Elizabeth Bishop’s “Paris, 7 A.M.”
One thing that excites me about travel is being able to step into a radically different environment. I enjoy the stimulation of new sights, textures, smells, tastes and sounds. I look forward to the discomfort of being in an unfamiliar place, because I will end up writing about it.
I believe that Worcester-born poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose centenary is this year, thought about travel in a similar way. Poems from her first collection, North and South, were inspired by her stay in Europe during 1935-37. Fascism was on the rise, and the stench of the on-coming war was everywhere. Bishop wrote “Paris, 7 A.M.” in this setting; she is the troubled observer, isolated in an apartment, wondering what is real, what is imposed, what one can rely on. Even the unidentified owner’s clock collection offers no comfort.
For two weeks in August 2007, John and I cat-sat in an apartment in Paris. One of the books we found there was Americans in Paris, edited by Adam Gopnik. In it was Bishop’s poem, “Paris, 7 A.M.” I read it several times, and it prompted a journal entry after we returned home.
Sept. 8 - Back now for two weeks. Paris seems as if it were a dream. A face blooms in my mind‘s eye---ah, she worked in the pâtisserie . The neighborhood grocers appear, artfully arranging pyramids of fruits and vegetables---eggplants & tomatoes are international objects of pleasure, full of juice and love. The crush of the Métro, a necessary ordeal to get to the museum of the day.
Today, I reread my copy of EB’s “Paris, 7 A.M.” I can’t stop thinking about what Bishop might be doing in this poem. Three stanzas of psychic imprisonment. The speaker is staying in an apartment. She is a visitor, like John and me. The owner has a collection of clocks. She visits each one and makes a comment about time. She tells us the season. The gray of winter is reflected in a pigeon’s wing.
She instructs us: “Look down into the courtyard.”---the effect is that, suddenly, we are standing beside her while she points things out. She observes the nooks and crannies of houses that provide places for pigeons to “take their walks.” She re-imagines the houses as snow forts that children built in “flashier winters.” I notice her use of “could” and the possibilities bound up in that word choice.
She looks at the sky, “a dead one,” with urns below to catch the “carrier-warrior-pigeon’s” body. The weight of the on-coming war is in that line. She asks, “When did the star [time?] dissolve?” The orderliness of clocks keeping time will come to mean very little in the chaos.
This poem made me remember the Paris apartment. Across the courtyard, pigeons made an illegal nest because a shuttered window had a slat missing. I watched them sneaking in and out of the opening while I washed the dishes. A contagion of droppings had hardened into long fingers on the building. That, and the peeling paint on the stucco made an monochromatic composition in grays and whites, worthy of an abstract expressionist.
In “Paris, 7 A.M.,” there was a collection of clocks that inspired Bishop. That made me think about the taxidermy collection in our rented apartment. Why do this to dead animals? Why preserve their remains and place them on cabinets or on the floor? Is it because they are under control and beautiful? The two foxes can’t breathe. They herring gull can’t fly. Neither can the pheasant, whose tail brushed the top of my head whenever I put the day’s mail on the chair. The sensation frightened me.
The mansard roofs of Paris whisper in their grayness. So many tones of gray in these buildings. It forces me to notice curves, lines and patterns that I might have missed if I were distracted by a blue or red shutter.
Bishop wonders what “Can the clocks say.” I wonder what taxidermy tells me. That I can get THIS CLOSE to a fox, and it won’t be able to flee? That I can examine the striations of a gull’s wing or the colors in a pheasant’s feather at leisure? That I can touch the animal and touch death, without being afraid. Death touches me; I touch death; I can move death, relax and read a book in its presence. Is taxidermy some kind of triumph over death?
Elizabeth Bishop, this is why I read poetry. To connect.
As the opening quotation points out, Bishop did not live in Worcester for very long. However, she was born here and is buried at Hope Cemetery, which earns her a place in the pantheon of poets with Worcester roots: Stanley Kunitz, Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara.
One of my favorite poems of all time is by Elizabeth Bishop: “In the Waiting Room,” which is set in Worcester. The Worcester County Poetry Association is celebrating Bishop’s 100 th year by hosting one event each month in her honor. For more information, visit their web site: http://wcpa.homestead.com