Week 338: North Haven, by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop wrote this elegy for her longtime friend and correspondent Robert Lowell after Lowell’s death in 1977; she herself died two years later. I think that at least back then Lowell enjoyed the huger reputation, but I have to say that I have always found Bishop’s poems a lot more satisfying than Lowell’s, in much the same way as I find Ted Hughes’s more satisfying than Sylvia Plath’s. I guess I like there to be a balance in the work between the inner world of the poet and the outer world of the independently real – call it a passion for the empirically observed – and I find that balance, that passion, more in Bishop and Hughes than in Lowell and Plath. 

But anyway, to the elegy… North Haven is an island community in Maine where towards the end of her life Bishop often spent the summer.

North Haven

(in memoriam: Robert Lowell)

I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off, I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds except for one long, carded horse’s tail.

The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south, or sidewise
and that they’re free within the blue frontiers of bay.

This month our favorite one is full of flowers:
Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hawkweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw’s incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first ‘discovered girls’
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had ‘such fun’, you said, that classic summer.
(‘Fun’–it always seemed to leave you at a loss…)

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue… And now -– you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

Elizabeth Bishop

Week 256: At The Fishhouses, by Elizabeth Bishop

I can’t quite figure out how Elizabeth Bishop does it. On the face of it this is a rambling, unstructured piece, relaxed almost to the point of looseness, that shouldn’t really work, and yet I find it intensely pleasurable. Maybe the secret is Bishop’s own pleasure in the physicality of things, their hues and shapes and textures, coupled with a kind of wayward fidelity to the actual. At one point a seal makes an appearance and Bishop recounts how she used to sing hymns to it. ‘Aha’, the suspicious literary mind will say, ‘what’s that about then?’. I’m not sure it’s about anything, other than that relish of hers for the random quirks of reality. And yet the poem does build, slowly and subtly, to a kind of epiphany, with its extraordinarily sensuous vision of water towards the end, and you realise that it is after all about something specific, about knowledge, and more particularly about the kind of knowledge that is at the heart of true poetry: primary knowledge, unmediated, based on the poet’s own experience and observation, and infused with that loving delight in sheer existence that her preceding lines exemplify so well. And yet, in the closing lines, all this seems to be tempered by a wistful recognition that this knowledge is not our true element, or at least, that its painful exhilaration is not one we can endure for long: that we can do no more than dip a hand into that cold clear stream as it passes, its source and destination both equally apart from us and beyond us.

At the fishhouses

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.

Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Elizabeth Bishop

Week 34: Sandpiper, by Elizabeth Bishop


The roaring alongside he takes for granted
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them,
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear. The tide
Is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray,
Mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Elizabeth Bishop

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke speaks of ‘that blissful precision at the core of art’, and there is certainly a blissful precision at the core of Elizabeth Bishop’s art: having watched sandpipers on a beach behave in exactly the fashion described I can vouch for the exquisite detail underpinning the metaphysics here.