisfaction. The poet in life, as his scholars and editors note, ordered paintings from France, encouraged his friends to describe their foreign travels, and corresponded with young men from overseas, in order to envision appealingly unfamiliar locales. The most extensive such correspondence, with José Rodriguez Feo, can “delineate sharply the writers’ awareness of their separate climates: The moon over Havana and the moon over Connecticut were different creatures,” as Beverly Coyle and Alan Filreis put it. But if the letters make late Stevens sound consistent – seeking out “the exotic,” the clearly foreign, at a controllable remove – the poetry does not: it is at once “more astringent and more provisional” (to quote Helen Vendler) than philosophy or biography can show. Stevens never expected to settle in Cuba or Florida, much less Paris or Naples, not even in a Florida of the mind. But Stevens did not give up for long on the idea that language and figuration could bring the exotic close to him.
From the 1910s through the 1930s Stevens wrote many kinds of poem (the poem-as-abbreviated-travel-writing, as postcard; the petitionary prayer; the Romantic ode) “on how the tropics affect someone from a northern temperate zone,” as Eleanor Cook put it (55).