In the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, William Gass explores the recent proliferation of Elizabeth Bishop publications. As usual, Gass’s inimitable prose delights. My favorite section from the essay is a kind of reverie on a certain punctuation mark. (Please forgive the faulty formatting of the stanza from Villa’s “The Anchored Angel.”):
Alas, there are so many kinds of commas: those that lie like rocks in the path of a sentence, slowing its gait and requiring the reader’s heed to avoid a stumble; their gentler cousins, impairing a pell-mell flow of meaning the way pebbles slow a stream; commas that indicate a pause for thinking things over; commas enclosing phrases the way the small pockets in a purse hug hairpins or collect bits of loose change; commas that return us to our last stop, and those that some schoolmarm has insisted should be placed, like a traffic cop, between “stop” and “and.” Not to mention those comma-like curvatures that function like overhead lighting—apostrophes they’re called—that warn of a bad crack in a spelt word where some letters have disappeared to apparently no one’s alarm; or claws that admit the words they enclose aren’t theirs; or those that issue claims of ownership, called possessives by unmarried teachers. So many kinds of inky dabs—they enable José García Villa, in some of his wonderful comma poems, to write lines that ring like blows from a hammer:
Aerials,of,light) . . .
Also, check out Gass’s story “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s.” It’s one of my favorites, and, apparently, one of Robert Coover’s favorite Gass stories.