The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

In “Sestina,” Elizabeth Bishop tells a painful story of a grandmother and a child living with loss. The story, set in a kitchen on a rainy late afternoon in September, features two actions: having tea and drawing. Although the woman tries to remain cheerful and thus protect the child, her...

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In “Sestina,” Elizabeth Bishop tells a painful story of a grandmother and a child living with loss. The story, set in a kitchen on a rainy late afternoon in September, features two actions: having tea and drawing. Although the woman tries to remain cheerful and thus protect the child, her tears give away her sadness. The child, meanwhile, not only observes these troubling signs but also draws a house that makes her proud. By the final nine lines of the poem, a surprising thing happens, unnoticed by the grandmother. The buttons in the drawing become “little moons” and “fall down like tears/into the flower bed the child/ has carefully placed” in the drawing. Thus, while the characters are very close to one another, there is a contrast—even an opposition—between them. The grandmother tries to make the desolate day pleasant, while the child imagines and draws a world preoccupied with tears.

Read aloud, “Sestina” assumes a wondering, storybook tone, especially as the more fanciful details emerge. The teakettle produces “tears” that “dance.” The almanac, which both provides the grandmother with jokes and reinforces her sense of doom, “hovers” in a “Birdlike” fashion. Both the almanac and the stove speak.

These details distinguish the child’s perspective from the grandmother’s. In the opening lines, the grandmother devotes considerable effort to amusing the child. However, as the poem continues, the child’s role comes to the fore, first through his or her perceptions and then through his or her drawing. The result is subversive, the child’s intuition undercutting the will of the woman. The locus of the struggle is revealed in adjectives: “small hard,” “mad,” “hot black,” “clever,” “Birdlike,” “rigid,” and “inscrutable.” Reading such words, one senses greater vibrancy than in the lines depicting the grandmother—the child’s developing independence, perhaps, or anger, whether it be directed at the grandmother or elsewhere, that the child’s pain spawns.

“Sestina” never states the cause of the characters’ sadness. The fact that it is a man whom the child draws “with buttons like tears” may suggest that someone—the grandfather or perhaps the child’s father—has died or left. Certainly, the grief is serious, for the final three lines indicate that the problem will persist. A study of Bishop’s life reveals her father died when she was one year old, but the absence that may have troubled her more was that of her mother, whom Bishop never saw after she was institutionalized for serious mental illness. The loss of both parents resulted in the young Bishop spending time with her grandmother in Nova Scotia as well as having to move unwillingly to Massachusetts to attend school. Bishop never outgrew the specter of her mother and the terrible feeling of not belonging.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674

Bishop grouped “Sestina” with several other poems about her childhood in Nova Scotia in her 1965 book Questions of Travel. Living in Brazil, she found, brought back vivid memories of life in Great Village, along the Bay of Fundy. In “Sestina,” as well as “Manners” and “First Death in Nova Scotia,” a child figures prominently, providing a persona through which the mature poet presents the past.

The latter two poems use first-person point of view, the child’s voice telling the story, but “Sestina” uses the third person. This device blends the poet’s adult perspective with the child’s. It also permits Bishop to control the emotional distance between the reader and the character. The first stanzas focus on the grandmother, but when Bishop presents the child’s perception of the teakettle in the third stanza, the language becomes more urgent. The choice of the third person may have helped Bishop treat highly charged memories, may have allowed her, in other words, to steady herself emotionally and use the characters—human and not—to reenact a persisting trauma.

The setting—both atmosphere and place—is also vital to the story. The chilly, rainy weather, as mentioned earlier, mirrors the unhappiness in the kitchen. Bishop set the poem at a turning point—a liminal moment. The season, as the month and the word “equinoctial” signal, is changing. It is likely, given the fact that Nova Scotia sits halfway between the equator and the North Pole, that “the failing light” is also seasonal. On the other hand, the kitchen, particularly the stove, permits Bishop to emphasize the grandmother’s desire for warmth and comfort. The stove, in fact, is reminiscent of fairy tales, especially those in which security and nurturing prepare for a child’s maturing.

The poetic form Bishop chose, the sestina, imparts a sense of suspension. This form, which originated in Provençal verse of the Middle Ages, requires the repetition of six words at the ends of lines. The order changes in a prescribed way through six stanzas of six lines, then the six words appear, two per line, in a three-line envoy. Using letters to represent the key words, one finds that the abcdef order of the first stanza becomes faebdc in the second, then cfdabe in the third, and so on. That these words happen to be nouns emphasizes the symbolic, or iconic, nature of the story. The envoy compresses the repetition into three lines, providing finality. This elaborate, regular remixing can have impressive emotional impact; perhaps one should say that this artistry highlights the poet’s patterns of thought.

In “Sestina,” the repetition seems obsessive, emphasizing the isolation of the scene and the way it encloses the characters. It is particularly easy to feel the repetition as the first line of a stanza ends with the last word of the previous stanza. Regardless of the number of arrangements of the final words, the sense of loss persists. The envoy makes it clear that the trauma has not been resolved.

As much as one examines devices, there remains a feature—tone—that might best be called pure Bishop style. Labels such as “bemused,” “knowing,” “detached,” “ironic,” and “whimsical” catch elements of it. The emphasis upon tears, and the artificial way they are portrayed, is one trademark, as is the precise sense of visual detail (Bishop herself sketched and did watercolors). In addition, this poem often sounds like prose: the use of dialogue, for example, and the long, careful sentence comprising the sixth stanza.

“Sestina,” in other words, is not personal confession, as the lack of personal names indicates, but representative in the way that a tale is. Along with the persona, the point of view, and the poetic form, the language creates a complex experience for the reader. One sympathizes with both the grandmother and the child, sensing sorrow, yearning, and the tensing of the child’s effort to be an individual within the sheltering, suffocating domestic scene. Yet one also hears a wariness in Bishop’s telling of their story.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176

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Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Wylie, Diana E. Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

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