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The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
--Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

image of poem

I'm aiming for a close reading. What do these vivid images convey? How do elements like lichens, the moon, and "shooting stars in your black hair" intertwine to reflect the poem's deeper meanings?

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  • Just out of curiosity, who wrote that poem? Was it Morris Bishop, or Elizabeth Bishop, or some other poet named Bishop?
    – user14111
    Dec 1, 2023 at 10:23
  • By Elizabeth Bishop!
    – user19826
    Dec 1, 2023 at 11:12

2 Answers 2

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This is a poem about people's perception of, and response to, love and ageing and the passing of time. But it doesn't start that way. Rather, the first verse appears to be a poetic meditation on ancient life.

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.

This is a description of lichens growing on rocks. If you've ever seen lichen growth, you'll recognise that "explosions" and "shocks" are a surprisingly apt metaphor for their growth patterns:

enter image description here

Of course, in reality lichens are incredibly slow-growing, so there's a degree of amusing irony in describing them in such active terms.

They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

Here's the first clue as to what the poem is actually going to be about. It suggests that the lichens are so old (some are indeed estimated to be over five thousand years old), and so timeless, that they might as well keep on growing into outer space and colonise the moon. Yet humans, our lives brief in comparison, do not even perceive them as growing at all.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,

To my mind, there are two ways of interpreting this. Firstly, it's a wish: that people - particularly the poet and her object, which we'll come to shortly - might live as long as the lichens. Secondly, it's a reminder that time - here represented by the "heavens", i.e. the passage of day and night - doesn't care if you're a human or a lichen but passes nevertheless.

you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

So here we come to the true subject of the poem, the "dear friend". Bishop was gay, and wrote this poem to Lota de Macedo Soares, her lover at the time of its composition. She's addressed as "dear friend" likely as a sop to the social morals of the time, which would still have frowned upon lesbian relationships. This lover is "precipitate and pragmatical" and time has made their relationship more "amenable".

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?

Now we know the subject, it's clear that these "shooting stars" are grey strands appearing amidst the black of her lover's hair. While many people might find the idea of grey hairs a disturbing sign of incipient age, Bishop celebrates them. They are "bright", "stars", making it clear she still finds her lover beautiful. But there is sadness here, too: they have en masse - "flocking" - and "too soon", a reminder that the joy of their relationship is limited - unlike the lichen - by mortality.

--Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

And to prove she still cares, she offers to wash it, a wonderful symbol of humility and devotion. The basin is "battered" with use, perhaps a reminder of the time they have shared together, yet it is "shiny" like the "moon". It's noteworthy how many celestial metaphors Bishop employs here, giving a sense of the wideness of her desire and the epic sense of timeless love.

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  • Nice answer. You could add that "precipitate and pragmatical" is a paradox: overly hasty and sensibly practical. de Macedo Soares is precipitate in that her hair is greying too quickly ("so soon"), but pragmatical in that she doesn't appear to be worrying about it.
    – verbose
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:54
  • Well, not necessarily de Macedo Soares. I mean, it's a poem, not autobiography. Let's just say "the beloved"
    – verbose
    Dec 1, 2023 at 20:03
  • Wow, good interpretation. When I first read this poem, I interpret it from the angle of the interrelationship among human being, nature and artificial products. I feel it so hard to forget the Shampoo. What's more, I am inclined to understand Modpo from poetry creation.
    – user19826
    Dec 2, 2023 at 8:01
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This is a love poem, written to Elizabeth Bishop's lover Lota de Macedo Soares.

I am going to give a very impressionistic interpretation of it. A more literal close reading may not yield the same interpretation.

In the first stanza, the lichens and the moon are in love, but the situation is hopeless — they are 240,000 miles away from each other, and the lichens spread incredibly slowly — the poem says that while the lichens are indeed spreading, they have not moved within living memory.

In the second stanza, the heavens (attending on the lovers) and time (amenable) arrange what seems to be a miracle.

So in the third stanza, the gray lichens have transmuted into the grey streaks (shooting stars) in the beloved's hair, and the moon has transmuted into a battered, shiny, big tin basin. Where are the shooting stars flocking? Clearly, to the moon. The two lovers are together at last!

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  • Romantic one ! But is there any other angle except for the love relationship?
    – user19826
    Dec 2, 2023 at 8:04
  • There are undoubtedly lots of other angles to the poem. One can compare the distance from the lichens to the moon with the distance from the United States to Brazil (Bishop and de Macedo Soares apparently first met in New York nine years before they met in Brazil and started their relationship). And another answer has some interesting points to make about the poem.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 3, 2023 at 0:40

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