Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Sarah Kain Gutowski reads “The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop.
I brought up Elizabeth Bishop in an interview with Sarah Winn—stating how Bishop is one of my favorite poets and how her poems always feel “fortified.” I’m so thrilled you’ve elected to read “The Armadillo.” Let’s just get right to it. What makes this poem so essential?
Sarah: This poem struck a chord with me before I knew much about Lowell, before I knew anything about Bishop, before I’d even read much poetry. I can find myself excited by and devoted to poems before I have any context or even true understanding of what the poet is going on about. For better or worse, I’m very much an intuitive reader, not an intellectual one. So my first answer to that question is simply: It moved me, or spoke to me, in a way other poems have not.
But when I read the poem closely, and really consider what I value (aesthetically, philosophically) I believe what struck me most when I first read it, many years ago, was this sense of two selves within the poem: the self who witnesses and accepts random cruelty (“illegal fire balloons”), blind, unwise allegiances (“rising toward a saint/ still honored in these parts”), and brutal, inevitable annihilation (the baby rabbit “a handful of intangible ash/with fixed, ignited eyes”) as essential qualities of existence – and all with a kind of impersonal, analytic detachment; and the self who feels an intrinsic compassion for all creatures created and destroyed within this existence, and who clings to those moments of beauty that contradict its crueler aspect: “their whirling black-and-white/stained bright pink underneath.”
That’s a wordy explanation, but it captures what, essentially, makes me return to this poem after my initial “YES.” And ultimately, I share with Bishop a tenderness for the abiding, the underdog, that “weak mailed fist/clenched ignorant against the sky!”
Chris: I dig the reading of the dichotomous self. It introduces levels of intricacy—a celebratory act becomes (potentially) an act of violence against the self, others, and the world. The personified “weak mailed fist” always intrigues me. It’s something about feeling the need for armor despite knowing it won’t necessarily provide protection. Can you speak more to your idea about the abiding underdog in this poem and who/what the “weak mailed fist” represents?
Sarah: Lowell is the “weak mailed fist.” Bishop is too. Also, the poem and the poet are the abiding. The poet continues in the face of uncertainty and “falling fire,” the threat of death and annihilation that comes as a surprise, and the poem is her “weak mailed fist” against the sky. Our words are small defense against fate and/or tragedy, and yet we wield them in defiance nonetheless. So we are all the underdogs, really – the fire balloons could have landed on the speaker’s own home, after all. Instead, she watches these creatures abandon their “ancient” nests from her own home. She speaks from the vantage point of luck – not quite good fortune, because she witnesses this destruction – but luck, for sure.
Chris: Is the impersonal, analytic detachment you referred to an essential quality of the poem? And is that something you seek to accomplish in your own writing?
Sarah: I think so. Bishop would not have been the crazy cat lady out on the hilltop trying to wrangle owls and skittish baby bunnies into a hutch in her yard – through most of her poems she has a journalist’s objective measure in both meter and tone. And the poems are more effective for the moments when she breaks from this objective, cool distance – as in the last lines of “The Armadillo,” as in the last lines of “One Art” (“the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster”). And yes, if I could write with Bishop’s coolness, her exactness, I’d be pretty damn happy. (For the record, I’m not there yet.)
Chris: You mentioned experiencing this poem before knowing much about Bishop and Lowell. Has your relationship with this poem changed after learning more about the two poets and their friendship?
Sarah: Absolutely. My appreciation for it has grown because it’s this artifact of their friendship and respect and love for one another as poets. You don’t have to read their letters if you have this poem and Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” in front of you. (I mean, I own Words in Air and I plan on finishing it some day, but that’s mostly because I’m nosey.) I love reading Lowell’s poem (which he dedicated to Bishop) and seeing the parallel structure, how “The Armadillo” is in conversation with Lowell’s poem but also entirely its own creature. The little rabbit with its “ignited eyes” appears in the penultimate stanza as do Lowell’s small army of skunks marching up Main Street with their “moonstruck eyes’ red fire.”
In “Skunk Hour” the mother skunk is such a badass, checking the moony poet in his sadness and despair with her resilience and fortitude. Her “wedge-head” and “ostrich tail” remind him that the world gives no fucks about his sadness, and it’s Lowell’s ability to see this that makes the reader forgive him for his earlier melodrama, because he admires the mama skunk who “will not scare.” Bishop may be this figure for Lowell in “Skunk Hour,” but in “The Armadillo” she reminds him, and us, that all creatures feel terror and flee when threatened by fire, particularly when it rains from the sky, but also when it originates inside our own heads. There’s such tenderness in that gesture, such empathy. And her formalism is gorgeous. I just love her.
Sarah Kain Gutowski is the author of Fabulous Beast: The Sow, a chapbook published by Hyacinth Girl Press. Her poems have been published in Menacing Hedge, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Verse Daily, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, Epiphany, The Threepenny Review, and So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, and she has a review in the latest issue of Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. She keeps a record of her writing life, experience in academia, and motherhood at http://mimsyandoutgrabe.blogspot.com.
Chris Petruccelli continues his battle against the ever growing and never ceasing light in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Rappahannock Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. You can check out his chapbook Action at a Distance over at University of Indianapolis’ Etchings Press. In his free time Chris enjoys drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.