Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Cold Spring by Elizabeth Bishop

Source of book: I own the complete Elizabeth Bishop.

March is Women’s History Month, and, in addition to my official selection (stay tuned), I like to read works by female poets. Well, actually, I always like that. My first two poetic loves were Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. I fell in love with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in my teens. I have enjoyed a number of poets of the distaff set over the years. I think that because poetry was considered an acceptable outlet for intelligent and educated women in a time when more “serious” pursuits were off limits, many of the greatest minds ended up writing. 

I discovered Elizabeth Bishop as an adult, thanks to the work of former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, and both his Favorite Poem Project and his anthology, Essential Pleasures, which I highly recommend as an introduction to a wide range of poetry. You can read my post about Bishop’s North and South here. I won’t duplicate the biographical material from the previous post, but you can read more about her life there.

A Cold Spring is a short collection, as are all of Bishop’s works. She wasn’t a prolific writer, but what she did write is quite polished. I’ll just hit a few highlights.

First, her longer poem, “At the Fishhouses” is a tour de force of evocative description. In typical Bishop fashion, there is a sharp edge to things - she isn’t conventionally “nice,” and her descriptions bring to life the stinks and not-so-picturesque decay of her subjects. Cold, bitter, briny, and not quite safe. For example, this little bit:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the could hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

The whole poem is beautiful, in that not-exactly-nice sort of way.

In a similar way, the titular poem, “A Cold Spring,” gives a brilliant series of descriptions, but in an unexpected and edgy way. Here is the opening:

A cold spring:
the violet was flawed on the lawn.
For two weeks or more the trees hesitated;
the little leaves waited,
carefully indicating their characteristics.
Finally a grave green dust
settled over your big and aimless hills.
One day, in a chill white blast of sunshine,
on the side of one a calf was born.
The mother stopped lowing
and took a long time eating the after-birth,
a wretched flag,
but the calf got up promptly
and seemed to feel gay.

I am particularly fond of the phrases “a grave green dust” and “a chill white blast of sunshine.” Unforgettable and brilliant.

These poems seem to have been written primarily about her native New England, rather than her adopted home of Florida. The sea is a constant companion, as are the denizens of small villages. But Bishop was such an introvert that she scarcely seems to interact with the people. She communes with nature, and sings to the animals. Here is one particularly nice introverted poem.

“The Bight”
(On my birthday)

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn't wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.
The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,
and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

I do not get the impression that Bishop thought much of the big city. The next poem was written about her sojourn in New York City, and the title refers to the cross street of her apartment.

“Varick Street”

At night the factories
            struggle awake,
            wretched uneasy buildings
            veined with pipes
            attempt their work.
            Trying to breathe,
            the elongated nostrils
            haired with spikes
            give off such stenches, too.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.

On certain floors
            certain wonders.
            Pale dirty light,
            some captured iceberg
            being prevented from melting.
            See the mechanical moons,
            sick, being made
            to wax and wane
            at somebody’s instigation.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.

Lights music of love
            work on. The presses
            print calendars
            I suppose; the moons
            make medicine
            or confectionery. Our bed
            shrinks from the soot
            and hapless odors
            hold us close.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.

That haunting refrain: “And I shall sell you sell you / sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.” It isn’t just about the city, but about consumerism, where we are all for sale. There is a solid argument to be made that cities have changed quite a bit since the 1940s. If anything, the factories have moved out to rural locations, and the political center of environment-destroying capitalism is now the small town in “red” states. My home city of Los Angeles, while still smoggy, is objectively much cleaner than it was when I was a kid. But Bishop captures a moment, and a feeling, and an idea of the individual as a cog in the money machine, that still haunts us today.

I’ll end with this short poem, perhaps my favorite in the collection. It is both introverted and deeply personal, and features Bishop’s skill at moving from the universal to the personal, from the nature metaphor to the details of a relationship. It is believed to have been written for Bishop’s lover, Lota Soares.

“The Shampoo”

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
--Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

Everything in this poem, from the line length to the like breaks at key moments, is carefully set up to enhance - and provide - the meaning. Again, we see the unexpected descriptions of nature, such as lichens as “explosions.” There is the contrast between the slow movement of time in nature, and the brevity of our own lives. I adore the description of gray hairs as “shooting bright formation.” Readers who want a more in-depth analysis of this poem might enjoy this one, by Kala Dunn.

I find Bishop to be rewarding every time I read her poems. They are best read aloud and savored.

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