Friday, April 18

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, April 18, 2014 10 comments
by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

inset from a medieval painting, artist unknown

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 the two-by-fours),
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 up his mind to go home.

This piece is an extended allusion to the biblical parable of the prodigal son, a story Jesus tells in the Gospels about a son who leaves home, squanders his inheritance and ends up in poverty, taking work as a swineherd, the worst possible profession for a nice Jewish boy. In Jesus' story, the son "came to himself" and decides to return home to reconcile with his family. This piece stays at that dark period before the decision is made.

The author Elizabeth Bishop (winner of the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for poetry) generally wrote poems that seem unrelated to her life, in contrast to her contemporaries, the "confessional" poets, including Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and W.D. Snodgrass. Yet if you read about her life, you can quickly understand why she would choose to explore this particular Bible parable. Like the prodigal son, Bishop experienced a sense of dislocation. She lost one parent, then another. Was bounced among relatives in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Missed a great deal of school because of bouts of asthma. Though a New England native, she spent large chunks of her life in France and Brazil, made possible in part because of a substantial inheritance from her father.

Bishop's poem is a great example of literary borrowing that's quite common in poetry. You don't need to dream up narratives on your own to explore some aspect of human nature--you are free to take existing narratives and characters and explore them in your own way.

What lines or images stand out to you? If you were to write an allusion poem, what story would you enjoy exploring and rewriting?

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  1. Love the allusions in this poem by Bishop. Thanks for sharing the background of her life, it adds even more dimension.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Tyrean. I hadn't known much about her--other than her laureate status--before working on this post.

  2. I'm a lousy poet.
    That's a nice piece she wrote. Our pastor talked about the Prodigal Son last week.
    Have a Blessed Easter.

    1. It's a fascinating parable, isn't it? At some time or another, most of us live out one of the roles in the story--the run away, the bitter brother or the loving dad.

  3. I really liked that poem.

    "Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,
    the pigs' eyes followed him,"

    I really liked that line.

    I think I would enjoy rewriting the story of hmmm I don't know lol

    1. She has an interesting mix of rich sound play and also very plain speech that gives the piece so much texture. Thanks for coming by!

  4. Love your concept, Laurel. The graphics are amazing and this poem was a great read. Best of luck with the rest of the contest.

    1. Thanks so much. I had such a good time hunting for graphics to go with the various poems I featured.

  5. What a cool connection between poem and pic. Never heard of an allusion poem before. Think I'll try one.

    1. The image has a whole bunch of allegorical substories going on in it (fairly typical for medieval art), which would be clearer if I could use the whole thing. Sadly, my template favors square images, so I had to trim just a section of it. But you get a bit of the flavor with the blue beetle pouring liquid into the open mouth of a subterranean creature--some kind of symbolism is going on there visually. The bagpiper in the background would also have had a significance to a medieval viewer of the piece. (My best guess is these are images of the "wine, women and song" on which the prodigal squandered his inheritance).