Because it was my birthday last week, I want to talk about “The End of March” by Elizabeth Bishop. I always respond to it, even more so than any of her other poems which I also love, with that sort of delight you get when someone gives you a gift that is totally “you” (i.e. unexpected but perfect).
“The End of March” begins “It was cold and windy, scarcely the day / to take a walk on that long beach” (don’t you just love to do that too, take walks on the beach when it’s too cold to do so, and so no one else is?).
The first stanza continues with description of the beach, Bishop’s typical noticing eye comment on the initial description to further precision: “Everything was withdrawn as far as possible, / indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken, / seabirds in ones or twos” etc. She speaks of the wind, well not just the wind it’s “The rackety, icy, offshore wind” blowing back “the low, inaudible rollers” and let’s pause a moment there to savor the rhythm/sound/mouth shape of saying that phrase aloud, “the low, inaudible rollers” . . . which are followed by the hissing yet, well, upright sounds of “in upright, steely mist.”
In the second stanza they follow “big dog-prints (so big / they were more like lion prints)” and then come upon “lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string, / looping up to the tide-line, down to the water, / over and over.” And eventually they find the end of the string, “a thick white snarl, man-size, awash.” The order in which that information is given is in such a controlled way you don’t notice anything, don’t notice the mind’s eye camera movements, except that you know exactly what it looks like “rising on every wave, a sodden ghost, / falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost…”. The movement of jetsam-on-wave that the repetition/variation of the words “sodden” and “ghost” evokes is thoroughly vivid and full of motion, despite the fact that there are only two movement words in those three lines, one “rising” and one “falling.” The “sodden ghost,” a very graspable image, then the falling back, then sodden by itself — that wash of the wave has changed it, jetsam at the edge of the tide changing as it does like cloud shapes. And Bishop goes with it and makes the corny joke and it totally works, “giving up the ghost.” The stanza concludes by perhaps deciding, “A kite string?—But no kite.”
Then we come, or the poem comes but the speaker doesn’t actually get that far on this particular walk, to “my proto-dream-house, / my crypto-dream house” which is a crooked, ramshackle affair “set up on pilings, shingled green / a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener / (boiled with bicarbonate of soda?)” etc. Sherod Santos pauses on this stanza in his essay in Poets Reading: The Field Symposia (ed. David Walker) to note that “Bishop confers on her readers the impression (or the fact?) that if we paid attention we might see the same things she does.”
Bishop, immediately after noting parenthetically that “Many things about this place are dubious” says “I’d like to retire there and do nothing“. I suppose the things we love the most are the things we’re not supposed to, the ridiculous, dubious house that’s just what you want. The rest of the stanza details the proto-crypto life she’d live there. She’d do not nothing, but “nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms”. She’d do mundane things like “read boring books, / old, long, long books, and write down useless notes, talk to myself” etc. It’s a lovely “dream life” stanza, all the details sorted. She declares it “perfect! But—impossible. / And that day the wind was much too cold / even to get that far, / and of course the house was boarded up.”
(Sherrod Santos also uses a magician analogy about this poem and particularly that stanza that I like, that Bishop in her precise noticing “exposing, as she does, the inner workings of the poem—[is] like the magician who, while performing his illusions, keeps telling the audience how the illusions are made” and later concludes “Like the magician pretending to his supernatural powers, the poet becomes the imaginative source of the image—the conjurer’s gift, not the collapsible hat, receives our rapt applause.” And that’s another personal reason I love this poem, I’m a poet, and she’s the most poet poet in her poems, more so than when someone talks specifically about writing.)
And now we come to the last stanza. There are these moments in Bishop poems, when what’s happening is, fundamentally, corny or groan-worthy or super sentimental, but she makes it utterly work, and instead of being terrible it’s delightful. Like the sodden ghost of string giving up the ghost. I think those are my favorite moments of hers, when it shouldn’t work but does. So much more triumphant to read than when something is just really good.
The phenomenal last stanza has the speaker and her companions returning, short of reaching the greener-than-artichoke house. “On the way back our faces froze on the other side. / The sun came out for just a minute.” Then there’s a description of “the drab, damp, scattered stones” made multi-colored for just a moment, with the stones — and here again is the Bishopian noticing, it’s not all the stones or even some of the stones, it’s “all those high enough” — throwing not just shadows but “long shadows, / individual shadows” then pulling them in again. The stones “could have been teasing the lion sun” Bishop says, which is a somewhat ordinary poetic image, the sun like a lion, but the image is — oh, what’s the right word here, exploded? revealed? mind-blowingly shifted? — changed over the line break,
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them
— a sun who’d walked the beach the last low tide,
making those big, majestic paw-prints,
who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.
!!!! The lion-as-metaphor sun becomes a real lion who perhaps (is there a more Bishop word than perhaps?) is the explanation for the string on the waves earlier in the poem. That final image should. Not. Work. Too fanciful. Too odd a call back after the imagined-life in the dubious shack. But it does. For so many reasons, including how it ties the sky and the beach, the weather and the walk, all together. I could read this poem endlessly, “looping up to the tide-line, down to the water, / over and over.”