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Little Exercise

August 15, 2016
Little Exercise

Think of the storm roaming the sky uneasily
like a dog looking for a place to sleep in,
listen to it growling.

Think how they must look now, the mangrove keys
lying out there unresponsive to the lightning
in dark, coarse-fibred families,

where occasionally a heron may undo his head,
shake up his feathers, make an uncertain comment
when the surrounding water shines.

Think of the boulevard and the little palm trees
all stuck in rows, suddenly revealed
as fistfuls of limp fish-skeletons.

It is raining there. The boulevard
and its broken sidewalks with weeds in every crack,
are relieved to be wet, the sea to be freshened.

Now the storm goes away again in a series
of small, badly lit battle-scenes,
each in “Another part of the field.”

Think of someone sleeping in the bottom of a row-boat
tied to a mangrove root or the pile of a bridge;
think of him as uninjured, barely disturbed.

–Elizabeth Bishop 1946

COMMENTARY: I’ve posted this poem before, but, as I was riding my bike home this evening, I saw cloud to cloud lightning from a storm coming east from Maryland and remembered the lines “the storm goes away in a series/ of small badly lit battle scenes/ each in ‘a different part of the field.’ So here it is again.

The reader is asked to imagine, as a mental “exercise,” an unseen event: a thunderstorm as it moves over mangrove trees,over  lake water, over a street, and, lastly, over a single individual. At first the metaphors are purely visual: the storm as a dog, the mangroves as keys, the groves as families. In the the fourth stanza, however, there is a jarring shift with the figure of the palm trees as “fish skeletons.” Then, there is a very subtle, very latent suggestion of violence in the final images: broken sidewalks, the battle scenes, the man sleeping in the bottom of the boat. Given the date of the poem’s publication, just following the second world war, Bishop is maybe hinting at the way the average citizen, at several removes from the strum und drang, experiences it only as a placid, imaginative exercise. The sleeper in the final stanza, in this reading, is both the drowsing counterpart of the imaginer and the distant, unknown soldier. Maybe. This, of course, is only one possible reading of the poem.
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From → Nature, Uncategorized

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