Deconstructing Home: An Analysis of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina”

This paper was written for ENG 220: Literary Analysis, and was our final paper for the class in which we could write on any text that we had read during the semester, incorporating both secondary sources and our own analysis.

Home typically signifies warmth, love, and consistency. The image of a childhood home often evokes nostalgia and pleasant memories, and the opportunity to create new homes as adults gives many people a sense of fulfillment and purpose. Nevertheless, this overgeneralized positive façade of home is not universal or straightforward. In her poem “Sestina,” Elizabeth Bishop deconstructs the traditional closeness and warmth of the home in order to reveal that isolation and grief are inevitable parts of home and family life, as well.

Many critics draw heavily upon Bishop’s biography as context for this poem. Bishop’s father died when she was one-year-old and her mother was permanently institutionalized when Bishop was five for mental health reasons, so she lived with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia throughout her early childhood.1 Though these childhood experiences seem to potentially echo the content of the poem, Jeffrey Powers-Beck goes as far as to define “Sestina” as “[Bishop’s] masterful and haunted poem about her traumatic childhood” and states that “the child, like the poet tries to ‘hide her tears’ and to dissolve them in the daily rituals of tea and conversation.”2 This statement directly equates the child’s experiences living with her grandmother and drawing pictures of absent men in the poem with Bishop’s own life experiences. Janine Rogers also emphasizes the importance of biography in the reading of the poem and says, “Most readers who have some knowledge of Bishop’s biography assume that the poem refers to the time in her childhood when she lived in Nova Scotia,” but acknowledges “it also opens up far beyond the specifics of Bishop’s own life.”3 William Logan similarly acknowledges the “pressure of biography,” but states that “here biography provides […] an enriching and complicating instance, without being necessary to the manner of our understanding.”4 I will most closely align myself with Logan for the purposes of this paper, acknowledging the presence of biographical readings, but rejecting their explicit significance to my analysis.

Ryan Lankford is primarily concerned with “Sestina” as a meta-poetic work that “represent[s] a parable of Bishop’s poetic process” and allows the reader to more completely understand her artistic aspirations.5 In his reading, the child’s drawings represent Bishop’s own artistic endeavors and refer to the act of writing. Rogers, on the other hand, considers the poem in the historical and scientific context of “the larger cultural experience in the 1950s: specifically, the discovery of the DNA double helix” and explicates the ways in which the form of the work reflect the physical structure of DNA.6 She focuses narrowly on the nature of the sestina as a form and the ways that the required repetition mimics human genes, which relates to the discussion of family and heredity in the poem. “Sestina” has been coopted and analyzed by a variety of critics to vastly different ends, but few have touched on the implications of the poem for the concept of home more broadly, beyond Bishop’s biography. I seek to provide that additional level of complication and insight by discussing the poem in the broader context of deconstructed and reimagined home and family, separated from both biography and genetics.

The sestina as a form follows a complex pattern of repeating end words, but does not have syllabic restrictions. It contains thirty-nine lines and seven stanzas, and the end words repeat in the following pattern: ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, ECBFAD, DEACFB, BDFECA, ECA. The final stanza is a three-line envoi, where each line also contains one of the three unused end words.7 The end words acquire considerable significance and an almost chant-like or mythic property through their ceaseless repetition throughout the poem. In her “Sestina,” Bishop uses this streamlined form to contain the unspoken, yet inescapable pain and complex home, and the repetition elevates the scene to a similar plane of a fable or myth. Despite her “equinoctial tears,” the grandmother attempts to maintain a sense of normalcy by insisting that “It’s time for tea now,” just as “the child draws a rigid house” in an attempt to cope with the melancholy that inhabits the room.8 In this way, the form mimics the content: Bishop reveals the disjointedness of the home from within an established structure of seemingly placid routine and expectation.

Bishop’s deconstruction of home begins with the establishment of the repeating end words in the first stanza, “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “stove,” “almanac,” and “tears.”9 The first five words “are all hard properties of the setting,” as Logan explicates, but the “tears” introduce a concretely emotional element to the scene.10 The presence of tears at the end of the first stanza indicates early in the poem that this traditional home setting is not as simple as it appears in the prior description. By using “tears” as an end word, Bishop grants it the same significance and evolution as the other elements of the poem and must reassert the inescapable grief in every stanza. Over the course of the poem, the tears transfigure from literal tears that the grandmother tries to hide from the child into more elusive, figurative elements. Condensation on the teapot becomes “the teakettle’s small hard tears,” the tea itself is made of “dark brown tears,” the buttons in the child’s drawing and the “little moons” from the almanac are “like tears,” and in the envoi at the end of the poem the almanac develops a voice and declares, “Time to plant tears.”11 The ascension of tears from the literal to the figurative to the fantastic and mythic establishes sorrow as equally complex and integral to the home as the physical setting and the people within it.

Though the two characters in the poem occupy the same innocuous physical space in the kitchen, Bishop subtly implies the extent of their isolation from one another. The first image that Bishop provides of the two characters seems pleasant and comfortable initially: “the old grandmother / sits in the kitchen with the child / beside the Little Marvel Stove, / reading the jokes from the almanac.”12 Though the line “laughing and talking to hide her tears” immediately follows this description and reveals, as discussed above, that something is palpably wrong, Bishop creates a slight sense of discomfort and abnormality prior to this revelation.13 Her use of vague subjects to establish the characters, “the old grandmother” and “the child,” results in both of them seeming stiff and impenetrable, from the reader and from one another.14 Bishop merely describes the grandmother as “old” and does not ascribe any description to the child, not even a gender, and the lack of the middle generation, of a parent, becomes significant in its glaring absence from the familial scene. The final stanza evokes their emotional distance in a similarly indirect way: “The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove / and the child draws another inscrutable house.”15 The grandmother “sings” and the child “draws,” both of which could seem at first glance to be the standard activities of a happy household around tea time, but the grandmother and child appear on separate lines and do not engage with one another. The grandmother does not sing to her grandchild, but to the stove, and the child draws an “inscrutable house,” which further demonstrates the impenetrability of their interior lives despite existing together in a seemingly intimate domestic realm.16

The lack of dialogue between characters in the scene furthers the sense of uneasiness and isolation. The grandmother says only, “It’s time for tea now,” but inanimate, quotidian objects make three statements in the poem, which grants them more power than the human beings.17 The fifth stanza opens with: “It was to be, says the Marvel Stove. / I know what I know, says the almanac.”18 These are both assertive, knowing declarations and contrast with the uncertainty of the grandmother, who “thinks that her equinoctial tears / and the rain that beats on the roof of the house / were both foretold by the almanac” and “thinks the house / feels chilly,” but does not claim to “know” anything absolutely as the stove and almanac do.19 The final spoken statement is an instruction from the almanac “Time to plant tears,” which and mimics the instruction of the grandmother near the beginning of the poem and advances the authoritative position of this object.20 By personifying these simple household objects and giving them more agency and certainty than the human subjects, Bishop actively disrupts expectations of reality and normalcy. This disruption contributes to the poem’s mythic effect and aids in the destabilization of the home and family.

The child’s persistent drawing of houses and the content of these drawings reveal her own vexed relationship with home through the unassuming childhood activity of coloring. Bishop introduces the child’s drawing in the fifth stanza: “With crayons the child draws a rigid house / and a winding pathway.”21 The physical construction of the house is “rigid,” which indicates a sense of confinement and limitation, but the pathway approaching the house is “winding,” which implies trepidation and distance. This contrast between the depiction of the pathway and of the house reveals that the child recognizes the imperfection of home, but still finds this imperfect picture of home desirable, though difficult to achieve. Bishop reveals a reason that the pathway to home may be difficult for the child by describing that “Then the child / puts in a man with buttons like tears.”22 The “buttons like tears” add a tangible sense of sorrow to this image of a man, who is otherwise nondescript and vague, and due to his association with the house and the absence of a parental figure in the rest of the poem, I conclude that this man is likely a missing father or another lost male relative. The absence of this man, whoever he is, mars the child’s capability of establishing herself within a comfortable home and family. The poem concludes with “the child draws another inscrutable house,” which perpetuates the child’s drive and subsequent inability to truly understand or acquire home.23

On the surface, “Sestina” appears to be a depiction of a simple familial interaction, but Bishop creates a realm of melancholy and loneliness just beneath the surface. In America during the mid 1960s when this poem was first published, the stability of the nuclear family began to disintegrate in the face of social revolution and shifting moral values.24 Perhaps, if taken in this context, this poem could act as a commentary on the evolution and destabilization of the function of home, even while the family still attempts to maintain a semblance of the consistency and comfort of the past.

 

Works Cited

Academy of American Poets. “Sestina: Poetic Form.” Poets.org. September 25, 2004. Accessed November 29, 2016. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/sestina-poetic-form.

Bishop, Elizabeth. “Sestina.” ca. 1965.

Lankford, Ryan. “Bishop’s Sestina.” Explicator 52, (Fall 1993): 57-59.

Logan, William. “The Unbearable Lightness of Elizabeth Bishop.” Southwest Review 79, no. 1 (1994): 120-38.

May, Elaine Tyler. “‘Family Values’: The Uses and Abuses of American Family History.” Journal of American Studies 3, no. 97 (2003): 7-22.

Poetry Foundation. “Elizabeth Bishop.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed November 20, 2016. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/elizabeth-bishop.

Powers-Beck, Jeffrey. “”Time to Plant Tears”: Elizabeth Bishop’s Seminary of Tears.” South Atlantic Review 60, no. 4 (1995): 69-87.

Rogers, Janine. “Life Forms: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” and DNA Structure.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 43, no. 1 (2010): 93-109.

  1. “Elizabeth Bishop,” Poetry Foundation, accessed November 20, 2016.
  2. Jeffrey Powers-Beck, “’Time to Plant Tears’: Elizabeth Bishop’s Seminary of Tears,” South Atlantic Review 60, no. 4 (1995): 84.
  3. Janine Rogers, “Life Forms: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” and DNA Structure,” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 43, no. 1 (2010): 95.
  4. William Logan, “The Unbearable Lightness of Elizabeth Bishop,” Southwest Review 79, no. 1 (1994): 136.
  5. Ryan Lankford, “Bishop’s Sestina,” Explicator 52, (Fall 1993): 58.
  6. Rogers, “Life Forms,” 97.
  7. “Sestina: Poetic Form,” Academy of American Poets, last modified September 25, 2004.
  8. Elizabeth Bishop, “Sestina,” ca. 1965, lines 7, 13, 27.
  9. Bishop, “Sestina,” lines 1-6.
  10. Logan, “The Unbearable Lightness,” 135.
  11. Bishop, “Sestina,” lines 14, 22, 29, 33, 37.
  12. Bishop, “Sestina,” lines 2-5.
  13. Bishop, “Sestina,” line 6.
  14. Bishop, “Sestina,” lines 2-3.
  15. Bishop, “Sestina,” lines 38-39.
  16. Bishop, “Sestina,” lines 38-39.
  17. Bishop, “Sestina,” line 13.
  18. Bishop,”Sestina,” lines 25-26.
  19. Bishop, “Sestina,” lines 7-9, 23-24, 26.
  20. Bishop, “Sestina,” line 37.
  21. Bishop, “Sestina,” lines 27-28.
  22. Bishop, “Sestina,” lines 28-29.
  23. Bishop, “Sestina,” line 39.
  24. Elaine Tyler May, “‘Family Values’: The Uses and Abuses of American Family History,” Journal of American Studies 3, no. 97 (2003): 10.

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