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

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Poem: Reading “The Moose” – Part 8

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.

The deep philosophical searching and acknowledgement ─ the intensity of thought which the previous stanza engaged ─ settles down, eases back from metaphysics to memory, returns to the “they” who triggered the narrative flood in the first place, namely, “grandparents’ voices.” The talk continues ─ the old conversation taking place “in the old featherbed.” Eternity returns, but in a more domestic way, “peacefully, on and on,” now on the verge of sleep. The final lines of this stanza are intensely comforting and compassionate. The dim light holding back the darkness, the dog (which reminds the reader of all the other dogs in the poem) is resting from her labours of supervising and protecting. Bishop offers such a gentle humanity in “tucked in her shawl” that the immensity of eternity, the inevitability of “(also death)” is mitigated ─ not erased, but allayed. And the hum has begun to cluster again, where it should, in the “dim lamplight.”

Bishop’s punctuation immediately returns to the spare comma. Though there are five commas, after all the punctuation of the previous five stanzas (especially the one immediately preceding), they seem almost invisible ─ they certainly are more unobtrusive. This allows the tangible world of bed, lamp, kitchen, dog and shawl to breathe more easily ─ no “sharp, indrawn” philosophising here.

Now, it’s all right
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
─ Suddenly, the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

To this point in the poem, the major shifts have occurred between stanzas. The movement has been from seascape to landscape to community to individual experience, from nature to humanity. These realms are connected and separate and Bishop has subtly modulated this complex interaction in simile and sound, in grammatical construction. Here, in this stanza, Bishop introduces the final and most significant shift of the poem within the stanza itself. This change of pattern bespeaks the significance of the shift. The first half of the stanza is a kind of dénouement to the intensity of the narrative ─ turning the speaker back more fully to the bus, linking the sleep of memory to the sleep of the moment. Returning the speaker to the present yet carrying into the moment the memory of the past: “Now, it's all right now / even to fall asleep / just as on all those nights.” As long as the grandparents’ voices (the voices of humanity) keep talking “the way they talked,” humanity (the speaker, reader, passengers on the bus) can allow itself to rest. The divagation of the narrative section was no irrelevant digression. The speaker and the reader have come closer to their humanity journeying through this world of memory, they have come to some kind of resolve, acceptance, comfort. “Now...now” is one of those comforting phrases (grand)parents say to children to comfort and focus them, “It’s all right.”

Bishop uses this kind of instant lingual echo across her oeuvre. One immediately thinks of “Esso-so-so-so” in “Filling Station,” a phrase to soothe “high-strung automobiles.” “So-so-so” was also a phrase from her childhood, spoken to horses to soothe them. Or, the “chook, chook” of “Chemin de Fer.” Not much searching turns up this kind of gentle repetition, which always carries with it layers of meaning.

In mid-stanza, this quietude is interrupted. The dash Bishop uses here, at the beginning of the line, is another bridge. “Suddenly” is abrupt and startling, so Bishop helps the reader not to be too unsettled. Still, this passage is a “jolt.” And for the first time the bus driver appears. To this point the bus has functioned on its own, as a kind of sentient creature, but here we see the person controlling it, doing what bus drivers should, offering guidance, leadership in this temporary but real community of travellers. Bus drivers know the route. The bus driver is the first to know “something” is happening and to receive it the bus must be rendered inert. On a dark night in the New Brunswick woods humanity “stops.” Turning off the lights (dimming the lamplight?) and letting in the darkness is portentous ─ it signals an openness to mystery. Sometimes in the journey the best thing, the only thing, to do is stop and wait. Doing so takes one farther on the journey than any motion. Part of journey is destination.

Interestingly, this stanza is the only one where the hum of “m” is absent. But this gap is only a kind of suspension created from anticipation, as though the jolt shakes the chant for a moment. In the next stanza the hum resurges with renewed force.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Immediately and directly Bishop tells the reader what has stopped the bus: “a moose.” The shift signalled by “Suddenly” coalesces into a new and profound reality: a creature from “the impenetrable wood,” that “hairy, scratchy, splintery” place of “moonlight and mist,” which the bus has been moving through, the passengers oblivious to it, caught up in their preoccupations with memory and belief, searching for their humanity. But the impenetrable wood cannot be ignored ─ humanity’s concerns, as important as they might be, are not the only realities. Here, another reality “stands there, looms, rather / in the middle of the road.” By separating “looms” by commas, Bishop intensifies it. The commas mark humanity’s attempt to comprehend and describe what is essentially indescribable. All that the passengers on the bus (humanity) can do is keep qualifying its perceptions.

The bus on its journey across time and space meets a moose on its journey across time and space ─ they meet in a borderland, the ribbon of road (a more human than wild realm, yet, this road runs through an impenetrable wood). The amazing thing is that the moose approaches the bus, investigates it via one of the most acute senses for animals, smell. Animals identify each other by smell. The moose seeks to identify the creature which has entered its world. This sniffing is an act of understanding, an attempt to understand.

With the appearance of the moose, the hum begins again: moose, come, impenetrable, looms, middle. A series of “o” sounds links the two realms: moose, wood, looms, road, approaches, hood. And the wonder of this looming creature triggers a flood of response among the passengers.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless....”

The moose doesn’t just loom, it towers, even without antlers. The significance of this mysterious creature intensifies as the passengers try to register it. What they first try to do is humanize the wild, have it mirror human reality, fit it into a human frame of reference: church, house. Church signals the profundity of the metaphysical, of belief. House signals the security of the familiar, the domestic. Both signal community of human being. Another parenthesis structurally enacts the meaning (house is a safe haven), it is where we prefer to contain ourselves. Humanity is afraid of the unknown, thus it tries to explain everything in its own image. Try as humanity might to contain the wild in domestic parameters, there is still the possibility of danger, because the wild can never be fully known. It is impenetrable. (The narrative of the previous section of the poem reveals that even within our protective containers it ─ life/death ─ is beyond our control.) Cocooned, wombed inside the bus, the passengers are still drawn to this looming, towering creature, and themselves try to understand just what it is, find a way to connect with it.

Once again, the voices begin ─ humanity’s unique response to the world: language. Beginning with an assurance which may or may not be true (is it an hallucination?), the ellipsis at the conclusion, “Perfectly harmless...,” contained within the quotation marks, is all the words unspoken, unsayable, in the face of the impenetrable. Still, humanity keeps trying.

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”

The reader has already been primed for the power of that tiny word – “it” – a word that holds the greatest journey and mystery of humanity in two letters (death). So amazing is this creature and the encounter that Bishop seems to say that bigger words would be beside the point. Besides “it” is small enough for the childlike awe the passengers feel.

Perhaps the only way humanity comes close to truth in language is to speak “childishly, softly” ─ to “exclaim in whispers.” What a marvellous oxymoron this phrase is. Exclaiming has a rhetorical force. It is a demanding to be heard. In the face of the impenetrable all our rhetoric is hushed to whispers. “Some” of the passengers get it: the fact that in the face of the wild and the strange we remain observers to the mysterious mother earth ─ for the moose is a she. Big and plain as the moose is (judgements which are only too human), the final line of this stanza reaches a climax in exclamation (exclaiming) marks, the only such punctuation in the poem, signalling that no matter what the passengers think, what remains is the essential nature of the moose: the only thing we can know for certain is our own wonder. The imperative “Look!” tells the passengers (humanity) what to do. And what humanity sees is “It’s a she!” The bus and its passengers face to face with this female moose must look and wait. As Bishop wrote much earlier in another poem, “The Monument,” the passengers must “Watch it closely” ─ for in fact, the moose is regarding humanity in her own impenetrable way (does she make any judgements of her own?).

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