May 24, 2011

A Trippy Crumb

photo by Andre Mouraux
Elizabeth Bishop called her sestina "A Miracle for Breakfast" her "Depression poem." Written around 1936, it was, Bishop said, a poem about hunger, and her own social conscience. But whenever I read it, I  can only just barely make out a few dim anonymous figures—a generic blur of "hungry folk"—standing defeatedly in the margins; honestly, I find Bishop's claims a bit of a stretch. "A Miracle for Breakfast" is simply too playful to suggest the privation and real depression of the Depression. The six end-words that Bishop builds on—crumb, river, sunlight, coffee, balcony, and miracle—are, after all, essentially happy words, both sonorous and suggestive of small, pleasant, sparkling, or magical things, and the scene their repetition creates evokes (at least in my mind) the narrow balcony of a pricey pension somewhere along the Seine—a far cry from the bread lines that, according to Bishop, actually inspired the poem.

Bishop harnesses the naturally hypnotic quality of the sestina form's arhythmic repetitions to create fractal-like images: everything in this poem seems to shrink and swell according to the speaker's ever-shifting focus—one that can see across the river, through the ages, as well as "very close up." In this way, the crumb is in one stanza a roll, in another a buttered loaf, and in yet another both a mansion and a miracle. The coffee, likewise, is a drop, a cup, and gallons...  There's a pleasantly psychedelic quality to these transmutations, highlighted by the surprise appearance of God (or maybe not-God: that possibly crazy man handing out crumbs) and the acid-like vision of entering the interior of a crumb made "through ages, by insects, birds, and the river," and, once there, discovering a world of leisure  and lovely surfeit ("Every day, in the sun, / at breakfast time I sit on my balcony / with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.").

I once taught this poem in a Freshman Lit class at Suffolk University; my favorite student was the only older person in the class—a bank clerk by day who was getting her college degree in the off-hours. The class met at seven a.m. When I asked what the students made of this poem, there were several forgettable answers (see, I forget what they were—though I do remember that none of them lit on the idea of hunger or parity). And then there was the older woman's insight: "To me, this poem is about coffee," she said. "It's about waking up and having that first cup of coffee, and you know the day is gonna be long, but for that one moment, it's just you and the coffee, and it's so good. This poem is about being thankful for that."

Well, I hadn't thought of it that way, though now I do.
A Miracle for Breakfast
At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
--like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.
The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.
He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds--along with the sun.
Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.
I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
--I saw it with one eye close to the crumb--
and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.
We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.
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literarysara said...

I should read the poem another time or two before responding. . . but I do like the idea that this poem is Bishop's "Depression poem" because it includes those sunny, sparkling moments along with the dreary. The cold and the anger had enough weight to make me feel sad, but the narrator chooses to feel (bittersweet, maybe) pleasure. I find that both comforting and exasperating: it's like an allegory teaching readers to make their own happiness even when the higher-ups fail us, which is not especially helpful, but it does resonate with my personal philosophy.

A Bishop poem I've taught, "One Art," has that same movement from small things to large. Many of my students liked that - it's like the large things are a bit too abstract or overwhelming to address up front, but they can be perceived through the lens of the smaller things. That's like the inside-out version of "A Miracle for Breakfast"'s movement of making a small thing larger.

Kim Adrian said...

You know, I have to admit that while I was writing up this post, I was seriously re-reading the poem, and starting to see it more the way you do. It's just that I was so infatuated with the poem the first time I read/misread it that I've been reluctant to let those first impressions (which were totally unpolitical) go. You love a poem, like anything else, for what it means to you, I guess, and not necessarily what it "means".

As for her scale-shifting—this is maybe the real magic in her work? I find Szymborska does something similar, but her big things are super big—like the universe, and maybe her small things aren't quite so small as crumbs or grains of sand....

"Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead." —W. H. Auden