Elizabeth Bishop is one of the most original lyric voices of the twentieth century, standing with such other American poets as Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore, who was Bishop's mentor and shared Bishop's thirst for accuracy. Like these poets, Bishop was not part of any school and so did not align herself with any program or spend time framing manifestos. Instead, she forged her own aesthetic based on close observation of the thing itself, and in the process generated new idioms and rhythms that convey with wit and a keen moral sense her beliefs about the power of the human imagination to build upon and alter our world.
Born on 8 February 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts, to William Thomas Bishop and Gertrude Bulmer, Elizabeth Bishop had a troubled childhood: her father died just eight months after she was born, and her mother, who suffered from mental illness, was institutionalized in 1915. After being essentially orphaned at such a young age, Elizabeth went to live with her mother's family in Great Village, Nova Scotia, and she saw her mother for the last time in 1916. In 1917, at the age of six, she was taken back to Worcester to live with her paternal grandparents, spending summers in Nova Scotia until she was seventeen. In her posthumously published short story The Country Mouse, Bishop remarks on her early sense of estrangement from her “home” in Nova Scotia and her vexed nationalism, as she clung to the patriotic songs and emblems of Canada while being forced to give those up for “the Star-Spangled Banner” and all things American. “I didn't want to be an American,” Bishop recalls feeling, and her condition of rootlessness brought on by her expatriation would last a lifetime.
Setting up residences in New York, Key West, Brazil, and, finally, Cambridge, Massachusetts (where she died on 6 October 1979), among other places, she led a peripatetic existence that is reflected in her poetry, which documents the people, customs, and cultures that she encountered along the way. Although she spent the longest time (fifteen years) in Brazil living with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares, and later referred to Brazil as having become her home, Bishop insisted that her poetry was grounded in North America: “I am influenced by Brazil certainly, but I am a completely American poet, nevertheless.” At the same time, though, she felt an overwhelming sense of being countryless, of never particularly feeling at home anywhere. Indeed, what is most striking about Bishop is not so much her Americanism as it is her cosmopolitanism. Her ability to portray at least three nations (Canada, the United States, and Brazil) in such subtlety and depth—her multinational imagination—is unmatched in American poetry.
North & South
Bishop's first book of poems, North & South (1946), represents the varied experiences of her years living in the northeastern and southeastern United States. In the book she moves from one region to the other, and in doing so moves from poems that are largely allegorical to ones that are more particular and detailed; it is these latter poems that point in the direction of her future work. This shift in representational strategy bespeaks her own deeper penetration into the interior life of the country and her increasingly urgent effort to locate herself in her world. The Map is the lead poem in the book, and it first appeared in print in Trial Balances, an anthology published in 1935 that included three of Bishop's poems along with an introduction to her work by Marianne Moore. In the poem a speaker stares at a map, considering the tension between its aesthetic features—“delicate” colorings and formal markings—and its representational function. Invariably, that tension relates to poetic representation, to the question of the relationship between her art and the world it seeks to portray. The map is, she says, a “shadowed” world, but it is unclear whether the shadows are produced by art or nature (the poem opens with the line, “Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges”). Her effort to place herself is made difficult by the uncertainty of representation, and the imaginary travel allowed by the map competes with the actual travel for which the map might be used. In her effort to make sense of the cartographic field, she ends by claiming to prefer formalism to historical reality: “More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors”; however, in her emotional response to the map, she suggests also her deep interest in historical fact and its relationship to abstract topographical display. Indeed, the prosodic form of The Map bears on this theme: The poem is divided into three eleven-line stanzas each ending in a rhymed couplet, but, within that form, the metrical pattern fluctuates, with iambic pentameter lines occasionally yielding to longer and shorter ones. This unevenness emblematizes the hold of the actual world on the lines of pure art.
In the next poem, The Imaginary Iceberg, which was published in the same year as The Map (when Bishop was twenty-four), she again explores the pressures of the world of art and the responses of the imagination to it. The title figure represents both the “self-made,” self-enclosed art object and the benighted soul, the mind's interior. The poem begins, “We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship, / although it meant the end of travel,” and in that formulation we feel the pull of the pure crystalline of the “rhetorical” on the speaker. As an emblem of art, the iceberg represents the dangerous lure of the artificial (“imaginary”) and hermetic that must be steered away from if one is to create poetry out of the reality of travel and the engagements that travel affords. The poem ends with a vision of the isolation that comes from a rejection of reality, “The iceberg cuts its facets from within. / Like jewelry from a grave / it saves itself perpetually and adorns / only itself,” and it is this fate that Bishop is warning herself against as a creative artist.
Other poems in the first half of the book also examine the plight of the modern artist, who is seen as caught up in the seemingly impossible effort to negotiate between the self and the world outside the self. The Gentleman of Shalott is about an artist's effort to make the best of a rather precarious situation. Playing on Alfred Lord Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott, where we find a female artist living exclusively in a world of shadows, Bishop depicts a man who is off balance, a split personality who believes that because he is perfectly symmetrical: one side of his body is a mirror image of the other. He is therefore unable to determine which side of him is real and which is illusion (“mirrored reflection”), and his “uncertainty” about his identity is a product of the solipsistic world he has constructed and to which he is “resigned.” In love with “that sense of constant re-adjustment” that he must undergo, the artist keeps trying to figure out the connection between his imagination and the facts of existence. In The Man Moth, one of Bishop's New York poems (though there is no attempt to ground it in the particulars of that city), she makes a similar point. The poem's symbolist cityscape depicts both the alienated artist and the alienation and dislocation of modern urban man. The allegorical title figure, which is based on a typographic error for “mammoth” that Bishop saw in a newspaper, is both sad and funny: He is heroic in his struggle to succeed in his climb up skyscrapers to the moon, though doomed to failure. The Man Moth chooses not to expose himself, concealing the tear he sheds in the final stanza, and Bishop's ironic suggestion is that the creative artist must choose otherwise, remaining open to the world in order to nourish the imagination.
In her poem “Large Bad Picture” Bishop continues her inquiry into our relations to art, responding to a banal picture painted by her great-uncle. The speaker begins in close observation of the items represented on the canvas, pointing out as she does the conventional and not very masterful brushstrokes (“perfect waves”; “hundreds of fine black birds / hanging in n's in banks”). However, in the sixth quatrain her perception shifts, as she imagines about these birds, “One can hear their crying, crying.” She invests herself emotionally in the painting, and finds value in the calming influence of the lines and colors: “the small red sun goes rolling, rolling, / round and round and round at the same height / in perpetual sunset, comprehensive, consoling.” Ascribing therapeutic effects to the work of art, the speaker overlooks its poor quality to find in this ordinary—and not very aesthetically exalted—object a beauty, a “consoling” illusion of the world that she inhabits. The form of the poem suggests the commonplace nature of the picture, its ballad stanzas linking to the idea of folk art and its rhythmic and sonic irregularities resisting perfection, as she does not want to translate the picture into something superior but instead honor it on its own terms.
Although Bishop does not take political issues of the day head-on in this book, she does include in it her sestina A Miracle for Breakfast, a Depression-era poem that Bishop wrote in New York when breadlines were common and which she described to Moore as her “ ‘social conscious’ poem, a poem about hunger.” The speaker is one of a number of poor people isolated on their separate balconies, waiting for food. When a man brings to each only a drop of coffee and “rather hard crumb,” it becomes apparent that no religious miracle will occur; however, through careful observation, her “eye close to the crumb,” the speaker brings to mind an earthly paradise: “My crumb, / my mansion, made for me by a miracle, / through ages, by insects, birds, and the river / working the stone.” This secular vision is fleeting, though, and the envoi of the sestina brings us back to the poverty of the present: “We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee. / A window across the river caught the sun / as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.” Bishop shows through her manipulation of traditional Christian symbols that any miracle or alteration of consciousness, even if momentary, will be a product of the imagination.
Bishop took her first trip abroad in the summer of 1935, traveling to Paris and then on to London, Morocco, and Spain, before returning to New York the following year. While in France, Bishop became interested in literary and visual surrealism, and the four Paris-inspired poems that she wrote show the extent of her debt to surrealist poetics. Rather than getting a detailed description of the city of Paris, we get an impressionistic view of interior space, a sort of dreamscape. “Sleeping on the Ceiling” opens with the line, “It is so peaceful on the ceiling.” This topsy-turvydom continues in “Sleeping Standing Up”: “As we lie down to sleep the world turns half away / through ninety dark degrees; the bureau lies on the wall.” In “Paris, 7 a.m.” the speaker tries to determine what is actual and what is not, as the conception of time and space is wholly distorted. These poems, standing at the pivot between north and south in the book, figure the displacement of the narrator, her altered psychic state and instability; here, as in other poems from throughout her career, Bishop depicts what she called the “surrealism of everyday life.”
The second half of North & South arises out of the landscape and people she encountered in Key West, Florida, where she lived off and on for nine years, beginning in 1938. In the poem “Florida” she hails “The state with the prettiest name” and documents in stunning detail the flora and fauna of that ecosystem, taking in the tropical mangrove roots, pelicans, tanagers, and fireflies. The accumulation of sensuous natural images represents a turning point in Bishop's aesthetic, as she moves away from the intense interiority of her earlier poems and toward a fuller attention to the external contours of her world. At night, however, Bishop sees that the state of Florida radiates a “corrupt” image, turning into “the poorest / post-card of itself”; as she bears witness, even in this vital landscape there lurks the presence of death, but there is no sermonizing here or adoption of abstract philosophical turns of phrase; natural facts speak for themselves.
“The Fish” is another remarkable poem in Bishop's body of work, and in it she charts the fluctuating emotions of a speaker who has caught a fish and who comes to know it in relation to herself. The poem begins with objective description: “I caught a tremendous fish / and held him beside the boat / half out of water, with my hook / fast in a corner of his mouth.” However, the scene is soon infused with the observer's subjectivity, as she begins to see something both like and unlike herself in her catch. The careful depiction of the fish on the hook is based on an actual experience that Bishop had in Key West, and she brims with emotion as she looks on the fish who bears scars from previous battles (“five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth” are seen “Like medals with their ribbons / frayed and wavering”). This decorated soldier reminds her of her kinship to it, and in the shock of recognition—in her flush of excitement—she exclaims, “I stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little rented boat”; with oil spilling about her and creating a rainbow, she ends the poem in the epiphanic “everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go.” Ultimately, Bishop is able to see the beauty of the ordinary, and her moral decision at the end of the poem to “let the fish go” recognizes its uniqueness and integrity.
Roosters, first published in New Republic in April 1941, is another Key West–inspired poem and one of the few in which she moves firmly into the realm of politics. Although Marianne Moore and her mother objected to some of the language of the poem (including what they believed to be the crude word “water-closet”) and largely rewrote it, Bishop stood behind her choices, and in her defense revealed that the poem related to the aggression and brutality of World War II: “I cherish my ‘water-closet’ and the other sordidities because I want to emphasize the essential baseness of militarism.” One of those “other sordidities” was the triple rhyme scheme, whose “grating” quality imitated the harsh cry of the rooster, which “grates like a wet match / from the broccoli patch, / flares, and all over town begins to catch.” As Bishop remarked to Moore: “I can't seem to bring myself to give up the set form, which I'm afraid you think fills the poem with redundancies, etc. I feel that the rather rattle-trap rhythm is appropriate.” In the poem Bishop meditates on the violence of war and the responsibilities it thrusts on us, with the pugilistic roosters “At four o'clock / in the gun-metal blue dark” standing as a symbol of an intimidating fascism (“Deep from protruding breasts / in green-gold medals dressed, / planned to command and terrorize the rest”). Ironically, the rooster is also a reassuring symbol, representing the capacity to forgive, a biblical reference to the apostle Peter's betrayal of Christ and his repentance. The poem points up this redemptive potential (“those cock-a-doodles yet might bless, / his dreadful rooster come to mean forgiveness”), and attests to Bishop's increasing interest in our heroic endurance as historical subjects.
Alert to the politics of class, Bishop also wrote poems about poor black and Cuban residents of south Florida. In the dramatic monologue Jerónimo's House the figure of Jerónimo joyfully describes the homemade domestic space that he inhabits, a space made up of fragile materials but woven together with great imagination. In the poem Cootchie, Bishop writes about the relationship between Miss Lula, who ran a boardinghouse in Naples, Florida, where Bishop stayed on her first trip there, and her servant, Cootchie. The poem is an elegy for Cootchie, whose worth Miss Lula cannot see even after she is gone. The speaker of the poem asks, “but who will shout and make her understand?” but no amount of shouting will make Miss Lula understand, as racism has performed its work too well. Through these portraits, Bishop as poet-ethnographer reveals her concern for both the geographical and cultural coordinates of her world.
A Cold Spring
When Bishop's next book, Poems: North and South—Cold Spring, appeared in 1955, it took the form of a reprint of North & South together with a collection of eighteen new poems under the heading A Cold Spring and won for her the Pulitzer Prize. Much had changed in Bishop's life between 1946 and 1955, and those changes are reflected in her new work. She served as Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress from 1949 to 1950 (her poem “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress” reflects on that experience), and, in 1951 she went on a trip to Brazil and ended up staying, living there for fifteen years with Lota Soares. Her life in Brazil was the happiest period of Bishop's life, and it is here that she attained her international reputation. Although the majority of her Brazil poems appear in the later Questions of Travel, A Cold Spring records some of her experiences in that country and also includes some of her earliest meditations on her childhood territory of Nova Scotia, as she continued to explore the meaning of travel and the work of the mind in the shaping of human experience.
The trajectory of Bishop's At the Fishhouses is typical of her best poetry, moving as it does from a precise description of the physical (a Nova Scotia seascape with its five old fishhouses) to a meditation on the metaphysical (knowledge and being in the world). Drawn into the visceral details of this scene on a cold evening, the speaker is attracted to the silver color that coats everything, in particular the “iridescent” herring scales that line the fish tubs and wheelbarrows, as well as the vest and thumb of the old fisherman with whom she talks. She finds beauty in all of this, but she is also aware of the sense of decline and decay that hovers over it. Turning to the water, she communes with a seal, and sings it hymns, joking that like the seal she is “a believer in total immersion,” and she is fully immersed as an observer of the details of this place. In the final passage of the poem, Bishop's precise painting gives way to more abstract considerations, as she is baptized into a new and deeper understanding of her world. The sea, which she earlier had described as “opaque,” now is legible, and she sees that it is not subject to decay, as is the land, but instead is a source of life and death; in that body of water she finds a metaphor for human knowledge, “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,” and she ends in the epistemological insight, “our knowledge is historical, flowing and flown,” a formulation that acknowledges the interpenetration of the past and the present. The hypnotic lexical repetitions of the finale (“Cold dark deep and absolutely clear” appears twice as does “the same”) symbolize the mysterious qualities of the sea, its immortal allure, positioned as it is “above the stones and then the world.”
In “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” Bishop continues her investigation into the significance of travel and registers her awareness of the ways in which travel does not measure up to our desires and expectations, our rage for order. After examining a set of Bible engravings, she finds: “Thus should have been our travels: / serious, engravable.” At first it appears that the pictures in the Bible are at odds with her fragmented memories of actual travel. As in “The Map,” she is confronted by the difference between the representation of the world and her personal experience of it, and she finds appealing the order and permanence of the Bible's engravings, especially in light of her own random memories. However, as she goes on to inspect the book, she finds that the images are in fact “tired / and a touch familiar,” that they are impoverished for not being real. When she recounts her own travels, there similarly is no sense of order or purpose, with “Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’ ” (The idea of our memory as merely a “litter” of “correspondences” is the submerged subject of another poem in the book, “The Bight.”) To the final question, “Why couldn't we have seen / this old Nativity while we were at it? /…and looked and looked our infant sight away,” the implied answer is that our efforts for a unified and exalted vision based on travel are doomed to failure, and yet, she seems to insist, it remains important to try to refresh our sense of the world by seeing again through the wondering eyes of a child.
Finally, her incantatory lyric An Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore is based upon a poem by Pablo Neruda entitled Alberto Rojas Jimenez Viene Volando (Comes Flying), and in it Bishop uses the refrain, “you come flying,” that underpins Neruda's poem to invoke the spirit of Moore, one of her closest friends and most important mentors. In her poem the speaker begins by asking Moore, “From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning, pleases come flying”; later in the poem, Moore is seen “Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,” a reference to her work in syllabic verse. Her encouragement of Moore includes the following line as well, “Manhattan / is all awash with morals this fine morning, / so please come flying,” as Bishop appeals to Moore's highly refined moral sensibility, a sensibility reflected in her poems and one that she hails in her prose tribute to Moore entitled “Efforts of Affection.” In that piece, Bishop pays homage to Moore's spontaneity, her close observation of the objects of this world, and at the same time establishes her independence from Moore and her particular poetic vision.
Questions of Travel
Questions of Travel is divided into two parts, “Brazil” and Elsewhere, and takes up matters of both public and private history. In the early part of “Brazil” Bishop begins to question the essential value of travel and records her first tentative steps as a tourist in what amounts to a sort of initiation into the South American country. In the first poem, Arrival at Santos, which is dated January, 1952 and was originally part of A Cold Spring, the expectations of the tourist are unfulfilled by what she finds in the Brazilian port: “is this how this country is going to answer you // and your immodest demands for a different world, / and a better life, and complete comprehension / of both at last, and immediately, / after eighteen days of suspension?” She had not thought of there being a national flag and monetary system; she was not ready for the realities of travel. The strange but rather “feeble” and “unassertive” features of Santos are disappointing, and she comes to the realization that “Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap, / but they seldom seem to care what impression they make.”
The ballad rhyme scheme of the poem suggests the commonness of the experience the tourist undergoes. One prosodic trick in the poem owes a debt to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and, indeed, Alice's experience of seeing a world in a different scale is very much in keeping with the disorientation of the tourist in Bishop's poem. In wonderland Alice listens as the Mock Turtle “sighed deeply, and began, in a voice sometimes choked with sobs, to sing” a song called “Turtle Soup,” a song that includes the lines, “Who would not give all else for two p / ennyworth only of Beautiful Soup?” Here Carroll is parodying a popular sentimental song of his day, “Star of the Evening,” which is marked by an overblown sentimentality. Bishop, too, splits a word across a line break for the sake of rhyme in describing a fellow passenger, Miss Breen: “Her home when she is at home, is in Glens Fall // s, New York.” This effect is meant to highlight the “wonderland” feeling of Brazil for the speaker and to mock the sentimental notions that tourists carry with them on their journeys. At the end of the poem the tourist declares “We leave Santos at once; / we are driving to the interior,” and those lines of departure point us toward the education of the tourist, toward the transformation of the “tourist” into a “traveler.”
In “Brazil, January 1, 1502” Bishop delves into the colonial history of the country, and evokes the fabulous nature of the flora and fauna that proliferates there. However, as Bishop describes, the densely textured landscape that these Portuguese explorers encounter is “not unfamiliar,” “corresponding” as it did to the embroidered art of tapestries they left at home, that is, “to an old dream of wealth and luxury / already out of style when they left home — / wealth, plus a brand-new luxury.” Here she shows how our response to the alien is conditioned, how our understanding is impacted by our expectations and our sense of the already known. Representing the violence of conquest, she writes that these men “ripped away into the hanging fabric, / each out to catch an Indian for himself,” the women in swift retreat. The hypocrisy of these “Christians” “Directly after Mass” pursuing the natives is not lost on Bishop, and she is careful, without sermonizing, to point up the horror of the nationalist enterprise of conquest.
In the title poem we are back in the present, with the traveler overwhelmed by the plenitude of the environment of Brazil: “There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams / hurry too rapidly down to the sea.” Indeed, there is an overabundance and overactivity to everything, and that feeling leads her to question her desire to drive to the interior of this country, to experience for herself what she could have read in a book: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? / Where should we be today? / Is it right to be watching strangers in a play / in this strangest of theatres?” She is self-conscious about her foreignness and the voyeurism that it entails and wonders further if it is simply some “childishness” that makes us want “to rush / to see the sun the other way around”: “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come / to imagined places, not just stay at home?” Yet the answer to these questions is finally a firm “No,” as she finds virtue in travel as an aid to the imagination: “surely it would have been a pity not to have seen” the fantastic sights and sounds of this clime. Her ironic and final “Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?” suggests that for Bishop there really is no alternative to travel and the pleasures it affords, that there really is for her no stable “home” from which she is leaving or to which she can easily go back.
As “Brazil” progresses, the female traveler-poet is quickly assimilated into the indigenous culture, interacting with people on a personal level as she draws on Brazilian folklore and mythology to come even closer to the lived history of the native scene. She becomes more patient and less desirous of immediate and rushed sensation as time goes on, and, as she is initiated into a new order of things, her privileged native position creates a sense of rootedness even though culturally she is only a resident alien. In her poem “Squatter's Children,” Bishop paints a picture of poverty with a girl and a boy on a hillside and ponders what their “rights” are. The dramatic monologue “Manuelzhino,” which is told from the perspective of Lota (the poem states that “A friend of the writer is speaking”), is about the gulf that separates the rich from the poor in Brazil. Manuelzhino is a worker on Lota's estate, and the paternalism of the rich is pointed up here, and with it the condescension that marks their treatment of those beneath them on the social scale. The speaker says toward the end of the poem, “You helpless, foolish man, / I love you all I can, / I think. Or do I?” and she puzzles (“perhaps…”) throughout the poem over the life he lives, admitting that she called him names to visitors, for which she “apologize[s] here and now.” The speaker calls attention to her many generosities, including providing money for medicine and other items for his family, and her ironic tone calls on us to make judgments about her attitude toward Manuelzhino, even as she is making her own judgments about him.
The Armadillo, a poem dedicated to the poet Robert Lowell, whom Bishop met in 1947 and with whom she remained friends throughout her life, taps into local history, as it records her impression of the traditional celebration of St. John's Day, a holy day celebrated with the release of fire balloons into the air. Lowell's high praise for Bishop's handling of idioms, rhythms, and images in this poem led him to write Skunk Hour, a poem he said was deeply indebted to Bishop's, though Bishop's is not confessional in the way Lowell's is. “The Armadillo” begins in casual observation, with the speaker watching the “frail, illegal” balloons ascend in flight, attracted to their desire to transcend the earthly plane. However, she also recognizes in them a danger and sees one fall and burst into flame; in the aftermath, “a glistening armadillo left the scene, / rose-flecked, head down, tail down, // and then a baby rabbit jumped out, / short-eared to our surprise. / So soft!—a handful of intangible ash / with fixed, ignited eyes.” These lines suggest the exuberance of the narrator, who is happy to see the survival of these animals, but who is also very aware of their fragility. The poem ends in the following italicized ballad quatrain: “Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry! / O falling fire and piercing cry / and panic, and a weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky!” Here the speaker notes the weakness of the armadillo in the face of the man-made balloons, which imitate the stars, and registers the hopelessness of the animal's protest against the forces that cause his suffering. The poem ends, then, not in transcendence but rather in a painful reminder of the agonies of the body that we all must endure.
The ballad The Burglar of Babylon pivots on yet another native legend, the folk hero and criminal Micuçú. In the poem Micuçú, “a burglar and killer” and hero of the poor, escapes from the penitentiary and is pursued by the police, who finally kill him. Bishop said that she watched the pursuit of Micuçú through binoculars from her apartment in Rio and modeled her poem on stories about the incident she read in the newspaper. As Bishop makes clear in a twice repeated quatrain, he is a product of his environment: “On the fair green hills of Rio / There grows a fearful stain: / The poor who come to Rio / And can't go home again.” However, we also learn from Micuçú's grieving aunt that Micuçú “was always mean,” that not everyone chose the life he did: “ ‘I raised him to be honest, / Even here, in Babylon slum.’ ” Bishop's attention in the poem to the gap between rich and poor, though, suggests that class plays a large role here, as “Rich people in apartments / Watched through binoculars” while the fugitive hid on the hill of Babylon. In the end, in the wake of Micuçú's death, the police are “after another two” criminals, the cycle of violence, poverty, and despair spiraling on.
In the section of the book entitled Elsewhere Bishop ranges more widely, taking up multiple locations and points of view in her exploration of her personal past, a past that revolves around images of pain and loss. In its original form, it begins with the autobiographical story In the Village, which is about the loss of Bishop's mother to insanity when she was five years old. The little girl's mother's refusal to give up mourning for her dead husband produces a scream that haunts the narrative and the girl's memory: “A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotia village.” The story shifts perspective (moving from first-person to third-person accounts) and migrates back and forth in time, conflating “the past, the present, and those years in between.” Bishop's confusion of events in her representation of the ruptured world of the child symbolizes the grave indeterminacy of identity with which she struggles.
In the poems that follow this story, Bishop charts her losses further. First Death in Nova Scotia is about the death of her young cousin Arthur and her attempts to make sense of that loss. In Manners she addresses the death of a social order from a child's perspective. Sestina also returns us to her Nova Scotia childhood and proves, as Helen Vendler (Schwartz and Estess, 1983) has noted, that “the strange can occur even in the bosom of the familiar, even, most unnervingly, at the domestic hearth” in Bishop's work. In the poem a grandmother tries to “hide her tears” from a child, who draws a “rigid” and an “inscrutable” house in recognition of the buried emotions that engulf her. The title highlights the verse form that the poet chooses—one that runs on lexical repetition at the ends of lines—and ironically comments on the losses and absences (the lack of repetition) that she feels. In these poems Bishop drifts backwards and forwards in history to offer up a concordance of unprivileged perspectives, insisting that home is variable, not some deeply rooted constant. Even though certain events take place in Nova Scotia, this location is often not explicit, and the ambiguity of time and place relates to the ambiguity of selfhood that these poems map.
In Visits to St. Elizabeths Bishop treats yet another figure in decline, giving her impression of her visits (while at the Library of Congress) to the poet Ezra Pound, who was confined to a mental hospital and under indictment for treason for his radio broadcasts from Italy during World War II. Written to the tune of the nursery rhyme This is the House that Jack Built, the poem paints a picture of disturbing dislocation, of a world that is out of balance and in danger of collapse. The fact that the poem is based on a familiar one from childhood indicates that condition is not one of comfort for Bishop. Pound, “the man / that lies in the house of Bedlam,” is seen in various takes as “tragic,” “honored,” “cranky,” “cruel,” and “wretched,” but the portrait that emerges through the repetitions of the poem is not only of Pound but of the post-war world that makes the crisis of establishing a solid identity particularly acute. In this poem Bishop's engagements of private and public history in Questions of Travel collide.
Bishop's final book of poetry begins with a series of questions and answers from an 1884 textbook entitled First Lessons in Geography. To the questions of Lesson VI, which include “What is Geography?” and “What is the Earth?,” we are provided with simply stated answers (“A description of the earth's surface” and “The planet or body on which we live”). In Lesson X, though, the answers are not always forthcoming. About the map, questions proliferate: “In what direction is the Volcano? The Cape? The Bay? The Lake? The Strait? The Mountains? The Isthmus?” These sorts of locational questions are those Bishop sought answers to throughout her life, and it is appropriate that she rounds back to them here, still in search of a positive identity in a shifting world.
Her poem In the Waiting Room is the first that Bishop wrote in which she calls herself by name, and in it she pursues the questions of personal identity that shape Questions of Travel, especially the Nova Scotia poems of Elsewhere, even as she resists the confessional strain of Lowell and other contemporary poets. Drawing on her personal history, Bishop represents a scene in which as a child of six she went to the dentist's office with her Aunt Consuelo. Leafing through a National Geographic in the waiting room, she is confronted by the “horrifying” naked breasts of “black, naked women with necks / wound round and round with wire / like the necks of light bulbs.” Her surprise midway through the poem at her identification with them by virtue of her gender creates confusion. What she believes to be a scream from her aunt in the doctor's chair turns out to be her own scream: “Without thinking at all / I was my foolish aunt, / our eyes glued to the cover / of the National Geographic, / February, 1918.” In her existential crisis she remembers feeling, “you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them. / Why should you be one, too?” Indeed, she goes on to ask, “Why should I be my aunt, / or me, or anyone?” Her movement back into the flow of history at the end of the poem, where we are told “The War was on,” suggests the continuing imbrication of public and private, as Bishop struggles to make sense of herself in the world.
Picking up another thematic strand from an earlier book, Poem, which is about a painting by her great-uncle George Hutchinson that Bishop inherits, is, like the earlier Large Bad Picture, a meditation on the nature of art and the work of the imagination that makes art meaningful to us. Unlike the large picture, though, there is no pretension to grandeur here; this picture is little (“About the size of an old-style dollar bill, / American or Canadian”), and the detailed brushstrokes make vivid impressions, even though they are conventional. In the second stanza the narrator points out what she recognizes in the painting, the human touch. After a rather unengaged observation, she suddenly discovers something (“Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!”), feeling her connection to the artist through the familiar scene, which she actively reconstructs through memory: “We both knew this place, / apparently, this literal small backwater, / looked at it long enough to memorize it, / our years apart. How strange.” The painting mirrors the world so accurately that she is unsure which is actual and which imagined: “art ‘copying from life’ and life itself, / life and the memory of it so compressed / they've turned into each other. Which is which?” In the end the speaker's emotional response to the “touching detail” of the work of art creates its value, and she finds that the world the picture memorializes—one that stands beyond the ravages of time—has the power to console. The title (“Poem”) calls attention to Bishop's own art, which is itself a re-description (of the painting) and which likewise attempts to make meaning out of the commonplace, to represent the blurring of the boundaries between art and life.
The meaningfulness of the quotidian is also the subject of Bishop's dramatic monologue “Crusoe in England,” where the figure of the castaway Robinson Crusoe back in England reminds us of other displaced and solitary figures from Bishop's early poetry; on a metaphorical (and autobiographical) level it also suggests Bishop's isolation and deep sense of loss after her return to America and Lota's suicide. Crusoe claims of his life story that “None of the books has ever got it right,” and here he works to set the record straight. Once off the island, Crusoe says he missed the charged nature of every object that was his: “The knife there on the shelf—/ it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix. / It lived…/ Now it won't look at me at all. / The living soul has dribbled away”; as he discovers, the items of his life in misery on the island were in fact dear to him, even though at the time he often “gave way to self-pity.” An anachronistic passage from Wordsworth's poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud” (“ ‘They flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss…’ ”) that Crusoe could not fully recall while on his island allows Bishop to critique romantic solipsism in her insistence on the need for companionship in the world. When we learn that his friend Friday is no longer with him, having died of the measles, we feel the full weight of Crusoe's sense of dispossession.
Another of the most celebrated lyrics from Geography III, The Moose, Bishop's longest poem, returns us once again to the landscape of Nova Scotia and to the theme of travel, as the speaker journeys on a bus from Nova Scotia to Boston, away from home. As the familiar and domestic recedes, the traveler enters into a dreamy moonlit world, with fog enveloping the bus and an air of mystery infusing the scene. The traveler dozes off, and overhears conversations within the bus, talk that seems to be going on “in Eternity”: she listens to the losses that families have endured (“deaths, deaths and sicknesses”) and begins to see that these losses must be accepted as part of life. Suddenly, the bus comes to a stop when a moose comes out of “the impenetrable wood” to stand in the middle of the road. The moose is curious, sniffing around the bus, and so are the passengers, whose excitement is keen; the animal's “otherworldly” presence prompts the speaker to ask, “Why, why do we feel / (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?” This joy they experience brings the passengers together and is in counterpoint to the human experience of deprivation and loss that is articulated in earlier stanzas. When the bus finally moves on, the passengers descend again to the mundane facts of existence, symbolized by the smell of gasoline emanating from the bus, but the moose, “Towering, antlerless, / high as a church, / homely as a house,” will not be forgotten; instead, she will continue to inhabit the imagination of the people who witnessed her, her magical presence carried with them into the future.
Finally, Bishop's villanelle One Art takes up in a personal way the losses that the poet has suffered in her life, and her opening lines ironically suggest the depth of her despair: “The art of losing isn't hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss seems no disaster.” The speaker goes on to catalogue the precise nature of these losses, including “three loved houses” (one in Key West and two in Brazil) and “two cities, lovely ones. / And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. / I miss them but it wasn't a disaster.” Bishop's choice of the villanelle, which is built on the repetition of words at the ends of lines, adds to the irony, since it is a verse form that requires the artist to remember words and the order of those words; however, her looseness in the villanelle form is typical of her easy way with most of the fixed forms that she wields. The ending of the poem illustrates how the compulsions of form enable her to articulate the deep emotional losses that she has suffered and that she is often reluctant to reveal: “—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident / the art of losing's not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
Bishop said that she prized clarity and simplicity, and her poetry of travel, which treats on a small scale the largest questions of human experience, shows this to be true. Her keen visual sense and ability to map (often with irony) the geographical and cultural boundaries of our world allow us to see anew that world and our place in it. As Bishop once remarked: “I've never felt particularly homeless, but, then, I've never felt particularly at home. I guess that's a pretty good description of a poet's sense of home. He carries it within him.” For her, identity and geography are inextricably linked, and her awareness of her cultural in-betweenness yields a powerful ethnographic poetry, one that takes the measure both of life's losses and of its joys.
North & South (1946)Find this resource:
Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring (1955)Find this resource:
Questions of Travel (1965)Find this resource:
The Complete Poems (1969)Find this resource:
Geography III (1976)Find this resource:
The Complete Poems, 1927–1979 (1983)Find this resource:
The Collected Prose (1984)Find this resource:
Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bishop. New York, 1985.Find this resource:
Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge, Mass., 1991. An excellent treatment of Bishop that is attuned to the relation of her work to visual art.Find this resource:
Diehl, Joanne Feit. Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity. Princeton, N.J., 1993. An engaging intertextual reading of the two writers' works through the lens of object-relations theory.Find this resource:
Doreski, C. K. Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. New York, 1993. An examination of Elizabeth Bishop's rhetorical strategies and the way they shape the formal and thematic movements of her poetry and stories.Find this resource:
Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York, 1992.Find this resource:
Harrison, Victoria. Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Intimacy. Cambridge, 1993. An evaluation of the various phases of Bishop's career, with particular attention to biographical events that influenced Bishop's poetic style.Find this resource:
Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2001.Find this resource:
Lombardi, Marilyn May, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender. Charlottesville, Va., 1993.Find this resource:
McCabe, Susan. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss. University Park, Pa., 1994. A study of Bishop in a postmodern and feminist light.Find this resource:
Merrin, Jeredith. An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick, N.J., 1990.Find this resource:
Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley, Calif., 1993. A thorough account of Bishop's life and work, with discussion of her homosexuality, alcoholism, and depression as they relate to her art.Find this resource:
Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana, Ill., 1988.Find this resource:
Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1983. This edited collection includes major essays by leading American critics and also contains previously uncollected material by Bishop herself.Find this resource:
Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville, Va., 1988. A superb overview of the development of Bishop's career and poetry.Find this resource: