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July 31, 2007

The Year (Something) Happened

moose sign.jpg Back to the theme of poetic "surprise"....

Like Yeats [see Surprise! below], Elizabeth Bishop is another exquisite poet of the unexpected. "One Art", with its sudden eruption of emotion (and exclamations, parentheses, italics) in the final lines, is the paradigm of this strategy. But think of how many other Bishop poems also seem to start with a "drifting hither and thither" as Yeats says, in order to draw out or evade or postpone the moment of arrival at the poem's deep subject. She often seems to begin in a deliberately slow, bland, sometimes even fussy, key. "At the Fishhouses", for instance, wanders loquaciously through an extraordinarily rich but over-detailed anatomy of the shoreline and the speaker's perceptions about "cleated gangplanks", the old man who "sits netting", the "ancient wooden capstan", the Christmas trees, the friendly seal and so on, before it can bear to turn and concentrate on the "knowledge" that is "dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free". But having to batter its way past those psychic defenses, the "sea", like all the other subjects which Bishop will only allow to enter her poetry belatedly, towards the end of a poem, builds an enormous, dammed-up pressure which it would not otherwise have possessed.

"Vague Poem" is a crucial recent addition to Bishop's canon. Written in the mid-1970s and collected in Alice Quinn's edition of Bishop's notebooks and drafts, Edgar Allen Poe and the Juke-Box, this starkly powerful and erotic monologue is now often described as an exception to the norms of the work which Bishop published while she was alive. But in some ways (ways which do not diminish the poem's excellence), it is absolutely typical in its strategically-determined arrangement. So, in "Vague Poem", Bishop lets the poem's "I" move hither and thither apparently aimlessly for roughly the first half of the poem. For example, she allows the speaker to sidetrack herself by a description of the entry to the house she is visiting:

    There was nothing by the back door but dirt
    or that same dry, monochrome, sepia straw I’d seen everywhere.
    Oh, she said, the dog has carried them off.
    (A big black dog, female, was dancing around us.)

Parentheses in a poem are invariably a dramatic device, signalling that an important idea has, apparently, come unexpectedly to the author's mind in the course of writing and that this idea must be added to the text, often out of chronological sequence, as an afterthought, before the already established flow of sentences can proceed again. However, a parenthesis (a crucial typographic convention for Bishop, which one sees her using over and over again) can also allow a narrator to avoid reaching the impending climax of a story. Here, the parenthetically encased "big black dog, female,... dancing round us" is both a strange kind of dionysian symbol and an antic emblem of the poem's "dancing around" its own ultimate subject.

Among the finest instances of this often-used delay-and-surprise template in Bishop's poetry is "The Moose", the poem about a beaten-up blue bus "journey[ing] west" at evening through Nova Scotia and News Brunswick towards Boston. I particularly enjoy this poem because here Bishop makes something very unusual — in all honesty, I would prefer to use the word "magical" — out of the "wonder" trope.

Yeats associated the "unforeseen" suggestions of poetry which he loved with a class politics, that is with a moment in which an individualistic rising-above the predictable thoughts of logic, "rhetoric" and the middle-class enacted itself in words. He connected poetic "surprise" with aristocratic self-assertion. Bishop, too, can often sound a subtly patrician tone as the slightly tawdry confusion, mess and chaos of the early part of a poem is transcended in the second half by an epiphany which is equated with "truth" and which usually concludes or seals the poem's meaning. Many of Bishop's poems end with a memorable but slightly unsatisfying bang.

In "The Moose", though, she manages to write about the unexpected bursting in on the routine without denigrating, satirizing or saccharinizing the mundane. Thus, the "illuminated, solemn" rubber boots, and the "hairy, scratchy, splintery" New Brunswick woods are neither transmuted not ironized. And, best of all, there is the reverie-like description of the "old conversation" going on at the back of the bus. As her protagonist overhears it, it reminds of her listening to her grandparents' muffled voices:

    talking, in Eternity:
    names being mentioned,
    things cleared up finally;
    what he said, what she said,
    who got pensioned;

    deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
    the year he remarried;
    the year (something) happened.
    She died in childbirth.
    That was the son lost
    when the schooner foundered....

    "Yes . . ." that peculiar
    affirmative. "Yes . . ."
    A sharp, indrawn breath,
    half groan, half acceptance,
    that means "Life's like that.
    We know it (also death)."

    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.

This "ordinary", untransfigured world is imbued with happiness, poetry and enigma in ways, and to depths, which poems that trade on narrating a surprising event can very rarely achieve. Subsequently, when the large moose lumbers onto the road, blocking the vehicle's path, the monotonously unvarying timetable of the bus company (a metonymic instance of the modern world's relentless routinizing of all experience) is affronted. The moose ambles up oblivious of human concerns such as time and, like a connoisseur of such things, delicately "sniffs at | the bus's hot hood." The murmured conversations on the bus had had a faintly religious quality: "talking, in Eternity: | names being mentioned, | things cleared up finally." And the moose too has an epiphanic aura as if something sacred had revealed itself. The animal is "Towering... | high as a church," Bishop writes. And she asks (rhetorically):

    Why, why do we feel
    (we all feel) this sweet
    sensation of joy?

But then the moment of "surprise" passes and the regime of the mundane returns. Except that in this poem the mundane has all along been filled with dignity and feeling. The driver wedges the bus's gearstick back into the drive position, and, leaving the moose behind, the ancient vehicle crawls off again down the road into the darkness. The speaker had watched the moose sniff the bus, and now the speaker, sensitized to smells — even those which society defines as unpleasant and which, as a result, hardly ever make their way into poetry — can savour both "a dim | smell of moose, [and] an acrid | smell of gasoline." The wondrous and the ordinary mingle in the nostrils, blending, rather than contrasting, with one another. Bishop's "The Moose" is that rare poem which can represent moments of wonder and surprise without either sentimentalizing or satirizing the mundane, the unexceptional, or the bourgeois contexts which are always the settings for the unexpected or the unforeseen. In a culture which insists for its own ends on maintaining a distinction between the functional (normal) and the aesthetic (abnormal), that quality makes Bishop's poem itself a beautiful, and, ultimately, a useful surprise.

Posted by njenkins at July 31, 2007 07:47 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins