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

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Poem: Reading “The Moose” – Part 9

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

As the passengers look at the moose looking at them, a transformation in their sense of her occurs. The moose changes from homely, safe, harmless, big, plain to “grand, otherworldly.” She becomes a vision shared by this small temporary community sitting in for humanity. Time may or may not be the same for the moose and the passengers, but in this stanza it holds all the hum: time is the eternity of the earlier stanza, it is the essence of eternity, what eternity is made of. The encounter between the moose and the passengers is transporting like the dreamy divagation, like the moonlight and mist, like the fog, like the burning rivulets. But even more, it is a way to bridge the chasm separating us from the wild world, from nature, from mystery. The full force of the encounter with the moose emerges as a “sweet / sensation of joy” framed in the wonder of a question, the only question Bishop asks in the poem: “Why, why do we feel / (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?” “Why, why” like “Yes...Yes” and “Now...now” is both soothing and challenging. The question is asked by the omniscient speaker who is also a passenger on the bus, who is also the reader, who is also Bishop. In the face of so much tragedy and impenetrableness, we can still feel joy ─ generated from the most unexpected, mysterious sources. Bishop’s last set of parenthesis is telling, as it is part of another repetition “we feel / (we all feel).” The parenthetical container seems to locate the we fully to the passengers of the bus. Yet repeating the we and inserting all brings a wider implication to the words. One of humanity’s great strengths and weaknesses is its ability to question reality. It has allowed humanity to push the boundaries of perception. There are times, however, when questioning demonstrates only the futility of our effort. There is no answer to Bishop’s question. All that is left to the passengers is to feel and move on.

One of the more interesting inter-stanza repetitions is heard here: grand (“Grand night,” “grandparents,” “grand, otherworldly.” It is a rather old-fashioned assessment of reality, one we rarely use today, which again is descriptive in both physical and temporal realms.

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

The concluding stanzas are linked with a comma, forming the final quiet dénouement, part of the preceding section of the poem, but operating as a kind of sub-unit. The last word is given to the bus driver, the person who transports the passengers, and somehow that seems just right. His final judgement is a gentle double entendre. The moose possesses an obvious degree of curiosity about the bus, but her own nature is a curiosity itself. The driver has his own curious manner, “rolling his r’s” (Bishop has playfully italicized the “r” in a way which emphasizes, perhaps, the sound of the engine revving up and the gears shifting). This focus on another soundscape is entirely in keeping with the aural and lingual peculiarities which have punctuated the poem. One last time the instruction is to “Look” ─ the phrasing is not an imperative now, but more a meditation, not a command to do something, but rather to consider it deeply, with still a hint of surprise.

The journey the passengers have just been on was another dreamy divagation, and the time has come to shift gears (again, a direct stating of the kind of process which the poem itself has been engaged in, the time having come to label it). Indeed, this poem has taken the reader on many journeys: through geography and history, through memory and dream, through the familiar and the strange, through time and space. These journeys follow one another and occur simultaneously as the poem progresses. We move from one to another but never leave any of them entirely behind.

This long poem of journey and home, of life and death, of memory and dream, of wonder ─ this long poem which moves forward from one reality to another, while at the same time turning back in on itself ─ this long poem which is both linear and non-linear ─ this long poem which evokes the mysteries beyond our perceptions, ends with such quiet matter-of-factness that the hum (filling its lines) is almost missed. However, humanity is fortunate, it is given “a moment longer.” The last glimpse of the moose is seen, the last dim smell of the moose is sensed (have the passengers themselves become something of animal, with a heightened sense of smell?); but humanity and the moose must go their separate ways. What is left to the passengers is the acrid smell of the fuel which fires much of human activity: gasoline.

Why did Bishop add these last two rather anticlimactic stanzas, rather than conclude with the profound question of why the joy? She did so precisely because there is no answer to such a question ─ or, rather, the only answer is to continue the journey. The final stanza has the passengers “craning backward” ─ an act which turns the reader back towards the poem itself. This poem concludes by regarding itself, striving to see the last glimpse of its own complex mystery of sound, cadence, image and theme. The last two stanzas of the poem are simply the “moment longer” humanity always wishes for, a spiritual gift – and they are quietly momentous. It concludes with echoes (moose, smell) and with an intense rhyme (seen/gasoline). It concludes with the hum of “m” ─ the chant which began with from rising to a hypnotic crescendo (eight words with “m” sounds, the most of any stanza). It concludes with sight, smell, sound, taste and touch resonating on every frequency perceivable in art.

ODDS AND ENDS (loose threads that all biographies hold)

Bishop initially thought of entitling her long poem about Nova Scotia “Back to Boston.” To do so would have shifted the focus of the poem substantially. “Back to Boston” is literally what happens in the poem ─ it is a description of the direction of the physical journey, “all the way to Boston.” Bishop generally preferred literalness and factuality. “The Moose” is none the less literal and concrete, but the focus it brings is towards journey within more than journey without. “The Moose” highlights the mystery of journey, the familiar-strange dialectic, the dialogue Bishop has throughout the poem (indeed, throughout her oeuvre) between what we know and what we can never know. “The Moose” is just right in a way “Back to Boston” is not. Why this is so is explainable only to a point, in the same way the preceding analysis explains the wondrous inner workings of the poem only to a point.

Bishop chose to dedicate the poem to her aunt, Grace Bulmer Bowers (though she does not indicate to her readers this relationship, something which bothered Aunt Grace a bit, according to her daughter Phyllis Sutherland). The reasons for this dedication are obvious if one knows the history of the poem. It was on her aunt’s farm where the first hints of the poem took shape. By the time Bishop published the poem in 1972, Grace Bulmer Bowers was the only original member of Bishop’s maternal family still alive. Dedicating the poem to Grace was a powerful statement of the direct link it has with not only Bishop’s particular family, childhood and home; but also with these ideas and realities generally ─ and, finally, with the past itself.

An interesting part of the biography of this poem not covered in the opening section is its evolution between its publication in The New Yorker (July 15, 1972) and in Geography III (1976). Millier remarks that it remained one of her most revised poems. Interestingly, the differences between The New Yorker version and the Geography III version are relatively minor, encompassing particular details connected to phrasing. All the major ideas and loci of power are there in the earlier version. What the divergences show is how important even the smallest detail was for Bishop.

The New Yorker version does not contain the dedication, though Bishop had told her aunt a number of times it would be dedicated to her when it appeared in book form. Perhaps The New Yorker preferred poems to be sans this feature. The following is a list of the lines which contain variations, with The New Yorker version first, Geography III’s second:

is deepening; the fog / grows richer; the fog
to wet white string / to their wet white string
“It’s a grand night. Yes, sir,” / “A grand night. Yes, sir,”
regarding us amicably. / She regards us amicably.

The remainder of the variations are tiny: in stanza 13, line 5, a comma after Boston rather than a period; in stanza 18, line 2, re-married rather than remarried; in stanza 20, line 4, “half-groan, half-acceptance” rather than these phrases without the hyphens, as separate words; in stanza 27, line 3, “rolling his R’s” rather than “r’s”. Finally, the most curious divergence is with the rather powerful word “divagation.” In The New Yorker it is spelled “divigation,” clearly incorrect. The New Yorker had and still has a reputation in the world of letters for being sticklers about grammar. Even Bishop, a meticulous grammarian (though she said punctuation was her Waterloo and she wasn’t the best speller in the world), sometimes herself became exasperated with The New Yorker’s exactitude, which verged on obsession (at least according to some of its contributors). That such a mistake slipped in is rather astonishing, though in itself is only a minor curiosity. This brief digression – a dénouement of another kind – is meant to be considered only by those obsessed with minutiae. Obviously, Bishop, or her editors at Farrar, Straus, Giroux (who published Geography III), realized the error and silently change it.

[Ed. note: Thank you for taking the time to read this multi-part series. I will be posting a similar read of Bishop's masterpiece story "In the Village" later this year. -- SB]

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