David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 21 Poems That Shaped America (Pt. 4): “Roosters”

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[This installment marks the 100th column by David Biespiel for The Rumpus. It’s been our joy and pleasure to host his work here, and we hope to keep doing it for a long time to come. –Ed.]

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At various points in her poems Elizabeth Bishop gave us an account of what made her imagination hum, and of what motivated her interest in the world of fact and sensibility. At different times she noted what she called the “dark deep and absolutely clear” phenomena of the natural world and its impression on the psyche; what she called the “storm [that] goes away again in a series/of small, badly lit-battle-scenes” of a world always on the cusp of disaster and wonder; what she called the “house of Bedlam” with the “soldier [returning] home from the war” again and again. Her poems dramatize a desire to enter and retreat from the “pale flickering” of daily observation. Of her other significant concerns, including a feel for idiomatic language that rattles with irony and builds to beat back pretense, she revered subjective truth, remained faithful to the idiosyncratic, and braced herself against the inauthentic. You’d have thought she found contrivance an act of cruelty.

The embarrassing reality of three centuries of US war-making is hard to dispute. A small list of primary conflicts since the American Revolution would have to include the War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, World War I, World War II, occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, war in Afghanistan, Iraq War, any number of petty invasions, and so many acts of genocide against Native Americans that the following list is shamefully incomplete: the Creek War, Seminole War, Apache Wars, Navajo Wars, Great Sioux War, Nez Perce War, and more. As a poet who came into pubic awareness with her first book, North & South, published in 1946, at a time when 12.2 million American soldiers from World War II were returning home to towns and cities in which the men found it hard to find work, reintegrate into family lives, and suffered post-traumatic stress, Bishop was already reshaping a view of American chauvinism at odds with what would later be hyped as the Greatest Generation. This commitment, to acquaint herself with the brutality of war-making in conjunction with her sense of the complexity of Christ’s suffering, would find its greatest expression in her poem, “Roosters.”

She wrote the poem after Pearl Harbor in 1940 during a period in which Bishop was forced to rent her Key West, Florida, house to military personnel, and around the time she said anyway she was “rather depressed about Key West. The town is terribly overcrowded and noisy and not a bit like itself. They are talking about evacuating the civilians. I don’t believe they will, but still.” One has to use a certain amount of unscrambling to read “Roosters” to decode its inspirations and provocations. The poem opens in Key West with the town waking to a morning light she characterizes as militarized, summoned by a martial rooster. In a letter to Marianne Moore, Bishop wrote that she wanted the opening to represent the baseness of military warfare, and had in mind, too, Picasso’s Guernica.

But before offering the entire poem to you, I first want to walk through some opening lines with what you might call short-hand impressions. The poem begins—

At four o’clock
in the gun-metal blue dark
we hear the first crow of the first cock

From the weaponized color of dawn to the macho “first cock,” Bishop lures us into the poem as if from sleep, from non-consciousness, and cuts to the ongoing belligerent noise of men—

just below
the gun-metal blue window

Think: military violence. Think: fascist intimidation. Think: waking in a Florida dawn far from the violence in Europe or Asia or North Africa. Think: pugnacious roosters. Think: groggy sleepers distant from war—

and immediately there is an echo

off in the distance,
then one from the backyard fence,
then one, with horrible insistence,

grates like a wet match
from the broccoli patch,
flares, and all over town begins to catch.

Now that the town is engulfed, there follows a satiric portrait of militant male aggression—

Cries galore
come from the water-closet door,
from the dropping-plastered henhouse floor,

where in the blue blur
their rustling wives admire,
the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare

with stupid eyes
while from their beaks there rise
the uncontrolled, traditional cries.

Deep from protruding chests
in green-gold medals dressed,
planned to command and terrorize the rest,

the many wives
who lead hens’ lives
of being courted and despised;

deep from raw throats
a senseless order floats
all over town.

Tacked onto that is the aggressiveness of the rooster—

A rooster gloats

over our beds
from rusty iron sheds
and fences made from old bedsteads,

over our churches
where the tin rooster perches,
over our little wooden northern houses,

making sallies
‘generals’ looking at their maps…
from all the muddy alleys,
marking out maps like Rand McNally’s:

glass-headed pins,
oil-golds and copper greens,
anthracite blues, alizarins,

each one an active
displacement in perspective;
each screaming, “This is where I live!”

Each screaming
“Get up! Stop dreaming!”
Roosters, what are you projecting?

I have read about a year or so ago, in preparing a lecture, that Pope Gregory I in the 6th century said that the rooster was the most suitable emblem of Christianity for the emblem of St Peter. The argument goes that, because of this view, the rooster began gradually to be used as a weather vane on church steeples. I have read that, in the 9th century, Pope Nicholas I ordered the rooster to be placed on every church steeple. Pope Leo IV had it placed on the Old St. Peter’s Basilica even before Nicholas I was Pope. I confess I’ve gone no further than Wikipedia to read (should it be accurate) that alternative theories about the weather cock emblem include it as a symbol of vigilance of the clergy calling the people to prayer. And that Pope Nicholas I did in fact decree in the 9th century that churches ought to show the symbol of a rooster on its steeple to remind us of Jesus’s prophecy of Peter’s betrayal in Luke 22:34, that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed on the morning following the Last Supper.

rooster

Some combination of this Catholic history must have been in Bishop’s mind, and Elizabeth Jones writes that Bishop also likely read S. A. Callisen piece, “The Iconography of the Cock on the Column,” published in June 1939 in The Art Bulletin. Here is a passage from Jones’s essay:

…the image of a cock on a column in Christian art was adapted from a pagan motif that went back centuries. Even a quick perusal of the article makes clear how much Bishop is indebted to it for images, ideas, and phrases, particularly in the second section of the poem, where hope responds to despair…an illustration of the “Christ, Peter and cock” scene carved on one side of a sarcophagus in the Lateran museum, the very scene that Bishop describes! (Only the cock is not so “little” but the size of a turkey.) One can see too (something that always puzzled me) why she describes Christ as “stand(ing) amazed”. However, Bishop’s scene is a composite, as the inscription “gallus canit; / flet Petrus” appears, not under the sculpture illustrated, but under another depiction of St. Peter weeping, mentioned but not reproduced in the article. The comparison between Magdalen’s sin “of the flesh” and St. Peter’s “of the spirit,” the “bronze cock on a porphyry pillar” near the Lateran, its association with the erring “Prince of the Apostles,” the cock as weathervane on basilica (“churches” in Callisen) and barn, all appear in the article. Only four of the thirteen stanzas of this section could have been written without reference to it. What the article also cleared up for me were two of the three allusions to the Greeks in stanzas 17 and 18. On page 170 of the article, mention is made of “the ancient sport of shooting at a rooster placed on top of a column,” something I had never read of anywhere else. On page 166 we discover that it was Pausanias, the Greek geographer, who explained, concerning a statue of Athena, that a cock was perched on her helmet ‘because cocks are very combative.’ (The third allusion, that to a sacrificed cock, I’ve always taken to be a reference to Socrates’ request, before he took the hemlock, that his friend, Crito, should sacrifice a cock to Asclepius. The cock’s struggling I attributed to Bishop’s imagination. But perhaps this alludes to something else Bishop read.) Also striking is Callisen’s observation (p.173) that ‘the feathers of the rooster’ on the sarcophagus mentioned above are so precisely carved as to “seem almost to have been inspired by some metallic prototype.’ Could this have inspired Bishop’s image of ‘those metallic feathers’ that ‘oxidize’ in stanza 26? Or did it just corroborate her own observation of the metallic sheen on rooster’s feathers?

After reading the scene of the aerial fight in the poem, we shift to where the roosters are no longer emblems of human sin but represent the promise of Christian forgiveness. This mark in the poem is the great Bishop maneuver: she looks at a thing one way convincingly, then turns it over, looks again, and sees it anew. In “Roosters” she shifts from military crisis to Christian renewal to revelation of the natural world. You see this same maneuvering in poems such as “The Fish,” “At the Fishhouses,” “The Waiting Room,” “One Art,” and others. Finally “Roosters” threads in a new braid about Peter’s sin of the spirit in denying he knew Jesus as worse than Mary Magdalene’s sin of the body. By poem’s end, the rooster crows and Peter weeps as the poem shifts from remorse to salvation to inescapable hope—like a reenactment of civilization’s transformation from militancy to humility—so that the rooster’s call is a symbol of forgiveness. Here is “Roosters” by Elizabeth Bishop—

At four o’clock
in the gun-metal blue dark
we hear the first crow of the first cock

just below
the gun-metal blue window
and immediately there is an echo

off in the distance,
then one from the backyard fence,
then one, with horrible insistence,

grates like a wet match
from the broccoli patch,
flares, and all over town begins to catch.

Cries galore
come from the water-closet door,
from the dropping-plastered henhouse floor,

where in the blue blur
their rustling wives admire,
the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare

with stupid eyes
while from their beaks there rise
the uncontrolled, traditional cries.

Deep from protruding chests
in green-gold medals dressed,
planned to command and terrorize the rest,

the many wives
who lead hens’ lives
of being courted and despised;

deep from raw throats
a senseless order floats
all over town. A rooster gloats

over our beds
from rusty iron sheds
and fences made from old bedsteads,

over our churches
where the tin rooster perches,
over our little wooden northern houses,

making sallies
from all the muddy alleys,
marking out maps like Rand McNally’s:

glass-headed pins,
oil-golds and copper greens,
anthracite blues, alizarins,

each one an active
displacement in perspective;
each screaming, “This is where I live!”

Each screaming
“Get up! Stop dreaming!”
Roosters, what are you projecting?

You, whom the Greeks elected
to shoot at on a post, who struggled
when sacrificed, you whom they labeled

“Very combative …”
what right have you to give
commands and tell us how to live,

cry “Here!” and “Here!”
and wake us here where are
unwanted love, conceit and war?

The crown of red
set on your little head
is charged with all your fighting blood.

Yes, that excrescence
makes a most virile presence,
plus all that vulgar beauty of iridescence.

Now in mid-air
by twos they fight each other.
Down comes a first flame-feather,

and one is flying,
with raging heroism defying
even the sensation of dying.

And one has fallen,
but still above the town
his torn-out, bloodied feathers drift down;

and what he sung
no matter. He is flung
on the gray ash-heap, lies in dung

with his dead wives
with open, bloody eyes,
while those metallic feathers oxidize.

St. Peter’s sin
was worse than that of Magdalen
whose sin was of the flesh alone;

of spirit, Peter’s,
falling, beneath the flares,
among the “servants and officers.”

Old holy sculpture
could set it all together
in one small scene, past and future:

Christ stands amazed,
Peter, two fingers raised
to surprised lips, both as if dazed.

But in between
a little cock is seen
carved on a dim column in the travertine,

explained by gallus canit;
flet Petrus underneath it.
There is inescapable hope, the pivot;

yes, and there Peter’s tears
run down our chanticleer’s
sides and gem his spurs.

Tear-encrusted thick
as a medieval relic
he waits. Poor Peter, heart-sick,

still cannot guess
those cock-a-doodles yet might bless,
his dreadful rooster come to mean forgiveness,

a new weathervane
on basilica and barn,
and that outside the Lateran

there would always be
a bronze cock on a porphyry
pillar so the people and the Pope might see

that even the Prince
of the Apostles long since
had been forgiven, and to convince

all the assembly
that “Deny deny deny”
is not all the roosters cry.

In the morning
a low light is floating
in the backyard, and gilding

from underneath
the broccoli, leaf by leaf;
how could the night have come to grief?

gilding the tiny
floating swallow’s belly
and lines of pink cloud in the sky,

the day’s preamble
like wandering lines in marble.
The cocks are now almost inaudible.

The sun climbs in,
following “to see the end,”
faithful as enemy, or friend.

In 1946, reviewing North & South in The Nation, Bishop’s mentor, Marianne Moore, who disliked “Roosters” when Bishop showed it to her privately, proclaimed: “Elizabeth Bishop is spectacular in being unspectacular.” “Roosters” confirms the stiff praise. Read with care, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Roosters” wonderfully shapes one kind of American understanding of how we can modify and interrogate the material of everyday modern civilization with a more faithful picture of our own nation’s, if not all of humanity’s, near-blind mania for warfare. Indeed, the 1940s was a decade during which Bishop reasoned that female submission to the arrogance of war allowed a nation to acquiesce to violence and terror. One of the many things that makes Bishop’s anti-war argument in “Roosters” so interesting was her rare lack of reticence to disclose the struggles of women to survive against the rhythms of male competition, rivalry, discord, the taking up of arms, and combat. Anyone reading the poem, I suspect, will be struck first by the vivid form of the rhyming tercets. But more important: Bishop’s argument of unmediated disgust at the stupidity and defilement caused by some of humanity’s worst inclinations is unsparing as it is condescending.

It hardly seems to be an open question whether America’s predisposition toward war has been better detailed than in this poem. The very weight of America’s recent war-making since 2003 has reduced the US to being mired in the longest military deployment in our nation’s history. Nothing, Bishop’s poem reminds us, is ever won from war. By declining to misrepresent it, even to herself, and by a determination to dramatize the agonizing truth of war’s causes, Bishop shapes an American vision of how much can be undertaken, if not revealed, by intellectual and moral integrity. As easily as Bishop might have been tempted by cynicism and discouragement, she has the nerve to review human nature and also to portray resistance to duplicity and coercion.

It may not be too much to claim that by fashioning this attitude in a poem long considered a literary tour de force, cloaking it as grand achievement, if you will, Bishop helped to break ground for new attitudes about war and pacifism, on the one hand, and about relations, on the other hand, between men and women in the postwar period in which a growth of egalitarian assumptions were taking hold. If there is hope, she seems to suggest, it lies in women. The most searing poem in all of Bishop’s slender body of work, “Roosters” shapes an America where hope lies in the power of women to seize a full share of ownership of the civic destiny of civilization from the stubborn war-mongering of men.

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This is part four of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 1,  2, and 3. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →