The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.
– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Sandpiper is concerned with the particular. Through a controlled tightening of focus, like the turn of the lens on a telescope, Bishop draws our attention ever closer to the minutiae of existence, of which the bird is solely conscious: from the water glazing over its feet, to its toes, to the spaces between its toes, to the grains of sand, and finally to the very nature of each grain, their precise colours and the stones and minerals that constitute them.
But while it is concerned with the specific, the poem makes us very much aware of the larger stuff that is outside of this focus. The sea is referenced in a way that we, unlike the sandpiper, cannot completely ignore. Its roaring is the first thing that the poem announces, along with the fact that ‘every so often the world is bound to shake’. The roaring and the shaking are not trivial events. And it is not merely water, or even the sea, but that gigantic ocean the ‘Atlantic’ that drains between its toes.
By drawing attention to that which is ignored, the poet foregrounds the apparent oddity of a consciousness that can shut out something as vast and imposing as an ocean. It provides a kind of irony throughout the poem, that beside something all-encompassing one can focus on something so minute.
In 1976, three years before Elizabeth Bishop died, she wrote:
“All my life I have lived and behaved very much like that sandpiper – just running along the edges of different countries ‘looking for something’. I have always felt I couldn’t possibly live very far inland, away from the ocean; and I have always lived near it, frequently in sight of it …. timorously pecking for subsistence along coastlines of the world.”
A reminder that we’ll be discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.