A prose poem

Both Gerard Manley Hopkins & Elizabeth Bishop exhibited a "tension between ecstasy & torment" -- Sandra Alcosser

I like that description. Perhaps it is the poet’s course to write between/despite (or because of) the tension between ecstasy & torment

I have been reading, for Marilyn Chin’s prose poem/flash fiction course, Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem Eds. Stuart Freibert & David Young.

In it, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Giant Snail”

The rain has stopped. The waterfall will roar like that all night. I have

come out to take a walk and feed. My body – foot, that is – is wet and

cold and covered with sharp gravel. It is white, the size of a dinner plate. I

have set myself a goal, a certain rock, but it may well be dawn before I get

there. Although I move ghostlike and my floating edges barely graze the

ground, I am heavy, heavy, heavy. My white muscles are already tired. I give

the impression of mysterious ease, but it is only with the greatest effort of

my will that I can rise above the smallest stones and sticks. And I must not

let myself be distracted by those rough spears of grass. Don’t touch them.

Draw back. Withdrawal is always best.

The rain has stopped. The waterfall makes such a noise! (And what if I

fall over it?) The mountains of black rock give off such clouds of steam!

Shiny streamers are hanging down their sides. When this occurs, we have a

saying that the Snail Gods have come down in haste. I could never descend

such steep escarpments, much less dream of climbing them.

That toad was too big, too, like me. His eyes beseeched my love. Our

proportions horrify our neighbors.

Rest a minute, relax. Flattened to the ground, my body is like a pallid,

decomposing leaf. What’s that tapping on my shell? Nothing. Let’s go on.

My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from front to back,

the wake of a ship, wax-white water, or a slowly melting floe. I am cold,

cold, cold as ice. My blind, white bull’s head was a Cretan scare-head; de-

generate, my four horns that can’t attack. The sides of my mouth are now

my hands. They press the earth and suck it hard. Ah, but I know my shell is

beautiful, and high, and glazed, and shining. I know it well, although I have

not seen it. Its curled white lip is of the finest enamel. Inside, it is as

smooth as silk, and I, I fill it to perfection.

My wide wake shines, now it is growing dark. I leave a lovely opalescent

ribbon: I know this.

But O! I am too big. I feel it. Pity me.

If and when I reach the rock, I shall go into a certain crack there for the

night. The waterfall below will vibrate through my shell and body all night

long. In that steady pulsing I can rest. All night I shall be like a sleeping ear.

The giant snail is a persona, a creature we can recognize in ourselves and perhaps Bishop recognized in herself yet the attention to detail is solely in the snail’s movement. We are captured in the snail’s moment of tension between torment and ecstasy and the self-doubt it has. “Ah, but I know my shell is beautiful, and high, and glazed, and shining. I know it well, although I have not seen it.” The snail denies its beauty at the same time she knows it. This juxtaposition and uncertainty yet certainty at once draws this tension. We can argue that “although I have not seen it” simply means what it means – that snails do not have mirrors are not self-conscious beings who see their visage when wanting to. But it is a conscious move by Bishop to assert the snail’s inability to “see” her beauty and in turn, perhaps deny it.

Later, the snail says, “I know this,” of her “lovely opalescent ribbon.” Yet she laments her size, cries “Pity me.” Here, we see the persona’s voice that can back up the claim that the snail is conscious to know her beauty and deny it.

The second to the last line, “In that steady pulsing I can rest” emulates a tension between violence, a steady pulsing, and rest, self acceptance.

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