Friday, April 24, 2009

The Frail Nightmares of the Observer


An extraordinary late poem by Bishop. Free verse, the first person plural narrator turning into a first person narrator, the beach setting, the minute and stunning description ("the color of mutton-fat jade"), the self-correcting, polite diction, the fleeting surreality (the lion sun who batted the kite from the sky):
The End Of March by Elizabeth Bishop

For John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read: Duxbury

It was cold and windy, scarcely the day
to take a walk on that long beach
Everything was withdrawn as far as possible,
indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken,
seabirds in ones or twos.
The rackety, icy, offshore wind
numbed our faces on one side;
disrupted the formation
of a lone flight of Canada geese;
and blew back the low, inaudible rollers
in upright, steely mist.

The sky was darker than the water
--it was the color of mutton-fat jade.
Along the wet sand, in rubber boots, we followed
a track of big dog-prints (so big
they were more like lion-prints). Then we came on
lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string,
looping up to the tide-line, down to the water,
over and over. Finally, they did end:
a thick white snarl, man-size, awash,
rising on every wave, a sodden ghost,
falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost...
A kite string?--But no kite.

I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream-house,
my crypto-dream-house, that crooked box
set up on pilings, shingled green,
a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener
(boiled with bicarbonate of soda?),
protected from spring tides by a palisade
of--are they railroad ties?
(Many things about this place are dubious.)
I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.
At night, a grog a l'américaine.
I'd blaze it with a kitchen match
and lovely diaphanous blue flame
would waver, doubled in the window.
There must be a stove; there is a chimney,
askew, but braced with wires,
and electricity, possibly
--at least, at the back another wire
limply leashes the whole affair
to something off behind the dunes.
A light to read by--perfect! But--impossible.
And that day the wind was much too cold
even to get that far,
and of course the house was boarded up.

On the way back our faces froze on the other side.
The sun came out for just a minute.
For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
were multi-colored,
and all those high enough threw out long shadows,
individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them
--a sun who'd walked the beach the last low tide,
making those big, majestic paw-prints,
who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.
Jerome Mazzaro, in his review of Bishop's premature Complete Poems in 1968, remarks on the "isolation" of each of her poems:
"This sense of boundaries... militates against any cumulative effects and keeps her works discrete ... Miss Bishop does not want to create an imagined cosmos to compete with the real world. She wants her readers to return to life, not to escape into some cozy, romantic archipelago which she can create either in Maine or Brazil."
David Kalstone wrote about Bishop for the first time in Partisan Review after the publication of Complete Poems, in an pioneering essay in the history of Bishop scholarship called "All Eye":
"It should be clear that when Miss Bishop writes about nature, about objects, about experiences, it is with a very strong sense of their intractability and challenge. Nature cannot easily be combed for moral emblems. Her poems, every bit as conservative in form as other poems of the forties and fifties, are much stranger than what in those decades we took to be poetry. What the sixties have left behind is a notion, a false reading perhaps encouraged by Eliot's criticism, of the perfect "metaphysical" poem, one in which an observed object or action can be taken securely as an "objective correlative" for inner experience ... Going back to Miss Bishop's poems, one finds it all there without any fuss: the most precise psychological connections made between the needs of exact observation and the frail nightmares of the observer, between the strangeness of what is seen and the strangeness of the person seeing it."
Both of the above are taken as excerpts from Brett C. Miller's biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Also learned from that biography that Bishop attended a wedding for the first time in her life at age 62.