‘For a Child of 1918’: Elizabeth Bishop at Seven Years Old
by Jonathan Ellis
‘Bishop is parenthetical. Her parentheses create emphases even when their purpose is to hesitate not asseverate.’ These are Maureen McLane’s words, not mine, from her astonishingly sharp essay on Elizabeth Bishop and Gertrude Stein in which she reflects on how she came to read Bishop after Stein and how Stein rather than Bishop became the poet in parenthesis: ‘My Elizabeth Bishop/ (My Gertrude Stein).’ ‘People make friends over Bishop and enemies over Lowell,’ she writes:
Some people say you cannot like both Stein and Bishop they line up in little teams they taunt the other teams or refuse to let them play on their field this is moronic like many a schoolyard game. Not that there is not discrimination required but discriminating may yet bring you to a place where Bishop meets Stein meets Bishop and they are quite congenial and have tea in the mind. Life is surprising like that so is poetry most people do not wish to be surprised especially once they have announced their team and bought their team uniforms.
An essay on a mutually admired poet runs the risk of repeating what we already know, and perhaps implicitly refusing to let other poets on the field. I thought I’d surprise myself, and hopefully you as well, by presenting something less finished, more, there is no better word for it, parenthetical. In terms of methodology, I’m going to follow McLane’s example. This is an essay, like hers, of ‘breakdowns and impasses.’ ‘I return to these early impasses in reading,’ she admits, ‘not simply to indulge in autographical meanderings but rather to suggest the important function of impasse in experience.’
Impasse comes from the French. According to the OED, it refers to ‘A road or way having no outlet; a blind alley, “cul-de-sac”. Also a position from which there is no way of escape, a “fix.”’
Bishop doesn’t use the word impasse in her poetry, or any of the obvious synonyms. But there are certainly sticking points in her writing, moments where she doesn’t advance very far on the poem’s opening statement, or, equally frequently, moments where she can’t seem to stop herself repeating the same phrase or word.
Certain poetic forms might be described spaces of impasse too. We call them fixed forms. Set positions from which there is also no way of escape.
Clogs. Clots. Snarls. And string. Bishop’s work is full of lines, threads and trails, many of which double back on themselves.
‘A holy grave, not looking particularly holy.’
‘A kite string?—But no kite.’
‘round and round and round’
‘Deny deny deny’
‘rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!’
‘argue argue argue’
‘faint, faint, faint/ (or are you hearing things)’
‘something, something, something’
‘chá-cha, chá-cha, chá-cha…’
‘Baa, baa, baa and shriek, shriek, shriek’
‘shush, shush, shush’
‘repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise’
Katrina Mayson has written about Bishop’s fondness for numbers, particularly the number three, in a recent essay. I’d like to cite from her conclusion here. For Mayson, ‘[Bishop’s] numbers are one way of creating the impression of being exact, and yet they are also elastic. The best analogy is that of music, where different combinations of notes and pauses can take up the same length of time. Once we look behind Bishop’s number line, some of the planks that lie behind her seemingly narrative poems are illuminated, elements like her interest in time, movement, and memory. Examining how numbers work, the detail of rhyme and rhythm reinforces the strength of Bishop’s poetry as being a poetry of cognition, not simply of biography.’
Exact but elastic. That describes Bishop’s pivoting aesthetic well, what Mary McCarthy pinpointed as ‘her way of seeing that was like a big pocket magnifying glass’ alongside a ‘mind hiding in her words, like an “I” counting up to a hundred and waiting to be found.’ Bishop has a way of seeing things but not being seen herself. Or perhaps we see her through how she sees others?
Bishop was aware of this element of her writing well before other readers noticed it. She compared it to her maternal grandmother’s glass eye. ‘The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye.’
The real eye sees; the glass eye only appears to see or rather sees in a different way. The days of Bishop being celebrated primarily for her descriptive eye are thankfully well and truly over. I like to think of the glass eye as the eye that dreams and hallucinates. The eye that cries and thus cannot see for tears. The eye that has visions even if she is not comfortable labelling them so. An eye, eventually, that cannot see because it is dead. Bishop’s poetry is full of these eyes (yes, even dead eyes). In fact, perhaps the glass eye is more prominent than the real eye in her writing, the synthetic perspective more common than the everyday gaze or look.
Bishop’s early poetry, what we might half-playfully call her French period, is full of these literal and metaphorical glass eyes. The most haunting example is surely the Man-Moth’s, ‘all dark pupil,/ an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens/ as he stares back, and closes up the eye.’ What do we see in the Man-Moth’s eye? Darkness. Night. Something that doesn’t reflect or show any light. A miniature black hole. An impasse. Look long enough, however, and we are rewarded by seeing something escape from the eye, something that may kill the Man-Moth by releasing it. A solitary tear that embodies the Man-Moth’s solitariness. ‘Then from the lids/ one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips./ Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention/ he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,/ cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.’
Bishop doesn’t cry very much in her poetry. The majority of the tears in her writing come in just two poems: ‘Songs for a Colored Singer’ and ‘Sestina’ in which there are five and seven references to tears respectively. Even these tears are on the way to becoming something else, buttons, moons, tea stains.
The Man-Moth’s one tear speaks of loneliness, but it is a loneliness that is implied not spoken. While we are encouraged to imagine the act of drinking it, in a manner oddly similar in phrasing to the conclusion of ‘At the Fishhouses,’ we are not sure what the consequences of this might be for either the Man-Moth or for ourselves. If handing it over is likely to kill the Man-Moth, might it kill us too? The Man-Moth’s tear belongs to the category of what Eugenie Brinkema in her book The Forms of the Affects calls the ‘somewhat-tear.’ Beginning with Marion Crane’s tears in the shower scene in Psycho, a scene that Brinkema describes as ‘the loneliest death in cinema,’ she reflects upon the difficulty of reading and interpreting emotion more generally: ‘The tear that is not immediately legible as a tear is marked by its resistance, and by its intense solitude. And in the end, this is the only kind of mark that leaves its trace. It does not ex-press but im-presses; hers is a tear of the one alone, failing to communicate inward with the nuances of the judging mind, or with the skin on which it rests, or with the world that would mirror it and feel alike in turn. The extraordinary solitude of the tear that does not drop but folds is the ethical consequence of its extraordinary ontology.’ The Man-Moth’s tear, like Marion’s, is an image of ‘extraordinary solitude.’ It belongs, like her tear, neither to the body that released it nor to the viewer watching it. A tear that does not drop but folds. Only filmed or written tears can do this. Real tears dry or run away. The emotion has to go somewhere. Perhaps a poem is a storage jar for such emotions, these somewhat tears? A fixed form for non-fixed emotions to live and outlive the person that released them. An ability to impress through impasse is one of Bishop’s singular achievements. She neither hides nor tidies up emotion so much as point to its outward signs.
Bishop’s second visit to Europe in 1937 was understandably overshadowed by the car accident in which her friend Margaret Miller was badly injured. In her notebook at the time, the notebook she took with her to Paris, she completed the following short, rather cryptic poem, sending a copy to Marianne Moore in an envelope without a covering letter:
To Be Written on the Mirror in Whitewash
I live only here, between your eyes and you,
But I live in your world. What do I do?
—Collect no interest—otherwise what I can;
Above all, I am not that staring man.
The poem reads like a riddle. A message written in whitewash is normally an invisible message. A message written on a mirror in whitewash, on the other hand, is a message written to be seen. By writing in whitewash on a mirror the author subverts the mirror’s usual function. Instead of seeing oneself in the glass, one sees somebody else’s writing. The mirror becomes a page. An act of introspection becomes an act of analysis, of reading. The mirror only becomes a page if the reader treats the poem’s title as an instruction on what to do with the text underneath it: ‘To be Written on the Mirror in Whitewash.’ By doing this, the poem comes alive, or more accurately the writing voice comes alive, intervening between our eye and the image in the mirror. ‘I live only here,’ the poem says, ‘between your eyes and you,/ But I live in your world.’ These words are not exactly ours, but they are not exactly the writer’s either. We have to do or at least imagine doing something to understand the poem. Without a mirror, without whitewash, the poem doesn’t make sense.
Bishop’s relationship to representing emotion is similar. She gives us the outlines of an emotion, the words, but without adding something of ourselves (something of ‘you’), the poem cannot be properly written. This is why ‘we’ is one of the words Bishop uses most frequently in her writing. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of her favourite words…
‘We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship’
‘We stand as still as stones…’
‘we hear the first crow of the first cock’
‘It is like what we imagine knowledge to be’
‘We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping’
‘Oh, must we dream our dreams…’
‘I—we—were falling, falling…’
‘We know it (also death).’
‘the little that we get for free’
This brings me in a rather roundabout fashion to the title of this essay: ‘“For a Child of 1918″: Elizabeth Bishop at Seven Years Old.’ I had two anniversaries in my mind at the time of beginning to think about it: Elizabeth Bishop’s birthday on 8 February 1911, or more particularly the hundredth anniversary of Bishop turning seven on 8 February 2018, and my son’s birthday on 24 November 2009, or more particularly the memory of his seventh birthday in November 2016. I couldn’t help comparing Elizabeth Bishop at nearly seven to my son at a similar age. It made me re-read Bishop’s poems about being six and seven in a way I found surprising. I’ll come to this in a moment. I say poems, not poem, because I think there are at least three poems about this very precise time period in Bishop’s collected writing, a period roughly between September 1917 and February 1918. These are, in the order in which they appear in the 2011 edition of Poems, ‘Manners’ (in which the epigraph ‘for a child of 1918’ features), ‘Sestina’ (whose opening line dates the poem to ‘September’ but which September?), and ‘In the Waiting Room’ (very precisely dated to the ‘fifth/ of February, 1918,’ three days before Bishop’s seventh birthday).
I’d like to take these three poems in turn and ask a question about each. Like ‘To be Written in the Mirror in Whitewash,’ there is something mysterious about each poem that doesn’t quite make sense. A moment of impasse that calls on the reader to intervene.
At first glance, and I admit to never really giving ‘Manners’ more than a first glance until recently, it is a fairly simple poem to understand, its old-fashioned abcb ballad form a perfect match for its old-fashioned approach to early twentieth-century questions of transport. Why take a car when you could take a horse? ‘Remember to always/ speak to everyone you meet.’ ‘Manners’ follows ‘In the Village’ in Bishop’s 1965 collection, Questions of Travel. It is the second text in the second section of the book, the ‘Elsewhere’ to the opening part’s focus on ‘Brazil.’
The 1983 Complete Poems, like the 2011 Poems, erases the history of ‘Manners’ as Bishop’s second not first response to growing up in Atlantic Canada. ‘In the Village’ famously begins on a scream, or rather the echo of a scream. The relationship between an experience and its memory is one of Bishop’s main themes in ‘In the Village’ in particular and across her body of work more generally. Perhaps ‘the memory of it’ is as important as the original ‘it,’ if one can name ‘it’ anymore. Bishop often doesn’t. A scream might be uttered by the mother, but I think we have to be careful of reducing the mother to that scream. She is more than just a voice, even if that voice is one of the few sounds her daughter records of her. ‘In the Village’ ends not in the grandparents’ house but in the blacksmith’s shop nearby, or more accurately it ends with the narrator hovering on the bridge next to these two places to stare down at the river:
Every Monday afternoon I go past the blacksmith’s shop with the package under my arm, hiding the address of the sanitarium with my arm and my other hand.
Going over the bridge, I stop and stare down into the river. All the little trout that have been too smart to get caught—for how long now?—are there, rushing in flank movements, foolish assaults and retreats, against and away from the old sunken fender of Malcolm McNeil’s Ford. It has lain there for ages and is supposed to be a disgrace to us all. So are the tin cans that glint there, brown and gold.
From above, the trout look as transparent as the water, but if one did catch one, it would be opaque enough, with a little slick moon-white belly with a pair of tiny, pleated, rose-pink fins on it. The leaning willows soak their narrow yellowed leaves.
What does this moment at the end of the story represent? Going over the bridge is something the child does everyday, certainly on the days she takes the package to the post office. Stopping and staring at the river is to some extent a delay tactic. She is putting off another awkward conversation with the postmaster about her mother’s health. On the other hand, to stop and stare at the river is not to avoid her mother’s absence but to confront it in a different form—‘the old sunken fender of Malcolm McNeil’s Ford’ that has ‘lain there for ages and is supposed to be a disgrace to us all’ a displacement or reminder of the child’s mother who has also been elsewhere ‘for ages’ and is similarly treated as an embarrassment, at least by her maternal relatives. The little trout, ‘too smart to get caught,’ dancing around the fender, are akin both to the child’s actions in the story, evading physical proximity to her mother, and the writer’s own movements to outflank the past by treating it, as here, as if it were something still happening in the present that could be changed or corrected. Here we can look down and see it. At the beginning of the story we can hear it, touch it even. ‘Its pitch would be the pitch of my village. Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it.’
For me the moment on the bridge is another moment of impasse, where the past is suspended as if in water and we are transported back to Nova Scotia in 1915 or 1916. In looking at an abandoned Ford or runaway trout in the river, Bishop is creating an aquatic self-portrait just as she does in ‘At the Fishhouses’ or ‘The Riverman.’ Like the trout seen from above, the portrait is both ‘as transparent as the water’ and also ‘opaque.’ It looks like we can see through the trout but this is only an illusion. If we did catch one, we would see its fleshy belly and fins. Objects in Bishop’s writing, including objects she knows well, frequently tip between transparency and opacity, from a real eye to a glass eye. The movement here is from seeing through to seeing less, but neither way of seeing dominates.
What happens next? Nate’s ‘Clang’ is heard twice; ‘the river gives an unexpected gurgle’ (‘Slp’ it says); the Clang is heard a third time; ‘everything except the river holds its breath.’ I’d not noticed this breath-holding before. It’s a strange inversion to have human beings holding their breath out of water not under water as if life in the village is what makes living impossible. What about the scream? At first we think it is ‘gone away, forever,’ like the mother who uttered it. A few sentences later, the narrator isn’t so sure, asking whether the ‘almost-lost’ voice can still be heard. If the scream has gone but now is only ‘almost-lost’ might we hear it again soon? Is it getting closer not further away?
This question hovers over the conclusion to ‘In the Village’ and cannot help but influence our reading of the poem that follows it, if, of course, we have the story and poem published together. Let me assume from now on that we do! ‘Manners’ comes with the dedication, ‘for a Child of 1918.’ The poem is set in Great Village, Nova Scotia. We know that from the reference to Hustler Hill, a real place name in Great Village. The child is Bishop, the grandfather her grandfather, William Bulmer. Or so we assume. But what is the seven-year-old Bishop doing in Nova Scotia in 1918 and why if the poem is about her does she address it generally to ‘a child of 1918’? As we know from recent biographical studies by Brett Millier, Sandra Barry and Megan Marshall, Bishop had been taken (‘kidnapped,’ according to ‘The Country Mouse’) from Nova Scotia to New England the previous autumn, that’s October 1917, to live with her paternal grandparents. She didn’t return to Nova Scotia until the summer of 1919 and thus didn’t set foot in Nova Scotia at all throughout 1918. We know this from Bishop’s own writing of course. One of the most famous child-narrators of 1918 is the ‘Elizabeth’ of ‘In the Waiting Room,’ reading the National Geographic and waiting for the world to stop spinning. ‘In Worcester, Massachusetts,’ the poem famously begins, not ‘In Great Village, Nova Scotia.’
Did Bishop get her dates wrong in ‘Manners’? Did she really mean to write ‘for a child of 1917’? I doubt it. The first mention of the poem is in a letter to Howard Moss on 6th July 1955. ‘Please don’t think I’m getting stuck back in Nova Scotia!—but I suppose such a drastic move as to Brazil does turn one backwards for some time.’ Getting ‘stuck’ in any place is normally unpleasant, but I suspect if Bishop could have been ‘stuck’ anywhere, Nova Scotia would have been the place. If moving to Brazil in 1951 felt ‘drastic’ to Bishop, how much more so must have seemed the move from Canada to USA in 1917? That second exchange of countries must have reminded her of her first. In ‘The Country Mouse’ Bishop takes us from her departure from Halifax station to her arrival in New England, her first few unhappy months in her grandparents’ house over winter, and her eventual collapse in the dentist’s office in February 1918, an experience she reworked a decade later in ‘In the Waiting Room.’ In ‘The Country Mouse,’ Bishop writes of coming close to dying during this period: ‘First came constipation, then eczema again, and finally asthma. I felt myself aging, even dying. I was bored and lonely with Grandma, my silent grandpa, the dinners alone, bored with Emma and Beppo, all of them. At night I lay blinking my flashlight off and on, crying.’ In April 1918 her grandparents realised they had made a mistake and took her to live with her aunt’s family in Revere, Massachusetts, a place where, we have recently learned from the Dr Foster letters, she was sexually abused by her uncle. ‘There isn’t too much to it,’ she wrote to Ruth Foster, ‘but I think it made me afraid of men for a long time. Once when I was first there, I was eight, he undertook to give me a bath—I guess he did several times. In the course of the bath he handled me sexually. In my innocence I guess I just thought it was an unusually thorough washing but then I remember feeling suddenly very uncomfortable and trying to pull away from him. … I got to thinking that they were all selfish and inconsiderable and would hurt you if you gave them half a chance.’
In the chronology attached to the letters, Bishop was very clear about where and with whom she was living in both 1917 and 1918:
1917: That summer my Bishop grandparents came to visit & took me back to Worcester with them. With them lived from time to time my Uncle Jack & Aunt Florence.
1918: In May I think, I was taken to live with Aunt Maude & her husband in Revere.
In a letter to Anne Stevenson on 6 March 1964 Bishop expanded on these details, confirming the dates of her two removals, first from Nova Scotia in October 1917 and secondly from her grandparents’ house in Worcester in May 1918:
The Bishop grandparents came to visit in Canada several times, apparently—twice that I remember. Although my father had married a poor country girl the older generation were still enough alike, I think, so that they got along in spite of the money difference—it was the next generation that made me suffer acutely. The B’s were very early motorists—once they actually drove to GV and their huge car and chauffeur made a sensations—also the fact they wired the local hotel for rooms & bath—when there wasn’t a bath in the village…. The B’s were horrified to see the only child of their eldest son running about the village in bare feet, eating at the table with the grown-ups and drinking tea, and so I was carried off (by train) to Worcester for the one awful winter than was almost the end of me.
I had already had bad bronchitis and probably attacks of asthma—in Worcester I got much worse and developed eczema that almost killed me and had the beginnings of St. Vitus Dance along with everything else. One awful day I was sent home from “first grade” because of my sores—and I imagine my hopeless shyness has dated from then.—In May, 1918, I was taken to live with Aunt Maud; I couldn’t walk and Ronald carried me up the stairs—my aunt burst into tears when she saw me. I had nurses etc.—but that stretch is still too grim to think of, almost.
The final sentence makes clear how horrible these months were for Bishop and how hard it was, even half a century later, to put them in words. The awkward end to the line, ‘too grim to think of, almost,’ is reminiscent of the ‘almost-lost scream’ in ‘In the Village’ and of the half dozen other occasions in which ‘almost’ appears in her poetry, nearly every example connected to a bad dream or difficult memory the poem’s narrator would rather forget, from the cocks ‘now almost inaudible’ in ‘Roosters’ via the ‘gloaming almost invisible’ in ‘At the Fishhouses’ and ‘the almost unused poison’ of ‘Giant Toad’ to the ‘yesterday I find almost impossible to lift’ in ‘Five Flights Up.’
In 1918, as she lay in bed crying, Bishop must have been daydreaming of a return to Nova Scotia. As she was driven round Worcester by her paternal grandparents’ chauffeur, the same chauffeur who carried her up the stairs to her aunt’s house when she could no longer walk, she must have remembered her maternal grandfather’s buggy and his kindness to every creature he met, even the mare who had carried them up the hill. In ‘Manners’ she sides with the Bulmers over the Bishops, Nova Scotian ‘good manners’ over New England good education. The poem is dedicated to and written ‘for a child of 1918’ not because Bishop didn’t remember where she was living in 1918 but because she remembered too well that she wasn’t a resident of Great Village anymore, that she had been taken away twice, once by her Bishop grandparents, a second time to live with the family described in the chronology she shared with Dr Foster as ‘Aunt Maude & her husband,’ George Shepherdson’s name significantly omitted.
Are dedications such as these poetry? According to Anne Greenhalgh’s A Concordance to Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry, they are not. In her preface, she notes that ‘in accordance with the conventional practice, the concordance does not include: titles or Roman numerals numbering poems; dedications, quotations, or explanations introducing poems; or dates and footnotes at the end of poems.’ This sounds relatively uncontroversial until you begin thinking about what is left out from this categorisation of a Bishop poem. The explanation of the title of ‘The Man-Moth’: ‘Newspaper misprint for “mammoth.”’ The dedication of ‘Quai d’Orléans’ to Margaret Miller. The dedication of ‘Anaphora’ to Marjorie Stevens. The epigraph from Hopkins at the beginning of ‘A Cold Spring.’ The parenthetical ‘On my birthday’ before the opening line of ‘The Bight.’ The dedication of ‘Letter to N.Y.’ to Louise Crane. The date at the end of ‘Arrival at Santos’: ‘January 1952.’ The epigraph from Kenneth Clark at the beginning of ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502.’ Parenthetical information on who is speaking before the opening line of ‘Manuelzinho’: ‘Brazil. A friend of the writer is speaking.’ The dedication of ‘The Armadillo’ to Robert Lowell. The parenthetical ‘From the plane’ before the opening line of ‘Night City.’ The long-delayed and often-promised dedication of ‘The Moose’ to Grace Bulmer Bowers. The dedication of ‘Objects & Apparitions’ to Joseph Cornell and the post-script reveal that the poem is ‘Translated from the Spanish of Octavio Paz.’ The addition of ‘in memoriam: Robert Lowell’ to ‘North Haven.’ The parenthetical identification of Rio de Janeiro as the location of ‘Pink Dog.’ We can argue the case about whether a dedication affects our interpretation of a poem—I don’t see how it cannot—but I think it’s almost impossible to dismiss the other information Bishop sees fit to include above, below, or, in the case of ‘12 O’Clock News,’ alongside her poetry. They tell us something we need to know, something we need to keep in mind as we read the poem. I consider these days, place names and quotations as other ways of locating oneself within the poem, a glass eye to a real eye, or a real eye to a glass eye.
I mentioned two other poems set located in 1917 and 1918: ‘Sestina’ and ‘In the Waiting Room.’ The dating of ‘Sestina’ isn’t as clear as ‘In the Waiting Room’ of course which ends on ‘the fifth/ of February, 1918,’ three days before the real Elizabeth Bishop’s seventh birthday. According to Sandra Barry, in August 1917 Maude and George Shepherdson arrived in Great Village for a holiday. A few weeks later, Bishop’s paternal grandparents arrived. This is Barry’s account of what happened in September 1917:
Though the Bulmers had plenty of room (their home was always filled with visitors—family, friends, passing strangers, the Bishops stayed at the Elmonte Hotel just across the river. They had come to claim their granddaughter. Being her legal guardian, John Bishop had a right to do so. They did not simply descend and snatch up Bishop, but stayed for several weeks, probably to allow Elizabeth to get to know them. On 11 October the Truro Daily News recorded, “Mr and Mrs Bishop and Mrs George Shepherdson… have returned to their homes in the States. They were accompanied by little Miss Elizabeth Bishop who will spend the winter with her relatives.
Bishop was resident in Great Village from April 1915 until October 1917 so she spent three Septembers with her maternal relatives: September 1915, September 1916 and September 1917. September 1917 would have been the September she remembered most of course, not just because she was older at the time, but also because it was her final September living with her grandparents. She was six years old at the time. More accurately, she was six and a half years old, five months short of her seventh birthday. The sestina is obviously a poetic form structured around sixes. It is a fixed form of six lines, all stanzas having the same six words at the line ends in six different sequences. Most sestinas end with a triplet by way of conclusion. Half the length of the other stanzas, the final triplet looks and reads like a half stanza compared to the rest of the poem. A sestina, in other words, might be summarised as a poem not of six but of six and a half stanzas. No wonder Bishop chose it to commemorate this moment in her life. If children are aware of anything at six and seven years old, it is not just being six and seven years old but knowing down to the month and day how close you are to the next birthday. We see as much as ‘In the Waiting Room’: ‘I said to myself: three days/ and you’ll be seven years old.’ August and September not June and July are the midpoints of the year for children born in February and March. Her memory of becoming an ‘Elizabeth’ in February 1918 might be more well-known but the memory of becoming a Bishop rather than a Bulmer six months earlier when she left Nova Scotia for New England is surely of equal significance. I can’t help but conclude she included her age at the time in the poetic form she chose to write about it. For what is a sestina if not a form of impasse?
Let me end by placing the dictionary definition of the word alongside the conclusion of ‘Sestina’.
A road or way having no outlet; a blind alley, ‘cul-de-sac’. Also a position from which there is no way of escape, a ‘fix.’”
Time to plant tears, says the almanac,
The grandmother sings to the marvellous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.