"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, February 28, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Poem: Reading “The Moose” – Part 3

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on it if meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

Here the vastness of provinces, bay, sea contracts and shifts to the mouth of a river, the view turning landward. The pull of opposing but natural forces is seen even more clearly here as the river “enters or retreats.” The phenomenon Bishop describes is a tidal bore: the inrush of water at the estuary of a tidal river as ebb tide turns. This phenomenon further establishes the specific geographic location of the poem, as a number of rivers at the head of the Bay of Fundy experience impressive tidal bores twice a day, including the Salmon River at Truro, only seventeen miles from Great Village.

Tidal Bore on the Salmon River, near Truro, Nova Scotia

Bishop’s description of the mechanics of this phenomenon reflects her sense of the complexity of experience and her own playfulness with perspective. Here the river itself comes and goes “in a wall of brown foam” as it “meets” the bay arriving back from some outing or finding it out, off on some journey. River and bay operate under their own conscious volition, interact in an intricate pattern of move and counter-move (much the way words interact in poetry).

Further, what Bishop wants to reiterate here is the fact that this landscape is as familiar as home ─ it is home. She does this not only by repeating the word itself but by heightening its sound with a perfect end rhyme. From becomes foam which underscores home. The linking of wall and foam is also another curious underscoring of the idea of home. The solidity of wall contrasts with the ephemeral, porous nature of foam. Home is indeed both a definite structure and a vague idea, permanent and evanescent, constant and changing at the same time.

The rush of a tidal bore sweeps away all obstacles in its path, and so Bishop allows the forces of “retreat” and “meet” their full head by withholding punctuation until the end of the stanza; but then she introduces a new element. To this point in the poem, Bishop uses only commas sparingly. The semi-colon at the end of the stanza signals that a shift is about to occur, not a dramatic one but one that necessitates a fuller pause than a comma provides. This shift is a further turning from the sea, bay, river to the land itself.

The sound play continues in perfect and imperfect end and internal rhyme, word repetition within the stanza and with the first stanza. The latter practice is an important technique in the poem. Repeating “where,” “bay,” “home” sets up resonances across time and space, signals that the reader must watch for other recurrences, signals that this poem is also about interconnection. By the second stanza the reader starts to get the idea that ideas, images and language are held in a crucible of sound: chant, echo, hum.

The second stanza also holds the first hint of colour. “Brown” is the vanguard for a varied palette, not just of tints and hues, but of shadow and light. Bishop has been called a painterly poet, and certainly she possessed a painter’s understanding of the way colour and shape work together. With the introduction of “brown,” Bishop signals a change and an intensification with another simple, unassuming word; but a word which holds intense meaning. While brown may not be a lively colour, it is created by mixing red, yellow and black. It is the colour of wood and earth. And here, startlingly, it is the colour of foam. Why? Because, as the next stanza reveals, red is the primary colour of this landscape.

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

Once again here is “where” we are from, a landscape shaped by tide. Sometimes the sun sets at high tide and the sea turns red. At other times the sun sets at low tide and the hidden spectacle of the land appears: the flats of “lavender, rich mud.” This is the other impressive phenomenon of this part of the Bay of Fundy. Here the tides are more horizontal than vertical. (Bishop is literally correct with “long tides” rather than the more expected “high tides,” for the waters of the Bay recede for kilometres, exposing vast stretches of dark brown, red, lavender mud, some of the richest earth on the planet, especially in late summer when there is an explosion of micro-organisms on which migrating birds feed as they travel south.)

"Old Pilings Near Great Village," by Susan Tooke. See Susan's website and blog.

Bishop evokes the intense textures of this landscape with her first sustained alliteration: silted, sometimes, sun, sets, sea; and the plurals of veins, flats, rivulets reinforce the sibilance. The slant rhymes of red/mud, sets/flats, the echo of “red” and its play with rich and rivulets (red, rich, rivulets being another alliteration) serves to represent verbally the multiple layers of sensory stimuli and myriad meanings that Bishop wants the reader to register. The motion is less swift (a facing sun, a sun that sets, a sun that veins) ─ hence here are three commas and a semi-colon ─ but the language actually holds more intensity, even drama, culminating in the brilliance of “burning rivulets.”

Note also that the syllabic practice of primarily concrete single syllable words punctuated by complex polysyllabic words continues, words that feel interesting on the tongue, sounds intriguing when spoken: “burning rivulets,” “lavender.” From a very early age, Bishop was excited as much by the sound, feel and texture of words as by their sense. When sound and sense come together, as they always do in Bishop, the effect is entirely memorable.

And what of that “lavender” (* Note below), a rather old-fashioned colour? Besides being tonally and metrically right (the soft “n” sound of the second syllable echoing sun, vein, burning), it is an accurate description of the colour of Fundy mud in late afternoon light. It also throws in a hint of what is to come, the next shift signalled by another semi-colon ─ a shift fully to the landscape itself, where human habitation appears for the first time. After all, lavender-water is a very pungent scent. It conjures images of ladies in parlours sipping tea and eating buttered bread. (** Note below)

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

The reader enters the human world which is for the poet the realm of community, the place where people earn their living from the land and gather to worship. This world is certainly connected to what has preceded it. Bishop signals this link immediately with the first phrase of the stanza “on red,” repeating the red/red of the previous stanza. The sun and sea have stained the land itself. The sea, which was in the nineteenth century a principal realm for travel ─ sea roads ─ links directly to the terrestrial roads of this stanza.

The expanse of the sea, bay, river and mud flats shifts again, the perspective telescopes, and the journey becomes more focused. It also slows down (signalled by all those commas). The affect of all the commas (eight) is to create a list, an inventory. The journey takes stock of all the passing objects: maples, farmhouses, churches, birches. Another indication that these communities are linked to the sea, bay, river and mud flats is the amusing simile (the first in the poem) between clapboard churches and clamshells, a startling yet intensely apt comparison. All along the head of the Bay of Fundy the mud flats are home to clams, and digging clams was an active fishery for the shore’s inhabitants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Though pollution has curtailed and this fishery in some places along the coast, there are still spots where clam digging continues.)

So linked are the two realms that the buildings have taken on the qualities of the natural world. Similes create associations rather than substitutes. This kind of link allows the two things compared to remain intrinsically what they are, while at the same time drawing them together into a third realm of intense resonance. Clapboard churches and clamshells come together in an imagined space where they co-exist, then return to their respective realms to reside intact. (Bishop's childhood home in Great Village is a white-clapboarded-house.)

In this stanza Bishop introduces another subliminal sound: “l” ─ gravelly, maples, clapboard, bleached, clamshells. Except for the nearly perfect and delightful rhyme of churches/birches, most of the rhyme in this stanza is slant, the most unusual rhyme being sugar/silver. And silver of course echoes river. Word repetition continues through this stanza, the first without an inter-stanza word link. However, the images here of farmhouses and churches link directly to the bread and tea of the first stanza. What was hinted at in the first two lines of the poem has become manifest as the journey continues.

Bishop has added a detail which is entirely natural to the emerging landscape, but which holds intense personal significance: the rows of sugar maples offer up maple sap in the spring, which is made into syrup, sugar, cream and butter. Maple syrup was Bishop’s favourite taste from her childhood, and during her years in Brazil she revelled in the arrival of maple gifts from Aunt Grace. The area around Great Village is still known today for its maple products.

Visually, this stanza is denser than the previous three. The words are more complex. Several are compound words: farmhouses, clapboard, clamshells. The adjectives have shifted from spare (red/neat) to complex: bleached, ridged, silver. These subtle modulations in verbal structure build a more concrete framework. The poem enters community and requires less elemental and more constructive language.

Bishop has not settled on one community though. The image is of many communities (all plurals: roads, maples, farmhouses, churches, birches). The past/past repetition signals that the reader continues to move through a larger landscape, but through one that is beginning to gain a more intimate focus. And one which is connected to time, for “past” is temporal as well as physical.

Without allowing for much of a pause (the final comma, having been preceded by so many others in this stanza, can almost be ignored), the poem shifts to a specific locus: the very means of transportation which takes the reader past all this detail, and will ultimately take the reader into the past.

* Note: Lavender is grown in many places in Nova Scotia, there is even a Lavender Festival. Check out Lavender Grange and Seafoam Lavender Farm, just two places where this amazing flowering evergreen shrub is farmed.

** Note: Bishop had described this landscape in “In the Village”:

These are the tops of all the elm trees in the village and there, beyond them, the long green marshes, so fresh, so salt. Then the Minas Basin, with the tide halfway in or out, the wet red mud glazed with sky blue until it meets the creeping lavender-red water. In the middle of the view, like one hand of a clock pointing straight up, is the steeple of the Presbyterian church. We are in the “Maritimes” but all that means is that we live by the sea. (Complete Prose, 264)

This description was written in the early 1950s, twenty years before she finished “The Moose.” This passage closely resembles the opening stanzas of the poem, revealing that Bishop’s sense of the landscape of her childhood was firmly established and cherished throughout her life. Contemplating it was something she enjoyed doing, as the vividness of her language in describing it shows.

No comments:

Post a Comment