02 April 2012

National Poetry Month: 2

It seems appropriate to follow Marianne Moore with Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), since Moore was a longtime friend and inspiration to the younger writer. Bishop wrote a delightful and touching short memoir of their friendship, called Efforts of Affection, which is in her Collected Prose. The poem below is from Bishop's Collected Poems, published in 1983. (There are more recent editions of Bishop, but I'm linking to the ones I have.)

Exchanging Hats

Unfunny uncles who insist
in trying on a lady's hat,
– oh, even if the joke falls flat,
we share your slight transvestite twist

in spite of our embarrassment.
Costume and custom are complex.
The headgear of the other sex
inspires us to experiment.

Anandrous aunts, who, at the beach
with paper plates upon your laps,
keep putting on the yachtsmen's caps
with exhibitionistic screech,

the visors hanging o'er the ear
so that the golden anchors drag,
– the tides of fashion never lag.
Such caps may not be worn next year.

Or you who don the paper plate
itself, and put some grapes upon it,
or sport the Indian's feather bonnet,
– perversities may aggravate

the natural madness of the hatter.
And if the opera hats collapse
and crowns grow draughty, then, perhaps
he thinks what might a miter matter?

Unfunny uncle, you who wore a
hat too big, or one too many,
tell us, can't you, are there any
stars inside your black fedora?

Aunt exemplary and slim,
with avernal eyes, we wonder
what slow changes they see under
their vast, shady, turned-down brim.

– Elizabeth Bishop

Usually I don't define or link to references because I figure if you're reading this you're on the magical Interweb anyway and can look up whatever you want to, but I'll save you some time and trouble (and possibly mistaken assumptions, since my first guess at these words was wrong): anandrous is a botanical term meaning without a stamen (that is, having exclusively the female part of a flower's reproductive system), and avernal refers to Lake Avernus in Italy, famous for its supposedly deadly vapors (birds flying overhead were said to be killed by these vapors). With these terms Bishop wittily plays off on "poetic" cliches about women being like flowers or their eyes being like dark pools. I think the term "funny uncle" is not used much anymore, but the echoing "un" sounds in "unfunny uncles" maintain the wit of the phrasing. Words slide into similarity in a way that makes language seem as slippery as the social roles arbitrarily defined by assigned headgear: costume becomes custom. Bishop playfully exposes the flimsy underpinnings of what seems to us solid: not only gender roles but also the very pillars of society, which I take to be the implication of the collapsing opera hats (Society, meaning what we now call the 1%), the draughty crowns (political power) and the miters (the power of organized religion) that might not matter.

I love the use of may in "such caps may not be worn next year," where it could indicate either possibility (such caps might not be worn next year) or command (you may not do that). Fashion is another part of the flux that actually defines what we thought was stable. This playful and skeptical sense leads Bishop at the end to speculate on hidden metaphysical depths and grandeurs hiding in unlikely places: those strange aunts and uncles. (I love the way the rhythm of the last line slows down and spreads out.)

I think it's significant that Bishop mentions aunts and uncles, rather than parents, siblings, or cousins. Aunts and uncles are closely linked to us, but distant enough from our daily life or (usually) our age group to have something permanently distant and strange about them. As often with Bishop, you feel she is in a scene, but not quite of it.

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