Book Notes: A time to wander on the sea shore
in the company of Elizabeth Bishop, T. S. Eliot, Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, all poets who found, as people have found, from time immemorial, inspiration and solace in that elemental, mysterious place where the land meets the sea; all poets who transmuted the memories and emotions of the lyric “I”, beyond the limits of the personal, into the highest art.
It is such a transmutation that we find in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map,” the first poem in her first volume, “North & South” (1946). A poem that, with its questionings, repetitions and corrections (metanoia) bears her signature mark as a poet, a poet whose travels along the coast line from north (Nova Scotia) to south (Brazil) informed so much of her life and of her writing:
“Land lies in water; it is shadowed green,
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?”
There are echoes in“The Map” of T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,”written in 1941, in London during the Blitz. In this, the third of The Four Quartets, in the opening section, Eliot recalls his boyhood and youth sailing off the coast of Cape Ann, north of Gloucester, Massachusetts, but, like Bishop, he transmutes those deeply cherished memories and knowledge of sailing and the sea, into lyric poetry of breathtaking loveliness:
“The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees.”
From here we can drift with the tide, south to the shores of Long Island, or Paumanock as Walt Whitman called it, its Native American name. Whitman’s “Out of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is a deeply moving epic of 183 lines of varying lengths, in which he describes the pivotal moment in his life when, as a young boy, for several days and nights, he watched a pair of birds nesting on the shore, the poet was awakened within him, along with a sense of mortality:
“Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me.”
We wander further south with Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Now we are standing on the sea shore of Florida’s Key West, in the presence of the singer, “the maker,” who is the lone creator of order in the face of the chaos that is the sea. The repetition of “sang”, “sing” and “song” intertwined with “sea” gives this poem an astonishing melodic force, where sound and meaning become inseparable:
“She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.”
The words “That was her song, for she was the maker” take us back north to Duxbury, Massachusetts, and Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The End of March” - “It was cold and windy, scarcely the day/ to take a walk on that long beach.” But she and her friends, John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read, did take that walk -“The rackety, icy, offshore wind/ numbed our faces on one side:” - and from that walk on the sea shore, Bishop, “for she was the maker”, wove a magical poem of closely observed reality, beach detritus, “lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string” - “A kite string?––But no kite.”, blended with fantasy, a “proto-dream house” and a playful “lion sun” “who’d walked the beach the last low tide/ …… who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.” A magical close that lifts the reader into the realm of dreams on a lingering note of joy.
But we can’t end our wander on the shore without another Bishop poem, “Sandpiper” - the intensely observed little shore bird that, thanks to her poem, is now forever “a student of Blake,” and the poet who is, forever, “looking for something, something, something.”, the poet whose eye (“no detail too small”) gives us the exquisite final couplet, words that, with their rising note, linger in the air.
This lovely pen and water-color drawing of a sandpiper is by Susan Gallick, local artist and Stonington resident, who graciously allowed me to include it with these Notes:
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.
–Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them,
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.
. . . . . . . . .
looking for something, something, something.
. . . . . . . .
The millions of grains are black, white, tan and gray,
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.”
These are just a few of very many sea shore poems and these, and many others, can all be found in a google search and can be listened to on YouTube - or found in the quiet stacks in the Library gallery, another good place to wander on a summer afternoon! I hope you enjoyed this end of summer wander beside the sea shore in the company of our beloved poets.
Belinda de Kay is director emeritus of Stonington Free Library.
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