The Moose Elizabeth Bishop

The Moose #

Elizabeth Bishop 1911 – 1979

Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore and most of her associates all had mental issues they attempted to resolve through writing as therapy. Bishop’s mask usually hides her underlying issues. It’s not what she says; it’s what she doesn’t tell us that is more important. Intense poetry is entangled with one’s life and inextricably linked to life experiences. In order to interest others we need to generalise and universalise events to gain a detached perspective.

Despite denials, while most literature appears detached, invariably writing stems from a thinly veiled fictionalised portrayal of the author’s life.

Critics claim that,

“all art is solipsistic; engaging with anything outside one’s mind cannot be done unless through the lens of the self”.

Language more often conceals than reveals. Hilary Mantel suggests if you are looking for the truth, you have to dig up the landfill for what is buried.

Recent horrendous exposures of institutional child abuse have increased our understanding of its life long effects as well as our sensitivity around the treatment of victims (survivors) especially in our courts. Peter McLellan has reset the Australian system by assimilating past trauma into the national psyche, making it acceptable to listen to the victims and believe the hurt, anger and pain.

Strong evidence emerges that most victims initially blame themselves, by blocking or suppressing their emotions until much later in life. Many buried dark secrets of their childhood for years as they were too painful to relive. Even after forty years when retrieved from their deep sub-conscious, victims relive the initial trauma.

If not addressed, their symptoms manifest themselves by erupting in other ways of failure – drug/alcohol abuse, depression, religious devotion or suicide…

Bishop claimed'

“I don’t drink because things go wrong, I want to drink every minute of every day - things going wrong gives me the excuse I’ve been looking for”.

The average time for victims of child abuse to express their anger and pain is 29 years. The most vulnerable are those who lack the support of a close family.

Elizabeth Bishop’s life, through her letters, illustrates the consequences of a failure to deal with her issues; symptoms including alcholism, intense, tempestuous but fleeting love affairs, depression and suicidal tendencies. Much of her poetry attempts to exorcise the demons that lurked behind her protective shell, but haunted her entire sorrowful life of accumulated losses.

Bishop was vigilant about giving nothing away in her poetry about her harrowing personal life, thoroughly disinviting private scrutiny. Admirers of Bishop’s early work—Moore, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell—praised its cool objectivity, its calm impersonality, what Moore described as its “rational considering quality” (hardly the usual praise for poetry), its “deferences and vigilances". What the young poet deferred to was poetic form and an increasingly old-fashioned sense of manners and discretion. She was vigilant in giving nothing of herself away. Her poems convey a surface composure the poem means what it means, on its own. Bishop’s withholding is less a matter of Moore-like modernist obliquity

Bishop was chosen to interview T. S. Eliot 1933. Her own poems at the time tended toward imitations of Gerard Manley Hopkins or of the English Baroque: elaborate, archaic in tone, willfully artificial. Discovering Moore, the following year, changed everything. Here was a poetry resolutely modern and hard-edged yet meticulously structured and linguistically glittering. Perhaps most important, here was a rich new variety of subjects: in place of romantic love or God or childhood, Moore offered poems about animals—snakes, chameleons, a big-eared desert rat—and exotic objects; she even had one about a gritty American coastal town, like the town where Bishop had lived with her aunts. Strong yet mysterious, set in the immediate world, these poems demonstrated a way to proceed. Bishop had no religious beliefs; she couldn’t bear to contemplate her childhood; she couldn’t reveal anything about whom she loved. For all her determination to be a poet, what was she to write poetry about?

Yet Bishop needs her poetry to survive. Several of her poems can only be understood by knowing about her traumatic childhood.

Writers often draw on actual experiences as a starting point for their work, which becomes – filtered through imagination, literary convention and narrative necessity, detachment – something very different, but essentially the gist of that initial experience.

This poem, The Moose, was 25 years in the making, and it is my considered contention that the rawness of Bishop’s cumulated pain was the hurdle she had to overcome. No well written poem ever portrays exactly the experience that inspires it. The trip taken here is a fusion of several trips made between Nova Scotia and Boston.

While Bishop admires Gerard Manly Hopkins, her outrage over the dominating School of Anguish, as she scornfully called the poets—Anne Sexton, John Berryman—who had learned from Robert Lowell’s example of confessional poetry. (An even more telling term she used was “the self-pitiers.”) In an interview for a Time cover story on Lowell, in 1967, she was careful to implicate only his imitators when she said, “You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves.” She was determined to remain objective and detached, not wallow in self pity.

Adrienne Rich found many of Bishop’s poems “impenetrable: intellectualized to the point of obliquity.”

While Bishop tries to hide her personal pain, one can peak behind the mask to understand it.

The first of Elizabeth Bishop’s many losses was her father, who died when she was eight months old.

The second loss was more protracted: Bishop’s mother, shattered by her husband’s death, suffered a series of mental breakdowns. Sometimes loving in her behavior, sometimes violent, she went in and out of mental hospitals and was finally committed permanently, when Elizabeth was five. Bishop was not permitted to see her again.

We can safely assume our sub-conscious psychological disposition is shaped during the formative years, 0 - 7, then tapering off until our mid twenties. Suppressed traumas may not surface until after our thirties. Freud claimed most neuroses are the result of repressed childhood memories.

In the spring of 1916, the little girl was living with her mother’s family in a tiny town in Nova Scotia, a comforting place where she had often stayed before.

At five she she witnesses her mother taken away, and never saw her again. Like many uprooted children, she had vivid memories: the pictures on the pages of the family’s Bible, the rhyme that her grandmother made when shining her shoes (using imaginary “gasoline” and “Vaseline”), and, when she was six, being taken away—“kidnapped,” she felt—by her father’s far more prosperous family, to live in their large and loveless house in Worcester, Massachusetts. It seemed then that she had lost a country, too. Although she was born in Worcester and had spent her earliest life there, and although her father had grown up in the same house, she did not feel at home, or even American: when she sang the required songs at school, the words “land where my fathers died” seemed aimed directly at her.

In later years, a psychiatrist told Bishop that she was lucky to have survived her childhood. In fact, soon after arriving in Worcester she developed both asthma and eczema sores, which became so severe that she was confined to bed. It was only when the family feared that she might truly be dying that she was bundled off again, this time to live with her Aunt Maud—one of her mother’s sisters—and Maud’s husband, Uncle George, in a run-down harbourside town outside Boston. The sea air was meant to do her good, and it did. Far more helpful, however, were the kind ministrations of Aunt Maud and another of her mother’s sisters, Aunt Grace Bulmer Bowers, a trained nurse who came to help coax her back to health. And when the asthma returned, causing her to miss weeks of school, her aunts read her the enthralling stories in verse of Tennyson, Longfellow, and the Brownings, which she absorbed so deeply that she believed they entered her unconscious. She started writing poetry when she was eight. At twelve, patriotically reconciled, she won her first authorial prize, for an essay on the subject of “Americanism.”

This second chance at childhood made her so grateful to her aunts (or so afraid of further losses) that she never told them, or anyone, about how Uncle George touched her when he insisted on washing her in the bath, or how he tried to feel her breasts once she began to have breasts, or even about the time he grabbed her by the hair and dangled her from the second-story balcony.

Later in Brazil, though, in perfect safety, Bishop couldn’t finish a story she began about her later childhood, outside Boston, a story that would have had to include Uncle George.

Her other losses were a series of intense and torrid sexual affairs that tore away at her soul.

These wretched facts, revealed in Megan Marshall’s biography, *“Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast”* (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), derive from a trove of letters, unknown to previous biographers, that Bishop wrote to her psychiatrist, in 1947.

Bishop’s bluntly objective chronicle of abuse—

Maybe lots of people have never known real sadists at first hand”—adds far more evidence than was needed to convince us that she was indeed lucky to survive.

Another researcher *Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing* By Claudia Roth Pierpont unearthed more biographical information from letters, especially to her Psychiatrist in the 1940’s.

Bishop had her first lesbian experience on a train to a summer camp at the age of fourteen.

Her first, of many serious intense relationships was with Marianne Moore (who also carried childhood trauma), largely professional, platonic but obviously love. M.M., as she affectionately called Moore, twenty years older, became her poetic mentor and her mother figure.

This is followed by a number of both male and female affairs lasting from a few years. When she rejected a marriage proposal from a young man, he sent her a postcard: “Go to hell Elizabeth”, before committing suicide.

Her longest and most tragic relationship, lasting some twenty years, was Lota, from Rio.

A highly talented Architect of the ruling class, Lota lost her high powered job due to a political coup, becoming depressed. By this time Bishop had started drinking heavily again and taken another lover. Lota became hysterical, was hospitalised, with Bishop told not to visit.

Bishop returned to America, Lota soon following. Despite an apparent reconciliation, Lota overdosed and later died in hospital.

Due to several harrowing experiences, Bishop drove toward alcoholic self-obliteration. yet at other times displayed a lively, engaging career, charged with vindicating energy.

Another newly disclosed group of letters, from the same source, documents a passionate love affair that Bishop began when she was nearing sixty, with a much younger woman, a relationship that lasted until the poet’s death, at sixty-eight, in 1979. (Bishop’s homosexuality was a carefully kept secret in the homophobic fifties and sixties.)

Marshall, an aspiring poet in her youth, writes from a deep sense of identity with her subject: she studied with Bishop at Harvard, in 1976, and her biographical chapters are interspersed with pages of her own memoir, also centered on family, poetry, and loss. It’s an odd but compelling structure, as the reader watches the two women’s lives converge, and it allows for some closeup glimpses of Bishop as a teacher. Marshall seems still sensitive to having given up poetry, the one great thing that Bishop, for all her losses, never let go.

Strong yet mysterious, set in the immediate world, Bishop’s poems demonstrated a way to excavate her past without wallowing in self-pity.

Bishop had no religious beliefs; she couldn’t bear to contemplate her childhood; she couldn’t reveal anything about whom she loved. For all her determination to be a poet, what was she to write poetry about?

The Moose may represent a decoy for the story she simply cannot confront.

“When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived,”

Bishop said to Robert Lowell. She and Lowell had both a professional and personal relationship. He contemplated proposing to her.

Though she was six years senior, he became her mentor, encouraging her and eventually instrumental in securing her status in the academic world. She was more disciplined than Lowell, but his artistry tended to be more relaxed, feeling that:

“form, regularity and rhetoric ruined the honesty of the sentiment”.

Listen to it here:

The Moose #

​ For Grace Bulmer Bowers (The Aunt Nurse)

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,
where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;
on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,
through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;
down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient,
while a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.
Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.

The bus starts.The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.
Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;
the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.
One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies—
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.
A pale flickering. Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn’t give way.
On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:

a ship’s port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
illuminated, solemn.
A dog gives one bark.
A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night. Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.
The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation (wandering)
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination….

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
—not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices
talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;
deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.
He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.
“Yes …” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes …”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”
Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen,
the dog tucked in her shawl.

Now, it’s all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
—Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs
at the bus’s hot hood.
Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless….”
Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”
Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,
by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim smell of moose,
an acrid smell of gasoline.

Poetry does not tell us about an experience, rather it attempts to recreate it by allowing us to imaginatively and sensuously participate vicariously in that experience by focusing on it and ordering it through verisimilitude.

This poem takes us vicariously on a cozy bus ride from the violent Bay of Fundy tides, through the woods of New Brunswick towards Boston. Bishop’s precise detail, descriptions and natural dialogue embody the scenes, immersing us in her experience.

The languid atmosphere together with the down to earth dialogue casts an emotional spell of comfort mixed with small talk of missing fishermen, people being pensioned, others committed, resigned affirmatives - repeated “yes” , lulling us into easy sleep, when suddenly the bus jolts to a stop for a moose. Canadians refer to this as a “wild life jam” in lieu of a traffic jam.

We all travel along in the cozy cocoon of the bus with the passengers, securely immersed in their experience, hear the gossip of other people’s problems; only later do we realize that what has been described is not what Bishop saw but what Bishop felt on seeing what she saw and what she gets us to feel. The clandestine emotionality is a form of her defense - a protective shell.

The movement of the poem is subliminal, it drifts and shifts its focus in a stream of consciousness, the smooth transitions unnoticeable, - even the stanzas of her mind wandering back and forth between flashbacks down memory lane of her grandparents talking in a similar manner in their kitchen and fugue state of voices at the back of the bus - then the sudden, startling appearance of the Moose.

The surreal mind working irregularly evokes the reality of a “divigation” developed like a musical presentation, wandering from the past to the present, back to the present past as she drifts into sleep.

It is noteworthy how the Moose raises a transcendent “sweet sensation of joy” in all the travelers. Yet the Moose could represent a startling change in her life - perhaps ameliorated by the fact that it is female. Could it represent the Aunts who will save her life?

Like Marianne Moore, Bishops writes about the kinds of adaptation her poems exemplified: concealment, armor, camouflage, indirection, tentativeness, and flight. “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence,”

“Silence” is an odd assertion for a poet to make, but also a strong enticement to any reader to play, with Moore, her exquisite game of emotional hide-and-seek.

This poem, as all quality art, can be read on various levels. One reading has it that it describes, impersonally, what she calls her “abduction” as a six year old child from the safe secure comfort of her maternal grandparent’s poor Nova Scotian home, to the well off but emotionally cold home of her paternal grandparents, where she became critically ill, until she was taken in by her maternal aunts, Maud and Grace, who nursed her back to life, but where Uncle George sexually molested her. Who knows? The fact that it took her twenty five years to complete may provide a clue.

As the sole beneficiary of her father’s inheritance, Bishop enjoyed a privileged education and life style; not dependent on working for survival.

While most of the diction is colloquial, especially the down to earth dialogue, the two exceptions, are “divigation” (wandering digression) and “other worldly”. The first is demanded by the rhyme scheme, (mostly abcbdc) while the second is arrests our attention by its stark distinctive observation. Some of the rhymes are forced - birches with churches.

The regular rhythms, images and the short line stanzas help the flow, drifting from description to action to dialogue. Only the sighting of the moose breaks the fluency. Her meticulous observations and realistic descriptions of ordinary people speaking in ordinary (sometimes cliched) language, creates the immediacy - “Safe as houses, Sure are big creatures”. When asked about the poem, she simply commented, “that’s what happened”.

The early part of the poem is infused with colour; brown foam, red silt and gravel, pink windshield, blue flanks of bus, silver birches, gray cabbages, white strings and white washed fences…

The bus driver’s rolling his “r’s” accurately reflects his Scottish accent. The bus mud guard described as a “flank” foreshadows the animal in all things.

This is an extraordinarily well constructed poem, immersing us into an experience through detailed engaging description, action and dialogue. The long hard work of a consummate poet dealing with traumatic experience in a detached objective manner.