Monday, March 2, 2009

Elizabeth Bishop's "The End of March"

Elizabeth Bishop's great poem "The End of March" (from which, of course, the title of this blog is taken) reflects both her fascination with and affection for the natural world and her acknowledgement of the aesthetic and artistic choices that determined the shape of her life's work.

The poem begins with the speaker (along with the dedicatees of the poem, John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read) walking on a New England beach on a forbiddingly cold day. Bishop uses minimalist descriptions to ironically convey the size and sweep of the landscape:

Everything was withdrawn as far as possible,
indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken,
seabirds in ones or twos.
The rackety, icy, offshore wind
numbed our faces on one side;
disrupted the formation
of a lone flight of Canada geese;
and blew back the low, inaudible rollers
in upright, steely mist.

The sense of isolation, of vulnerability before the wind, and of the "shrunken" ocean render the beach a wide-open stage on which the three human actors all but disappear.

Then, as so often happens in a Bishop poem, an animal appears, or at least the trail the animal has left.

...we followed
a track of big dog-prints (so big
they were more like lion-prints). Then we came on
lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string,
looping up to the tide-line, down to the water,
over and over. Finally, they did end:
a thick white snarl, man-size, awash,
rising on every wave, a sodden ghost,
falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost....
A kite string?--but no kite.

And, as again so often occurs in Bishop's work, the animal is imbued with an almost magical element--a dog as big as a lion, whose track leads to the mysterious "snarl" of string that, though "man-size" and ghostly, puts the speaker in mind of a kite string, a thing associated with airiness and leisure. Surely few activities are less associated with work and productivity than kite-flying. So at this point, not quite halfway through the poem, emerges the tension between work and play, acceptance of responsibility and the possibilities inherent in freedom that Bishop revisits over and over in her work. The kite, though apparently free from the effects of gravity, is in reality rooted to the earth by its thin tether, and, in fact, could not fly without the tension that tether provides.

What follows is the speaker's description of the perfect place in which to enjoy a kind of ideal freedom.

I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream house,
my crypto-dream house, that crooked box
set up on pilings, shingled green,
a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener....

The description is vivid but laced with affectionate humor, the house being one she has seen often enough to hold in memory, to adorn with flourishes only the imagination could provide. And what solace might the house provide?

I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.

After a lifetime of wandering--New England, New York, Key West, Brazil, and elsewhere--here is Bishop's understandable wish to settle down, to imagine a home furnished with the few necessaries the poet/artist needs. The description of the house proceeds for several more lines, with the speaker asserting that "There must be a stove" since "there is a chimney, / askew, but braced with wires, / and electricity, possibly." In the "must be" and "possibly" we hear the longing, the desire for the just-right setup, all of the basic elements that a "crypto-dream house" could provide. But almost immediately, the poem pulls itself back to the reality suggested by its title: "A light to read by--perfect! But--impossible. / And that day the wind was much too cold / even to get that far, / and of course the house was boarded up." Of course the house is still boarded up for the season; of course the travelers on the lonely beach aren't even able to make it within sight of the house--cold finality, perhaps tinged with regret.

But in its closing lines the poem offers an insight of clarifying beauty and affirmation.

On the way back our faces froze on the other side.
The sun came out for just a minute.
For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
were multi-colored,
and all those high enough threw out long shadows,
individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them
--a sun who'd walked the beach the last low tide,
making those big, majestic paw prints,
who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.

Here is Bishop's habit of turning to the everyday for consolation, making jewelry out of the humble stones, then conflating the earlier images of the "lion" and the all-but-absent sun so that the poem can end with the metaphor of play. The brief journey on the beach becomes a meditation on a lifetime of choices, and though the reflection is tinged with regret, it can end with affirmation. The making of the poem takes precedence, and though this poem's title suggests termination, or limited possibilities, it can find its way to suggesting the joy inherent in creation. Even out of its element, the kite represents the possibility of a fresh start, a new poem woven from the fabric of missed chances and irrevocable outcomes.

1 comment:

  1. oh! I wasn't familiar with this Bishop poem (and I love Bishop and have her collected poems) so thank you for this. I know such a beach and such a house. it's on Pemaquid Pennisula (and is Pemaquid Beach)...the house sits above the rocks at the end of the beach. It's west=facing windows fill a whole side so that, in the late afternoons, the house turns to fire under the downgoing sun.