David Kalstone

David Kalstone: On "Lost in Translation"

… ["Lost in Translation"] begins with the apparently random way things happen to us and it includes a number of episodes not explicitly related. … The poem weaves connections between the world of the child, vividly recalled in the present tense, and that of the remembering adult, who only makes his full entrance in the past tenses of the long rhapsodic coda. (Even a more recent episode – a mind-reader in London – is told as if the child were perceiving it: "This grown man reenters, wearing grey.") An odd massing of consciousness takes place. At first the poet speaks distantly of "the child," "the boy": it isn’t until midway through the poem that the child’s experience so recaptures him as to identify it in the first person, his very self: "Puzzle begun I write."

[Kalstone enumerates the various "puzzles" that make up the poem.] … All these experiences are felt, without anxiety, as analogous: Mademoiselle’s secret, the lost Rilke translation, the Valéry poem, the excitement of putting together the puzzle, the feel of the summer without parents. The sense of mysterious relations is crystallized for us when the puzzle, as if by magic (and in the only regular stanzas of the poem, the Rubaiyat stanza Merrill likes so much), gathers before our eyes: "Lo! It assembles on the shrinking Green." A fable emerges: grandly confronting one another, a Shiek and a veiled woman, who appear to be quarrelling, like Oberon and Titania, over a young boy, a page. The scene is captured in the manner fairy tales use; according to Bruno Bettelheim, the enchantment transfigures the violent and critical passages of life. Only below the surface do we feel the stronger implications of the completed puzzle, "Eternal Triangle, Great Pyramid!" and its relevance to the child’s own abandoned and perhaps disputed state.

What is interesting about this particular version of "The Broken Home" is that it is absorbed into a larger constellation of analogies whose model is "translation." The poem returns at the end to translation, to Valéry’s poem and Rilke’s version, to the sense of what is foregone and what is gained, and to the conviction that nothing is "lost" in translation, or that "All is translation / And every bit of us is lost in it." Merrill, unable to find the Rilke version, still feels he knows "How much of the sun-ripened original / Felicity Rilke made himself forego …" [Kalstone continues to quote to the passage that ends "A deep reverberation fills with stars."] In his own absorption of Rilke’s Valéry, Merrill performs the process acted out so many times in the poem. After the "warm Romance," after the enchanting childhood, he is left with the adult conviction or realization of a "ground plan left / Sublime and barren," the pattern discovered and echoed in unsuspected corners of life, "color of context," what might have seemed waste transmuted to "shade and filter, milk and memory."

David Kalstone: On "The Broken Home"

… When Merrill uses an idiom, he turns it over curiously. So, for example, the dead metaphor "On the rocks" springs unexpectedly to life. …

[Kalstone quotes the section beginning "When my parents were younger" and that ends "on the rocks."]

… This newsreel is one of the central panels of an often saddened and erotically charged work. The cartoon suffragettes and their male oppressors prove more than quaint in the context of a long poem whose speaker is exorcising the ghosts of a broken home. Behind the gossip columnist’s phrase ("on the rocks": shipwreck dismissed as if it were a cocktail) lies a buried colloquial truth about the tensions eternally repeated in a worldly marriage, Father Time and Mother Earth, re-enacted erosions and cross-purposes. Beneath amused glimpses of 1920s bravado, the verse penetrates to parents’ energies (both envied and resented) that shape and cripple a child’s.

David Kalstone: On "An Urban Convalescence"

"An Urban Convalescence" is designed to act out a false start and implicitly to suggest a search for more revealing and durable images. What he appears to be learning to do is to disentangle his own needs and style from the clichés of the world of fashionable destruction – a clarification of feeling signalled in the crisp rhymed quatrains [at the end of the poem: Kalstone cites the last stanzas]. Much of the poem’s feeling is gathered in the now charged associations of house: the perpetual dangers of exposure and change, of fashion and modishness; the sifting of memory for patterns which will truly suffice. [This poem] is just such a shifting of memory. Entangling inner and outer experience, it leads us to see the poem itself as potentially a "house," a set of arrangements for survival or, to use Merrill’s later phrase, for "braving the elements." Poems were to make sense of the past as a shelter or a dwelling place for the present.

David Kalstone: On "At the Fishhouses"

[Robert] Lowell, when he read the poem in The New Yorker, recognized immediately the "great splendor" of the descriptive part, but questioned "a little the word BREAST in the last four or five lines – a little too much in the context perhaps; but I’m probably wrong." What he picked up, of course, was the flicker of human drama, of a vestigial implacable female presence behind the scene – as in The Prelude when the young Wordsworth’s landscape is suddenly and unintentionally shadowed by feelings which have to do with his dead parents. That, no doubt, is why Bishop’s poem has often been felt as Wordsworthian in its evasions and circlings. Originally, "At the Fishouses" began with more details about Bishop’s grandfather, but her revisions suggest the degree to which she chose not to overstress the poem’s human and personal center. Here eye, as Howard Moss suggests, is a dramatic eye; yet she often experiences traditional dramatic problems – character, comic or tragic action – by fitting out a stage for them, a stage upon which the protagonists will not necessarily appear. By the end of "at the Fishhouses," Bishop’s own place as protagonist is apparent; her sense of being an outsider is powerfully banished at the cost of identifying herself with severe, if universal, natural laws.

David Kalstone, "Prodigal Years," Chapter 1 in Part II of Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,1989), 121-122.

David Kalstone: On "The Man-Moth"

A figure effectively dead turns up in the notebooks, in New York material that Bishop would adapt for "The Man-Moth." She had observed a woman in the subway about whom everything had died – her face dead white, her clothes, her handbag – except her eyelashes. Bishop remembers that in a dream her friend Margaret Miller "had looked into the inside of a small mask someone had pulled from his face, and caught in it all around the eyeholes were the little hairy eyelashes. The woman’s face made me think of that – its expression was a concave one, like an empty interior expression, and its only markings were the little eyelashes." The woman’s eyes were shut, and the lashes seemed like those on a sleeping doll. "It is rather strange the way the eye is surrounded with inhuman stuff – hair grows, I’ve heard, even on the dead." The incident contributes obliquely to "the Man-Moth," a kind of morbid counterpart to the man-moth himself, who has, on rare occasions, the capacity to escape and make his romantic ascents to the surface of the city, each one a doomed foray. We know that a newspaper misprint, reading "manmoth" for "mammoth," prompted the poem: the idea of a doomed spirit trapped in a subway rider’s form, sitting always backward, racing under the city streets (in the world of the third rail "running along silently, as insincere as poison," she wrote in her notebook). In the conditional clauses of the poem’s last stanza she transforms her own notebook observations of the deadened woman on the subway into a glimpse of residual purity and spirit:

[Kalstone quotes the last stanza.]

The observer’s curiosity and effort is rewarded by extracted signs of life, but as in her windowpane illumination, as in "the Weed," there is a link between vision and tears. …


from David Kalstone, "From the Country to the City," Chapter 1 in Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989 19-20 

David Kalstone: On "The Fish"

The poem is filled with the strain of seeing – not just the unrelenting pressure of making similes to "capture" the fish, but the fact that the similes themselves involve flawed instruments of vision, stained wallpaper, scratched isinglass, tarnished tinfoil. This is why, on some readings, the poem has the air of summoning up a creature from the speaker’s own inner depths – the surviving nonhuman resources of an earlier creation, glimpsed painfully through the depredations of time and the various frail instruments we devise, historically, to see them. The "victory" that fills up the little rented boat is one that more than grammatically belongs to both sides. Like "Roosters," though without its bitterness and fear, the poem taps and identifies nonhuman sources of human energies. What makes it different from [Marianne] Moore’s animal poems is its interst in the difficulties of locating and accepting such energies.


From David Kalstone, "Logarithms of Apology," Chapter 4 in Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), 87.