Cape Breton – Elizabeth Bishop

I was reading the Complete Works of poet Elizabeth Bishop last night, and was struck again with how perfect Bishop’s poem “Cape Breton” captures what I always thought construction season must have been like on the island during mid-century (and I thought about that quite a bit while I was writing my thesis). In the poem, the construction of the coastal road, abandoned on Sunday, serves to enhance the mystery of the interior. It’s all ocean and hill and mist and road and then a little bus rolls down the dusty road packed with people going about their Sunday business (including “today only two preachers extra, one carrying his frock coat on a
hanger”).

The entire poem is after the jump:

Cape Breton

Out on the high “bird islands,” Ciboux and Hertford,
the razorbill auks and the silly-looking puffins all stand
with their backs to the mainland
in solemn, uneven lines along the cliff’s brown grass-frayed edge,
while the few sheep pastured there go “Baaa, baaa.”
(Sometimes, frightened by aeroplanes, they stampede
and fall over into the sea or onto the rocks.)
The silken water is weaving and weaving,
disappearing under the mist equally in all directions,
lifted and penetrated now and then
by one shag’s dripping serpent-neck,
and somewhere the mist incorporates the pulse,
rapid but unurgent, of a motor boat.

The same mist hangs in thin layers
among the valleys and gorges of the mainland
like rotting snow-ice sucked away
almost to spirit; the ghosts of glaciers drift
among those folds and folds of fir: spruce and hackmatack–
dull, dead, deep pea-cock colors,
each riser distinguished from the next
by an irregular nervous saw-tooth edge,
alike, but certain as a stereoscopic view.

The wild road clambers along the brink of the coast.
On it stand occasional small yellow bulldozers,
but without their drivers, because today is Sunday.
The little white churches have been dropped into the matted hills
like lost quartz arrowheads.
The road appears to have been abandoned.
Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been abandoned,
unless the road is holding it back, in the interior,
where we cannot see,
where deep lakes are reputed to be,
and disused trails and mountains of rock
and miles of burnt forests, standing in gray scratches
like the admirable scriptures made on stones by stones–
and these regions now have little to say for themselves
except in thousands of light song-sparrow songs floating upward
freely, dispassionately, through the mist, and meshing
in brown-wet, fine torn fish-nets.

A small bus comes along, in up-and-down rushes,
packed with people, even to its step.
(On weekdays with groceries, spare automobile parts, and pump parts,
but today only two preachers extra, one carrying his frock coat on a
hanger.)
It passes the closed roadside stand, the closed schoolhouse,
where today no flag is flying
from the rough-adzed pole topped with a white china doorknob.
It stops, and a man carrying a bay gets off,
climbs over a stile, and goes down through a small steep meadow,
which establishes its poverty in a snowfall of daisies,
to his invisible house beside the water.

The birds keep on singing, a calf bawls, the bus starts.
The thin mist follows
the white mutations of its dream;
an ancient chill is rippling the dark brooks.

3 Responses to “Cape Breton – Elizabeth Bishop”


  1. 1 The Garden Ms. S 05/29/2010 at 10:37 PM

    Oh, what a hauntingly beautiful poem – thank you for sharing.

    I read a collection of Bluenose myths over the past Christmas holidays and remembered how the place always seems full of ghosts and magic. It was easy, as a little girl in Brownies, to believe the fairies lived there. :-)

  2. 2 bluenosegardener 05/31/2010 at 5:34 PM

    I particularly love Bishop’s reference to a “stereoscopic view” I have always loved how Nova Scotia’s conifer-clad hills line up behind each other and look just like a pop-up book or a View-Master. But I love her description of the mist and the people on the bus and the field of daisies, too, so it’s hard to choose my favourite bit!

    I believe the author O.R. Melling sets a portion of the final book of her Chronicles of Faerie YA series on Cape Breton Island. I only read the first two books (I think I was off at uni when the last two came out), but maybe I should go back and read it for research’s sake. I think her fairies would be quite suited to Cape Breton.

  3. 3 David le Timide 09/13/2011 at 11:00 AM

    So much catches me…the craft, the images, the sounds. From the one stanza alone:
    meaning
    mountains
    miles
    (ad)mirable
    mist
    meshing


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