A 1940s poem’s dark and ominous Varick Street

elizabethbishopkingstreetIn 1944, Elizabeth Bishop, then 33 and with a published book of poems under her belt, moved into a tiny flat at 46 King Street (from which she painted this watercolor of 43 King Street, at right, across the street).

She’d already lived in various downtown apartments since graduating from Vassar in 1934, among them 16 Charles Street and 61 Perry Street.

elizabethbishopcollegeyearbook1934Unlike so many other artists and writers of her generation, Bishop (left, in her Vassar yearbook) had an uneasy relationship with the city. She spent much of her early years traveling, living in Manhattan only in short stints.

One poem in particular, “Varick Street,” published in 1947, offers a surreal glimpse of what put her off about New York.

At night the factories
struggle awake,
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work.
Try to breathe,
the elongated nostrils
haired with spikes
give off such stenches, too.

elizabethbishopfactoryIn the 1940s, Varick Street—the widened extension of Seventh Avenue South, which plows through the West Village’s meandering cow path streets—was a hub of manufacturing.

Bishop seemed to view the factories (perhaps this one at left, on the corner of King and Varick) right outside her King Street window as mechanized and ominous threats to love.

The poem alludes to the unnatural, the “pale dirty light” and “mechanical moons” of the factories.

The industry and commercialism of the city’s manufacturing world appear to threaten the narrator’s love for the unnamed person sleeping in bed beside her.

Our bed shrinks from the soot
and hapless odors
hold us close.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me

Bishop’s work is not confessional, and though her poems are intimate, they tends to avoid the personal.

But one can imagine Bishop lying in bed next to her beloved, in a relationship complicated if not doomed by an industrial and commercialized city that to her doesn’t recognize love and encourages betrayal.

Here is text of the poem in full, originally published in The Nation.

[Top photo: Tibor De Nagy Gallery; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: 47-49 King Street in 1975 by Edmund Gillon, MCNY: 2013.3.2.2211]

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5 Responses to “A 1940s poem’s dark and ominous Varick Street”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    BRILLIANT!

    I so enjoy the blending of art with the history of NYC and now you have this marvelous bit of poetry.
    I am especially taken with the Poetess’s line:

    “…buildings veined with pipes”

    Yes, yeas — that is exactally the perfect description of thousands of such buildings I have seen.

    THANKS — and, do more…

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you Audrey! I love this beguiling poem, with all its ambiguity and imagery.

  3. carolegill Says:

    i think she was an idealist. Thank you for the article. Never heard of her, but I won’t forget her.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you Carole. I don’t think of her as cynical either, despite how dark “Varick Street” is.

  5. Lady G. Says:

    She had a dim view of her apt. Looks like she covered it with soot, or perhaps drew a match over it to give it a burned, sooty look?

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