Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Its Breathing And Thick Hair

Elizabeth Bishop generally wrote about specific people and incidents. (She also wrote often from her dreams, but I am going to ignore that fact because I don't believe the following poem is from a dream.)

For instance I recently learned that her amazing poem, Visits To St. Elizabeth's, was about visiting Ezra Pound during his time in that mental hospital. I had always thought that it came from her visits to her mother who had lived in a mental hospital until her death after Bishop was out of college. (Yes, I know the poem says a "man" but I still thought it was about visiting her mother.) But now I learn that she never once (or so they say) visited her mother there. That may be because, her father having died while she was in her infancy, she was sent away to live with grandparents in Canada.

But the point is that the whimsical and touching Visits to St. Elizabeth's was about a real series of visits to her sick friend. The following poem, I am confident, likewise has a solid basis in a real story of some intimate of Bishop's. I do not know what it is, but I am curious. I wonder who it was, and what was the story that prompted her to write The Prodigal. I also wonder to what extent she was writing about herself in it, although I don't think that could be its sole motive.

The Prodigal

The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs' eyes followed him, a cheerful stare--
even to the sow that always ate her young--
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind a two-by-four),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red;
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.

But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern--like the sun, going away--
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats' uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make his mind up to go home.


Devika said...

Very nice one Doug...:)

so many interesting writers i come across here...

in fact Elizabeth Bishop is known to me...but not read 'Prodigal'...

and as to who that was -- my thinking is that the reader, a sensible and sensitive reader -- should be left to identify the themes and persons in writings with himself/herself...

that enhances poetic appreciation so much more...i had felt...don't you agree, Doug..

thank you for this post..

Doug P. Baker said...

Yes, of course the poem should be able to speak for itself, without much commentary from the outside. And this one does, it speaks plenty!

Still, knowing the author will quite often enhance our appreciation of a work. That is why I often introduce an author before I post a poem.

But when I look at Vermeer's beautiful painting, The Girl With The Pearl Earring, I love it by itself. At the same time it makes me ask questions. Who is she? What is she thinking? Where was she going when the painting was made?

Just so, The Prodigal is a great poem and it shows me myself well enough. Better than I would like, I think. Still, it too makes me ask questions. Who is the pig herder? How did Bishop know him? Is it partly about herself? and so on.

Sometimes I can't help wondering.


Devika said...

I cannot agree with you more, Doug..

and am sure, you would by now know how much i love writers and much that they fill my mind most of the time...

Writers are a wonderful lot...

but in the virtual world, i feel every other is so unique and wonderful to know...


Crafty Green Poet said...

I really enjoy Elizabeth Bishops poetry and this is a new one for me too so thanks for sharing. I think it is always interesting to speculate how much of a poem is autobiographical, though as Devika says above, each poem stands also by itself.

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