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

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Poem: Reading “The Moose” – Part 5

Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts. The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

The period concluding the previous stanza signalled what the next stanza declares, “Goodbye.” (The bus could have been journeying along to deliver a passenger. This poem could just as easily have been one of arrival and, in some ways, it is; but as with the word “journeys” earlier in the poem, the anticipation and implication of “goodbye” must finally be offered directly, “Goodbye to the elms, / to the farm, to the dog.”) The shift does not fully get underway until “The bus starts.” ─ an abrupt sentence after the thirty-six line one which preceded it (though “Goodbye to the elms, / to the farm, to the dog” helps to cushion the shock of its abruptness). Often we say goodbye more than once ─ we kiss and embrace and then say goodbye. Bishop evokes the natural rhythm of most leave takings accurately and poignantly. After all that kissing and embracing and saying goodbye it does feel as if suddenly “The bus starts,” even though the ritual has been preparing the participants for it.

One of the now lost elms of Great Village, in the Mahon Cemetery

The perspective of the poem also shifts again in this stanza. The reader has left with the lone traveller, the reader too is now on the bus, looking out the window at the moving landscape. The next lines are a foreshadow, though the reader is of course not yet aware of it. Still, the description of “shifting, salty, thin” fog “closing in” is haunting, even eerie.

Day is ebbing and night and fog are advancing. Even the abruptness of bus’s motion cannot separate the travellers from the landscape, or, more particularly, from the fog. The fog is moving over the landscape like the bay waters, both phenomena linked with “salty.” The fog, linked as it is in the rhyme with dog, has a sentient, animal quality. Bishop suggests that it is alive somehow. Indeed, everything is in motion again, moving in its unique way, yet also interconnected by the fact of its motion.

This stanza is the first self-contained one in the poem, ending with a full stop. It is like a container; the parameters defined by the lovely, subtle rhyme “thin/in” ─ the fog is definite but permeable. So, too, Bishop’s implies, is the bus. It holds the travellers, the poet, the reader ─ and to a degree separates them, closes them in. Yet somehow they remain fully connected with the rich light, the one image which harkens back to the evocations in the first stanzas, a reminder that the bus still “journeys west.” And the “m” hums: elms, farm, comes. Not surprisingly, this stanza is also the first with punctuation in every line, another device to create a sense of containment. Strangely though, this being “in” does not keep the travellers from seeing what is outside, seeing in intense detail.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

Sitting on the bus looking out the window at the landscape hurrying by, the reader might expect the poem to return to the vistas and expanses of the opening stanzas. Yet what is evoked here are intimate details of the landscape, things visible only to someone intimately familiar with it. The bus window is not a telescope but a microscope. Bishop signalled this shift of perspective with “closing in.” The obscuring fog cannot keep the traveller, the poet, the reader from seeing acutely.

These two stanzas go together in their inventory of the flora and fauna of this landscape. These stanzas are a riot of colour, shape and texture. Bishop achieves a three-dimensional affect with sound: the abundant alliterations (cold/crystals; slide/settle; gray glazed; wet white/whitewashed, etc.); perfect and slant end rhymes (cling/string; fences/commences; settle/apostles); assonance (sweet peas/bumblebees creep; slide/white/like); word repetition (cabbages, white). This inventory tumbles out and evokes a sense of belonging to this place more fully than any other kind of declaration could. These descriptions are loving, tender, knowing. One of Bishop’s most memorable and mysterious similes appears here, “lupins like apostles” ─ as startling, apt and amusing as the link between clapboard churches and clamshells, and as tonally brilliant (the lullaby of “l” reappearing to wondrous affect). With this metaphor comes another hint of the faith of this place, the Christianity which the churches themselves evoked.

These stanzas further link the human and natural world ─ or at least evoke their co-existence. Wild flowers and gardens, bumblebees and hens fill this world almost to overflowing. And Bishop offers the reader one of the loveliest catalogues of abundant life ever written. Yet even in the midst of all this abundance the journey continues ─ time passes: “evening commences.” Nothing can stop the passing of time.

One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies ─
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.

For the first time this landscape, this homeland, is named. Bishop does not give just one name, but a series of names (reflecting the bounty of the previous stanzas) ─ another inventory, bespeaking again of an intimacy and familiarity, of a strong connection. The communities named run along the shore road of Cobequid Bay at the head of Minas Basin, the south eastern arm of the Bay of Fundy. At each place the bus stops. Bishop telescopes a long stretch of road into four condensed lines. At each place, between each place, the reader assumes, life is lived and people are having supper.

Bishop breaks the established meter in this stanza with “where a woman shakes a tablecloth,” the longest line in the entire poem ─ thrust out from the rest of the lines in a manner not unlike the act described: an intimate domestic detail, putting humanity into the inventory of place names. After all, places are named by human beings to describe their characters, and what more organic a thing to do at a place called Five Houses than to shake a tablecloth.

Bishop also includes a significant addition in punctuation, one of three dashes. Here the dash acts like a bridge, or a string, or even the tablecloth mentioned later. It serves to signal the sub-set of “the Economies ─ / Lower, Middle, Upper.” (This kind of locational description is very common in the Maritimes, but it also signals a reading of “Lower, Middle, Upper” in a more philosophical way: birth, life, death, for example). Bishop could have chosen many other place names along this route of West Colchester and Cumberland Counties: Highland Village, Portaupique, Parrsboro, etc.). Her choices are in keeping with the thematic elements of the poem. The place names are elemental (fish, rivers, houses ─ echoing words which have already appeared). Economy (*Note below) is the only abstract term and it can be linked directly with the homely scene closing the stanza: domestic economy ─ through the rhyme Upper/supper. Five Islands and Five Houses conveniently fit Bishop's practice of repetition, while it allows for the introduction of another image (islands), which fits so well into the complex thematic idea of connection and separation. (At low tide the Five Islands are connected to the mainland, accessible across the expanse of mud; but at high tide they are cut off by the flood of water into the bay.)

This stanza heralds a series of self-contained stanzas, which proceed until the next major shift occurs. What daylight is left vanishes and sound enters the poem with more potency.

A pale flickering. Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn't give way.

The flick of the tablecloth, glimpsed from the moving bus in what is left of the light, is as brief as the one word, monosyllabic sentence Bishop uses to describe its duration: “Gone.” ─ one of only a handful of such sentences. It is a way of seeing we all experience, the fleeting glimpse of something we know to be tremendously important, but which we are not privileged to dwell on.

The Tantramar marshland is a vast alluvial expanse at the head of Cumberland Basin, an inner arm of Chignecto Bay, the northeastern reach of the Bay of Fundy. Open to the weather, much of what grows here are marsh grasses and salt hay. Tantramar is an anglicization of the Acadian word “Tintamarre,” which means “great noise” (**Note below). This area is a fly-way for migrating birds and during the late summer millions stop over to feed and rest on their way south. The Mi’kmaq referred to this area as “the land of beating wings.”

Glimpse of the Tantramar Marsh

The marshes and hay are pungent, as Bishop indicates, linking this realm with the salty fog. Repeating the taste of salt as a smell multiplies its potency and keeps referring back to the grand evocation of the sea at the very beginning (how deeply the sea has entered into this land), and to the fish and bread. We have a sense of the truism, “salt of the earth.” But what Tantramar’s marshes really herald is sound. Even the “Goodbye” of the previous stanza was signalled with kisses and embraces, not spoken words. So, sounds have essentially been absent, or distant (except for the lyrical, euphonic, churning sounds of the poem’s language itself). Here we are shaken up a bit by the rattle of a plank on a bridge. The appearance of pure sound brings with it a visceral experience. Though Bishop would have crossed other iron bridges on the journey through Nova Scotia, this is the first she identifies because it trembles, rattles, “but doesn't give way.” This bridge hints at the precariousness of human structures, yet also our belief that they will support us. The bridge also appears here because of a geographical logic. The Tantramar marshes are located along the Isthmus of Chignecto (the stretch of land linking Nova Scotia to New Brunswick ─ a natural bridge between them) and into southern New Brunswick.

While there have been two apostrophes in the poem so far (flats’, hens’), “doesn't” marks the first contraction. Bishop used contractions often when writing conversation (in her memoirs and autobiographical stories). Contractions introduce a kind of colloquial, casual or informal tone. While one cannot belabour the point too much, as Bishop is very quiet in this introduction, the contraction is significant, and it will proliferate later in the poem.

The encounter with the trembling bridge and the rattling loose plank is almost as brief as the pale flickering of the tablecloth. Somehow we know the salt hay lingers, with the cluster of “m” sounds surrounding it, which keeps the hum going.

*Note: To find out more about place names in Nova Scotia, see William Hamilton, Place Names of Atlantic Canada, University of Toronto Press, 1996. Hamilton notes that the origins of the place name Economy is actually found in the Mi’kmaq word kenomee (“a long point jutting out into the sea” – that is, Economy Point). The Acadians called it “Vil Conomie” and then it was anglicized to Economy, 322.

**Note: Hamilton, 141.

(Ed. note: Part 6 of this reading of "The Moose" will appear early next week.)

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