Watercolor, gouache, and ink, 6 x 6 inches.
by Elizabeth Bishop
from the Collection of Loren MacIver
William Benton, editor of Exchanging Hats: Elizabeth Bishop Paintings observes that "The general rule of a Bishop picture is: If a table exists, put flowers on it. In this case, with the dramatic focus on the extension cord crossing the planes of the white room (to bring a lamp to the narrow working space), she simply opened the door to the garden instead."
What I'm thinking is that Bishop's painting could be in a series along with my friend Jan's little lamp drawings. Speaking of Jan, last week, she wrote to ask if I had read Elizabeth Bishop's poem "A summer's Dream." A few years ago, Jan sent me another Elizabeth Bishop poem -- "One Art" -- that has since become one of my all - time favorites. So naturally, I was intrigued to check out "A Summer's Dream." It was bound to be fantastic! You can trust Jan: if she mentions a poem, it's never just a reference; there's always a story behind it. And of course, I love nothing more than an inspirational and intellectual treasure hunt and an opportunity to piece all the connections together!
A Summer’s Dream
To the sagging wharf
few ships could come.
The population numbered
two giants, an idiot, a dwarf,
a gentle storekeeper
asleep behind his counter,
and our kind landlady—
the dwarf was her dressmaker.
The idiot could be beguiled
by picking blackberries,
but then threw them away.
The shrunken seamstress smiled.
By the sea, lying
blue as a mackerel,
our boarding house was streaked
as though it had been crying.
crowded the front windows,
the floors glittered with
Every night we listened
for a horned owl.
In the horned lamp flame,
the wallpaper glistened.
The giant with the stammer
was the landlady’s son,
grumbling on the stairs
over an old grammar.
He was morose,
but she was cheerful.
The bedroom was cold,
the feather bed close.
We were awakened in the dark by
the somnambulist brook
nearing the sea,
still dreaming audibly.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979)
Poet Laureate of the United States, 1949 to 1950
Pulitzer Prize Winner, 1956
Among other things, we discussed the giant's "grumbling" and apparent frustration. What came to my mind was an image of the giant, exhausted after a long, tiring day, making an effort to improve his speaking problem -- the "stammar" -- by pouring over an old grammar book. Maybe something along these lines:
They seem to be an oddly but closely knit family of sorts, living in close quarters; and perhaps sitting on the stair is the one place where the giant can find some privacy for studying. Bishop's scenario reveals that even though the dwarf, idiot, and giant may seem at first glance to be no more than stock circus characters, they are in fact motivated by inner dreams and goals just as the reader is. I like the presentation of their private landscapes (sitting quietly, studying, dreaming, day - dreaming) as well as their inter - connectedness, as the poet carefully outlines who belongs to whom.
It's interesting to compare the "morose" yet "cheerful" tone of "A Summer's Dream" with the "Formal melancholy" of "Cirque D'Hiver" ("Winter Circus"). The first is peopled with a number of colorful, fleshly characters; the second features a mechanical toy, made up of two parts: "A little circus horse . . . a little dancer on his back," bound together by a pole, a wind - up key, and a twist of fate. Neither the dancer nor the horse is without self - awareness; that's the heart - breaking aspect of the poem. Carnival imagery gives way to cosmic questioning. Can it be true that the little horse is really "more intelligent by far" than the dancer? After all, she's the one who feels the pole "that pierces both her body and her soul" (Jan said: "that line about the pole -- stunning. It gave me shivers").
Jan also reminded me to notice, while reading, how Bishop creates her own form and rhyme:
Across the floor flits the mechanical toy,
fit for a king of several centuries back.
A little circus horse with real white hair.
His eyes are glossy black.
He bears a little dancer on his back.
She stands upon her toes and turns and turns.
A slanting spray of artificial roses
is stitched across her skirt and tinsel bodice.
Above her head she poses
another spray of artificial roses.
His mane and tail are straight from Chirico.
He has a formal, melancholy soul.
He feels her pink toes dangle toward his back
along the little pole
that pierces both her body and her soul
and goes through his, and reappears below,
under his belly, as a big tin key.
He canters three steps, then he makes a bow,
canters again, bows on one knee,
canters, then clicks and stops, and looks at me.
The dancer, by this time, has turned her back.
He is the more intelligent by far.
Facing each other rather desperately—
his eye is like a star—
we stare and say, "Well, we have come this far."
~ Elizabeth Bishop
Cavalli in riva al mare
by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)
SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, May 14th
Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading
this month: "Open the Book" ~ Elizabeth Bishop