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

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Poem: Reading “The Moose” – Part 4

Aerial view of Great Village. This is the place Bishop came from in Nova Scotia. It is the place she left from in 1946. The road along the coast, Highway 2, is seen in the centre of the image. These days we have taken to calling this road "The Moose" route.

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

Here is time ─ space set in the cycle of the earlier mentioned day ─ “late afternoon.” And here is the way the reader moves through this homeland: “a bus” ─ a vivid looking bus. Bishop devotes most of the stanza to describing this vehicle moving through time and space. The colour is almost incongruous: pink and blue. Yet the pink links to the red sun and the lavender mud. A highly unnatural object of metal and beat-up enamel, yet the bus has a flank, like an animal, and is pink, a colour connected with flesh. Flank offers an amusing slant rhyme with pink. Repeated with only a comma’s separation, intensifying the affect (“pink, / pink” being much brighter than just pink), this colour further links nature and humanity.

Here, too, is the first direct acknowledgement of the central theme of the poem: “a bus journeys west.” Linking journey with west is tremendously significant. West, in much human iconography, is profoundly mythic, signalling the passage from life to death. The sun setting in the late afternoon orients the reader towards the west, but the bus itself travels in that direction. Bishop sets up this mythic underpinning in very ordinary parameters. The bus is every vehicle humanity has imagined to convey itself to the afterworld: the chariots of Valhalla, Charon’s ferry across the River Styx, Emily Dickinson’s coach transporting Death.

Bishop boarded an Acadian Lines bus. This logo is not quite the right era, but it is close.

Bishop’s sense of humour provides for this poem’s cosmic conveyance to be a dented, beat-up metal bus. She was rarely overtly didactic or moralizing in her poems. And likely she would argue that the late afternoon and the bus are simply what they are. Bishop usually opted for the literal level in her poems and stories, often saying that the events she describes “really happened.” Yet language functions on many levels of literalness and symbolism (language, after all, is intrinsically only representative of outside reality – can we really know “reality”? Is language its own reality?). Words are often charged with collective meanings, which the reader can know with varying degrees of consciousness. There is no ominous quality to Bishop’s introduction of “late afternoon” and “west” ─ indeed, she presents them in as matter-of-fact a way as all the images which proceed them. Yet something in the structure and mix of her words makes the evocation of sea, bay, river, sun, home and bus deeply affecting. The fact that this kind of symbolism has appeared at this point is no accident. The bus is a human invention and thus linked to human concerns. The reader is introduced to the vehicle in the ever shifting circle or cycle Bishop creates as the poem progresses, from vast seascape to landscape to community and back again.

The extended alliteration in this stanza is appropriately connected to the bus itself: brushing, blue, beat-up ─ with a hint of flashing and flank. All along the “m” continues to hum around the bus (mental, enamel). The bus journeys along in its frame of commas, and reaches another semi-colon. By now the reader recognizes the signal, a shift ─ and humanity appears.

down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

The “red, gravelly roads” have become more focused still on their “hollows” and “rises.” This is a specific road, the one that ribbons its way through Great Village. (* Note below) And the bus’s animal-like quality continues as it reaches an interim destination ─ stops to pick up a passenger ─ and “waits, patient,” for the ritual of goodbye to take place.

The first people appear in this landscape: a family, only appropriate, as the poem has been evoking the idea of home with gentle determination. The ritual of “kisses and embraces” is something most of us immediately connect with, an act we respond to emotionally, automatically: leaving family, leaving home. It is a private ritual which often takes place in public (at bus and train stations, at airports). We all recognize its significance and must be patient in the face of it. Here we have “a lone traveller” who, too, triggers an emotional response, coming as it does so close to the appearance of the journey west with its literal and symbolic resonances.

This stanza possesses a lilting quality ─ notice all the “l” sounds, the “m” is almost silent in the face of this lullaby (hollows, while, lone, traveller, relatives, collie). The other sound is sibilance, all the end lines in perfect rhyme (rises/supervises, gives/relatives ─ with both long and short vowels ─ as well as the stand alone “kisses and embraces”). These “l” and “s” sounds suggest whispers ─ perhaps necessary as this private performance plays out by the side of the road with the bus looking on. But somehow the reader senses that the bus is discreet.

Bishop keeps this goodbye at a distance with her description of its participants (traveller and relatives ─ oddly compatible words). This is every family. It also speaks to a certain historical time and place, when extended families were more common. The delightful collie adds a humorous and particularizing and strangely humanizing touch. We smile at the thought of the family needing supervision, but of course that is the job of collies, to herd things together and protect them. But why “seven relatives”? Its sibilance and soft “n” fits tonally. It just works. (** Note below)

The commas cluster around the bus ─ three in the first two lines ─ then the ritual is allowed to flow freely (the commas structurally keep the bus discreetly separate from the rest of the stanza). The most significant punctuation appears at the end, a period ─ the first in the first six stanzas. Full stop. Bishop signals a major shift and it behooves the reader to pause and reflect on what has come before, before proceeding with the journey.

"A bus journeys west"

The first six stanzas of “The Moose” is a sustained evocation of place ─ a landscape which is home, a homeland. Remember Bishop’s letter to Marianne Moore (Part 1). She describes the Bay of Fundy, Great Village and the surrounding area as “the richest, saddest, simplest landscape in the world.” She took these principals and turned them into arguably the “richest, saddest, simplest” poem about her homeland.

Examining the metrics, the rhymes, the grammar and the images of “The Moose” reveals some of its mechanics, reveals Bishop’s meticulous attention to the craft of the poem. For example, her description of the landscape and the journey through it, is given almost entirely in one and two syllable words; when polysyllabic words appear they are sites of intense meaning. This simplicity of diction is entirely purposeful as it heightens the sense of the elemental nature of the land itself and the essential connection the poet has to it.

The one aspect of “The Moose” not yet attended to is the voice. Who is the speaker? In the opening stanzas the voice is omniscient: the speaker is outside the poem, describing the sights and sounds. Is it the poet? Bishop’s letter to Moore would suggest it is, but most readers would have no knowledge of this letter. The assumption by most readers though would be that the poet herself is telling us what she sees ─ yet describing it in a way so that each reader feels he or she is seeing the landscape directly, bearing direct witness to the landscape, that he or she comes from and goes from this home.

* Note: As Bishop’s 1946 letter to Marianne Moore indicates, she boarded the bus back to the United States at Elmcroft, the Bowers’s family farm. It is located on the border between the villages of Great Village and Glenholme. This house sits in a deep hollow down which the passing road runs.

** Note: Bishop departed at this point from her Aunt Grace, who had married William Bowers, a widower with six children. Grace had three children of her own. At the time of Bishop=s visit, the Bowers’s farm was a busy place, and a number of these children remained to help operate it. So Bishop’s choice of such a large number has a literalness, an origin in her acutal experience.

1 comment:

  1. Noticing the punctuation was indeed a helpful
    reminder and also helps the reader to attempt
    the poem outloud rather than merely on the