The Moose

For Grace Bulmer BowersGrace Bulmer Bowers Elizabeth Bishop’s aunt

From narrow provinces   
of fish and bread and tea,   
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea   
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam   
depends on if it meets   
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets   
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’   
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,   
past clapboard farmhouses   
and neat, clapboard churches,   
bleached, ridged as clamshells,   
past twin silver birches,

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,   
pink glancing off of metal,   
brushing the dented flank   
of blue, beat-up enamel;

down hollows, up rises,   
and waits, patient, while   
a lone traveller gives   
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

Goodbye to the elms,   
to the farm, to the dog.   
The bus starts. The light   
grows richer; the fog,   
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals   
form and slide and settle   
in the white hens’ feathers,   
in gray glazed cabbages,   
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string   
on the whitewashed fences;   
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

One stop at Bass River.   
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;   
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth   
out after supper.

A pale flickering. Gone.   
The Tantramar marshes   
and the smell of salt hay.   
An iron bridge trembles   
and a loose plank rattles   
but doesn’t give way.

On the left, a red light   
swims through the dark:   
a ship’s port lantern.   
Two rubber boots show,   
illuminated, solemn.   
A dog gives one bark.

A woman climbs in
with two market bags,   
brisk, freckled, elderly.   
“A grand night. Yes, sir,   
all the way to Boston.”   
She regards us amicably.

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,   
hairy, scratchy, splintery;   
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool   
on bushes in a pasture.

The passengers lie back.   
Snores. Some long sighs.   
A dreamy divagation   
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination....

In the creakings and noises,   
an old conversation
—not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,   
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,   
things cleared up finally;   
what he said, what she said,   
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;   
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.   
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray   
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

“Yes ...” that peculiar   
affirmative. “Yes ...”
A sharp, indrawn breath,   
half groan, half acceptance,   
that means “Life’s like that.   
We know it (also death).”

Talking the way they talked   
in the old featherbed,   
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,   
down in the kitchen, the dog   
tucked in her shawl.

Now, it’s all right now   
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.   
—Suddenly the bus driver   
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,   
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,   
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us   
“Perfectly harmless....”

Some of the passengers   
exclaim in whispers,   
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”   
“It’s awful plain.”   
“Look! It’s a she!”

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,   
grand, otherworldly.   
Why, why do we feel   
(we all feel) this sweet   
sensation of joy?

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,   
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”   
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

by craning backward,   
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;   
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid   
smell of gasoline.

Elizabeth Bishop, “The Moose” from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. Copyright © 1980 by Elizabeth Bishop. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, All rights reserved.
Source: The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1983)

Writing Ideas

  1. A kind of road-trip poem, “The Moose” creates the sensation of being in a bus, watching the outside world stream by. The next time you are the passenger in a car or bus, take notes on what you see rolling by. Like Bishop, try to create single images or one-line impressions. Rather than describe comprehensively, take the most arresting feature of the scenes out your window. Connect your images in stanzas or leave them as single-line glimpses.
  2. Like many Bishop poems, “The Moose” opens with a kind of panoramic shot. Then, as in the opening of a movie, we slowly zoom in on the object of attention (in this case, the bus, and the people inside the bus). Try to keep such film techniques—pan, dissolve, zoom, and aerial shot—in mind as you compose a poem that describes either your hometown or a memorable event. Like Bishop, try not to use “I” as you describe, map, and recount.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do Bishop’s stanzas work in this poem? How do the stanzas generate momentum and even suspense? Think especially about her use of rhyme: is it consistent? Inconsistent? Is there a rhyme scheme at work in this poem, or simply rhyming? What might the difference mean?
  2. How does perspective work in “The Moose”? That is, who seems to be doing the looking and experiencing throughout the many stanzas? A single person? A group of people? Try to chart the perspective through the poem. How does it move, and why might Bishop have wanted to not fix the poem on any one subject or speaking voice? Think about these questions in connection to the second writing idea.
  3. What happens once the poem moves “inside” the bus? What do you make of the extended sequence recounting the “old conversation”? How do those five stanzas (the same number spent on the encounter with the moose) connect with or complicate the poem?

Teaching Tips

  1. Use Bishop’s poem to talk about animals in poetry. You might start your discussion by asking students to free-write on their own encounters with (wild) animals (though they might also think about the differences between encountering wild and domestic animals). Ask them to talk through Bishop’s poem as one of encounter: how does the moose encounter humans, and humans encounter moose? Is Bishop offering commentary or simple description of human-animal relations? You might read Toby Eckert’s guide to the poem as a class and discuss if students indeed think Bishop is showing how nature can “transform a rather ordinary moment into a transcendent one.” As a final activity, students could gather their own poems to discuss how animals function for different poets, through different eras. There are many poems about birds, but what about other animals? Good places to start might be John Keats, “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket”; John Clare, “The Badger”; Amy Lowell, “The Pike”; Denise Levertov, “Come into Animal Presence”; and Eileen Myles, “Snakes.”
  2. Assign your students a collaborative re-write of Bishop’s poem as a way to start talking about revision. In small groups, give them each two or three stanzas. Set them the following challenge: they must re-write—and so re-envision—their stanzas using only Bishop’s language. They can neither add nor subtract words. After each group has completed their stanza set, stage a reading of this new “The Moose” in its entirety. Then, have a discussion about what your students gained or didn’t from this exercise. Were they frustrated by the constraints? Did they find themselves coming up with strange new phrases and images? Bishop took a notoriously long time to finish this poem; if taking language and rewriting it is one revision technique, can your students think of others? As a final exercise, come up with a list of revision/re-envisioning techniques for future use.