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

Monday, March 28, 2011

So many times we misremember poems.
For years I thought Frost's "Mending Wall" had spelt
those upper, sun-spilt object lessons 'bowlders' --
at least that's how they were on page two twelve
of Untermeyer's sixth, combined edition.
Or take the different ways the high school students
-- fulfilling arcane AP class requirements
in hopes of IBDs, the Ivy League,
then ABDs (or even Ph.D.s) --
have mangled EB's villanelle "One Art."
I posted one the other day from Youtube:
"ThePrancingPainter" with her turtleneck
that matched her lipstick (not her horn-rimmed glasses);
a task she "had to do for English class."
She belted out the 'is': "IS no disaster,"
then "where it was you meant to visit" ['travel!'],
and worst of all the final line, when after
a "Write it" flaccid as a Kellogg's cornflake
(floating in a bowl and taking movies?)
the final overwhelming, universal
catastrophe was shot down with the "A"
her teacher (she feels certain) ought to give her
for memorizing such a dorky poem.
In short, she didn't really bowl me over.
And yet. And yet. I cannot look inside her,
or see the grandma fifty-nine years hence
remove her horn-rimmed glasses to look back
on losses yet unlisted, milk yet spilt,
and think of when she stood before the camera
and said the words, although she can't remember
just how that poem went, or what the name was
that awful teacher had, who'd been so nasty
one January morning nine years after --
to the day it was -- he'd lost his Dad.

17-20 January 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Our Paris Correspondent Writes:

Becoming a Poet: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop -- Talk by poet Kathleen Spivack

As a young student, Kathleen Spivack received a scholarship to study writing in Robert Lowell's famous workshop in Boston. He introduced her to poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and others who were also studying with Lowell. Later, through Robert Lowell, she met the poet Elizabeth Bishop. We are celebrating Bishop's centennial this year.

Kathleen spent quite a lot of time with each of the poets she met through Lowell. Writing was the focus. In this presentation, she will discuss how Lowell taught, and how these poets approached their work. What can we learn from them?

Sunday March 20th at 6p.m. in the upstairs library.
Shakespeare and Company
37 rue de la Bûcherie
75005 Paris, France
Tel/Fax: 0033(0)1 43 25 40 93

Kathleen Spivack’s newest book, A History of Yearning, won the Sows Ear International Poetry Chapbook Prize, the New England & Los Angeles Book Festivals prizes, and the London Book Festival First Prize for Poetry, 2011. Her work has also received the Allen Ginsberg, Erika Mumford and Paumanok awards.

Earlier books are Moments of Past Happiness, Earthwinds/Grolier; The Beds We Lie In (Scarecrow 1986), nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; The Honeymoon: a Collection of Short Stories (Graywolf 1986); Swimmer in the Spreading Dawn (Applewood 1981); The Jane Poems(Doubleday 1973); Flying Inland (Doubleday 1971). She is currently completing a book Student! With Robert Lowell and his Famous Circle: Sexton, Plath, Bishop etc., which looks at at how these writers approached their work.

Her permanent residence is in Boston. She has taught in France full or half time for the past twenty years as a Fulbright Professor in Creative Writing in France (1993-1994), a Visiting Professor at the University of Paris VII-VIII, the University of Tours, the University of Versailles, and at the Ecole Superieure (Polytechnique). She also teaches in the United States and has been Visiting Writer at American Universities.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Events – Nova Scotia Update

After a highly successful launch week for our Elizabeth Bishop Centenary (EB100) celebrations here in Nova Scotia (6 to 10 February 2011), which happened in the depth of a snowy, cold, windy winter, there was a little break in activity, but the various EB100 committees and artists have been busy planning upcoming events – and as spring approaches, it is time to give an update about all this activity. {N.B. For more information, check out the links in each of the items below.}

Great Village, N.S. (Photo by Laurie Gunn)


Writing Competition:

On 15 March 2011 “In the Village”: The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Writing Competition, 2011 closed to submissions. The submissions are still coming in by Canada Post, but to date we have received 100, covering all five categories. We are pleased about this response. The judges will be making their choices in April and May. We will be announcing the winners at the EBSNS Annual General Meeting on 18 June 2011, and prizes will be awarded at the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Arts Festival in Great Village, 19-21 June 2011. For more information about the Writing Competition and to hear a wonderful audio recording of Elizabeth Bishop’s story “In the Village,” go to the Writing Competition page on the EBSNS website.

Viewpoint Gallery’s “One Art: Exhibition:

On 29 March Sandra Barry and Roxanne Smith will present an information session at ViewPoint Gallery, 1272 Barrington St., Halifax, N.S., at 7:00 p.m., about “One Art” ViewPoint’s open call interdisciplinary exhibition in celebration of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary. For more information about the call and exhibition, go to the ViewPoint Gallery website. Deadline for submissions is 15 April. The exhibition and related programming will take place throughout September 2011.


Read by the Sea Literary Festival Fund-raiser:

“Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil,” an evening of words and music celebrating Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazilian connections, will take place on 2 April 2011 at The Palace, 41 Water St., Pictou, N.S., at 7:00 p.m. Featuring our own John Barnstead reading excerpts of Bishop’s poems and prose with fantastic Brazilian music by Cocada (Joanne Hatfield, Dawn Hatfield and Jef Wirchenko). For more information go to the Read by the Sea website.

Story-telling Salon: Tribute to Elizabeth Bishop:

Halifax storyteller Claire Miller will host one of her popular storytelling and music salons at her home in Halifax, N.S., on Sunday 17 April, which will be a tribute to Elizabeth Bishop. She will be joined by well-know, award-winning singer, songwriter and musician Susan Crowe. This event is a fund-raiser for the Elizabeth Bishop House. Seating is limited and already sold out. Claire is the reader of “In the Village,” the audio recording done for the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Writing Competition.

EB Projected: Short Films about Elizabeth Bishop:

The EBSNS joined forces with interdisciplinary artists and film-maker Linda Rae Dornan, from Sackville, N.B., to call for new short films about Elizabeth Bishop. There will be launch screening of these films on Friday, 29 April, at The Music Room, 6181 Lady Hammond Rd., in Halifax, N.S., 7:00-9:00 p.m. We will post much more information about this event as this date approaches.



Art Exhibitions:

The EBSNS is working in partnership with the Truro Arts Society to mount two exciting EB Centenary art exhibitions.

Paint the village weekend:
Visual artists are invited to experience the Village that contributed so much to the art and poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Artists are invited to spend the weekend of June 4 & 5, 2011, painting or photographing Great Village. The Elizabeth Bishop House and the Great Village Legion will also be open for indoor painting especially in the case of inclement weather. For artists outside of the Truro area, the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia will arrange billeting in Great Village for Saturday night (including Sunday breakfast). There will also be a supper and a Saturday night mingling for all participating artists at the Joy Laking Gallery. Susan Tooke and Richard Rudnicki as well as Joy are participating artists. For full information about the art weekend, see Paint the Village Weekend page on the EBSNS website.

Paint your own village:
The other exhibition is entitled “In the Village.” One of Elizabeth’s Bishop’s most famous short stories, “In the Village,” is set in Great Village. As background to this exhibition, artist’s are encouraged to listen to the entire 55 minute story on the Elizabeth Bishop website – go to the Writing Competition page and scroll down to the bottom. Then artists are encouraged to visually recreate their own personal “Where I came from” art piece. This exhibition mirrors the “In the Village” writing competition. One submission per artist that interprets the artist’s own life or past, will be accepted and displayed at McCarthy Hall and at the Elizabeth Bishop Arts Festival. In addition, several will be chosen to be photographed and reproduced in a book that will be published in 2012. This book will feature the prize winning stories of the “In the Village” Writing Competition and some of the art from the “In the Village” visual art exhibition. For full information about this exhibition go to the Art Exhibitions page on the EBSNS website.


The sap is running in the maples. The snow is vanishing from the yards. The birds are singing their mating songs. With the vernal equinox just a couple days away, the tight grip of winter is easing and spring is finally coming to Nova Scotia. With it a burst of Elizabeth Bishop Centenary activity. We will keep you updated here about events, but you can check out the listing on the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Events website.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Our New York Correspondent Writes:

Elizabeth Bishop in New York

Bishop, by her own admission, had mixed feelings about New York, but the city is nevertheless extremely fond of her, as 800-plus people filed into the Great Hall at Cooper Union on February 8, 2011 to celebrate the poet’s 100th birthday. I was in the first or second wave, and managed to find a seat with an unobstructed view of the stage, which was set up in two levels, with three microphones in front of the rise and several tables surrounding a podium above. Each guest was given a beautiful program and a copy of a photo of Bishop, my favourite, of her sitting on the terrace at Ouro Preto in a mid-century modern lounger with a black and white cat on her lap. By the time the 23 poets — each to read one Bishop poem — filed onto the stage, the auditorium was standing-room only, and the star-studded lineup of readers were greeted by a heartfelt round of applause.

Sponsored by The New Yorker, FSG and the Poetry Society of America, the evening also marked the launch of a new book: Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence. New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, actress Maria Tucci and PSA executive director Alice Quinn (seated at the three lower microphones) read selections from this new volume (which could be bought for a steal along with beautiful new navy blue and citrus yellow softcover editions of the complete poems and complete prose at the event) interspersed among the poems.

The poems! Frank Bidart started things off with “Roosters,” followed by Yusef Komunyakaa’s reading of “The Fish.” John Ashbery was on the lineup but sent his regrets, so on to Richard Howard and “The Bight.” Nova Scotia featured large in the selection, with Vijay Seshadri reading “At the Fishhouses,” Joelle Biele (who also edited the Complete Correspondence) reading “Sestina” and Mark Strand reading “First Death in Nova Scotia.” Elizabeth Alexander read “In the Waiting Room” (I have always included this in my informal group of “Nova Scotia Poems” despite the obvious Massachussetts references) and Robert Polito read “Poem.” (To balance things out, Brooklyn poet laureate Tina Chang read “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” who would have come flying from Fort Greene if she thought such things were proper.) Last to read, Marie Ponsot chose the rarely anthologized and stunning “Sonnet.” I couldn’t have chosen better poems myself, except for the obvious omission of “The Moose” and perhaps “One Art.”

Tucci, Quinn, and Muldoon chose fabulous selections from the Correspondence to place many of the poems in the context of their publication and get a few laughs from the crowd, typically at the expense of the New Yorker’s notoriously stringent copy-editing team. Bishop herself came across as self-effacing and funny in equal measure. Tucci was the voice of Bishop, Quinn was the voice of fellow long-time New Yorker fiction editor Katharine S. White and Muldoon played the roles of two earlier predecessors, William Maxwell and Howard Moss. The laughs were welcome, as somehow to my ears the poems chosen emphasized a certain sadness, in light of which perhaps “One Art” would have been too much for what was, minus a cake, a fabulous birthday party.

Dizzy from all the talent in the room and gleefully getting fingerprints all over the cover of a shiny new volume of the Poems, your faithful correspondent went out into the night. Happy Birthday, EB!

-- Carey Toane

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]

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?).

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)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Poem: Reading “The Moose” – Part 6

On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship's port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
illuminated, solemn.
A dog gives one bark.

Most of this stanza provides more fleeting images that appear hauntingly out of the “dark”: the solitary red light (left and port being synonymous reinforces the effort to keep oriented in the myriad details: down, west, up, Lower, Middle, Upper being the directional cues). The ship's lantern swims, indicating it too is in motion, journeying through the night. (It hints back to the sun setting in the sea.) Bishop also introduces another punctuation element: the colon, used before an example or a list. Here Bishop uses it as a bridge between parallels. A red light is a ship's lantern. In the dark what we see often needs explanation. This sentence construction also reinforces the importance of what is seen. The red light has meaning. It is a lantern on a ship, which is also on a journey. Then the startling rubber boots ─ ordinary like the tablecloth but described as “illuminated, solemn,” as though they are icons from the Middle Ages, objects of worship. They certainly are necessary gear in fishing communities, as essential as a lantern lighting the way. What also happens with these two images is a dramatic shift of perspective from the distant red light to the near rubber boots. What lights our way is what we need to survive in this landscape.

The open vowels of this stanza ─ especially the line “two rubber boots show” ─ prepares the reader for the "one bark" of a dog. The reader remembers the dog at the farm, and knows this dog too is protecting its humans, perhaps the person wearing the robber boots.

Each of these details is relevant. Bishop introduces so many of them because she is building up a context, a complex web of connection and association that establishes purpose and meaning for the reader. Echoing words return us to what has come before. Each new image illuminates. Each detail is solemn.

A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night. Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.

The details of the previous stanza have showed so clearly because the bus is stopped to admit another passenger (another “lone traveller”), the first more or less fully identified individual. With her arrival a hint of the community which is being created on the bus, is given more direct expression. It is an ad hoc, temporary, transient community, of course; but it is a gathering none the less. The bus is like a moving house.

The woman who climbs aboard is as homely as the woman and her tablecloth ─ she carries market bags, her domestic economy. We are given a tangible sense of her manner, appearance and station in life: “brisk, freckled, elderly.” And we are given her voice ─ set in quotation marks, the first in the poem. In her own words she describes her view of the world and her particular journey. Her “grand night” foreshadows the wondrous conclusion of the poem. Her “Yes, sir” foreshadows one of the fullest expressions of philosophical beliefs which Bishop offers anywhere in her poetry. Her “all the way to Boston” tells not just of a literal destination but evokes an entire historical reality of this region: the link between the Maritimes and New England (known as the “Boston States”) and the centuries of migration between them.

The reader knows these words, spoken by an elderly woman, are important because they are the first truly human voice. It foreshadows the other voices that the poem will offer.

What is vital about the final line of the stanza is not that the woman is amicable (the reader is not surprised by this demeanour), but that she regards “us”: passengers, poet, reader. With “us” the poem has come fully to the locus of community, the place where lone travellers have come to, where humans have gathered, for the purpose of sharing a journey. As with from, Bishop chooses a small, almost inaudible pronoun to signal the whole of humanity

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.

The “us” is now “we” ─ further reinforcing the reader’s direct involvement in this journey, this community, which now moves through the magic of moonlight, moonlight and mist, through the hairy, scratchy, splintery New Brunswick woods. “Hairy, scratchy, splintery” is an onomatopoeia at its most engaging level, mixing texture, sound and sense in a vibrant collage, giving the woods a mammalian quality. Woods and moonlight are the stuff of folk and fairy tale. All manner of things can happen in the woods in moonlight.

Wood and mist echo earlier juxtapositions of solidity and evanescence: the wall of foam and the fog closing in. Wood and mist are of the earth; the wall of foam is of water; the fog closing in is of air. These simple words build up a powerful cosmology of the elements: seen, tasted, touched, smelled and heard by all of “us.”

Here the hum of “m” surges to take the fore with alliteration (rather than just internal consonance). Bishop’s sparing use of simile has served the poem well, for the linking here of mist to lamb’s wool (echoing “woods”), extending it through the verb “caught,” is both intensely comforting and wondrously mysterious (the woods and mist both have strong animal-like qualities). In the realm of moonlight, one thing can be mistaken for ─ or even transform into ─ another. “We enter” a landscape which adheres to us in some way, is somehow sentient. Though this is a strange sensation, it is a familiar strangeness, and again foreshadows the wondrous conclusion of the poem.

This stanza also tells the reader that the poem is at the next stage of the journey, literally. New Brunswick is the province adjacent to Nova Scotia, a province known for its vast forests and lumbering industry; though the comparison with lambs, bushes and pastures link them back to the more agrarian Nova Scotia. This stanza is the penultimate one in the second section of the poem. The moonlight and mist signals deep night and prepares the reader for the response of the passengers: sleep and dream.

The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination....

Sleep is another kind of journey which takes the mind into realms conscious reality often avoids. Sleep is time out of time in our daily life. It is a digression, a straying into deeper realms. As Bishop so beautifully describes, sleep is “a dreamy divagation” ─ and a bus load of people in various stages of sleep is, startlingly, “a gentle, auditory, / slow hallucination.” The lullaby has returned: lie, long, gentle, slow, hallucination, with a hint of the hum (dreamy). Note all the “i” sounds, too, both long and short (lie, sigh, night, divagation, begins, auditory, hallucination).

While the chant has been consistent, up to this point the hum and song heard has been more elemental and natural, rather than human. Here Bishop turns towards meditation. She says that this meditation is also essentially auditory, but the feminine rhyme of divagation/ hallucination signals a shift in the focus of the chant. The meditation is really a conversation. Through hallucination Bishop tells us that what we are about to experience is real, but not actually present on the bus and might even have a sense of the illusory about it. But this shift is a vital one, and is powerfully introduced by the ellipsis which end this stanza. Ellipses indicate an elision or omission. After the period Bishop adds three dots which act as a kind of chasm or space, separating all that has come before from what follows. Yet, at the same time, this ellipsis is meant to allow the reader to insert whatever he or she needs to insert. It is an invitation to fill in the gap, because the hallucination is an intensely private matter, and Bishop knows this well enough. With the ellipsis Bishop signals that she is adding her own text. What follows is for Bishop a flood of memory, the essential context of her meditation. It is a series of autobiographical realities from her childhood, an autobiographical account of her life. She does not simply want to thrust this flood of memory onto the reader, so she leaves a gap for the reader to fill as he or she wants. She also signals with the ellipsis that much of her meditation is in fact left out, so much can never be remembered, retold, reclaimed. Even as the flood of memory is a personal evocation, Bishop also casts it as a universal experience. The act of remembering itself is universal.

The next six stanzas constitute the third section of “The Moose.” Even though unavoidably fragmentary (though in many ways it is an intense distillation to create a sort of super-concentration), it draws the reader into the world of Bishop’s childhood. And it ponders the universal concerns humanity grapples with on its long journey.

Ed. note: Next to Elizabeth Bishop, my favourite poet of the Bay of Fundy is Harry Thurston. I discovered the other day that CBC TV's Land and Sea did a documentary about the Bay of Fundy, broadcast in the fall of 2010. It seems appropriate at this point to direct you to this wonderful description and evocation of the bay, partly because Harry will be involved in a number of EB100 events later this year, including being a guide on a bus tour along "The Moose" route on 1 October 2011. Harry is also the author of what in my opinion is the best book every written about the Bay of Fundy, Tidal Life: A Natural History of the Bay of Fundy.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Our Pictou Correspondent Writes:

"Read by the Sea is run by a volunteer committee of book-lovers along the north shore of Nova Scotia from Pugwash to Pictou. Our mission is to bring fine writers and writing to our rural area. In the year 2000, with the help and support of the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library, a clutch of three women conceived of the idea and mounted the inaugural festival. Despite a total lack experience, very little knowledge and a miniscule budget, the festival was a great hit. Over the next few years we set out to build a solid foundation for the festival. Now with seven committee members, lots of community support, and a list of sponsors, the festival is flourishing. We have recently expanded our offerings to include The Village Series, which brings year-round readings to villages along the north shore.

"It’s going to be a dazzling combination of music, food and poetry on April 2, 2011 at the Palace Theatre in Pictou when Read by the Sea presents "Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil". Halifax poet and professor John Barnstead will recite selections of poetry and prose from Bishop’s life in Brazil, while the music of Cocada will take you on a journey to the country where this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet made her home for almost twenty years. To enhance the Brazilian flavour of the evening, tapas will be served.

The evening will be introduced by Sandra Barry, one of the founders of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, which is marking the hundredth anniversary of Bishop's birth with a series of celebrations -- from concerts to art exhibitions to a literary festival in Great Village. Bishop spent much of her early childhood in Great Village, at her grandparents’ home, and wrote some of her most famous poetry and prose about being a child there.

"Cocada, with Brookfield piano teacher and composer Joanne Hatfield on guitar and vocals, Jef Wirchenko on double bass, and Dawn Hatfield on flute, began with Joanne’s interest in Brazilian music and her learning to play and sing many Bossa Nova standards. Dawn, a music educator, composer and performer, is a versatile musician who plays baritone sax, flute and ukelele. Jef began his professional career at age sixteen with singer/songwriter Shirley Jackson. Well known as a blues bassist, Jef also explores many styles of music, playing in a variety of ensembles. In addition to Brazilian music, Cocada’s repertoire includes original compositions.

"This program was first performed in 2009 as part of the “Brazil in Great Village” weekend. Read by the Sea is delighted to present this encore performance at the Palace, the historic theatre building recently re-opened at 41 Water Street in Pictou. The theatre is on the second floor and offers ample parking in the lot behind the building. Doors will open at 6:30, the performance will begin at 7:00. Tickets for this Read by the Sea fundraiser are $20 and are available at the Village Florist in Tatamagouche, the River John Library, online at www.readbythesea.ca., or at the door.

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.)

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.