Throughout Elizabeth Bishop’s many travels, New York remained a natural hub for her to return to. The city became her temporary “home” at various times throughout her life. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Bishop had a complicated relationship with the city that both inspired and tormented her in equal measure. After graduating from Vassar, Bishop saw New York as a threatening yet thriving literary scene; for an aspiring writer, it was the place to be. Her relationship with mentor poet, Marianne Moore, drew her to the city in the 1930s, and Moore’s influence on the young Bishop in the city was considerable. New York became the setting for many of Bishop’s poems, and her life in the city inspired many others. The ambitious poet was ultimately able to fully break onto the literary scene with the help of The New Yorker, which published her work from 1940 through the end of her life . However, Bishop often viewed New York as a dark, threatening environment, and she was rarely healthy living in the city. She suffered from severe asthma, chronic depression, and alcoholism, all exacerbated by the stresses of living in this urban environment. In the end, Bishop’s relationship with the city was paradoxical: her time in New York both made her and marred her. The city nurtured her as a poet but destroyed her mentally and emotionally. In the following pages, you can explore the many sides of Bishop’s relationship with the city.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

New York Poems: "Love Lies Sleeping"

“Love Lies Sleeping” (written 1936, published 1938)

Earliest morning switching all the tracks
that cross the sky from cinder star to star,
coupling the ends of streets
to trains of light,

now draw us into daylight in our beds;
and clear away what presses on the brain:
put out the neon shapes
that float and swell and glare

down the gray avenue between the eyes
in pinks and yellows, letters and twitching signs.
Hang-over moons, wane, wane!
From the window I see

an immense city, carefully revealed,
made delicate by over-workmanship,
detail upon detail,
cornice upon facade,

reaching up so languidly up into
a weak white sky, it seems to waver there.
(Where it has slowly grown
in skies of water-glass

from fused beads of iron and copper crystals,
the little chemical "garden" in a jar
trembles and stands again,
pale blue, blue-green, and brick.)

The sparrows hurriedly begin their play.
Then, in the West, "Boom!" and a cloud of smoke.
"Boom!" and the exploding ball
of blossom blooms again.

(And all the employees who work in plants
where such a sound says "Danger," or once said "Death,"
turn in their sleep and feel
the short hairs bristling

on backs of necks.) The cloud of smoke moves off.
A shirt is taken of a threadlike clothes-line.
Along the street below
the water-wagon comes

throwing its hissing, snowy fan across
peelings and newspapers. The water dries
light-dry, dark-wet, the pattern
of the cool watermelon.

I hear the day-springs of the morning strike
from stony walls and halls and iron beds,
scattered or grouped cascades,
alarms for the expected:

queer cupids of all persons getting up,
whose evening meal they will prepare all day,
you will dine well
on his heart, on his, and his,

so send them about your business affectionately,
dragging in the streets their unique loves.
Scourge them with roses only,
be light as helium,

for always to one, or several, morning comes
whose head has fallen over the edge of his bed,
whose face is turned
so that the image of

the city grows down into his open eyes
inverted and distorted. No. I mean
distorted and revealed,
if he sees it at all.

Similar to “The Man-Moth,” “Love Lies Sleeping” presents a surreal view of New York through the eyes of a speaker waking to a summer morning. The first eleven stanzas of the poem depict the city in great detail; underneath this observation of the material world, however, there also lies a spirituality or otherworldliness. Bishop wrote in her notebook: “But [the spiritual] proceeds from the material, the material eaten out with acid, pulled down from underneath, made to perform and always kept in order, in its place. Sometimes it cannot be made to indicate its spiritual goal clearly…but even then the spiritual must be felt”(quoted in Kalstone 15), and in this poem as well as “The Man-Moth,” we see another side of New York, at times beautiful, at times surreal, and at times terrifying. As the speaker emerges from sleep, she describes the New York night blending into day. Dreamlike trains in the night sky fade out along with the neon signs and the “hangover moons.” In the morning light, the speaker is intent on describing in detail the emerging city. The “immense city, carefully revealed” becomes personified as it seems to yawn and stretch itself toward the skies. The city becomes even more surreal as Bishop describes, in a parenthetical aside, the city wavering:

(Where it has slowly grown
in skies of water-glass

from fused beads of iron and copper crystals,
the little chemical "garden" in a jar
trembles and stands again,
pale blue, blue-green, and brick.)

The city becomes beautiful, momentarily rising in the skies of “water-glass,” but it is still confined, a “chemical ‘garden’ in a jar.

In the next stanza, Bishop begins to reveal something threatening in the city through the loud “Boom!” that disrupts the sparrows’ play. Even the sleeping city workers feel a jolt of fear as the hair on the back of their necks rise instinctually as they slumber. The sounds of the poem remain just as disorienting when Bishop describes the “day-springs of the morning strike/from stony walls and halls and iron beds,/scattered or grouped cascades,/alarms for the expected.” The city dwellers are called awake, and sinister “queer cupids” set about their business feeding on lovers. The speaker has a sympathy for these city folk, “dragging in the streets their unique loves” and even entreats the “queer cupids” to be gentle, to “scourge them with roses only,/be light as helium.” The cupids seem to be at home in this surreal city, doing their daily work from sunrise to sunset.

Although the final stanza of the poem is a description of a victim of love whose head is hanging over the side of a bed, the speaker seems to empathize with this figure. This figure, ravaged by love in the city, is helpless as he views New York “inverted and distorted.” Bishop noted that she wanted her poetry to show “the mind thinking” (quoted in Millier 77), and the final lines of the poem reveal the speaker pondering this inverted view of the city. The city once again becomes highly surreal as it grows downward, but it is through this suffering man’s vision that the city becomes fully revealed in its utter distortion. Like the Man-Moth who seems to be at odds with the city yet rooted in it, so too is the man at the end of “Love Lies Sleeping” who sees the underside of New York. Both the lover in “Love Lies Sleeping” and the heroically striving Man-Moth (a poet figure perhaps) are sufferers in the city, and by the end of both poems, Bishop pushes us toward sympathetic identification with them. While the Man-Moth reaches out his hand to offer us his pure, nourishing teardrop, the lover in “Love Lies Sleeping” is detached from us, absorbed in his own vision. The final line of the poem is especially disturbing as Bishop shows the speaker continuing to think: Does the scourged lover see the city fully, or does he “[see] it at all”? In a parenthetical aside in a 1964 letter to Anne Stevenson (a friend and critic), Bishop wrote: “I think the man at the end of the poem is dead” (quoted in Harrison 61). In the end, the poem does not fully reveal whether this lover is an enlightened seer in the city or a dead man, and perhaps Bishop was unsure herself whether the city could be perceived in its fullness.

Critic, Victoria Harrison suggests that the meter of the poem reflects this irresolution at the end. She points out the somewhat regular stanzas that begin with a pair of (usually) pentameter lines and another pair of lines in trimeter, dimeter, or tetrameter. Harrison claims: “The order of the poem must be recognized concomitant with the disorder, the water wagon’s cleaning with the ‘peelings and newspapers’ in its path, the preparation of the evening meal with the cannibalism of our workaday lives” (61). Adding to Harrison’s analysis, it is also important to note that the disorder appears most in the last two lines of the stanzas where Bishop fluctuates between trimeter, dimeter, and tetrameter. These lines also act visually as an inversion of the longer opening pentameter lines. Through her form (playing with line lengths and meter), she is revealing the inverted, disordered city that lies beneath the other New York she is describing. It is in poems like “Love Lies Sleeping” that we see Bishop playing ingeniously with a natural rhythm. As noted before, her appreciation of the rhythm of a poem was influenced heavily by both Marianne Moore and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In an article about Hopkins that she wrote at Vassar, Bishop praised his verse, which revealed: “the releasing, checking, timing, and repeating of the movement of the mind” (quoted in Kalstone 37). In “Love Lies Sleeping,” she reveals the “movement of the mind” through her purposeful line breaks and diction. The rhythm conveys the disordered inversion that lies beneath the surface of the city.

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