Saturday, September 19, 2009
As I mentioned last week, September’s set of Weekly Poems are all long-standing personal favorites—poems to which I feel a strong connection: not simply poems I admire but ones that “speak” to me in some deep way.
This week’s offering is by poet Elizabeth Bishop, a long-time favorite poet of mine. The poem’s title is descriptive of the poem’s form—i.e., a sestina is a poem of six 6-line stanzas (often, but not always, as here with a 3-line envoi). The form is built on a series of end words that change according to a set pattern:
Line 1 in the first stanza becomes line 2 in the second
Line 2 in the first stanza becomes line 4 in the second
Line 3 in the first stanza becomes line 6 in the second
Line 4 in the first stanza becomes line 5 in the second
Line 5 in the first stanza becomes line 3 in the second
Line 6 in the first stanza becomes line 1 in the second
& so on thru the six stanzas, each succeeding stanza being formed in the same order relative to the preceeding one. If this pattern were followed all the way thru a seventh stanza, then the order of the end words in a seventh stanza would have come full circle—they’d be the same as the first. In the case of Bishop’s poem, the six repeating words are “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “stove,” “almanac,” & “tears.” As someone who’s written sestinas (actually a “fun” form in my opinion) I can tell you that Bishop’s choices are interesting—five of the six are quite flexible, but almanac seems extremely unlikely! Bishop handles it beautifully.
Of course the poem isn’t simply “about” being a sestina—title notwithstanding; it’s really poignant in an under-stated way. Hope you enjoy it this September Saturday.
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,
It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac
on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.
It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.
But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.
Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.