Monday, October 10, 2011

Dead Poets Remembrance Day - Part II (Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester; her father died when she was eight months old; her mother shortly thereafter was institutionalized (some reasons for institutionalization in those days can provoke horror; the slightest of aberrations could be looked upon harshly; even what we call depression could be deemed ‘crazy’).

Essentially orphaned, the adult Bishop, in a bit of autobiography, wrote:  “My relatives all felt so sorry for this child that they tried to do their very best.  And I think they did.  I lived with my grandparents in Nova Scotia, then with the ones in Worcester, in Massachusetts, very briefly and got terrible sick [with asthma].  This was when I was six or seven .... Then I lived with my mother’s older sister in Boston, she was devoted to me -- she had no children.  My relationship with my relatives -- I was always sort of a guest, and I think I’ve always felt like that.”

Her poetry seems to be universally esteemed; almost any of her poems has been described by one or another respectable critic as ‘perfect’.  Despite a scant output -- biographers have insinuated that it was difficult for her to force herself to sit down and write (but to write ‘perfectly’ has to have been grueling) -- yes, with but a scant output she won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award, a Pulitzer prize, the National Books Crtics Circle Award, and was the first woman (and the first American) to win the Books Abroad/Neustadt Prize for Literature.  She was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, and was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress for the 1949-50 term (the position is now, thanks to a rise of common sense, called Poet Laureate of the United States).

At Hope Cemetery in Worcester we were met at Elizabeth Bishop’s grave by three representatives of The Worcester County Poetry Association, an organization “dedicated to keeping poetry in all its forms alive for the people of Worcester” and which publishes the nationally recognized and respected literary journal with the matching capital “W’s” in its name: The Worcester RevieW.  These three were warm, charming, and full of interesting details and trivia.

Three of Bishop’s poems were recited by the six of us in an out-of-the-ordinary way-- one person read a sentence, then the person to his/her right read the next sentence, and so on, round-robin style, until the poem was finished; in the case of “Letter from N.Y.” we each read one stanza.

Poetry lovers at grave of Elizabeth Bishop

(I was told that while we were driving from Lowell to Worcester, had I been tuned in to NPR, I would have heard Terry Gross interviewing humorist David Rakoff (winner of the 2011 Thurber Award) and that, in the course of the interview Rakoff recited “Letter from N.Y.” calling it one of his favorite poems.  I have since “streamed” that interview.  Of the poem, Rakoff says, “In my life I will never achieve anything that beautiful.”)

In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited and read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
"Long Pig," the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
--I couldn't look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How I didn't know any
word for it how "unlikely". . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

The Bight

 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.

 Letter To N.Y.

             For Louise Crane

In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays and after the plays
what other pleasures you're pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road gose round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you're in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can't catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so teribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

--Wheat, not oats, dear. I'm afraid
if it's wheat it's none of your sowing,
nevertheless I'd like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.

And then we moved to the far corner of the cemetery, to a cluster of Hebrew-inscribed stones, among which we found the stone of the mother and the stepfather of the great poet Stanley Kunitz, as well as the stone of his father.  To be continued in Dead Poets Remembrance Day - Part III.

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