‘Awful but cheerful’ is the final phrase and line of ‘The Bight‘, by Elizabeth Bishop. I’ve always felt that the poem was like the lesser-played song on a double A-side single. ‘At the Fishhouses‘, its sister-poem of coastal life, seems so much more elemental, necessary, and, well, likeable. It also possesses one of the great lift-off endings of any poem, anywhere:
If you should dip your hand in, your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame. If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
Like its (perhaps) more famous sister, ‘The Bight’ proceeds via declarative sentences which could be prose: ‘White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare’; ‘The birds are outsize’; ‘Pelicans crash’; ‘Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar’; ‘The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in’; ‘There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock’; ‘Some of the little white boats are still piled up’. I was not surprised to learn only the other day that it began its life as part of a letter to Robert Lowell.
Unlike its sister-poem, ‘The Bight’ does not contain a line on which everything suddenly switches, turns and burns with a differently-coloured flame: ‘Dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free’. There is no ‘tansmutation of fire’ here, no imagining of what knowledge might be, no ‘rocky breasts’. I have read and reread these lines what must be hundreds of times, and still have no idea how she pulled them off, both on their own terms and as counterpoint to the procedural detailing which precedes them.
And yet, in these strange and troubling times, it is to ‘The Bight’ that I find myself turning more often, and to its ending in particular, with its dying fall cadences, its note of things going on because they have to and in spite of. Isn’t this where a lot of our lives are lived, in ‘awful but cheerful’? From queuing at the supermarket (or for petrol) to waiting for chemotherapy drugs which may or may not arrive; from hoping for a climate miracle or just for a good night’s sleep: awful but cheerful is where I am at right now. I sit with it and watch the tide going out, knowing it will be back again soon. As Peter Carpenter once said about a goal being scored, the music of the line feels both inevitable and a complete surprise. This is why I read poetry.