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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Number 257: Elizabeth Bishop "Sestina"


September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

-- Elizabeth Bishop

Hap Notes: I was looking something up in the Farmer's Almanac yesterday and the words "September" and "almanac" triggered the memory of this haunting sestina by Bishop. The sestina is a very difficult and intricate form of a poem designed by a poet/ mathematician (of course) and troubador named Arnaut Daniel. It calls upon the writer to us the same words in a set pattern for six stanzas in six lines followed by a three line envoy.

It's very tricky and hard to accomplish so that it makes a whit of sense but if you want to try it, remember that each of the six lines must repeat their words at the end of the line in this pattern (the first lines are numbered 1-6): 123456, second stanza is 615243, the third is 364125, the fourth is 532614, the fifth is 451362, and and the sixth and last stanza is 246531. The final tercet has 6 and 2 in its first line, its second 1 and 4, and its third 5 and 3. Even easier, go to where a poet has thoughtfully provided a template generator for the verses (I urge you to use this- it's a wonderful brain saver.)

Using the form is tricky enough to be justifiably proud of but making it lilt with such beauty and meaning as Bishop does is amazing.

In the poem, what is going on here? Why are there so many tears? Remember that Bishop grew up at her grandmother's house (see our first blog on Bishop here for details:, among others because after her father died, her mother suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized.

A Marvel stove is a small stove made for warming and cooking. I have a picture of such a stove on this page today.

Equinoctial is an interesting word which means equally balanced (like the equator) or a storm taking place near the equinox. There's a math problem in here somewhere for those familiar with the equinox and the sestina's numeric lines but I'm only smart enough to see it, not solve it.

This poem is just loaded with images and ideas, yes?

Here is where we have also talked about Bishop:

and here:

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