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

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Poem: Reading “The Moose” – Part 7

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
─ not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

The only inter-stanza enjambment in the poem occurs at this point signalling that these stanzas flow together “uninterruptedly” ─ the longest word in the poem, the only one-word line, open ended so as to pull the reader along to the next line. What began as snores and sighs, punctuated by “creakings and noises,” becomes discernable as a conversation. Not just any conversation but an old one. This particular conversation does not concern “us,” but it is “recognizable” and comes to us from “somewhere, / back in the bus” ─ from the past, from the back of the mind, from memory. This old conversation is not only one Bishop particularly remembers, but it is also every conversation ─ it is the conversation humanity has been having with itself since time began. Though Bishop locates her memory of this conversation with “grandparents’ voices,” (that is, ancestors) she also immediately links it to “Eternity” ─ the ceaseless voices of humanity striving to understand its place in time and space. The elemental hum has almost vanished in the midst of these voices, but not quite: it still can be heard “somewhere.”

William and Elizabeth Bulmer, circa 1920s,
Elizabeth Bishop's beloved grandparents,
Courtesy of Acadia University Archives

Eternity sits beside another colon and for the rest of the stanza and the next two, another inventory punctuated by a cluster of semi-colons; deeper breaths and pauses because Bishop knows this inventory is powerful. The inventory is of life experience, of events on the journey to death.

Before proceeding on this inventory, it is necessary to pause at “Eternity” ─ arguably the most metaphysical word in the poem, the only common noun capitalized (other than at the beginning of sentences). Though the concept of eternity is in some ways a specialized one, and connected to religion, it is rarely capitalized in our parlance. But here Bishop sets it apart. Does this mean Bishop was a religious person? A reader unfamiliar with her biography might rightly assume so. But Bishop connects eternity to grandparents, situating the word two generations before her own. Bishop may or may not have accepted the idea of eternity ─ her own faith is certainly an aspect of this poem ─ but what she does by capitalizing Eternity is create a nexus of response for every reader who comes to this poem. Bishop signals that each reader must pay attention to this word, but she does not define it. Rather, what follows is a defining of “talking” ─ and what the reader enters is a realm of familiarity (we have all experienced or will experience in some way the things in this inventory; something always happens).

Eternity may or may not exist as a concept in the reader’s belief system, but the list does have a sense of eternal truth about it (at least a sense of the perennial): As long as something happens, humanity will talk about it.

death, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

Birth, marriage, illness, death ─ death in birth, lost souls, lost minds. Words spoken, pensions received, alcoholism, insanity, shame. While the particulars set this inventory in an earlier time, in many ways nothing has changed, nothing will change, for humanity: we are the flawed, expressive species. Each reader, consciously or unconsciously, makes his or her own parallel list. This inventory is a litany of sadness and failure, but it is humanity’s response to the tragedies of life which best test our philosophies and resolve.

The honesty, poignancy and practicality of this list is heartening rather than otherwise. It is an open acknowledgement of what is most difficult to face. And it is faced in this poem. There are judgements but they are not all harsh, though some of them might not be the reader’s own.

These stanzas (along with the conclusion of the previous one) carry their own store of repetitions: finally, what, said, death, and the haunting “he...she” repeated several times; and perfect/slant rhymes: mentioned/pensioned/happened, said/died, had/bad, pray/away. This soundscape is less lilting than what has preceded it, the lyric force of the poem has given way to a more narrative impulse, description has turned to story.

Here is Bishop’s first parenthesis. Parentheses are powerful sites in Bishop’s poems. She used them deliberately, sparingly and purposefully. Here is “the year (something) happened.” Visually and structurally Bishop has captured the evanescence of remembering and hearing. Listening to people talk on the bus, remembering grandparents “talking, in Eternity,” Bishop acknowledges the partial or fragmentary nature of these acts, and the partialness of memory. The parentheses necessitate a distinct pause in the middle of the line. This “(something)” is set apart, emphasized ─ yet what is emphasized is vagueness. Memory is all the more powerful for that. It can be read with resignation, frustration, bemusement or anxiety. As Bishop and the reader know, something always does happen, but just what that was, is or might be remains its own mystery.

“Some” is a word which functions in a unique way in Maritime parlance and idiom. Bishop repeats this word ─ which is the principal locus of the hum in this section of the poem ─ several times: “Some long sighs.”; “somewhere”; “something.” She sets it apart each time, contains it within tight grammatical structures (an isolated sentence, commas, parentheses). What Bishop highlights with “some” is the inexactness, the vagueness of human perception (in the moment or of the past).

Here, too, is Bishop’s only named person, signalled by “names being mentioned” in the previous stanza. “Amos” is an old-fashioned sounding name. It is a nexus for the hum and the sibilance which has flowed through the entire poem. Bishop was familiar with the name, it comes directly from her childhood world. But she could have chosen any name. Why this one? Cadence and meter were perhaps the immediate factors precipitating the choice. In fact, her choice of this name may be secreted deep in Bishop’s unconscious. She probably would simply have said something like, “I like the sound of it,” as she said “I like threes,” in response to the question, “Why Geography III?”

Here too is another signal. The shortest sentence in the poem: “Yes.” This sentence suggests that a dialogue is occurring, a response is being given to what is being mentioned. This yes is another distinct pause. Self-contained, brief, monosyllabic, it is a moment of gathering in the inventory and acknowledging it. It is another semaphore, a precursor for what is to come. All along Bishop sets cues, offers clues for the future of the poem, for shifts of focus or moments of revelation. This yes is a harbinger for one of the most philosophical moments in any Bishop poem.

“Yes...” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes...”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know
it (also death).”

Contained within this complexly punctuated stanza is the profound resolution that we must face all that life and death offers. We really have no choice. Denial is not an option. “Yes” it must be. But it is a “peculiar affirmative.” This is not Dylan Thomas's “Do not go gentle into that good night.” (* Note below) There is no rage here. Rather there is acceptance ─ not of defeat, but of acknowledgement, of recognition of the power of life and death, its pervasiveness.

The repetition is definitive: “Yes”; “‘Yes...’”; “‘Yes...’,” with the elision that each reader fills with his or her own knowledge ─ the vast space left open by the unmistakable inevitability of the inventory. Here, the soundscape of the poem is distilled into one powerful word, which is actually, as Bishop immediately says, a breath: “a sharp, indrawn breath” (at birth, at death ─ the first and last breath). But also a breath which locates this philosophical position as being particularly Maritime; what elsewhere Bishop called “the Indrawn Yes.” (** Note below)

Here we have voices inside voices, talking to each other, explaining and acknowledging what must be. This stanza is full of fulcrums and pivot points, which lift and balance. The first two lines enjamb in order to carry the complex “‘Yes...’” at either end. The line “half groan, half acceptance” is like a seesaw. And the final line holds the only italicized word in the entire poem ─ perhaps one of the most unassuming words in the English language: it, a pronoun of definitiveness, pointing to the object which Bishop has named: the life/death cycle. It is the fulcrum lifting the sentence containing life and the parenthetical phrase containing death. (Bishop can only name the most powerful and mysterious force in human existence by keeping it safely contained in parenthesis.) These intricate grammatical and structural techniques serve to signal the complexity of what Bishop is describing. She might use simple words such as yes and it, but by their construction (quotation marks, ellipses, italics), Bishop layers them with meaning as profound as our response to the words life and death.

The “indrawn breath” also harkens back to the beginning of the poem and its evocation of the tides ─ the coming and going of sea, bay, river; of the glimpses of sights and sounds on the bus journey (the flickering, rattling, barking). The “Yes” is equally brief and equally significant.

The two stanzas prior and most of the stanzas that follow are also self-contained, that is, they close with a full stop, a period. The poem has been building up to great insights, so great Bishop must allow them to be unto themselves, even as the words and cadences and structures she uses to express these insights echo back through the poem, to its beginning, to the beginning of all insight.

*Note: “Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at the close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light….” Dylan Thomas

**Note: In 1951, Bishop visited Sable Island. Her intention was to write an essay about it for The New Yorker. She never finished it. In the extant draft, she describes Sable Island this way: “Anyone familiar with the accent of Nova Scotia will know what I mean when I refer to the Indrawn Yes. In all their conversations Nova Scotians of all ages, even children, make use of it. It consists of, when one is told a fact, – anything, not necessarily tragic but not of a downright comical nature, – saying 'Yes,' or a word half-way between 'Yes' & 'Yeah,' while drawing in the breath at the same moment. It expresses both commiseration & an acceptance of the Worst, and it occurred to me as I walked [illegible word] over those fine, fatalistic sands, that Sable Island with its mysterious engulfing powers was a sort of large-scale expression of the Indrawn Yes.” (Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Vassar College)

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