This narrative poem tells the mock-heroic adventures of an unlikely antihero on an imaginary quest. As Bigelow describes the piece,
In “How They Brought the News from Paradise to Paterson,” a first-person speaker narrates his story (in heroic verse) as he swims from one end of a resort pool complex to another in search of what he thinks is more alcohol, but is in fact a journey to find his marriage
and himself. The poem plays with the epic and tragic within a setting stifled with consumerism and class separation.
The poem is structured as the monomyth, in which the speaker, while lounging at the Paradise pool bar in a 5-star resort in Barbados, overhears what he interprets as a call to adventure: the bar has run out of rum. Taking upon himself to embark upon a journey through the pool complex to find the god-like Concierge at the far end, whose “sage advice / and quick, imperious commands” would restore the flow of rum in Paradise.
In the monomyth, the hero’s journey into the unknown is also into the unconscious. As the speaker goes deeper into the pool complex, he speaks of his wife, who is enjoying herself in the resort by herself, medicated in her own way, reading romance novels, and
longing for imaginary heroes
true lovers surviving the great divide
in the push and pull
of life’s restless tides.
Does the speaker seek to prove himself a hero (to himself or to his wife), so he can bring the story of how he saved [the] Paradise [bar]? Would the feat save his self-esteem, which seems to ebb as he descends from one pool level to another and encounters its bartenders.
As you read this poem, you may detect echoes of two similar journeys informing the work: Dante’s allegorical journey into Hell, through Purgatory, and finally achieving Paradise to find his Beatrice, and J. Alfred Prufrock’s [spoiler alert] failed journey to “ask an overwhelming question” that will “disturb the universe.” The situations are inverted, however: our hero begins in Paradise and moves away from his Beatrice, and we can imagine him as a married Prufrock who is no less a failure in love.
Will the speaker of our journey succeed in his literal and/or symbolic journey? Will the mermaids sing to him? Will he find the rum needed to sweeten Paradise? Is he a hero or anti-hero? You will have to read this multi-layered narrative to discover its conclusion.
And it all feels so normal, so harmoniously put together, so in tune with the speaker’s voice and narrative, that when Bigelow punctuates the end with a variation on the pattern he has lulled us with, the effect is all the more poignant.