412. (Elizabeth Bishop)

 “First Death in Nova Scotia” is a perfect poem:

In the cold, cold parlor
my mother laid out Arthur
beneath the chromographs:
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
Below them on the table
stood a stuffed loon
shot and stuffed by Uncle
Arthur, Arthur’s father.

Since Uncle Arthur fired
a bullet into him,
he hadn’t said a word.
He kept his own counsel
on his white, frozen lake,
the marble-topped table.
His breast was deep and white,
cold and caressable;
his eyes were red glass,
much to be desired.

“Come,” said my mother,
“Come and say good-bye
to your little cousin Arthur.”
I was lifted up and given
one lily of the valley
to put in Arthur’s hand.
Arthur’s coffin was
a little frosted cake,
and the red-eyed loon eyed it
from his white, frozen lake.

Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn’t been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever.

The gracious royal couples
were warm in red and ermine;
their feet were well wrapped up
in the ladies’ ermine trains.
They invited Arthur to be
the smallest page at court.
But how could Arthur go,
clutching his tiny lily,
with his eyes shut up so tight
and the roads deep in snow?

It comes slowly into focus, as Arthur’s deadness comes into focus. It is a memory, only gradually inhabited, as if without thought, like a person moving further and further from shore without realizing how far out they have gone, until it comes to the final terrible question, which is recovered with a shock that wakes Bishop from the poem. It is not the question that is terrible, but the realization that is implicit within it; when she asks “But how could” she is both in the past and in the present, the “could” a distance of the subjunctive but also of time; she is wondering anew; it comes very near to being a cruel question, a taunting reminder of death. But it avoids that because it is a genuine question: “How could” can mean also “how dare” and “how was it possible” and because “go” hangs on the end of a line, it can be heard to ask, for a flickering instant, “how it was possible that he died.” That final question contains so much. The word “clutching” is horrible: he clutches to the white lily, he clutches to the death-in-life that a plucked lily represents; he cannot clutch since he is dead, but dead hands do clutch; “tiny” is a sob and a shudder; the scale of things haunts her; “his eyes shut up so tight” has a similar effect, catching the cadence of a nursery rhyme; it is both the naïve question of the child she recalls and also the adult Bishop, not naïve, but caught by, trapped in, the memory of his eyes shut up so tight. “Shut up” picks up the charge of “how could Arthur go?”: and she too, then and now, is immobile, trapped, and this too is what gives such power to the question. She must ask not because it is rhetorical but because she cannot work through what it means.

Death does not become any easier to understand when we grow older; the memory of the first thought that someone is entirely gone is never more comprehensible and the terms in which we first encountered their absence remain good for life, and also remain no good for life, being always an open, unanswered question. With the final rhyme of “go” and “snow,” there is formal closure; with the final image of “the roads deep in snow,” too, there is closure of another sort; the closure of having to stay put, surrounded by the white uncertainty; she has become the stuffed loon, its red glass eyes standing in for eyes red with weeping, which she lacks, unable to bring herself to the point of mourning. Arthur, of course, is the subject of the greatest long elegy in English, Tennyson’s In Memoriam; it might be a mere coincidence, but Bishop makes something of it with the rhyme of “snow” and “go,” reaching across another two lines in a faint formal allusion to the stanza of Tennyson’s poem (the thought of Arthur being summoned to the court recalls Tennyson too, since his Arthur became King Arthur in “Morte d’Arthur”).  Frost is there too, in the final question. But both Frost and Tennyson are there for contrast, the chill of this “cold, cold” poem being unlike Frost’s wry skepticism and the grief of Tennyson’s elegy being either absent or deeply buried. Something interesting happens in so far as it is a poem at all: in the past, Bishop made a story, the young Arthur invited but unable to go into the chromograph of British royalty; this also has bearing on the last question since another answer to the question “how could Arthur go” is that he could not because it’s just a chromograph. He is placed near them, “laid out” as if he has become just another object in the room, and the color scheme of the poem, the contrast of red and white, not insisted upon too much, also draws him to them, his reddish hair an echo of the ermine the royal couples wear (his reddish hair, the red ermine, the red of the loon’s eyes all three being dead and on display).

At any rate, Bishop made a story and now, in writing this poem, she has made a poem that brings her back to that story, but she also makes a poem that reflects on its own making something of the past that is just another story, another fantasy, newer than, but no realer than, no truer than, the one she made as a child: “cold, cold parlor” is not a pun,  but “parlor” comes from “parler,” a place where people speak and the poem now does the speaking, and the “smallest page” at court is also a page of paper, blank and white like Arthur too. Now and then, Bishop needs to make something of Arthur, the tragedy being in part that he was too young to have made anything of himself. He is invited into a chromograph and cannot go; he is made into a poem that ends on irresolution; he is painted, but incomplete, by Jack Frost, who reddens leaves on the trees at the turning of autumn, though Arthur never reached autumnal years. Reverie, always a potent resource for Bishop’s poetry, is admitted here, asked to get at what there are no other words for; it is a sort of dream-speech in the poem that feels through images what cannot be thought in assertions. Similarly, the parentheses is characteristic of Bishop in so far as it admits something that cannot be placed or fully resolved with the poem, like an spar of a thought or feeling. The “(Forever)” after the maple leaf of the flag could refer to the forever of artifice, beyond time; it could refer to the forever of a symbol; it could refer to the forever of seasons. It picks up the thought of “always,” it lets it expand but also contains it, unsure what to do with that thought in its fullest form, and then, a few lines later, places it, in contracted form after “left him white, forever.” It’s as if the child had thought, “yes that works, that is where the word can go, in this reverie,” even though it is not fully subordinated to the thought where it finds its final resting place in the poem.

The loon offers another object of reverie, but also of desire; but whereas the Jack Frost reverie is a way of saying something about death and the corpse that needed to be said, the loon figures somewhat as the word “Forever,” the visible peak of mountain otherwise submerged. “Much to be desired,” itches at plucking the red glass eyes out of the bird, or recalls that itch from the present of the poem; “caressable” tempts also; the bird can be touched, cared, for but also taken apart, cherished for what it is made of, and for how it can be taken, as a corpse cannot. At the same time, it has more life than anything except for Bishop’s mother, and it has a great deal more depth than her mother. It has been shot by Arthur’s uncle, who is also absent, and, in a rewriting of the albatross story, has taken on new greater power, presiding over the scene: it keeps its counsel, it eyes the corpse. The line about how, since Uncle Arthur fired a bullet into him, “he hadn’t said a word,” is Bishop’s but sounds like a joke told at family gatherings; it had never said a word. It is mock-solemn, a mockery of death; but this, as well as the violence done to it, seem to give it a hold on Bishop’s imagination. When someone in the poem does say a word, it is Bishop’s mother, saying what is said: “come and say goodbye,” and she does what is asked, but does not seem to say it, and the poem is about his inability to depart; there is no occasion to say goodbye. Instead, the coffin becomes a cake; this too, perhaps, is “much to be desired” (by the loon who eyes it, at least), but also to be eaten, to fill the mouth so that words cannot be spoken, to be devoured so that Arthur cannot be contained, to be relished and gazed at. One reason cake is reserved for special celebrations is that it allows everyone to gather in the destruction of a beautiful object; the beauty of a cake satisfies not just hunger but the urge to destroy beauty.

The coffin is “little,” and we might ask if Bishop overdoes it with the word and synonyms in the poem: “little cousin,” “little cake,” “very small” (rhyming with “like a doll”), “smallest page,” “tiny lily.” It is so overdone though as to cease seeming to be in order to generate pathos; instead, it comes to seem like a preoccupation, a symptom that she cannot contain, a dramatization of the impulse to mourn now, in looking back. It is also a reminder of his vulnerability, not to death, but to her memory and her own presence: his death itself is fragile, everything is so orderly and small and easily disrupted that it evokes pity but also a sense of power in the author; the instinct to crush is not far from the poem (the loon fascinates in part because it was shot, because it was killed by violence). The word “so” in “his eyes shut up so tight” evokes a similar urge to smother as well as coddle; it hates what it sees. But then, in the final line, where we might expect “and the roads so deep in snow,” the word is missing. “Deep” is given real weight, real depth. “The roads” does not fit with anything we have seen in the poem yet; it floats free, or we or she float free, transported to an allegorical landscape. But we cannot go anywhere in that landscape, both because it has not been developed in the poem and because the road on which we would travel is deep in snow; there is nowhere for us to go, and the final line not only completes a question about Arthur, but also opens a question about Bishop, about how she could possibly be expected to go anywhere, or to know where to go. It is as she suddenly realized where she is standing; or as if she realized that she is still in the room, with the world outside snowbound, blank, like the page, like the frozen lake of the loon, like Arthur’s body left unpainted; what obstructs is not the death but the deep blankness that covers and surrounds the death, the surfaces—of the chromograph, of the stuffed bird, of the coffin (does the frost on it become Jack Frost in the next stanza), of the corpse, of her mother’s words—all being blank of significance because they refuse to allow her to go anywhere with what she remembers, death being nowhere to go. The poem accommodates in its sharpness of detail an emptiness that inheres in the life of things, too deep for tears.


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