Elizabeth Bishop


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 marvellous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

I first came across this poem about two years ago when I was finding out about sestinas with a view to writing my own. On first reading the poem seems simply to describe a domestic scene of a grandmother and a child (gender unspecified) sitting in the kitchen by the stove. But one of the six end words is tears 6 (the others are house 1, grandmother 2, child 3, stove 4 and almanac 5) and the poem moves from jokes to tears and back again. So the whole poem is imbued with a sense of sadness.

The Sestina follows the rules in terms of using the six end words in the prescribed order for the six stanzas.

First Stanza 1-2-3-4-5-6
Second Stanza 6-1-5-2-4-3
Third Stanza 3-6-4-1-2-5
Fourth Stanza 5-3-2-6-1-4
Fifth Stanza 4-5-1-3-6-2
Sixth Stanza 2-4-6-5-3-1

When it comes to the envoi however Bishop breaks the rules. She does use all six words but not in the stipulated order

First line of Envoi 2-5 should be grandmother, almanac but are tears and almanac
Second line of Envoi 4-3 should be stove child but are grandmother and stove
Third line of Envoi 6-1 should be tears and house but are child and house

This only matters if you are being very precise and nit-picky about the structure. It felt like a liberation to me to discover that you didn’t have to stick rigidly to the form. I think that the envoi works just fine as it is especially the last line about the child drawing another inscrutable house.

During the autumn I have been reading Art and Memory in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop by Jonathan Ellis and discovering more about her life. When I first read the sestina I didn’t know that she had been brought up by her grandparents and an aunt after her mother had a nervous breakdown. This knowledge took me back to her Sestina and made me fall in love with it all over again. It gave resonance to the tears which flow through the poem and made me feel sorry for the child. But the child, like Elizabeth Bishop, is finding her own way out by drawing rigid houses (like Sestinas) which become inscrutable.

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