Elizabeth Bishop (4): New and Uncollected Works (1969)

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The first text in this collection is a set of monologues: the speakers are a giant toad, a strayed crab, and finally a giant snail. The toad’s voice is intensely interesting; from the first line where we are asked to pity it to its final warning to the crab. The toad complains about its hurting eyes at the same time as explaining that “They are my one great beauty, even so.”

Even though these eyes can see both above and under water, the one thing they cannot see is the toad itself, and so it speculates: “Perhaps the droplets on my mottled hide are pretty, like dewdrops, silver on a moldering leaf?” Toad has a concept of beauty, but this beauty comes with a price: “They chill me through and through.” The cold mist draws the warmth out of the amphibian’s body. Even its pigments “shudder” at this chill. This is a lovely description for one of the ways in which toads and frogs regulate their body temperature: when it is hot and dry, their pigmentation is lighter to attract less heat from the sun, when it is damp (and therefore there is a greater loss of body heat), the colours are slightly darker.

The toad does not only describe what it feels (water running down its sides) and what it is doing, like a running commentary, but also gives itself orders: “Swallow the air and mouthfuls of cold mist. Give voice, just once.” While it cannot see if there is beauty on its skin, it can hear its own voice, and it is astonished: “O how it echoed from the rock! What a profound, angelic bell I rang!” It is as if this creature is discovering its world, experiencing itself for the first time. Maybe it has just shed its skin and, with a new, more sensitive skin experiences the world more intensely.

After an account of having been forced to smoke a cigarette, the toad asserts itself. “I have big shoulders,  like a boxer.” This sounds like a warning as well as a boast. But the bulk, it explains, is not muscle mass, it contains sacs of poison. Not deadly, but unpleasant nonetheless. “Big wings of poison, folded on my back. Beware, I am an angel in disguise; my wings are evil, but not deadly.” What makes the toad an angel? Is it that the poison is “almost unused”? Is it that the toad does not, despite its maltreatment, release its poison like “Blue-black fumes”?

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The crab is disoriented. The water is far away — maybe it has been dropped by a gull. The hard surface is unfamiliar and “I am making too much noise.” The crab’s voice rings true: its description of its body focuses mainly on its “powerful right claw” which, with a crab’s body, would be constantly in its own field of vision. The crab describes itself as the colour of wine and saffron. Is it aware of our potential culinary interest in its meat? Maybe it is just trying to impress us, after all, it describes itself as  “dapper,” “elegant,” moving with “great precision,” and being clever. It boasts with its fishing skills and its ownership of “a pool, all the little fish that swim in it, and all the skittering waterbugs that smell like rotten apples.”

The world the crab finds itself in makes little sense and is not a desirable place, just as the snail’s soft, limpid body makes no sense to the crustacean who relies on an exoskeleton: “I do not care for such stupidity. I admire compression, lightness, and agility, all rare in this loose world.”

Finally, the giant snail. Again, a reference to humans, and to food: it explains its body is the size of a dinner plate. Unlike the toad and the crab, the snail shows no sign of aggression. In fact, it declares that “Withdrawal is always best.” The monologue starts, and then in the next paragraph starts again with the same words and descriptions.  The tone is calm and composed; the snail is in no hurry and it takes in the world around itself as it moves slowly and with great effort. Two instances of repetition stress the words heavy and cold, which are repeated three times in a row.

When it sees the toad, the snail recognizes a fellow sufferer, explaining “That toad was too big, too, like me.” Rather than being afraid of its natural predator, however, the snail sees tenderness in the amphibian’s eyes. One could argue that it would make no sense for the snail to panic, since it could never outrun the toad, and hence its destiny is up to the predator. I am not sure, however, that the snail is worried or aware that this creature could easily devour it.

The snail, like the toad, has not seen itself, but — unlike the toad who speculates about the possible beauty of its body, the snail is certain: “Ah, but I know my shell is beautiful, and high, and glazed, and shining. I know it well although I have not seen it. Its curled white lip is of the finest enamel.” Like its shell, the snail itself is perfect, because it is a perfect fit. Another thing the snail “knows” is that “I leave a lovely opalescent ribbon.”

This assertion is followed by a plea for pity which is almost verbatum that of the toad: “I am too big. I feel it. Pity me.”

In the end, the snail and the toad define themselves as ‘Other’ just like the crab who makes very clear that it does not belong in this wet, but not-wet-enough place. While the crab is displaced, snail and toad are where they belong, but they stand out because they are different, their “proportions horrify our neighbors.” Neither says they are merely “big,” both make a point of declaring themselves “too big” — compared to what?

What I found interesting also is that each animal brings in their (potential) interaction with humans, as well as displaying very human qualities. The bragging, the vanity, the hope to be beautiful even if that beauty steals one’s warmth and energy.

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Clotho, the youngest Fate

A poem that caught my eye was “House Guest.” For some reason, these lines stuck with me: “She speaks: ‘I need a little / money to buy buttons.’ / She seems to think it’s useless / to ask. Heavens, buy buttons, / if they’ll do any good.” The “sad seamstress” described in this poem is unfulfilled, “without hope, without air,” and never smiles, no matter how hard her hosts try. She is not good at what she does, and seems to do everything half-heartedly: even when she watches TV, she does not bother to turn to a channel, she just “watches zigzags.”

The host wonders whether she might be one of the Fates, “Clotho, sewing our lives / with a bony little foot / on a borrowed sewing machine.” Clotho is the youngest of the three sisters known as the Fates. She decides when each person is born and when each person dies. She is often portrayed as holding scissors or cutting a thread. The seamstress here is apathetic about life because she has been denied her wish to become a nun. If this woman sews our lives, he host asks herself if “our fates will be like hers, and our hems crooked forever?” Yes, woman’s sewing is mediocre, but she is grown now, she lives away from her family who didn’t want her in a convent, so why does she not assert herself now, and make her own decision?

The question the host asks could, however, be read differently as well. Instead of literally referring to the sad seamstress in their home, the question could be “are we acting in the same way as this seamstress?” Are we letting others decide our fate and sew our lives, rather than picking up needle and thread ourselves?

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image source: graphicsfairy

…on a personal note, I’d like to think that I picked up needle and thread, and pincushion too, and am sewing my own life, even if the seams are crooked and not very neat. At least they are my own. What I need is a thimble. Get thee to a nunnery, seamstress!

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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