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

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.

1 comment:

  1. Sandra, I got on the bus at Part 6 - but plunged immediately into the marvelous ride! This essay is worthy of the poem, which is the highest praise I can imagine. Jocelyne was reading it with me, and she spoke of your 'depth of vision'-indeed! - This was very helpful to me working on Sunday, 4 AM - a very different poem, I know - but one which also explores the ritualization and sanctification of everyday objects, and the ineffable borderland between waking and sleep.. not to mention animal presences! O Sandra, you started our day off beautifully! - Now we must return and catch up on the first five stages which we missed... Thank you for writing this, it is SPLENDID.