“To meet the rings around the moon”: Cosmic Intersections in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo”

10/13/2016

 

Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry characteristically displays a tightness of form, a painstaking choice of diction, and perhaps most notably of all, a cautious sense of privacy that makes it, in the words of Margaret Dickie, “difficult to tell the remote from the intimate” (4). That strange mixture of remoteness and intimacy permeates one of Bishop’s lesser-studied works, “The Shampoo,” though scholars who have engaged the poem seem to find remoteness the more predominant quality. Although Brett Candlish Millier identifies “The Shampoo” as Bishop’s first poem for her lover Lota Soares (122), Bishop’s friend and fellow writer Kathleen Spivack notes, “the lover is addressed – only once – as ‘dear friend,’ with no indication, to the outsider, that this is a love poem. It’s all about water and stars and a bowl. Or so it seems” (508). While the water and stars and bowl do give the illusion of carefully masking the beloved – to serve as a means of primarily talking around her rather than of her or to her – a close reading reveals “The Shampoo” to be a passionate poem of remarkable intimacy that explores the emotional intersection between human love and eventual mortality on both a personal and a broader abstract level. Following the tradition of the great metaphysical poets, Bishop conflates the universal and the pedestrian so thoroughly as to make the beloved become the universe itself, and the underlying tensions of aging and worry only serve to increase the depth of feeling between the speaker and her beloved. In blending the cosmic and the earthly, the finite and the infinite, the interior and the exterior, Bishop too blends the speaker and the beloved to create an enduring testament to human love while subtly commenting on the sadness inherent in loving something mortal.

            The first stanza of the poem sets up a startling array of complexities and contradictions, both formal and thematic, beneath a placid surface.

                        The still explosions on the rocks,

                                the lichens, grow

                                by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.

                                They have arranged

                                to meet the rings around the moon, although

                                within our memories they have not changed.

 

The precision of the images in the first stanza exemplifies an observation expressed in a contemporary review by James Southworth: “[Bishop] is not interested in the abstract truth at the end of the road, but in the concrete truths that lie along the way – the shape of a tree, the look of gently broken water in the morning sunlight, or the appearance of an old fish half-in half-out the boat” (214). Bishop’s carefully crafted line breaks reinforce these “truths” of the lichens and the moon rings: a line break after the word “grow” physically illustrates the meaning of the word, and a break after “although” creates a natural pause to highlight the counterbalanced phrase. The neatness of the intertwined, slowly advancing rhyme scheme and the scrupulous avoidance of near rhymes, combined with the surprisingly irregular meter, appropriately reflects the tension inherent in the stanza’s mixture of scientific observation and poetic dreaminess. Too, the slow progression of the looping rhyme scheme mimics the broad expanse of time as experienced by the natural world, while the meter’s seemingly sporadic alternation between tetrameter, dimeter, and pentameter illustrates the flurry of human activity and the superimposition of human busyness onto that universal time.           

            This formal explication of the difference between the human concept of time and the natural world’s concept of time is reinforced on a thematic level by the content of the stanza. The planned sublunar rendezvous between the symbiotic partnership of a lichen and the moon rings implies an interconnectedness of a natural universe operating on its own time frame, a universe both vast and intricately knitted together, yet from which the human speaker is somehow disconnected through her existence on a shallower groove of time. This disconnect between quick-footed human time and slow-moving natural time is nowhere more evident than in consideration of the brevity of individual human existence, and that brevity is called to mind by the cloak of winter subtly thrown over this stanza: lichens are most easily visible when the deciduous foliage has dropped, and rings around the moon are caused by wintery ice crystals. Even as Bishop uses the natural world symbolically, employing the winter/death connotation to remark on the shortness of human life, the distance between that natural world and the human world remains evident in the ability of nature to continue rounding the life cycle while the individual human life merely stops.

In addition to creating this tension of mingled distance-and-inclusion, the first stanza serves the important purpose of introducing the speaker and the beloved as an allied force through the use of the word “our” in the final line of the stanza. In his close reading of Bishop’s “One Art,” Jonathan Sircy remarks on “the shock of the suddenly personal ‘you’ (243) after several impersonal didactic stanzas; indeed, in “The Shampoo” the abrupt shift from an exterior, semi-scientific image of a natural world to the limited interior memories of finite humans parallels that shock. The isolation of the speaker and beloved is further compounded by the way this “our” creates a private space into which the reader may look but from which he or she is essentially excluded, a compounding that draws an air of remoteness for the reader into the speaker-and-beloved’s moment of linguistic intimacy.

The second stanza of the poem shifts from grand nature-based images to a more overt philosophical consideration of the relationship of the two people making up that “our,” the speaker and the beloved. Here, the speaker concretizes and personalizes the abstract concept of human time and natural time introduced in the first stanza.

            And since the heavens will attend

                as long on us,

                you’ve been, dear friend,

                precipitate and pragmatical;

                and look what happens. For Time is

                nothing if not amenable.

 

This stanza seems to suggest that the beloved’s view of time as something limited, something to be hurried through “pragmatically” in the pursuit of an end goal, is essentially ineffective and insignificant in the grander scheme of the universe. The collective “our” of the first stanza is split into a “you” in this second stanza as the speaker switches from addressing the readership, or the universe at large, to directly addressing the beloved on a point of contention. If the winter/death theme from the first stanza is employed here, the “dear friend” rushes toward that death on human time rather than viewing time stretched out in an eternal expanse as the speaker prefers.

Bishop reflects this idea in the formal structure of the stanza, creating physical distance between “attend” and “as” with the first line break as if to illustrate the largeness of the span of time through which the heavens will wait for humans, just as the moon waits for the lichens. The balance and symmetry of the first stanza is cast aside in favor of a long complex sentence followed by a fragment, mirroring the complexity of human relationships as well as the complex relationship between humans and the space and time in which they must exist. The second stanza’s inclusion of near rhymes hints at the messiness of that which is human compared to the pristineness of that which is of nature. In a marked shift toward syntactical and linguistic ambiguity, the verb tenses of the second stanza represent future, past, and present actions, knitting up the whole expanse of time into five brief lines much in the way the projected meeting of the lichen and the rings around the moon telescopically collapsed space in the first stanza.

            The third stanza binds up the nature-based theme of the first stanza’s discourse on time with the second stanza’s somewhat more intimate personal address.

                        The shooting stars in your black hair

                                in bright formation

                                are flocking where,

                                so straight, so soon?

                                -- Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,

                                battered and shiny like the moon.

 

In the first line, the beloved’s “black hair” becomes the night sky against which the “shooting stars” are projected. Even as the speaker immortalizes the beloved in the form of the night sky, she acknowledges her aging and, by extrapolation, her mortality; the “shooting stars” are strands of gray threading the dark hair in a “bright formation” depicted by the three grouped lines of dimeter. While the “so soon” casts back to the speaker’s identification of the beloved as “precipitate and pragmatical” in her approach to life, it also seems to be a recognition on the part of the speaker that the beloved, although living in the broad expanse of time, is somehow subject to the finitude of human existence, no matter how much the speaker appeals to that slow-moving universal time. The insertion of the long dash and the change of tone in the last two lines parallels the famous ending of Bishop’s “One Art,” of which Jonathan Sircy writes, “The final stanza begins with a dash, and the word ‘Even’ follows quickly on its heels. This dash is a sigh, almost a punctuation mark equivalent to a greater-than sign, because what follows is a watershed” (243). Here, too, Bishop creates a watershed. In the offer to wash the hair of the beloved, the speaker is offering to wash away the inherent mortality, the aging, the tether binding her to the human time the beloved acknowledges even as the speaker struggles to reject it; yet this is an offer that – try as she might – the speaker cannot fulfill, either on the level of washing the shooting stars from her beloved’s hair or washing the mortality from her earthly frame.

 

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo” is not her most frequently studied work; admittedly, it is perhaps overshadowed by the intellectual and emotional firepower of her brilliant villanelle “One Art,” and superficially it seems simplistic – a nature scene, an offer to wash a “dear friend’s” hair. Yet this brief poem exemplifies many of Bishop’s best poetic qualities, including her fusion of form and subject, her careful craftsmanship, and her emotional restraint. Zhou Xiaojing writes, “For Bishop, indirection is necessary for effective expression . . . excessive anguish and confession are treated at the cost of artistry – ‘more and more anguish and less and less poetry’ – in poems which are ‘so personal and confession’” (76-78). In “The Shampoo,” that artistic restraint is masterfully exercised as the speaker progresses along with the reader to uncover the mixture of sadness and joy inherent in loving a creature consigned to death. Whether or not Bishop wrote the poem to her lover Lota Soares, knowledge of the tragic end of the author’s own love affair casts a poignant foreshadowing over the poem and its meditation on the intersection of love and death, an intersection that transcends gender and sexuality to make a broader, more inclusive statement about the nature of being human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Referenced in Article

 

Millier, Brett Candlish. “Elusive Mastery: The Drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art.’” New

England Review (1990-), vol. 13, no. 2, 1990, pp. 121-129.

 

Sircy, Jonathan. “Bishop’s One Art.” Explicator, vol. 63, no. 4, 2005, pp. 241-44.

 

Southworth, James. “The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.” College English, vol. 20, no. 5, 1959, pp.

213-217.

 

Spivack, Kathleen. “Conceal/Reveal: Passion and Restraint in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop.”

The Massachusetts Review, vol. 46, no. 3, 2005, pp. 496-510.

 

Zhou, Xiaojing. “‘The Oblique, the Indirect Approach’: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Rainy Season; Sub-

Tropics.’” Chicago Review, vol. 40, no. 4, 1994, pp. 75-92.

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