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: "Varick Street"

“Varick Street” (published 1947)

At night the factories
struggle awake,
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work.
Trying to breathe,
the elongated nostrils
haired with spikes
give off such stenches, too.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.

On certain floors
certain wonders.
Pale dirty light,
some captured iceberg
being prevented from melting.
See the mechanical moons,
sick, being made
to wax and wane
at somebody’s instigation.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.

Lights music of love
work on. The presses
print calendars
I suppose; the moons
make medicine
or confectionery. Our bed
shrinks from the soot
and hapless odors
hold us close.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.

Bishop wrote “Varick Street” in the 1940s, after she had travelled more extensively but had also been wounded by love and life experiences. The setting of the poem is Bishop’s apartment tiny flat on King Street (that intersects Varick Street). The New York of “Varick Street” is even more sinister, suffocating, and surreal than the New York depicted in “The Man-Moth” and “Love Lies Sleeping.” “Love Lies Sleeping” is mostly a morning poem; although it ends in darkness, the first eleven stanzas of the poem depict the city waking to the dawn. “Varick Street,” in contrast, is a night poem. The grotesque factories come alive at night, threatening with their (possibly phallic) stacks, “veined with pipes.” The factories morph into nightmarish “elongated nostrils/haired with spikes.” They absorb the odors and give off their own horrendous stench simultaneously. The city is personified and depicted metaphorically in both “Love Lies Sleeping” and “Varick Street,” but the dreamy strangeness of “Love Lies Sleeping” is tame compared to the terrifying visions in “Varick Street.”

The night city in “Varick Street” is mechanical and thwarts any natural processes. Even the faint light becomes “dirty” as it is compared to “some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” There is no natural moonlight, but instead “mechanical moons,” controlled by man. The final stanza of the poem completes the utter industrialization of the city. In an echo of Shakespeare’s “If music be the food of love, play on,” Bishop echoes: “Lights music of love/work on,” employing even the lights and music that should joyously encourage love. The mechanical world of New York City traps the lovers.

While the Man-Moth and the lover in “Love Lies Sleeping” appear alienated and alone, the speaker of “Varick Street” lies next to her beloved; however, this relationship is doomed repeatedly in the inauspicious refrain: “And I shall sell you sell you/sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.” In the New York setting, the speaker and her “dear” are trapped in a relationship of consumerism in which they will inevitably sell each other off. Amid the grotesque, nightmarish setting of industrial New York, they cannot remain uncorrupted and loyal. Their bed may “[shrink] from the soot,” but they cannot escape the “hapless odors” that seduce and embrace them, ultimately tearing the lovers apart. In this dismal poem, Bishop reveals that even once one has found love, it cannot shelter one against the threats of the city.

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