19 October 2014

18 October 2014

16 October 2014

Haiku 2014/289

this old recording. . .
memories drift with music
through this empty house

14 October 2014

Haiku 2014/287

from four blocks away
I hear them cheering their team
then they fall silent

13 October 2014

Haiku 2014/286

bone-dried by the sun
the birdbath lay there, leaf-filled
the birds are waiting

Poem of the Week 2014/42

Insomnia

The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she's a daytime sleeper.

By the Universe deserted,
she'd tell it to go to hell,
and she'd find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

Elizabeth Bishop

The first line of this poem tells us that it's night (because the moon is visible), and we're in the speaker's bedroom (because she can see the moon's reflection in the mirror of her bureau). But we've already been told that and something more significant by the title, Insomnia: the speaker should be sleeping, or wishes she were sleeping, but she isn't, or can't. So it's night, she's at home, in her bedroom, unable to sleep, and her restless mind reflects on the moon's reflection. Bishop's language deftly conjures up that in-between state, floating and free-associative, when you can't sleep but are not quite alert. In her waking/not-quite-awake state, the speaker seems to be hovering somewhere between childhood dreams and adult worries.

The moon is personified throughout in a way that echoes nursery rhymes in the "dish ran away with the spoon" vein of homespun surrealism. The language slides and re-forms: notice how "sleep, or" in the penultimate line of the first stanza melts into "sleeper" in the next line. The moon looks out "a million miles"; a million is (or used to be), the childish way of saying "an uncountably high number." The speaker fancifully imagines a world in which the moon is deserted by the universe (perhaps prompted by the isolated reflection of the moon in her mirror; she is not after all looking at the moon itself, but only a reflection trapped in the domestic environment of her bureau mirror). But there are odd intimations of underlying irritation or even anger, as when the speaker notes that the moon never smiles, or that it would tell the universe to go to hell.

But the language continues in a very musical way, the simple end rhymes chiming discreetly in every other line (miles/smiles; hell/dwell/well, right/night), and a fairy-tale world is never far away, a world in which the conscious moon might decide to dwell not in the Universe in which it is, in reality, physically fixed, but instead purely as a reflection in a mirror or a body of water. (Incidentally, fans of composer Elliott Carter may recognize the phrase "a mirror on which to dwell" as the title of one of his song cycles, in which he sets six poems by Bishop, including this one). This is a world in which there are wells which seem to have an atavistic power; we are jauntily told to "wrap up care in a cobweb" (care: another intimation that something is eating at the speaker) "and drop it down the well" – again, we seem to be in a night-world of the fantastic, in which (as when the fairies administer to the enchanted Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream) cobwebs are a thing that can be used to take care of you, to wrap up the obviously non-physical (and as yet unspecified) cares.

In the third stanza we are brought into the well itself, or more exactly into the not-quite-real world reflected in the well's water: our world inverted. The speaker begins with a simple physical description of what happens in this reflected world: left is right, as in a mirror. And "the shadows are really the body": yes, that's what happens in the world of a reflection, though it's impossible not to feel a metaphorical and moral force in the thought that our physical bodies are being replaced with the seemingly insubstantial shadows. Then, floating and free-associating again, she moves from a description of what you can actually see in a reflection to a magically reversed world, an opposite world: we are awake during night, not day! So far the lines have lilted along, each of them beginning with where, each of them ending with the completion of a thought.

And then, in the last two lines of the poem, the neat and almost stately progression turns into something odd and awkward: instead of a thought ending as the line ends, there is an enjambment in the last two lines, and the rhymes (sea/me), instead of being separated as in the rest of the poem by another line, slam right into each other, and the description almost stumbles into the final line, with one of those images that make emotional if not literal sense (we're now unhinged from natural reality; the meaning is generally clear, but what exactly does it mean in precise physical terms – and Bishop's work generally finds poetry in precision – to say the "heavens" are as shallow as the sea is currently deep?). The melodious stanzas have tripped over themselves; the last two lines aren't as smooth as the earlier ones, and read almost clumsily: and then, as if the speaker realizes she can't evade the real problem, as if to break what is now shown to have been a logjam of reticence and awkwardness, the crux of the matter surfaces: in this inverted world, you love me.

And suddenly the little bombshell of the last three words throws the entire poem in a different light, and we now see the likely reason why this woman cannot sleep. The moon is traditionally associated with women (probably because of the monthly cycles), but in particular with chaste or virginal women (in Greek and Roman mythology, it is associated with Artemis/Diana, the virgin huntress and sister of the sun-god, and, again, there is perhaps an underlying memory of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Hermia is threatened, if she does not marry the man her father wishes (rather than the man she herself loves), with the convent, in which she, a "barren sister," will chant "faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon"). The speaker, who has been playing all along in her sleepless state with whimsical thoughts about the moon, both identifies with the isolated virginal moon and creates in it a projection of what she wishes she were: the moon is dignified, she is proud of herself, she does not smile (how many of us smile when we are embarrassed, and hate ourselves for it later!). If the moon were deserted by the Universe (and now we see that the object of the speaker's unrequited love meant the universe to her), she'd just tell it to go to hell, and she is emphatically put in italics, as if to rebuke the insomniac by contrast for whatever it was (still unspoken, perhaps out of shame) that she actually did when she was rejected. The moon would just go ahead and find another place to live her life, not be stuck sleepless in her bedroom like our speaker. Yet what had at first seemed the lovely, fanciful thought of the moon living as a reflection in water or glass can now be seen as a disembodying of the moon's physicality; she is only a reflection, not a physical being: so perhaps, underlying and undercutting her defiance, we can feel an intimation of the speaker's physical longing. The poem's fairy-tale ending (and now you love me!), by being put into the context of an inverted world, is also a sardonic reminder of the speaker's actual unhappiness. What had seemed like an enchanted, half-dreaming world is retrospectively thrown into a harsher light, more searching and painful, by the last three words of the poem, which reveal a rejected lover's sleepless night-world of isolation and regret.

I took this from The Complete Poems 1927-1979 of Elizabeth Bishop, though there are now a number of other editions, notably a Library of America set.