On Elizabeth Bishop’s centennial, a reading of The Bight.
Go here for the poem uninterrupted by my commentary.
[A shallow bay. We’re in Key West, where Bishop lived for a number of years, and we’re looking at a harbor. The word bite, and the word blight (Bishop was fond of Gerard Manley Hopkins, author of Spring and Fall), should certainly be floating around in our heads while we read.]
On my birthday
At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
[this. is. low. how. A simple poetic balance, and a calm straightforward assertiveness, express themselves right away. And consider how low we are: Already we’re at a bight; and now the bight’s at low tide. Already a sense of melancholy. Yet she says the poem’s written on her birthday. Not in a very celebratory mood, I think.]
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
[As if the fluidity and depth of water weren’t compromised enough by all that shallowness, there’s also morbid skeletal marl sticking up out of the bight; and the anchoring pilings seem sadly pointless, since there’s so little water. Upright, gathered, like sticks, they resemble matches.… Note the assonance throughout: tide, like, white, dry, pilings, dry.]
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
[Low again. And water like fire? We’ve seen it before, in one of her most famous poems, At the Fishhouses:
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.]
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
[Baudelaire could make it sizzle; I cannot. For me, the sound of nature is turned way down low.]
The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.
[That’s my music: An arid percussive click rather than any tonality; something strange and off the beat rather than something harmonic and measured. That’s what I hear when I look most deeply at earthly life, when I dredge down to the truth.]
The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,
[You see how she’s – what’s Gioia’s word? – slyly awakening emotions in us? Emotions having to do with what — depletion, futility, the contrast between our immense efforts to understand the depths of existence, to get the goods of life, and the paltry products of those efforts: rarely coming up with anything to show for it.]
and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
[An elaboration of the effort-and-futility idea: We struggle (man-of-war) toward meaning (transcendent rather than earthly here, on impalpable drafts) until the sheer effort of it makes us tremble.]
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
[There’s something annoyingly stupid and pathetically messy about the ongoingness of human existence. Although the scene is junky and depleted, eagerly panting little boats still keep coming in, their crappy cargo hanging out of their mouths.]
There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.
[A sharp dry eat-or-be-eaten world. No treasures here.]
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
[Wonderful pun on stove – gas fire, but also the little boats crushed in any old way.]
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
[Nothing to show for the boats, relics of the last, not-yet-overcome trauma. There’s something vaguely guilt-inducing about their abandonment and open vulnerability, something of O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this! This is everyone’s messy moral and emotional life, bursting with compromise and unfinished business.]
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
[Since Baudelaire’s been mentioned, we might think here of his most famous poem, Correspondences. But there’s nothing in Bishop’s poem akin to the almost mystical “profound unity” between our subjectivity and the natural world that appears in Baudelaire. “The unnamed correspondences [in Bishop] are not ecstatic, Emersonian revelations of relationship; rather, they are almost wholly negative,” writes Brett Candlish Millier.]
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
[The sharp bite of the dredge’s jaw unearths more white marl. Same old shit.]
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.
[We conclude how? We conclude that, looked at with biting lucidity, the shabby contingency of life is simply awful. A blight. Yet, contemplating another birthday, another setting out into more life, we’re compelled to note also the sheer survivability of it all, the way most of us are in it and what the hell.]
No problem finding your gate, because there’s only one gate.
Cabbie to the airport, a frazzled woman: “I’m so over Key West. I’ve been here too long. I’m movin’ to Miami. My dad’s got a house there. I’ve had it with sweating. Enough sweating. The people I thought were my friends are only out for themselves. I’m getting ripped off right and left. Aren’t any jobs. Cabbie? Cabbies are people with SUCKER written across their forehead. I can’t stand being so far away from any other place. You can’t get anywhere. You can’t get out of the state.”
Busy day at University Diaries — tons of traffic, and the comments keep coming in. So I’m sitting here riding the currents, writing and linking and reading non-stop.
Just as well. I can’t go in the pool today because I seem to have a mild case of Jacuzzi Rash.
A cooling wind and a still bright sun in a flawless sky at seven. What can I tell you. Key West.
I was part of a large crowd lined up at the main pier, all of us gazing at the water and the sky for signs of impending battle. Sometimes we glanced at bland gated Sunset Key island across the water from us, full of empty houses and nothing else.
Despite the full sun, tall lamps burned along the waterfront. Reggae, an inescapable component of island life, pursued us.
Pelicans sat on pilings looking bored. Yet another reenactment of the epic battle with the Coast Guard by which Key West attained its independence and became the Conch Republic. Yawn.
But we were excited. Many around UD wore hats in the shape of conches. They waved Conch Republic flags, miniature counterparts to the enormous CR flags flapping madly in the wind from atop various ships preparing for battle.
One combatant vessel floated by with a banner on it. A QUEST FOR CLOTHING OPTIONAL BEACHES. On the boat, a pirate flourished his sword. Practicing.
A teeny plane puttered by. “Battle’s ongoing,” said an informed observer near UD to no one in particular. “Air power hasn’t yet showed up in force. See that boat with the big Conch Republic flag on it? That’s us. Enemy’s anything without the flag.” He and many other men sucked cigars. Through the smoke, UD saw the circling craft begin spraying water from their decks in large powerful arcs. Again, preparing…
“Airforce!” shouted the man as six planes in ragged formation approached from the south. They rained streamers on the CR boats, and people on the CR boats shook their fists at them.
“Coast Guard!” As the crowd booed its arrival, protracted mutual spraying commenced.
More planes! And then big guns that made red smoke! The streamers streamed down as the air and sea battle ground on. Helicopters buzzed the CR boats, trying to intimidate them, but once more the CR boat people shook their fists. Ashore, young women with flowers in their hair and old men dancing along to the steel band also shook their fists.
Someone fired a banana at the Coast Guard ship, and this was the final straw. As the sun quickly set, government forces just as quickly retreated, and it was over.
The pathos of that statement lightly hammered onto a bicycle sculpture in front of a house on Olivia Street.
A sign by the entrance of a house on Southard: Hippies Use Side Door.
The music drifting out of a house off Duval: Total Eclipse of the Heart.
I leave Key West in a few days, and as I walk it now, I see it — to paraphrase Humbert Humbert — through the mist of my utter acceptance of it.
I love the man who smokes and drinks while riding his bicycle. If he could swim and smoke and drink, he’d do that. The body culture here is softened by self-indulgence, by a loose-limbed exuberance that will crowd three more palms in front of the porch and take in two more cats and lean for hours into a hammock, just looking around.
And why not look around at white houses thronged with green plants, and at the peculiar markings of each specifically loved outpost along the hot breezeways of Key West.
Toward the end of Love Lane, I smell incense and omelets. I hear windchimes and falling water and parrots whistling from hidden stoops.
Happiness feels fully elaborated here; you can read, in house and garden, the way this person and that person have worked out their way to live; and it’s all you can do, sometimes, not to walk down their hibiscus path, press open their unlocked door, and live with them and be their love.
At seven this evening — thirty minutes from now — they’re reenacting the independence battle that made the Conch Republic a republic. I guess I should go, for your sake. Later.
Students at the University of Miami, under attack by hawks, are escorted across nesting areas by security guards with umbrellas (hawks consider umbrellas unthreatening), in a procedure known as hawk walk. UM has crocodile problems too.
UD doesn’t have a hawk problem at her house in Key West, but she’s got a parrot problem.
It’s more a question than a problem. It only occurred to her today, and it may be peculiar to UD because of her house’s odd setting on the other side of a jungle wall from Nancy Forrester’s famous parrots. (There are many unfamous, uncaged parrots in Key West. UD watched one of them today with its owner, a restaurateur. The owner sat in a wicker chair talking on his cell phone, while the bird, bored, hopped around trying to get his attention. Eventually the bird started eating the wicker.)
Nancy Forrester’s parrots, as you know, don’t merely squawk and shriek. They talk. A lot. All at once. This isn’t refined parrot, as in this excerpt from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities Specially Adapted for Parrots. (It’s about a minute into the YouTube.) It’s a cacophony.
One bird alone among the Forrester lot has a lovely soft melodic voice. She only says Hello, but she says it so wistfully. HAH-loo. HAAAAH-looooo. Smooth and sad. A lute amid the loons.
So this afternoon, sitting in the jacuzzi, I suddenly heard only her, inches away from me, doing her Hello.
I said hello back, imitating her lutelike voice.
And she said it again, and I said it again, and she said it again, und so weiter.
I was delighted.
Until the thought crept upon me that maybe behind the green wall was not the parrot who said hello, but a person, like me, saying hello like the parrot and thinking that the parrot was saying hello. Thinking that behind the ferns and palms was not an English professor on sabbatical sitting in a tub trying to sound like a parrot, but one of Nancy Forrester’s parrots saying hello.
… on our way back from breakfast at Blue Heaven, we watched a gardener lop an enormous seed pod off an Alexander palm. It landed on the sidewalk with a thud.
“May we have that?” UD asked, because when you live in Key West you’re constantly picking up and taking home greenery that’s been hacked from the trees by gardeners. You let it age a bit and then you slice it with a knife, sniff it, pull it apart…
“Sure!” she said. “You’ll make my job easier.”
It was heavy and strange and looked vaguely like corn. I’ve been gazing at it all day on my bureau.
We decided to take its picture in our sunken garden, which is shady and full of orchids. Cats often visit, so the cushions on the chairs around this table have fleas. Or so UD‘s sister claims.
Breakfast this morning with mucho
poultry at Blue Heaven.
House with pink door, Elizabeth Street.
Dick Cunningham and UD are like that. They met on a Wind and Wine Sunset Cruise, and hit it off right away, both of them able to talk endlessly about university and professional football.
Dick shares UD‘s disgust with what football’s become. “My day… Things were much better… I was playing with Jack Kemp…”
“Also O.J. Simpson, hon,” said his wife.
“He was nice then.”
As you already know if you clicked on his name and checked his Wikipedia page, Dick was a linebacker with the Buffalo Bills and other teams. Dick wears an enormous Bills ring on his finger, and the right sleeve of his shirt says Buffalo Bills Alumni Weekend.
We got a terrific sunset — clear golden orb squashing itself down into the water like an orange being pressed — and what with the wine and gentle wind and holiday mood all around, this was an insanely congenial outing. Dick even seemed to enjoy it when I told him his theory about the decline of football (something about chemicals in the American food supply) was full of shit.
State-licensed animal trapper Chris Guinto has a plan to drive at least some of Key West’s gypsy chickens from the island.
Guinto says he is planning a Sunday chicken roundup in the Southernmost City. Guinto has organized similar events in the past but was having misgivings this year.
“Initially, we weren’t going to do it because there’s so many chicken advocates out there,” he says. “We were having issues with threatening phone calls.”
But in the end, Guinto decided to go ahead and rekindle the roundup, which last year resulted in 236 chickens caught in just one day.
“We might break that record this year. We’ll see,” he says.
Guinto estimates that in the Lower Keys, there are between 8,000 and 12,000 so-called gypsy chickens.
As news of the planned roundup created somewhat of a buzz around town earlier in the month, the city of Key West reacted via a notice sent out by spokeswoman Alyson Crean.
Crean wrote, “The city is working to contact the private business organizing the roundup in order to make it clear that Key West does not condone deadly force against chickens. In fact, the city has invested in an environmentally sound aviary at the Key West Wildlife Center.”
The birds that are taken to the Wildlife Center are periodically taken to a chicken farm in Eustis, slightly northwest of Orlando, where the chickens retire, so to speak, and live out their days safely.
In early 2008, the city reaffirmed the rules when it comes to chickens. Basically, if you’re feeding a chicken, the bird is considered domesticated. From that follows that if the bird is domesticated, then the person feeding it is responsible for caging the bird on their property.
In 2004, the city hired a staff chicken catcher — a barber, actually — to quell resident complaints about crowing-induced insomnia.
Since then, “It has kind of gone to a more private thing,” Crean says. “Keeping track of the numbers has kind of fallen through the cracks.”
Anyone who wants to get involved in Guinto’s Sunday roundup can call him at 896-5572.
… from UD‘s sister.
The frond ‘pon which sits
the frog fell down during
the big rainstorm last night.
Big green wall behind which
scream the mad macaws of
Nancy Forrester’s Garden.
Flowers on the patio.
UD’s sister, the Morrissey fanatic, is here, and she’s taken some photos. Here’s one of zillions of roosters on the island, posing atop a column in front of an amazingly beautiful house on Southard Street.
This is from the Key West Butterfly Conservatory. The little buggers are all over the place.
One of the mad macaws at Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden.
… are excited about the prospect of travel to Cuba, and this news will certainly cheer them:
President Obama will announce today that he is lifting travel restrictions that block Cuban Americans from traveling to Cuba and will relax the rules governing what items can be sent to the island, a senior White House official said.
The decision does not lift the trade embargo on communist Cuba but eases the prohibitions that have restricted Cuban Americans from visiting their relatives and has limited what they can send back home.
No, UD still can’t go. But maybe soon.
You know how, new to a house, you creep about checking out family photos, books, cds?
I got to cds this morning – there’s a player in the kitchen – and DAMNED if the owners don’t have TWO Henry Purcells, one of which features Music for a While.
UD‘s already happily reading Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest from the owners’ library (Vidal was in Key West a few weeks ago, for the literary seminar); now – just now – she put down Vidal and picked up Purcell and slipped him in and put the sound up high and wailed along with Alfred Deller. Twice. And it wasn’t easy onaccounta he’s a guy. But she did it. Boy oh boy.
… secession from the United States is reenacted every year at the Conch Republic Independence Celebration, and UD will be covering the event … perhaps… a little… for this blog.
Just as intriguing, though, is the lawsuit raging around the event:
Two competing Conch Republic festivals will begin a week from today – one in Key West and one in Key Largo – despite an ongoing lawsuit over ownership of Conch Republic as a festival brand name.
… [The] suit was filed by the Upper Keys group in December 2008, after two years of talks with [Peter] Anderson to co-produce an Upper Keys Conch Republic festival failed.
… Anderson, who was named secretary general of the Conch Republic by former Key West Mayor Capt. Tony Tarracino, makes his living from the annual Key West festival and by selling Conch Republic passports, flags and other merchandise. He says he owns the sole rights to market and promote the Conch Republic based on his years of use…