04 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/1

Sestina

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Elizabeth Bishop

As the title indicates, this poem is a sestina. An old form dating back to the twelfth-century troubadour Arnaut Daniel, the sestina, as its name implies (deriving ultimately from the Latin sextus, six), is built on the number six: six stanzas, of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi, or short concluding stanza. You may use any six words to end the lines of the first stanza, but then each of those six words must re-appear, in a traditional set pattern, as the end-words in the remaining stanzas. And then all six words must re-appear in the envoi.

Bishop follows the classic pattern of end words in the stanzas:

Stanza 1: A (house), B (grandmother), C (child), D (stove), E (almanac), F (tears);
Stanza 2: F (tears), A (house), E (almanac), B (grandmother), D (stove), C (child);
Stanza 3: C (child), F (tears), D (stove), A (house), B (grandmother), E (almanac);
Stanza 4: E (almanac), C (child), B (grandmother), F (tears), A (house), D (stove);
Stanza 5: D (stove), E (almanac), A (house), C (child), F (tears), B (grandmother);
Stanza 6: B (grandmother), D (stove), F (tears) E (almanac), C (child), A (house);
Envoi: first line: F / E; second line: B / D; third line: C / A.

The sestina form, with its sense of obsessive repetition, is a brilliant choice for this poem of somewhat claustrophobic, recurring, and inward sorrow. The first appearance of tears in the poem is as the final word, the climax, of the first stanza, as the grandmother laughs and talks, reading the jokes in the almanac, trying to hide them. They re-appear in their appointed end-lines, transformed into drops of water dancing down the hot kettle as they disappear into steam, into the tea the grandmother and the child share, into the buttons on the suit of the man in the child's drawing, into the little waxing and waning moons pictured in the almanac – tears run through the poem. They seem to be a regularly recurring thing for the grandmother, who thinks them foretold by the almanac just as surely as the weather; she considers her tears equinoctial, that is, related to the equinox, the twice-yearly point when the sun crosses the equator and daylight and darkness are of equal length.

This suspension between light and dark suggests the mood of the scene pictured here (as well as the grandmother's laughter to cover the simultaneous tears); things look cozy and quaint (grandmother and grandchild drinking tea, the rain outside, the old-fashioned Marvel Stove inside, warming them up) but are fraught with unspoken troubles (why is the grandmother crying, and why is she trying to hide her tears from the child? why are these tears regular events, as if they're calendared? why is the child with the grandmother – where are her parents? does all this have something to do with the child's drawing of a mysterious man buttoned up by tears?). The child's drawing seems to have some relationship with the unexpressed troubles, and not just because of the mysterious man; the house she draw is rigid, but the pathway to it is winding; the contrast between the adjectives suggests some of the problems between an inflexible social or family life and the wayward approaches of our lives.

The equinox referred to must be the fall equinox (roughly 22 September), given the September rain falling on the house. The onset of autumn brings with it associations of growing cold and darkness, and intimations of the end of life. This is one of the details, like the failing light, the heavy rain on the roof, the chilly air that leads the grandmother to put more wood in the oven, that cumulatively create a melancholy atmosphere. The two seem rather isolated in the rain, and in the world. The grandmother seems to be a bit cut off from the times; by the period of Bishop's poem (the vague middle of the twentieth century), the Marvel Stove and the almanac so prominently featured here were long past their heyday as cutting-edge developments in technology and information dissemination, representing instead an old-fashioned quaintness that charms because most of the world has forgotten them. There's kind of a fairy-tale quality in the poem, with the singing kettle and the magical almanac and the kindly grandmother, and of course there's always underlying danger, often around lost family members, in such stories.

Marvel is the brand name of those sort of curving and ornate-looking wood-burning stoves that, at least for my generation, represent the image of an old-time oven; and the almanac, an annual publication with schedules of tides and moon cycles and other information handy for farmers and sailors and suchlike, is most likely The Old Farmer's Almanac, which was popular in mid-century America and included jokes and humorous items along with the more practical stuff – but even the title, with its reference to an imaginary Old Farmer, hearkens back nostalgically to a vanished America. The stove and the almanac are, in a way, intrusions (however out of date) from the outside world into the emotional world of the grandmother and child. Both speak with certainty (It was to be / I know what I know); both are linked with the emblematic tears. Are the certainties of the outside world linked to the private sorrows? The almanac hovers like a bird above the child, bringing to mind the Paraclete, usually pictured as a hovering dove, bringing spiritual enlightenment and comfort. The stove and the almanac are useful, not only for heating and cooking and weather-related information, but as ways of occupying and distracting the grandmother and the child. Yet their presence also emphasizes how removed the grandmother (and therefore, the child in her care) are from their times. Their relation to the scene remains both powerful and mysterious.

The grandmother is aware of the gloomy mood and keeps trying to lighten it, or to keep the child from noticing it, not only by adding more wood for warmth but by reading jokes to the child and tidying up and sharing a comforting cup of tea with her – but the tea is seen (by the grandmother – possibly by the child as well) as a cup of brown tears. Like the grandmother's other attempts to create a more cheerful atmosphere, this one isn't successful, though the attempts show heart-breaking care and love. Yet despite this, the gap between the grandmother and the child is never really bridged; the former feels that her returning tears are only known to a grandmother (and perhaps beyond a child's full comprehension; the generations divide these two), and the latter feels that the flower bed she drew in her picture of a house is secretly filled with tears in the form of the almanac's moons (the waxing and waning moons turning into tears are another suggestion of a deep cycle of sorrow). Neither of the two shares her sadness or her thoughts with the other; instead, touchingly, they try to protect each other from their personal burdens of pain.

Why does such a deeply emotional poem (the mystery behind and repression of the emotions only deepens them) have such a bland and even generic title? Is it an attempt to deflect the very painful emotions portrayed, as if to draw attention to the form itself and the poet's mastery of it, rather than to the tear-haunted house she is portraying? Or does the almost defiant highlighting of the poem's form perhaps suggest that the act of creating art of some sort – of finding and fulfilling a suitable form – is the best way of dealing with human pain? The summation in the envoi includes the grandmother singing to the stove (hoping to distract the child? in temporary pleasure at the stove's warmth?) and the child drawing another inscrutable house. An old woman singing and a child drawing: though at a much lower level of sophistication than Bishop's creation of this poem, both are still ways, however limited and rudimentary, of directing sorrow into the joy of creation.

But the house drawn by the child remains inscrutable; it betrays no secrets to the outside viewer. Though her drawings are imbued by the sorrows of the household (and the world: the little moons from the almanac falling into the carefully drawn flowerbed), those sorrows are, ultimately, unknown to us, and perhaps unknowable. What we see expressed here are the effects of those family sorrows, and we end knowing the emotional and psychological states of the grandmother and child, but not the source of those states. Through her art, the poet has connected us with a remembered emotional condition, but the point is not the particular cause (the starting item of gossip, as it were), but the transformation of it into a work of art. (This is why I have avoided an autobiographical reading here, though anyone who knows something of Bishop's early life can make assumptions about the connections between this poem and the poet's life.)

This is from The Complete Poems 1927 - 1979, by Elizabeth Bishop.

4 comments:

Michael Strickland said...

Just got around to reading this today, and found myself wondering why you assume the child is a girl. I read through the poem picturing a boy, oddly enough. Lovely explication, by the way.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you, glad you enjoyed it.

You raise a really fascinating question about the gender assumptions. I've posted a number of poems in which the sex of the speaker is not specified -- my usual procedure is to assume the speaker's gender is the same as the poet's, on the grounds that if you're writing in the other sex's voice you'd make a point of establishing that in some way. (I also make the assumption for the sake of some convenience. . . .) So despite my frequent rejections of readings that reduce poems to autobiography, and my insistence that "the speaker" is not necessarily the same person as "the poet" I guess I am to some extent relying on what I know of the poet's biography as a guide. In this particular instance, knowing some things about Bishop's childhood reinforced my assumption that the child was a girl. But you are correct that if you came upon this poem not knowing who wrote it or anything about her life you could easily assume the child was a boy (so this might be a case of the reader identifying the child with the reader's own gender).

And to show that there are exceptions to everything: tomorrow's poem, oddly enough, though written by a woman and addressed to a woman, seemed to me very much written as a man speaking to a woman, even though that isn't really specified in any way other than our assumptions about traditional gender roles (that man is the seducer and woman the "seducee"). But there's nothing in the poem itself that would prevent you from thinking it was a woman talking to another woman. And again, despite my dislike of biographical readings, part of this is what I know about the poet's personal life. (Not to be too mysterious: the poet is Louise Bogan, and as far as I know she was not a lesbian but had affairs / marriages with several men, including the poet Theodore Roethke, so I'm assuming that if she writes a seductive poem aimed at a woman, she's doing it in the male voice -- but there's nothing to prevent a reader from making his or her own assumptions there.)

Teresa VazGoodfellow said...

The child in my mind was genderless. Even after reading the previous comment, which prompted me to ask myself what did I think the child was, it still didn't gel in my mind. It was just "a child." The thought that struck me in this poem was the child drawing another house. Made me wonder if the child was drawing from a distant memory - the house he or she once lived in, in happier times - but is now, for some unknown, but no doubt sad reason, gone.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks -- that's a very interesting thought about the child being genderless. I think I've known this poem and the poet too long to see it that way, but it's very striking, and I think you did pick up on the main thing, about drawing the house.