Welcome to another #TwoPoems! I’ve always been interested in the way poems on the same topic can be closely related or wildly different. Today’s post takes us to the beach at sunset.
I’m never far away from a piece of writing with water in it, especially if it involves a coastline, and Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The End of March’ is one of my favourite poems. In the poem, the speaker is walking on the beach with friends on a wintry day. It is unmistakably a Bishop poem, conversational in tone, with fine, sensuous detail. The first two stanzas describe the scene, starting with a wide angle that takes in the ‘shrunken’ ocean, a flight of geese and the numbing wind, then narrowing to focus on a trail of large paw-prints ‘(so big / they were more like lion prints)’ and a snarl of string, ‘A kite string?’, lying tangled on the sand.
Then the poem becomes more speculative. The speaker is hoping to reach a hut further down the beach, her ‘proto-dream-house’. She has seen it before and remembers many details about it, and begins to imagine an idyllic life there, far away from everything, where she might be able to do ‘nothing’. At the end of the long stanza the escapist interlude ends abruptly with ‘But–impossible. / […] / and of course the house was boarded up.’ The walkers head back, turning their backs on both the hut and the possibility of the dream.
The final stanza returns to concrete description of the scene, but there is a remnant of fancy that hints that perhaps all is not lost – the setting sun is likened to a lion, who may have made those ‘big, majestic paw-prints’. If the sun, at the point of setting, can change into a lion and play on the beach with a kite, then anything might be possible.
Jorie Graham’s poem ‘Sundown’ is also set on a beach, and also involves a visitation from a rather mythical creature, but it is a very different poem to Bishop’s. The form is unusual, the line breaks are odd and there is almost no punctuation, making the poem difficult to move through. I tried to read it aloud and found it almost impossible. It’s not inaccessible, however, and we see a clear setting, and simple action. The speaker is standing or walking on the beach when a galloping horse and rider come from behind and overtake her.
Just as the horse passes, in the middle of the poem, this speaker also reflects on an idyllic world, one in which ‘no one / again is suddenly / killed–regardless of the “cause”’. Unlike Bishop’s poem, which devotes twenty-five lines to discussing the speaker’s dream world, here the thought is dealt with in just a few words, the length of time it takes a horse to gallop past. The late sun has given the ocean a ‘reddish luminosity’ which this image of dying now turns to blood, and this image is cemented in the ‘bits of red foam’ that are thrown up from the horses hooves. Returning now to the sixth line, we might remember (I googled it) that Omaha was the name given to this particular stretch of beach during the Normandy Landings campaign.
Perhaps the sudden advent of the horse coming from behind is enough to jolt this speaker into reflection and later, a moment of insight, but it is possible to add a further layer to the poem and read it as a kind of divine revelation. The horse is presented in almost mythical terms – inaudible until the last moment, gleaming with water and flooding sunlight. The rider does not look at the speaker, but stares straight ahead, and the hoof-prints left behind are ‘cups’ which fill with an offering of life to the sand-flies that crowd into them.
The final lines are the most revealing. The speaker is no longer ‘like a blind person’ but sees, and she is walking with new confidence, feet grounded in the earth. The form of this part of the poem also becomes far more readable and logical. The odd line breaks and phrasing come to an end and everything feels a bit more solid – the presence of God is instrumental in creating a world of steadiness and peace.
This was the first time I’ve looked closely at Jorie Graham’s work and I’m so glad I did. Thank you to Clarissa for suggesting this poem to read alongside ‘The End of March’. Let me know what you think, if you have any other favourite Beach poems, or if you have any requests or suggestions for poem pairings. See you next time!