Thursday, 14 November 2013

Elizabeth Bishop's 'The Moose': Nature, Childhood and Memory

Cow Moose Drinking From Pond, Alaska. Used under Creative Commons license

By most reckonings, Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet (and a great one), but she spent some of her early childhood in New Scotia and described her ancestry as "three-quarters Canadian and one quarter New Englander". The influence of such early memories can be enormous. This poem, 'The Moose', seems to me an especially strong evocation of Canada and the natural world, and of certain aspects of childhood.

THE MOOSE (Elizabeth Bishop)

I have never been to Canada's Maritime provinces, including those described in this poem, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The farthest east I have been is, I think, the town of Montmagny in Quebec, on the Saint Lawrence River east of Quebec City. Strangely, some of the poem's initial details seem more reminiscent of the Nordic countries, to me: the herring, the "clapboard farmhouses" and "twin silver birches". The "impenetrable wood" of New Brunswick is more familiar - there's a lot of that, all over Canada.

The coach-trip nature of the poem is quintessentially North American. The lines are quite short and there is a flick/flick/flick effect to many of the images:

One stop at Bass River.   
Then the Economies—
Lower, Middle, Upper;  
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth  
out after supper.

I have remembered, since childhood, catching glimpses of certain people and places on car, bus or train journeys and thinking: what is their life like, what is that place like? That person who I've just flicked past has a life and thoughts as full and complex as mine. These thoughts have always been a bit overwhelming, and usually not to be clung to for too long.

There is a blurring of place here which is both reassuring and disorienting. The child overhears her grandparents "talking the way they talked/in the old featherbed", which has a lulling effect (she doesn't fully understand the seriousness of the conversation, so it remains reassuring): she could be back at home, not on the bus. But the sudden appearance of the moose, while beautiful, is also jarring.

The moose is a reminder that nature will intrude anywhere it wants to; so far, the passengers have been cocooned in the bus, observing the natural world but not participating it, even able to imagine, half-asleep, that they're at home. The moose is enormous, ugly and beautiful at the same time, and it stops the bus. This poem is certainly a tribute to the animal world and to the Maritime provinces, but it seems to me that the moose could also represent the anarchic nature of artistic inspiration - or more broadly, it is the kind of event which is uncontrollable and which sets more things in motion than are evident at the time.

Bishop reportedly said that it took her 20 years to finish this poem. Childhood memories can sometimes be incomprehensibly enormous - like the moose. You never know what you will remember, and what you will forget. I have memories from the age of five, at least, which are extremely vivid, and it is not unusual for them to involve animals and the natural world. Other memories - which, when reminded of, I think I should have remembered - seem to have gotten lost, or at least buried.

In an unrelated-yet-related way, I realised the other day that I still remembered the Finnish word for moose - hirvi. Why I should remember this, when I either never knew or have long forgotten other (probably more useful) words, is beyond me. It's certainly true that a lot of my meager Finnish is child-Finnish - a lot of animal words, and food words. There's more there than I give credit for, I suppose.

The moose/hirvi thought may have been triggered by looking at some photos of the animal sculptures of Jussi Mäntynen, which for some other inexplicable reason I was doing recently. They are as beautiful and touching as I remembered. The art gallery in Turku features a small room containing many of his pieces. There was always something magical about it, for me. It was like an animal treasure house.

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