Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Elizabeth Bishop, snark, and interplanetary travel

Bishop's mature work opens with "Arrival at Santos" from Questions of Travel. The poem begins:
Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery:
impractically shaped and--who knows?--self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,

with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,
some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,
and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you

and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
after eighteen days of suspension?
Note the rhymes, overly simple or feminine (a typical feature of humorous verse in English) - scenery/greenery is even a dactylic rhyme, if that's the seldom-used phrase. Rhymes which are less noticeable because of the relaxed tone, the enjambed syntax, and the longish adjectivey lines. Rereading the poem the other day I thought, "Is she being snarky?" Certainly "wry" is a good word here, but I think there's a degree of involvement by the poet, a quality of imaginative participation in the scene, that is like what you'll find in a good Television Without Pity review of a Buffy episode. But "snark" won't do. Really one should say that "wry" or any other word in the dictionary won't do because "Elizabeth Bishop poem" is exact. This is a confessional poem in the sense that it's imbued with the essence of the poet's personality and cast of mind - you read it and, while not learning any details of the poet's life, you suddenly know her. (I should note that the wonderful ending of the poem recalls the beginning in its use of a dactylic rhyme and comments on the previous sentence.)

Another thing that jumped out at me in the above lines was the "eighteen days". A friend recently drove for fourteen hours. That's about how long a journey takes now - maybe a few days at most to get somewhere exotically inaccessible. I doubt anyone will have a real sense of what the quoted line means again until people travel to Mars.

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