Elizabeth Bishop published her poem “Sestina” in 1956.
A sestina is a highly structured form of poetry, consisting of six six-line stanzas, followed by a tercet (called its envoy or tornada), for a total of thirty-nine lines.
The subject of Elizabeht Bishop’s Sestina are a grandmother and a child, who have suffered a loss – perhaps the death of the grandmother’s child, the child’s parent. It is rainy September day and the grandmother has just made tea. The child sits at the table, drawing. The grandmother tries to protect the child from being sad by acting cheerfully and reading stories and jokes from the almanac, but she cannot hold in her tears. The child sees this but at the same time she makes a beautiful drawing of a house and is proud of it.
In the last lines of the poem something magical and very moving happens and I could not hold my tears as I read it: the buttons in the drawing become “little moons” and “fall down like tears/…into the flower bed the child/has carefully placed” in the drawing. While the grandmother tries with all her might to remain cheerful, thinking to protect the child, the child draws a world filled with tears.
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,
It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac
on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.
It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.
But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.
Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.