Elizabeth Bishop – Sestina


A poem named for its form might suggest a mere technical exercise, but here the sestina structure is emphasized as a means of understanding the poems very powerful discourse on fate, loss and relationships. The cyclical nature of the form seems to work against the sense of foreboding generated by the ominously characterized ‘almanac’. At the same time it reinforces the imagery of astrology and fate – conceiving the rotation of the end-words like that of celestial bodies. The weaving, seamless pattern of the repeated words provides a distinct contrast and reflection upon the damaged bonds of relationship in the poem – the absent mother and disconnected grandmother and child. ‘Sestina’ comes to embody and reflect the world evoked by Bishop, rather than displacing it with an abstract form.

A sense of dread or apprehension saturates the poem, working through and in tension with the cyclical nature of the sestina. The almanac’s foretelling power is stated in stanza 2, and the various meaning of this book all have resonances in the poem. As a predictor of lunar and planetary movements, the almanac feeds the theme of superstition, strengthened by planetary references always associated with crying, ‘equinoctial tears’, ‘little moons fall down like tears’. As a source of jokes in stanza 1, the almanac is in a sense complicit in the deception of the grandmother, creating a distance between the grandmother and child just when it seems to be drawing them together. The childlike epithet ‘clever almanac’ momentarily assumes the voice of the poem’s child, demonstrating the cyclical adoption of the grandmother’s faith in the book from generation to generation. Meanwhile the almanac hovers above them ominously, ‘birdlike’. Giving the object an omniscience in this way shows it to be the source of the atmosphere of dread in the poem.

Coupled with a pervading feeling of loss, the sestina’s circling fear can be seen to look both back and forward. We might think the grandmother’s fear of the future is negated by the circling of the almanac, rendering any dramatic change impossible. Yet the constant reconfiguring of the end-word order is again mimetic for a process that effaces the differences between past and future and equates past loss with foreboding. Hence it becomes possible in the circular world of the sestina to dread something which has already happened. Another meaning of ‘almanac’ becomes pertinent, as a record of anniversaries and events. The notable absence of ‘mother’ in the poem, the apparently unbridgeable gap between Grandmother and child, is perhaps enigmatically described by the stove, ‘It was to be’. The feeling of loss, the unbridgeable void of bereavement, returns endlessly like an anniversary or the stanzas of a sestina.

The seamless interweaving of lines in the poem masks or attempts to mask a deep disunity in the relationships described in the poem. The central relationship in the poem – that between grandmother and granddaughter – is essentially fractured in its nature. No dialogue is sustained in the poem, the only words spoken to the child are banal, and ignored ‘but the child / Is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears’. The grandmother hides her tears from the child, such that an emotional connection is only grasped with inanimate objects. It is a pattern repeated throughout, especially in the eerily anthropomorphic almanac. When the grandmother speaks a second time, she is answered by the stove. We are reminded of the muttering lampposts in Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night, where objects are animated and given voices to contrast with the numb and silent human characters of the poem. A similar effect is achieved here – when genuine communication is attempted, the child ‘proudly shows it to the grandmother’, it invariably produces the wrong effect – tears instead of joy.

The absent, unmentioned mother is joined by the ‘man with buttons like tears’ drawn by the child. While there’s no need to extract a linear narrative from the poem – indeed the cyclical nature of the sestina seems to work against us doing just that – we can say that these absent figures are the focal point of the poem – the body around which the two characters rotate. They are the missing, ideal ‘house’ that the child draws, and the void they leave is filled with the cruelly parodic ‘family’ of inanimate objects that populate the poem. Finally they are ‘inscrutable’, a word which I feel is the key to the poem. Inscrutable as the celestial movements predicted by the almanac, and as inscrutable as fate and loss, the broken and absent family bonds alluded to in the poem form a void around which the entire world of the poem seems to whirlpool and disappear.

This is a poem which completely embodies its form, turning the elaborate dance of end-words into a malevolent, governing force. The figures of the poem of the poem are trapped in the circle, revolving around an absence that can be approached only obliquely by the poem. It is an eery and moving picture of humanity at once paralysed and endlessly waiting and searching.

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