From North & South (1946), in the order in which the poems appear:
- The Map
- The Imaginary Iceberg
- The Colder Air
- Wading at Wellfeet
- Chemin de Fer
- The Gentleman of Shalott
- Large Bad Picture
- From the Country to the City
- The Man-Moth
- Love Lies Sleeping
- A Miracle for Breakfast
- The Weed
- The Unbeliever
- The Monument
- Quai d’Orleans
- Sleeping on the Ceiling
- Sleeping Standing Up
- Cirque de Hiver
- Jeronimo’s House
- Little Exercise
- The Fish
- Late Air
- Songs for a Colored Singer
From A Cold Spring (1955):
- A Cold Spring
- Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance
- The Bight
- A Summer’s Dream
- At the Fishhouses
- Cape Breton
- A View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress
- The Prodigal
- Faustina, or Rock Roses
- Varick Street
- Four Poems
- Letter to N.Y.
- Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore
- The Shampoo
From Questions of Travel (1965)
- Arrival at Santos
- January 1, 1502
- Questions of Travel
- Squatter’s Children
- Electrical Storm
- Song for the Rainy Season
- The Armadillo
- The Riverman
- Twelfth Morning; Or What You Will
Here, a kind of juxtaposition, land for water, water for land. The two taking qualities from the other. An undermining of our idea of map–of sure route and planned path. I like how alive and yet safe this map is–its colors “more delicate than the historians'” and “we can stroke these lovely bays / under a glass as if they were expected to blossom / or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.” What? I love those invisible fish. I love that their cage must be clean.
And who this “we”? This “we” calls me back to Dickinson’s “thou” from yesterday. The cloak and dagger of a well-placed pronoun.
Something gentling about a map. And yet disturbing–something troublesome in land taking water’s lapping–still a mystery as we try to think like a mapmaker. A sense of something touched, tangible. A diminishing of difference, a flattening out of breath. Maps like immutable faces from an old photograph–how to read the surface?
Good god, 90% of all the requests a person can ask of another person, I would do for Elizabeth Bishop, one thousand times over. Yes, I will kill that animal and cook it for you. I will eat a variety of random potentially dangerous or psychotropic plants. I will lie to anyone. I will steal that painting. I will carry you on my back.
“We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship, / although it meant the end of travel.” Meaning, what? I am going to say wonder. We would rather be awe-struck, dumb-founded, flabbergasted and swept clean than continue travel. We are beauty-starved, beauty-seeking. Even if it is painful. Even if it will destroy us. “This is a scene a sailor’d give his eyes for” — yes. It is, he may even abandon sight and life for this “breathing plain of snow.”
Love’s the mobius strip of a boy on a ship and a boy burning on a burning ship. Love’s memorizing the sweet tip of the self, reciting it–love’s getting away with it. Love’s forgetting it. I think all of this is in these ten lines.
Every Bishop poem seems to be a suitcase, overstuffed for a long journey. You can barely keep it shut. When it springs open–with what kind of touch? Hard, soft, hard, soft–you’re covered in magnificent scarves.
I love the small transformations here–first “Love’s the boy.” Then the boy gathers adjectives to him–obstinate, then burning. He also becomes a son. I think he’s also in the sailors, swimming–lost boys, these.
Something of the riddle in this poem. Something of a broken heart, too.
“The target-center in her eye / is equally her aim and will” — a magnificent teacher once advised me that poems are as much the making of one’s skill as one’s will, and I see more and more that is true. That will might be the larger part. In this Bishop poem, will and skill seem taut, two knots knotting a rope to two pillars of bone and light.
Winter in no dress at all but its own fierceness. I imagine Bishop in a cold poetic garret, like that which Anne Shirley inhabited during her Anne of Windy Poplars days. But that has nothing to do with the poem.
What I admire most is Bishop’s eye, the gaze in this poem, how it roams from the perspective of Winter Cold and also around it. I see a woman in a field of snow, arrow taut, I see the white field. This poem seeming to conflate personification and atmosphere, which seems right and true. When we walk through the cold, we feel it feeling us, we feel how it doesn’t care for the length of its stay. It takes its time. Which, is good poetry-writing advice, too.
What, two, three, maybe four handfuls of words, depending on the weight and shape of each? Yet, so much here, and this just a surface skimming read. A tiny bug edging along the rim of this poem.
The conceit: war is in the waves / waves are warlike . But how masterfully done! “A thousand warriors in the sea / could not consider such a war / as that the sea itself contrives // but hasn’t put in action yet.” A foreboding thought that even the horrors humans conjure is nothing compared to what the ocean has simply dreamed.
But then, does the ocean reconsider? “They [the waves] will not bear the weight.” As if in each shove toward shore they give up again. As if war was too heavy. Wise waves, perhaps, though also perhaps determined? Hawkish?
A poem with few end-rhymes but the ones that stick, stick: wheels / heels / wheels; contrive s/ knives. The half rhyme in “waves” and “weight.” A calculation of sounds suggesting, perhaps the oblong motion of waves, a kind of return and crash scheme. Each rhyme a crest.
Perhaps all invention is a “case of knives” — gleaming until spoken, slicing itself at the foot.
Oh, Elizabeth. How I want to know what broken heart you buried in this poem. At its dead center the “dirty hermit lives” — by his pond that clings to its injuries “year after year.” How often have we replaced love with a dirty hermit? Too often, dear Elizabeth, too often. And we know why, don’t we: “the ties were too close together / or maybe too far apart.” How to find the appropriate distance in love, when the word itself–appropriate–is among the most unloving along with proactive, receptacle, and office (I had tried to think of lovely unloving words but their loveliness made them loving again. So though I thought I could say “tuna fish” or “tin can” they both seemed quite affectionate, after all).
But is it arm’s length we want? Closer, farther? Skin to skin, mouth to mouth? All the parts lined up, north to south? Or do you turn your head and frown, whispering Eliot, that is not it at all. That is not what I meant at all.
And look at you, rebuking yourself in that hermit frame: “Love should be put into action!” And so you named your poem the French phrase for railway. Your attempt, I like to think, to travel to rather than from–to blast this stupid thinking of distance, to get the job–another horrible unloving word, but meant!–done!
“There’s little margin for error, / but there’s no proof, either” — seems to be perhaps the approach to approaching this poem. The internet would suggest this poem is talking back to Emerson, and from what I read, that seems to be true. But having read that I realized, mostly, how far removed I am from talking about poems. I write them, sure, and talk about the writing of them. I think about them, sure, but rarely have to put into words–let alone academic prose!–that thinking.
I enjoy this poem’s winking tone, it’s playfulness–something I perpetually admire in Bishop. She’s such a sly one, you can’t quite place her. She’s a bit of manipulator, in the marionette sense. And I don’t mind being dazzled by someone in the shadows; though I’ve read many of her letters and there’s few others with whom I’d like to sit and listen to toucans, dance slowly in candlelight, sip slippery drinks–and of course the obvious talk of poetry, poetry, poetry.
This poor exercise in blogging reminds me how rarely I take the time to sit and sink into a poem that is not my own. And how delicious and difficult the depths, though perhaps, if habit is any proof, not as delicious nor difficult as the writing of poems–“the uncertainty / he says he / finds exhilarating.”
Such a saint of wit, this one. Is she making fun of her uncle’s artwork, or turning it into her own? Or both? We are flooded with a scene and the tools of this flood–diction, rhyme, metaphor, syntactical schemes–make it alluring. I admit–I want to see this large bad picture.
Except I can see it perfectly. The “fine black birds / hanging in n’s in banks” the only sound exhumed from the drawing (or painting or sketch or whatever materials compose it)–but for, marvelously “occasional sighing / as a large aquatic animal breathes.”
Then to end on ships in the dusty cliche of sunset, their purpose unknown–is it “commerce or contemplation”? The same question perhaps applies to this uncle-art–what was the uncle’s motivation? So many “large bad pictures” ornament our hotels, restaurants, and lobbies, why not this one? I may have seen it then once–yes, I may have.
But not the way Elizabeth sees. No, I’m convinced no one can see like that.
Before reading this poem for the Xth time this morning, I never thought of a city as a series of alliterations–but, yes, it is! Each tip-top of a towering skyscraper a kind of snag of sound, something stiffer, harder, snaggier than rhyme. From its “long, long legs” to its “shows and sights;” its “jeweled works at work” and “tough trunk dressed in tatters, scribbled over with nonsensical signs”–is it too forward to propose the city’s alliteration, the country a rhyme?
I’d like to know how the city would respond to the country, gobbling up its moons and loons, its dun and sun, its wintering splinters, its lakes and rakes.
I felt my whole life those last two lines, “We bring a message from the long black length of body: “Subside,” it begs and begs.” Quiet your tick tock ticking unstopped watch watching. Hush now. Turn out the lights. Let your mermaid-sirens sleep.
Despite all logic, I sometimes forget Elizabeth Bishop was a human being. This is true of all sorts of writers (Virginia Woolf was a person? Who vomited? Who peed? Who liked her tea a certain way? Who made what ungodly noises when….?), even ones that are alive, which makes seeing them walk into grocery stores so improbable that when I saw Charles Wright walk into Foods of All Nations I felt as though I’d seen a unicorn. In fact, I did not believe it was him, despite my husband’s insisting.
Which is all to say that when I read the foot-note to “The Man-Moth,” indicating the title is taken from a newspaper typo, I imagine Ms. Bishop reading it with a cup of coffee in her hand, chuckling, and delighting humanly in this human error so completely that she is inspired to hop up and run to her typewriter and invent a man-moth so perfectly she slips right back into being mythically awesome again.
What I like best is that, through this invention, she gets at the mothiness in all of us; a mothiness I think we try to keep folded neatly in our pockets, like a forgotten grocery list, not really wanting anyone to know how often we tremble as we “must investigate as high as [we] can climb.” This hunger for even “battered moonlight.” A kind of lonely stoicism-fragility haunts the Man-Moth–I love his single tear, like a “bee’s sting”–he’ll swallow it if you don’t ask him for it. But if you do, he’ll give it up. This part of him that what? Without he’ll whither? That is “pure enough to drink”? Oh, I don’t think I could take it from him, though I love him for the offer.
Once, in undergraduate, I placed second in some poetry contest, which resulted in me sitting back stage with other nervous undergraduate poets and Dave Eggers. I looked at him across the room, just a tad tipsy from a day of wine-tasting, and tried to think of something clever to say. But not so clever that I sounded like I was trying to be clever–that I had spent all day trying to come up with one casual but noteworthy entrance into conversation–but clever so that he would say something like, hey there awesome emerging poet-girl. Want to get a drink at Murphy’s?
I remained mute until I walked on stage in khakis and a secondhand suit jacket (obviously!) and read my poem about the extinction of monarchs to a very crowded auditorium, filled with many heads leaning on hands, waiting for Dave Eggers to read then for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to speak–little did they all know old RFK Jr. was going to go on and on about, well, more or less about the world ending, and they might wish back the swift if mediocre reading of undergraduate poetry.
I say all this to say, Elizabeth Bishop is, without irony, a heart-breaking work of staggering genius. And, as I write that I picture her, looking out over a harbor, snubbing out her cigarette with her bare foot and, pretending she cares about me as a poet, I hear her say, fuck this fanboy blogging bullshit and count some syllables you lazy bag of nubby teeth.
Which is to say, I admire most the movement of this poem from “earliest morning” to a city growing “distorted and revealed.” I admire the perspective, the way her eye moves through the city, the waking/sleeping inhabitants, removed yet intimate; removed, yet kind.
Queer cupids of all persons getting up,
whose evening meal they will prepare all day,
you will dine well on his heart, on his, and his,
so send them about your business affectionately
dragging in the streets their unique loves.
A kind of social critique haunts this poem, a kind of shout-out to the working stiff; a kind of criticism of those for whom the working stiff busts his hump. A kind of wondering if we even notice these cities we make, made “delicate by over-workmanship,” that frame and distort and reveal our lives. Perhaps it’s just me, and my narrow experience, but I feel that kind of sweeping eye is often missing in contemporary poetry, so swaddled are we in “identity,” in scooping out some hump of dirt, “blah blah blahing” about it, selling it as the personal in the universal, my little morsel unique from all y’all. I see a thousand people jumping up and down screaming–very articulately–not even their names, but the boxes they can check off one by one by one. I see a forest filled with trees, elbowing each other for a chance to explain their pocket of soil and light, afraid that if they don’t it’ll disappear. Yet, I am often among them, thinking, well it is my pocket of soil. Who else to write it? Then I get all fired up to research hummingbirds and catamarans, anything to shake it up.
Ok, ok, ok Ms. E., I’m going back to the actual work! Stop it! With that look.
Sometimes I feel like there’s bushels of daylight, trees the size of planets, ten gazillion songbirds and a party of hula-hooping darlings in my brain. Other times I feel like a very lethargic lion has sauntered through it and is leisurely munching away at a gazelle’s shapely leg. Alas, once that lazy lion shows up, I’m both lion and gazelle leg.
I’ve had a little of both brains this morning, and I feel a little of both brains inhabit “A Miracle for Breakfast” if only because it’s a sestina and there’s something at once sprinty and slow in a sestina. It’s a poem that almost seems to look for an escape from its own recursiveness as it wheels out and out–this spinning feeling perhaps most aptly figured in the enjambment of stanza 5 into stanza 6–a kind of controlled, ornate leak. The poem seeking a miracle for breakfast only to have it end up “working, on the wrong balcony.”
Something biblical here, sure, (I think of a multiplication of loaves and fishes) and something worshipful (“My crumb / my mansion, made for me by miracle”), but also a kind of rueful gaze–a little bit of, wait, what is this “miracle” business anyway?
Miracle is a lovely word. It’s one of those words I can almost remember learning and feeling like a long sparkly cloak would whip about in the morning air and dazzle me someday–someday, a miracle. To have, since then, been blessed with enough miracles to know they are more soft-spoken than one might expect is also a kind of miracle.
Here’s one: while packing up my belongings for a cross-country move, the only drawer to be dropped in hours of packing held the drugs that would sedate my cat for the trek. Thank pin cushions and lily pads that I dropped that drawer and discovered those drugs, which ensured a long and pleasant drive with a dopey beautiful cat.
Bishop, that most painterly of poets, has made a poem so perfectly envisioned, crafted, not an ounce of fat on it, that is at once surface and symbol that to talk about it is to ruin the moon by trying to describe it on those dusks when it’s heavy as a water balloon resting low on the horizon, red and otherworldly (which, I suppose it is always otherworldly) and yet you want to describe it, but fail and fail and fail, so that it is better to turn to your companion and simply say, “look!”
So, I say to you, look at this poem.
I mean, right? What can I say?
What I will say is that I do understand that some people prefer a sickle moon or moon with just a dusting of clouds or one with a ring around it like a ghostly hula hoop; what I mean is I know that what composes this poem is what draws me most to poem. For one, there’s a plant. For two, there’s something surreal in a weed unfolding from a heart that bursts into two streams and floods around a speaker who is at once dead, meditating, dreaming, and talking to the weed severing her heart, growing only “to divide your heart again.” I mean, these are my favorite ingredients. It’s like a cookie chockful of chocolate, cinnamon, oats, and coconut. Yes, I’m going to say it–it’s perfect.
How rarely we find perfection. How often are we tempted to judge, as if our ability to find fault bestows a kind of praise upon ourselves–oh how perceptive! You found something less than perfect! I mean, in a world of imperfection that’s a pretty impressive bit of observation on your part.
Stranger-friends, I’m not trying to get all Oprah on you, but tomorrow’s my birthday so I’m trying to conjure up hope, feistiness, and an open heart. I ask you to let something be perfect. If only for a moment.
The poem begins with an epigraph from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, so you might want to go there; or you might not, either way, I suspect you’ll feel as I do, like you’ve been transported to a not-so-distant past, where you picked up the party-line (aside: Do you know how delicious a party-line seemed to me as a child? It was up there with dumb waiters and periscopes) and overheard a striking but deeply private conversation.
Bishop’s poem suggests the same allegorical mood as Pilgrim’s Progress, though, assuredly less dogmatic. Her unbeliever adrift on top of the mast seems sleepy and determined to keep his post, certain the “spangled sea” below him wants to “destroy us all.” He seems related to Bunyan’s Sloth, Simple, and Presumption who seem to be like those that “sleep on the top of a mast,” a cousin of sorts, “secure in introspection” and chatty with a gull and a nearby cloud.
I imagine there are dissertations sunk in this poem / this allusive conversation, and to be honest, even if I were to write a dissertation this would not be the topic, though I love the language here, the strange simplicity/clarity of the scene. I like to think of what this poem would do, once it hangs up the phone and walks away from P.P.–or perhaps, more aptly, sails–I don’t see it taking a certain course. I feel like it would let the wind decide.
I’d like to say I could unbutton the jacket of this poem and see Bishop inside, see the mood and tone and exact angle of her shoulder as this poem glided slowly out of her. I’d like to imagine morning sunlight glinting off a beveled glass that filtered into her sea as hard as diamonds. The window is open and a thin, cotton curtain moves half-heartedly. The walls are damp with heat. Her wooden chair scratches against the wooden floor. Her heart beats.
This poem seems to be the perfect example of my current bout with writing block. It is, per usual, a strange poem, allegorical and surreal, featuring a monument that is also a landscape, which is also a symbol of any created thing. Or at least of the created set in contrast to the natural: “It is an artifact / of wood. Wood holds together better / than sea or cloud or sand could by itself, / much better than real sea or sand or cloud.” Perhaps any made thing can “hold together better” but, as the spectators in the poem suggest, “Why did you bring me here to see it? / A temple of crates in cramped and crated scenery, / what can it prove?”
Indeed, what. Perhaps it is just my current state of mind, but this poem feels like a way to capture (make into a monument?) the maker’s despair–what’s the point of writing a poem or song, painting, sculpting, or any of the such?
Lately, I have been thinking of the phrase, that’s not in my wheelhouse, realizing I do not really know what a wheelhouse is, but that I picture a very large wooden wheel in a very tight-fitting shelter sometimes; sometimes, a heap of thin and elegant wooden wheels in a shed. According to wikipedia, I’m mostly wrong. Traditionally a wheelhouse is the shelter for a paddlewheel on a boat, but mostly, what people are referring to when they use the term, is the sweet spot in the strike zone where a home run is most likely to happen. Which, in a way makes sense, as I can see the bat wheeling through the air and this soft nugget of air being its tender choicest home. And so, when something is not in your wheelhouse–there goes your chances at metaphorical home-runs.
Right now, my wheelhouse feels quite empty–plenty of air above the plate, but I’m lacking a bat. Though I kind of like my mistaken sense of the term–I feel like my little shelter is empty of wheels. That my satchel of words is in desperate need of a refill. In other words, I feel very much that each poem is a “driftwood sea” and each one “like a stage-set! It’s all so flat!”
And there it is, perhaps much as Elizabeth Bishop saw it when she wrote “Quai d’Orleans” that small drifting wonderful poem. Although I picture it a much grayer day in her poem, late afternoon/early evening, her friend and herself in long raincoats, walking together along the river then pausing, silently, and starting up again, also silently. Later their laughter like birds would flit through the air.
I can’t find the poem online, so here it is for you:
Many others have talked of the poem’s mastery, which is as evident as daylight. Here subject and feeling are so utterly well-joined, like a flower and its scent, you can hardly speak–you just want to breathe it in. I love the many trails and leaves that form in this poem, its fractal nature. I also like the odd perfection of “light and nervous water” holding their interview. I imagine water cringing under light’s harsh questioning–which is what it is so often, isn’t it? How often do we crave some partial shade.
And then the end, the perfect end: “but for life we’ll not be rid / of the leaves’ fossils.” We are so much clay imprinted with the leaves of our lives, grief and loss’s firm stamps. Until we too are fossils, unreadable to ourselves, but printed with memory.
I feel like I am, as I write this, asleep on the ceiling, if only because it is a snow day and a snow day seems to me a lot like sleeping on a ceiling–unexpected, a topsy turvy day where doing what you want trumps doing what you must. Where “photographs are animals” and “we must go under the wallpaper / to meet the insect-gladiator,” which sounds awesome and terrifying.
I’m going to argue, boldly, sleepily, perhaps mistakenly, that this poem doesn’t mean anything. That there is no allusion to Roman ceilings happening here (despite those insect-gladiators) and that perhaps Ms. B was just having fun. Think of that! A GREAT POET just having some fun. Skilled fun, beautiful fun, weird fun, but fun nonetheless. I like to picture her lying on the floor wishing she were on the ceiling. I like to think she fought the uphill battle against a restless mind and writer’s block and said, you know what? Today I am going to write a poem about sleeping on the ceiling. And it’s going to be great. And only what it is. Like an apple. Or a balloon.
And if it is about anything it is about escape–about a desire to be away from the rush and burble of Paris, the wild wheel of the Place de la Concorde, the lovers and rovers of the Jardin des Plantes (both places I have visited, well over a decade ago, which is strange and also awesome).
As a poet, I have written more poems that don’t mean anything than ones that do. And I often dismiss them, even if there is something in their playfulness that charms me. So often I want a poem to be a rose–part thorn and part bloom, and never one without the other. But maybe there is a time to trust a petal when it falls from the ceiling–maybe also a thorn, alone with nothing to redeem it.
I must scoot this entry into its slot swiftly, like a magician tucking away his rabbits and wands (?). You know, whatever. Fast. This poem seems to be in praise of dreams–slow drifting dreams that turn us–and the world–on its side. I love “the armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do / so many a dangerous thing.” Does she speak of our sleeping dreams, or those daylight imaginations that make us wonder at ourselves…what is this life?
Lately, I’ve been mulling the idea of a “this life.” So often we talk about the intersections of choices and chance that have landed us in this or that spot as if the past lines somehow run parallel into the future. I don’t know how to draw out what I mean. But, I hear myself and my friends say, well, in another life. As if it is not always a choice, to be in this life and to outline it saying, no, not that. That is in the other life–the not sought, the not thought possible one, shadowy, shimmery next to this one.
I wouldn’t narrow Bishop’s poem into an argument, but rather a reflection on how we divine the waking from the dreaming, that upon sleep, “thoughts that were recumbent in the day / rise as others fall, / and stand up and make a forest of thick-set trees.” Often night thoughts are anxious and wild. Often they are dreamy and too frail for light. I just think it’s worth thinking (dreaming?) about the topsy-turvy-ness of our mind, how it creates order and dismantles it. We see a bit of that in the allusion to Hansel and Gretel, the “crumbs or pebbles” we sometimes tracked, that sometimes “disappeared, / dissolving in the moss,” that sometimes “we went too fast / and ground them underneath.” That we are as likely to follow the path as devise a new one.
Had I not google, I would have made the mistake of assuming this poem was “about” (hold on to this “about” for a moment, please) a wind-up toy, a little circus scene on a bureau. Fortunately, I do have a google machine and discovered that the Cirque d’Hiver (Winter Circus) is an actual circus venue in Paris. But, I think the poem is a melding of the two–something of the actual circus (or the idea of “circus”) darts through this image of a mechanical horse with its dancer “along the little pole / that pierces both her body and her soul.” The poem seems invested in the juncture of the natural and the mechanical and the layering of these–the mechanical horse sometimes seems real, in its cantering and bowing, in the speaker’s estimation that it is “the more intelligent by far,” while it is also compared to the horses of Chirico, which are muscled, overly stylized steeds, mythic horses with manes of waves.
As for that amateur and necessary question, what is this poem about–that is where the magic lies. If you had an unseasoned audience, you’d hear one or two enthusiastic arguments that this poem is about the words on the page–a circus, a mechanical toy, a dancer, some weird dialogue the speaker is imagining at the end. If you had this unseasoned audience say its piece, then listen to the “expert” audience share its thoughts on the speaker’s struggle with experience, natural vs. constructed, loss, performance, despair, all the connotations stitched to the poem less like clothing than like skin, our unseasoned friends would roll their eyes and scream, I knew it! Poems are riddles and liars! We hate poetry! And a great gnashing of teeth and rending of hair would ensue.
The problem here isn’t the poem, but that it is made of the same materials as that which makes an article in People magazine. The same materials we use to craft cover letters and prescriptions. How much harder the poet must work, to make these crass materials do something other than inform. To cultivate feeling. To the expert audience, I would say hush now. You’re scaring everyone away. To the unseasoned I would say, draw a picture of the poem. Feel its colors and the lighting. Don’t worry about its aboutness. Treat it like you would your own heart, which you know also struggles with and against and through language’s inadequacies.
Pure description and yet a beating heart. Florida, in its lush necklaces and scarves, daunting and haunting. I highly encourage you to read this poem aloud as it is heaped with lovely sounds. It makes you want to travel to Florida–this Florida, this people-less Florida, but for a dead Indian Princess. Though this is a Florida that would break a heart, too:
“Enormous turtles, helpless and mild, / die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches, / and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets / twice the size of a man’s.”
Here, as with the Indian Princess, the human is but a referent–here the human is used to describe the natural world, rather than nature used to the service of the human heart. You feel a generous and attentive eye in this poem, navigating Florida’s mangrove swamps, its coast with its “tide-looped strings of fading shells,” its alligator with its “five distinct calls.” But you do not ever meet an “I.” This is something that always comes up with a Bishop poem — the invisible, “I,” never stating itself, making it all the more alluring. It makes you look at your own poems, relying so much on an “I,” and they feel suddenly small and narrow.
Every time I read this poem, I want to emulate it and write a poem about Illinois. And I begin, over and over, and feel the deficit of my own eye. Too many precious things I’ve looked at and never learned their names.
I couldn’t find the poem online, so here it is all typed out for you.
Don’t you want to go visit Jeronimo’s house, his “fairy / palace,” “love-nest,” and “shelter from / the hurricane?” We learn so much from each other’s houses about each other, don’t we? We see that Jeronimo is maybe not the richest fellow, but whimsical, not a staunch housekeeper, a musician, someone who spends the evenings with “writing-paper / lines of light / and the voices of my radio / singing flamencos.” I like Jeronimo, don’t you? You can tell Bishop was charmed by him and his home. Let’s go to his house right now.
This also seems one of the few (?) (at least so far?) (maybe?) (don’t quote me) persona poems. Not that we should assume the “I” in other poems is Bishop — often the “I” seems like a tool, something she must use to get at the real meat, a fork if you will, that she clasps with a sigh and a roll of the eyes, when she’d rather use her hands (and she often does, no “I” in sight), but she knows sometimes this is the only way to get you to succulence. I mean, just look at those lovely lines, gloriously broken: “left-over Christmas” and “spattered with burning” two of my favorites.
At my writing window, a group of wasps are building, quite industriously, their own “chewed-up paper / glued with spit” nest. Each little cup being plugged with an egg and papered over. It’s quite an enterprise and rather memorizing, so I haven’t alerted anyone of the inclination to destroy it to destroy it. How much like weather we must seem to wasps and hornets–this swooping in destruction that topples our hard-won nests–tornado-like, as we spray poison, wave a broom.
P.S. You should now do an image search for “wasp nests” on google. Holy architecture degrees, wasps.
For a blog entry dealing more specifically with this poem and its allusions, click away. For a blog entry that spends an inordinate amount of time on hornets instead of roosters, you’re in the right place.
Every time I sit down to my writing desk, the hornets have made some significant process on their little window nest. The little baskets fill up with their white sacs, like small teeth protruding from a very odd mouth. Three parental hornets are laying eggs right now, I assume. Sometimes they get stuck in the window, trying to find the crack back out into the world. Today, a spider twirled dizzily on its line, just below the nest, as if dancing and waiting, waiting and dancing.
I like to think the roosters lay in a similar spot in Bishop’s mind. This ritual of crowing finally transforming from nuisance to inspiration–perhaps helped along with the article referenced in the blog linked above–the biblical rooster and the real rooster colliding in poem-space.
I love the ruthlessness of the rhymes: “clock/dark/cock,” “below/window/echo,” “distance/fence/insistence,” and “match/patch/catch” are the ones singing in the first four stanzas. With them alone you get a sense of roosterness. They are dark clocks, echoing insistently, across distances, sometimes along fences, their bright crowns like matches catching.
In short, way to be awesome, yet again, Ms. B.
Focus, notice, and daydreaming–I feel like these may be the three key things, for a poet. Bishop has them in spades. In “Seascape,” as with so many of her poems, you feel the incubation of an idea–the focus–she has. Surely she gazed on this scene of “white herons got up as angels” and “the beautiful pea-green back-pasture / where occasionally a fish jumps, like a wild-flower / in an ornamental spray of spray.” How many times did a fish jump before she landed elegantly on that wild-flower, that “ornamental spray of spray?” Here is where notice and focus share the same space; her attentive eye, her thoughtful mind managing the world’s gifts. The daydreaming finds the language for it. The daydreaming culls the metaphors.
No (?) poem of Bishop’s seems purely in light or purely in dark–always some shadow-play, as the light drifts through it. Up until it becomes nearly a joke “This cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope,” this poem invites a rejoicing gaze on the sea, the herons, the mangrove island. It does, the speaker admits, “look like heaven.” However, the lighthouse reminds us that the water’s warm because “hell rages below his iron feet” and “heaven is not like flying or swimmming” (which is a shame, isn’t it?). Bishop can’t risk the sentimental gushing over a scene–she must balance that with a skeleton, with darkness, with a “strong glare.” Though even this is tongue-in-cheek–in the end the lighthouse has nothing to say, though he knows he will figure it out at some point. This skeptic’s pessimism, this feeling of, “well there must be something to complain about, I just don’t know what it is yet,” feels like a wink. Do we really want heaven without at least a little hell?
Perhaps it’s less a matter of wanting, but a matter of recognizing they’re of the same coin.
A couple of days ago, a friend and I were crafting ideas for literary fake tattoos. I felt (obviously!) I needed an Elizabeth Bishop fake tattoo; however, as I combed the quotes on Good Reads and reviewed the Collected Poems, I found her entirely unquotable–at least in a tattoo kind of way.
Bishop doesn’t do aphorisms; she resides in imagery, in setting and scene, and when she does acquaint herself with a quotable nugget, it is often one of despair (“the art of losing isn’t hard to master,” etc) and always seems to come up short, removed from context.
So seems the case with “Little Exercise.” The first stanza knocks me out:
Think of the storm roaming the sky uneasily
like a dog looking for a place to sleep in,
listen to it growling.
We move on to the mangroves, the heron which “may undo his head,” an image so startling and apt I about fall down. Then to the boulevard, the “little palm trees” “revealed / as fistfuls of limp fish-skeletons.” The storm moves off in a series of “badly lit battle-scenes” and we are invited to imagine someone sleeping in a rowboat tied to a mangrove root.
Each image ushers us into the next, each quiet and contained and yet feels like it belongs right next to the next; like ocean waves, if ocean waves were each made of different materials–cotton, lace, silk–rolling and roiling into the shore, seamless, no sign of the stitching. So that to pull out a quote, to set it apart, diminishes the part. So if you’re out and about and stumble upon a Bishop quote somewhere, I’d say you better find the poem it belongs to and return it to its home. And look elsewhere for your literary fake tattoo inspirations.
Writing a blog entry about “The Fish” is about as useful and original as another analysis of Citizen Kane.
That said I do love this poem, and that this is an obvious love, and a common love, does that really diminish it? It is a love “packed in like feathers,” perhaps, and does the packing mar the feathers’ feathery nature?
What gongs in this poem are the sounds (“he hung a grunting weight”) and repetitions (“his brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper, / and its pattern of darker brown / was like wallpaper) (and did you notice that second “hung” there?) and how she builds to that “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow” in a way that makes the breath latch and unlatch in your throat. So much to admire, this tremendous fish of a poem.
Some Halloween I hope to dress as Elizabeth Bishop, which seems a simple task, but I’ll have with me a great ugly fish–and this fish is ugly, isn’t it, though by the end it’s become iridescent in my mind, entirely rainbow-scaled and flashing. I guess being a tough bastard can make us beautiful.
I do love “and victory filled up / the little rented boat,” because I think we’ve all had moments in life like that, where victory fills in around us like humidity (anyone out there doing an analysis of my writing will see I’m always comparing things to humidity–Illinois, you’ve got me, already) and the little boat we’re in rocks, gently. It requires pause, victory. I think it also requires a letting go.
I am so pumped up about the hyphens in this poem: “radio-singers,” “love-songs,” “dew-wet,” “fortune-teller’s,” “marrow-piercing.” This poem seeks joining and binding and twinning: two stanzas of equal length; even a semicolon thrown in for good measure. And yet in this parallelism a kind of contrast–the dew-wet lawns versus the Navy Yard’s red lights where “dew cannot climb.” The magic and winking at magic (those fortunes are whatever you want to believe them to be). And what about the Navy Yard, that place that seems the opposite of a love-song being love’s best witness? And why is that–is it objective? Protective? War-like? All we know is what the poem gives: this witness is remote and “burning quietly” and removed from dew’s wet grip.
And what of that marrow-piercing; it seems right, doesn’t it, to think of love as piercing our marrow rather than our hearts; it does seem to be the thing that grooves down the slides of our legs and arms that whirs in those narrow chambers that turns bone liquid.
And “Late Air” — I just love that. There is so much in the late air: a sense of too late, or not on time, or unexpected, or it’s late, let’s go to bed, or it’s late, let’s go to bed. You can feel something humid in the air. You can feel it thick as marrow.
Well, let’s get it out of the way: I did just write Elizabeth Bishop’s cootchie. That amuses Now-me and 13-year-old me pretty equally–perhaps Now-me more than Then-me since Then-me was pretty nervous about sex jokes, always afraid she was missing something (she probably was).
And “Cootchie” isn’t about sex, but about otherness, and I think Adrienne Rich’s essay does a fine job of addressing the problems of the poem, and its attempt to articulate a black servant’s thoughts and experience. And also the tension in Bishop’s work, and arguably her life, in dealing with the personal and private and the public persona, in being a lesbian/outsider in a heteronormative world. Really, you should stop reading this nonsense and let yourself be whisked away into Rich’s essay.
I’m not sure what to say about “Cootchie”–it’s a heart-breaking poem as it addresses the death of this marginalized servant, Cootchie, and the ways in which her death is also marginalized and not accurately accounted for; when the lighthouse, “searching the land and sea for someone else” discovers it, it dismisses all as “trivial.” Only, the “sea, desperate, / will proffer wave after wave.” It seems, here, as in other Bishop poems, that the natural world is a character as much as the humans within it and its character can be compassionate while also dispassionate. It proffers succor–sort of, sometimes–yet stands/remains/persists apart.
I admire the imagination in this poem, the four parts, each a song for a singer, as imagined by Bishop, and the way the imagined singer is required for the poems to emerge–the perfect cage for the bird of the poem. I like all the tricks poets must play on themselves to get the words to come; here, she needed a different mouth, very much not her own, to sing these bluesy poem-tunes.
Though the first part seems the most musical, and I’ll return to it in a minute, my favorite section is part IV, perhaps because in it Bishop works the kinds of tricks I love the best: “is it dew or is it tears, / dew or tears, / hanging there for years and years / like a heavy dew of tears.” In this stanza we see the perhaps familiar comparison of dew and tears become new as they conflate into a single image–I see a leaf weighed down with the dew of tears. Later, the question “fruit or flower” arises, and it turns out, neither: “it is a face. / Yes, a face. / In that dark and dreary place / each seed grows into a face.” And that leap is also apt and strange, because isn’t there something human-face-ish about a flower (think of a pansy’s bright button nose and seeming sweet gaze) or a fruit (think of how our faces can be apple-shaped). The images’ elegance shines like bone.
But, the first part is the most songish, and brought me immediately back to The Color Purple, when Shug sings Celie a lovesong:
Oh, Celie’s face, so much a flower here, or a small about to ripen fruit (think fig, think cherry), and Shug tough strong hotness that she is, but also fragile (think orchid, think wisteria). And the underground subversive lesbian tension rising like a wild loon.
First, can we get a “what what” for this being the last poem in Elizabeth Bishop’s first collection? Only took two years! At this rate, it’ll take me a decade to get through her complete poems; however, such a pace seems appropriately Bishop-esque, so probably the only way to go.
“Anaphora” was originally not published in memory of Marjorie Carr Stevens, and Bishop added the dedication later after Stevens’ death in 1959. Stevens and Bishop (aside: I own a cat named Stevens and hope to own a dog named Bishop someday so that was really exciting to write), traveled quite a bit together, and loved each other, not always happily, spending time in Mexico with Pablo Neruda and his wife. Which has less to do with the poem than with my enjoyment in discovering that Bishop and I both spent time in Oaxaca and Key West. My travel plans should become, “wherever she went, I’ll go.”
The title seems to refer to the grammatical anaphora, rather than the rhetorical one: “the use of a word referring to or replacing a word used earlier in a sentence, to avoid repetition, such as do in I like it and so do they.” (Which is quite deligthful, since a rhetorical anaphora is a repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line; how sexy are contranyms?) The anaphora seems to circle around the “ineffable creature” for whom the morning’s “brilliant walls” and “ceremony / begins.” This creature is a slippery one, replaced by he immediately (“Oh promptly he / appears”) and in the second stanza, vanishing into the evening, where we meet a “beggar in the park” who prepares “stupendous studies.”
The poem haunts and reminisces, misses. It seems to speak to that washed-clean moment upon waking, where the day unfolds and you feel the great bright weight of the world around you, wide and inviting and terrifying, but beyond the rational for a moment–then the everyday intercedes–the worries, the tasks, the rituals. Though, perhaps it’s less loss than transformation, the ineffable always embedded in the “fiery event / of every day.”
It seems apt to read this poem on this cold spring day–sunny out, grass primping and crooning after its long shower yesterday, all dolled up in its green suits. What I love–what I always love?–is the slow unfolding in this poem.
We start with the “violet was flawed on the lawn,” the hesitant trees, and a calf born to a weary mother cow. It’s in the adjectives that we catch the slowness, the hesitancy, the fragility of this spring’s beginning: “grave green dust,” “big and aimless hills,” “wretched flag”–all these markers of a restless energy, a distrust in the spring as it slowly settles in like a dog circling and circling its bed. Until we get to that calf, who seems “inclined to feel gay.”
Oh, but then it begins to warm. And those withholding distancing adjectives slip away to leave more space for spring’s leaping verbs: “dogwood infiltrated the wood, / each petal burned,” “four deer practised leaping,” “infant-oak leaves swung” and the “song-sparrows were wound up.”
Then the last turn–a softening, a settling into summer–soft liquid sounds lulling us into summer’s warmth: “the bull-frogs are sounding, / slack strings plucked by heavy thumbs.” Then “the fireflies / begin to rise,” offering the first of summer’s “glowing tributes.”
All of this with Bishop’s characteristically painterly touch, but what, at least for me, makes it more tender, is that “you” woven through it. This is Jane Dewey’s land she’s describing, not some anonymous or imagined place, and you get a sense that she’s painting her dear friend’s home adds–I don’t know if I can say quite what. A backdrop of tenderness, perhaps. A pre-nostalgia.
If this poem of Bishop’s is an exploration the futility of entirely making sense of experience, of the rushing swirling world, then this silly little blog is an exemplary example of futility. Not knowing what to write about this poem, I looked up this lecture by Langdon Hammer and, well, I know this might shock some of you, to hear that a Yale professor nailed it, but yeah. He nailed it.
Hammer writes: “What the poem reveals to us is a world of discrete fragments, parts that gain meaning, if at all, through their mere adjacency or through the perceiver who holds them together – holds them together through the quality of her attention and the sensibility behind it, a form of attention for Bishop that is always pushing towards revelation and seeking meaning or something beyond surface detail but never quite arrives there and never, in that sense, arrives at a place of repose or rest or home.”
What I admire about this observation is
1) it reminds me of something a professor of mine, Rodney Jones, once said about a poetry collection: that it will hang together because it is written by the same “perceiver” and thus, perhaps “only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and'”–still it will hang. Loosely perhaps, delicately, but the knots are in the voice. They’ll hold.
2) it encapsulates what I admire about Bishop–that, indeed, each poem seems to yearn toward a meaning or “something beyond surface detail” but never quite arrives. This blog is as much a process of discovery for me as it is a process of re-enjoying. Here in this poem, and in Hammer’s discussion of it, I see more clearly what I admire about Bishop: not the absence of “I” but the way that “I” works. Maxine Kumin’s essay “Four Kinds of I” speaks to Bishop’s I as an “ideation I” in which the “first-person voice seems to be subordinate to establishing the intent of the poem itself, the making of a statement.” The I is the messenger, the vehicle, the telescope and binoculars, the mind behind it, at a remove, making use of its tools of investigation. The mind behind it a “sensibility” that never rests, never quite can hold what it perceives.
The impeccable genius of this poem is how much layering happens in so few words. Most of this poem is surface, description; Bishop doesn’t call attention to much beyond what is visible–the marl, the pelicans, the sponge boats, the “blue-gray shark tails…hung up to dry for the Chinese-restaurant trade.”
However, from the launch, we know this isn’t simply a poem of notice. Bishop starts, “At low tide like this (emphasis mine) how sheer the water is.” In that “like this” lies mystery. Like what, exactly? Like this day in particular, or like some interior geography of the heart?
She sets us up then, like intentional dropped stitches throughout the knit of description, space for shadowing and layering–space for feeling and meaning. First: “absorbing rather than being absorbed, / the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything.” A kind of thesis, here–the water, which should nourish or quench, absorbs the work of its surroundings, rendering every action useless. “Pelicans crash” into the bight and “rarely com[e] up with anything to show for it.” The “little white boats are still piled up…not yet salvaged…like torn-open, unanswered letters.” Throughout the poem, these moments of futility repeated. The stuff of life seeming to be a series of opened (not necessarily read!) unanswered letters.
However, Bishop being Bishop, this Sisyphian scene doesn’t lack humor, even if that humor is somewhat sardonic. The pelicans have “humorous elbowings” and the “untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” And all of this happening in the bight, so that we hear as well its bite: this sense of a hungry shallow mouth, unable to take in all it hungers for. Its thirst at once palpable and rendered dull by its perpetuity.
This is one of those poems that leaves me going…well, start writing and maybe you’ll figure out what to say about “A Summer’s Dream.” The New Yorker published it in 1948. So that’s something. If you couldn’t tell yet, it’s not my favorite Bishop poem and maybe it’s good for me to balance my lavish praise with a shrug now and again.
The 21st century human in me cringes a bit at the use of the term “idiot”–not exactly P.C. there, Ms. B. Though in the weird dream-like fairytale land of the poem, it doesn’t rub entirely the wrong way; it all feels of a different time, place. And who isn’t “beguiled / by picking blackberries?”
I do like the faint “we” that haunts the poem; I like to pretend it’s the speaker and her lover, momentarily in this strange land with the cheerful landlady and her morose giant of a son. There’s something bewitching and mythological about the “boarding house…streaked / as though it had been crying,” its windows filled with “extraordinary geraniums.” I also love the somnambulist brook, babbling on and on about its dreams. I can relate to that brook.
Mostly I’m charmed to have come to this poem on a summer day, bird racket in the trees, deers feeding on the lawn, the air freed of humidity for a brief spell. Summer, be slow with your movements. Make the dance last.
Two days ago–or was it a week–I read a poem, I can’t remember where, that alluded to this poem, just that little heart skip of “flowing, and flown.” At that time–two days, a week ago–I couldn’t remember the allusion though I kept repeating the phrase: flowing, and flown, flowing, and flown, in my head, hoping to knock loose the reference.
So I appreciate that after a longer than usual hiatus, I was welcomed back to–gah, such a horrible term–blogging with “At the Fishhouses” waiting for me, dessert and seven-course meal at once.
Much to love here, but what I want to speak about is that this is a funny poem. The seal that is “interested in music” and that emerges “almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug / as if it were against his better judgement” is an amusing winking figure. Bishop (or, fine, “the speaker”) sings to him! I’d give my left pinkie to witness Elizabeth Bishop singing to a seal. There is something human and mystical, quotidian and otherworldly in this exchange–perhaps as there always is when we take a moment to interact with other forms of consciousness. Our companions on this planet who are all too often strangers.
Of course it is not only a funny poem. If it were it would be less funny and certainly not so widely adored. The humor pops up–like a seal–in the center of a meditation on the culture of the fishermen, of the declining population in the area, of how “cold dark deep and absolutely clear” the twilight is; of the way water can be a “transmutation of fire.”
And in all of this, the imaginative space knowledge holds–that it can be clear and free, “forever, flowing and drawn” and of course “flowing, and flown.” Something that slips through our hands like water or sand through water. That lure that idea of a hook we think we’ll latch onto (or that will latch onto us). Before it flows. Before it’s flown.
P.S. Not more than ten minutes after I posted this blog originally, I read these poems by Gala Mukomolova. Apparently it’s a Fishhouses kind of day.
A news article from The Cape Breton Post discusses Elizabeth Bishop’s poem about the island, wondering if it is “a composite of views or scenarios?” Leroy Peach, the article’s author, walks us through the poem, gently, kindly, for, for him, and the island, the poem is quite personal: it is about his home, not the idea of home or place, not the idea of nature or culture or the mix of cultures that reside on Cape Breton.
It makes me think each poem should be so gently and kindly read. Poems are not essays. They resist thesis statements, orderly output of claims and evidence. Though perhaps these reside, here, at a slant–something about the comparison of “little white churches” to “lost quartz arrowheads” suggests something about colonization, about human work dotting and changing the landscape.
Yet, here, at least, there seems to be an equalizing impulse. The mist paints the scene as much as the churches, the road that “appears to have been abandoned.” The way the “mist hangs in thin layers” and the “ghosts of glaciers drift,” indicates the depth of change, the steadiness of it, be it a human church or arrowhead or the vanishing glacier, the auks and puffins at once solemn and silly.
Though it is hard, as a contemporary reader, not to read this poem with climate change in mind, with the diminishment of auks (though the Great Auk was gone by the time Bishop wrote this), the perpetual vanishing of glaciers, the swiftness with which human and natural changes arise, all adding up to an eerier ending : “the thin mist follows / the white mutation of its dream; / an ancient chill is rippling the dark brooks.”
The mutation of a dream. That seems an apt metaphor for the environmental devastation upon us. It rides over the ancient chill, the fact that change, by humanity’s swift hand or evolution’s slow one, is ancient, inevitable, ineffable.
Density of sensory texture propels this poem: the light is “heavy,” and “coarse,” the sounds of the band “dim then keen.” Bishop becomes not just a transparent eye, but a transparent ear, absorbing entirely the scene.
It’s a bit odd, somehow, to think of her time as Poet Laureate/Consultant (as the title was, then), that year she spent with a toe in politics, in D.C., looking perhaps out a window or standing outside the Library of Congress listening to the Air Force Band. It all feels too confined for her; part of me starts to get twitchy and sweaty on her behalf–get to Brazil, get somewhere you can breathe. That may be me talking to me, though.
Poet of city and jungle, urban and rural, whose forms are tightly woven exquisitely embroidered fabrics, Bishop is a poet of deep control; and yet, I feel–again, this is all based on what?–that fineness of formal constraint requires a languid humidity. She needed privacy, slowness of time–she needed away from the politics of poetry in the U.S. (tho surely she enjoyed the snippets of gossip Lowell sent her way)–to let each poem marinate to maturity.
I love best the lines, “I think the trees must intervene, / catching the music in their leaves / like gold-dust, till each big leaf sags.” A perfect metaphor for autumn. Music now is dropping into the leaves’ sacks, filling them with gold and rubies, turning them into gems. Let’s watch it happen. Slowly. As if there were nowhere else to go.
Today’s poem seems so apropos–it’s wet and gray out and I feel a kind of reverse insomnia. If insomnia is the inability to sleep, I feel an inability to wake. The gray says, sleep. Read no poems, write no poems, be lazy as a lost button.
That same friction in this state as in insomnia: then, one prefers to sleep; I’d prefer to want to be awake. This poem explores friction, though of a slight variation: here, the speaker has displaced it onto the moon. The moon who is perhaps prideful, who tells the Universe to “go to hell,” finds her own water or mirror “on which to dwell.” If the Universe is a stand-in for sleep, the Moon clearly doesn’t care; she goes on, her cares wrapped up in a cobweb.
In this poem we see inversions that seem to haunt Bishop’s “night-time” poems. I think of “Sleeping on the Ceiling” or “Sleeping Standing Up,” where the dream world swirls the waking world. Where boundaries fade, waft, fray.
Here that fraying centers around love–perhaps it always does. The small wish at the end like a coin in a well, where the speaker is loved by her “you.” That perhaps in this sleepless night, a love wakes up, too. That if all is topsy turvy the fact of not being loved is also reversed. I like this kind of magic. I like that we have brains that yearn for this kind of magic.
“The Prodigal” breaks my heart. As a child, I always found the Bible story troubling—it seemed pretty shitty to me that the prodigal was welcomed back with open arms; I felt the resentment of the child who stayed behind, who followed the rules, who seemed to miss out on that extravagant outlay of love. Only later, as an adult in the world, wandering far from home, did I begin to empathize with the Prodigal, who is perhaps not so much selfish as different, who loves home as much as the one who stayed behind. And that none of us actually deserve anything—so why not the big wash of joyous welcome whenever, however, we show up, our arms empty and our hearts full?
What most intrigues me about this poem is the piling up of adjectives—something I suspect an MFA workshop would pick at: why use two when one will do? But there’s something in the stacking of “brown enormous” behind odor and “glass-smooth” depicting the dung. Then later, the “faint forked lightning” and the “safe and companionable” ark, not to mention the “bats’ uncertain, staggering flight.” These piles seem to snatch a bit of the Prodigal’s mind into view: to his own uncertain, staggering (from drunkenness or otherwise) flight (plight?). When one’s unsure of one’s own feet, there’s perhaps some safety in a wall of adjectives. These props. These tells. These signifiers that tie (or try to tie) us to a world of meaning.
Recently, I was at a book group meeting and the concept of “going home again” came up, in relation to a recent film (Brooklyn, in case you were wondering). One woman spoke of the risk of romanticizing home, the importance of realizing your life is elsewhere—is where you made it. As one who has longed to go home countless times, and has at least once returned to make a life in the old place, I don’t think this statement is fully true; or rather, it’s a balm against the wound. I continue to hope that if you carry your wounds home with you, you’ll find a way to transplant your life yet again. That, while it may take “a long time / finally to make his mind up to go home,” if one does, and one is honest about it, and sees it less as a return than a turn, one can do it right.
At least that’s the idea that guides each flight, every plight.
Faustina, or Rock Roses: February 8, 2016
“Faustina, or Rock Roses,” is certainly a poem I’d like to research. If I was a better person–or, at least, a better blogger–I’d turn to the biography of Bishop on my book case and investigate. Perhaps we will get to that, now that I’ve guilted myself into it. But, first–this strange poem.
It’s certainly one of Bishop’s stranger-in-a-strange-land poems; here the speaker seems to slip into the skin of the unnamed “visitor” who drinks in the “crazy house” and “crazy bed” upon which, it would seem, an old woman is dying, cared for by her servant Faustina.
How much of the visitor’s discomfort is captured in her (a presumption in that pronoun, I suppose) attention to minutiae. The glow-worms in the window “burning a drowned green,” the way the eighty-watt bulb “betrays us all,” as well as lights the “tacks in the wallpaper,” exposing “the fine white hair, / the gown with the undershirt / showing at the neck.” A brutal light. An honest one?
It’s unclear what spurs the visitor’s visit. We don’t get a sense that the visitor is close to the woman dying on the crazy bed, nor to Faustina, as the visitor seems investigative, curious about their relationship, about the scene, perhaps even baffled about her role in it.
And the wry way she points to Faustina’s wish–that her mistress die, that “freedom at last, a life long / dream of time and silence” might soon arrive. And how the visitor squints at that question, that forks and flickers–one person’s death is another’s rescue. The terrible conundum indeed: “there is no way of telling. / The eyes say only either.” I do not think we are often confronted with how one person’s specific loss could mean our specific gain; nor do we often bear witness to such moments, specifically. I think we all have a calculus of loss and gain in our heads, and a (false?) sense of limited opportunity: if so and so gets X, there’s less Y for me to find, and so on.
As usual, no answers in this poem. Only the questions, their lack of adornment. Their blank faces, refusing to drop their gazes, though we might squirm, like glow-worms, drowned in green.
P.S. I did pick up the biography, Brett C. Millier’s Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, and was so immediately desirious of reading it cover to cover (I have not yet) that I had to put it down rather than ravage it for its insights into this particular poem.
Varick Street: March 9, 2016
“Varick Street” is a dark poem. Sulfurous, choking on industrial smoke, a bitter feeling around the mouth. Its dark heart wears a bright dress though: each tight line, each intense image, a kind of gem gleaming from the ash.
In this poem, “certain wonders” fragment and refrain. Varick Street’s industry becomes the spark of poetic invention: here, “some captured icberg / being prevented from melting” and “mechanical moons, / sick, / being made / to wax and wane.” All of nature turned to artifice.
Yet: “lights music of love / work on,” and “our bed shrinks from the soot”–lovers at work here, among Varick Street’s factories. Who, entrenched in this barnacled, mangled night, seem not fully safe, so much as ensconsed–for a moment. The poem’s refrain is a bitter one: “And I shall sell you sell you / sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.” Oh dungeon of the broken heart, displacing all of its brokenness into the night, its factories, its “uneasy buildings.”
I do not know if the poem’s refrain mirrors or steals from some other source–a blues song, a wail. The poem offers a complicated thesis on love, on what is natural and what is manufactured–that they are not truly opposed, but always interspliced, each of us a bit of both, terrible hybrids.
The poem’s only hope is in its language, its crisp movement. Yet, when read in a certain light (perhaps the light of a waning, mechanical moon?) that seems poor respite. How unrelenting the heart is, so fully entrenched in its various moments, complete in its disasters and its repairs.
These vignettes taste like morning this morning, taste like a lover pining for her beloved, taste like sun tearing the shadows on the lawn to shreds.
“The tumult in the heart / keeps asking questions. / And then it stops and undertakes to answer / in the same tone of voice.” Sometimes I feel like a teenager, in love with this kind of line, knowing on some level at some point I’m supposed to eschew poetry that uses the word “heart” (and how daring, “tumult,” nestled beside it), and yet I am always seduced. I still want hearts and stones and rain and ghosts in my poems all the time.
“Until a name / and all its connotation are the same.” Here, a pointing to what we want from our loves, our adventures–to be fully known, echoes and all. So that when we hear our name, spoken in a tender voice, we feel it drop through us like a stone, each ripple recognized as it is awakened. Each conversation like those that occur within the heart.
“The great light cage has broken up in the air.”
“solved it with an unexpected kiss / whose freckled unsuspected hands alit.”
I see lovers on a gray morning lying in bed, unsure if the gray is the earliness of the day or rain “brightening now” or both. Liminal state. Between a kiss and an unsuspecting touch. I love how Bishop puts light, broken from its cage, into those hands. There they are “alit” less with intention than with intuition.
Someday someone will write a poem “While Someone Texts” or “While Someone Sends Me Emojis I Can’t Decipher.” Maybe that someone will be me.
“Hear nothing but a train that goes by, must go by, like tension.” This is no pleasant telephone chat. In this poem, I hear only the awkward silences between two people unable to fully speak their hearts. I hear that unbearable train running between them, smoke piping from the engine into their throats. I see the “nightmare trees,” the fireflies in them. I hear pining. I hear loss. I hear the sad acceptance that even this tension will be lost.
“and with what clamor and why restrained / I cannot fathom even a ripple”
It’s unusual to see Bishop using spacing as a tool of punctuation. Through it, we see the lover’s breath, the deep unknown of anyone’s interior, but particularly that of a lover. Truly, we cannot converse with a lover the way we do with ourselves within our hearts. The speaker seeks either a bargain or a “separate peace / beneath / within if never with.” Prepositions, those markers of distance and relationship at once.
Such interiority and abstraction in these poems; unusual to see Bishop turn her eye so inward. And yet, there is a train and fireflies–we see the scene as much as we sense its insides.
Letter to N.Y.: September 11, 2016
I love letters the way some people love bowties, the way others go soft-eyed and sentimental around a carousel; there’s something old-fashioned about them. Something charming and heartwarming about receiving a piece of paper by a means that even in this day of age, of instant electronic communication, seems magic. I mean you put a piece of paper in a box outside your house and, after a few days, a few means of travel, it arrives in someone else’s box! And how those thoughts are forced to ripen, fall far from the tree of your mind. How often I’ve written a letter and entirely forgotten its contents until the receiver asked me what I meant.
Of course, a poem that is also a letter is doubly magic. What I love about Bishop’s letter to Louise Crane is how eager it is for information about Louise: how the plays are and “what other pleasures you’re pursuing,” going on to imagine the somewhat debauched adventures of Louise, riding about late at night in cars and taxis, listening to music that is “loud but somehow dim.” Watching the sun rise “like a glistening field of wheat,” not oats, not Louise’s wild oats. The joke there makes it all the more dreamy—we get a little glimpse of Louise and Elizabeth’s friendship, the way they might rib each other.
What is particularly intriguing to me is that Bishop’s letter has nothing to do with Bishop in a direct sense—only with her curiosity about her friend’s life. But what can we learn about Elizabeth through her curiosity (a question that no doubt applies to many if not all of her poems)? Perhaps Elizabeth (or the speaker, if we must) is lonely for a life of late nights, where the trees look “so queer and green.” Letters are generally about hunger—the writer’s. We try to feed it with requests for the other’s stories, sometimes at the neglect of sharing our own. Perhaps our stories seem to dull. Perhaps our hunger, our loneliness, has swallowed them all.
In college, my friends and I wrote letters. Even now, sometimes, though the frequency has dwindled. Still, I go to the mailbox like it is a portal to my heart. I keep the letters in a box. When I go back to them I travel through time. Each handwritten loop a galaxy sometimes, sometimes a black hole.
Argument: October 2, 2016
This morning my mind feels like “that coastline / of dim beaches deep in sand.” Autumn has perfumed the air with its promises and dramatic lighting. I want only to lie about in tall grass and inhale. I want to hear gravel beneath my feet; there is so much homecoming in October.
In this poem, there is less arrival, more departure. It would appear to be a lover speaking to her beloved—grappling with the distances between them, the days apart. Yet, it also seems the speaker is talking to both Days and Distance trying to root out their conspiracies: “distance trying to appear / something more than obstinate,” and days, “those cluttered instruments, / one to a fact, / canceling each other’s experience.”
The poem roils with anger and frustration and then, at last, a final giving up—both Days and Distance will eventually be “gone / both for good and from the gentle battleground.” I would not call this a hopeful ending; more of a, “well one day we’ll be dead so I guess it’s fine” kind of an ending.
Of course I tend to read romantic turmoil into the plot; I tend to read myself into it. My own battles with days and distance, my own gaze over the plane’s wing at the beaches “stretching indistinguishably / all the way, / all the way to where my reasons end.” The poem seems perhaps less an argument with the lover, the more I sit with it, than with the self, the self’s expectations and handling of its self.
Eventually, I envision the speaker strolling on that beach, alone, wind whipping her hair, nothing resolved as nothing can be, but oh the clean salt smell of it.
Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore: December 31, 2016
In our letters to others we often reveal ourselves in how we cast the Other; in this frolicking, joking poem lays an urgent loneliness, a hunger, a desire for a particular kind of company, a particular kind of day.
Yet we see none of the speaker (cough, Bishop, cough), only the fantastic depiction of Miss Marianne Moore, part witch, part schoolmarm, coming across the Brooklyn Bridge, beneath the “white mackerel sky,” for a day in the city, a city made moral and upright and fantastical (“the grim museums will behave / like courteous male bower-birds”) just for her, just for this day.
I don’t often think of Bishop as a humorous poet, though surely a witty poet; wit and humor are not always aligned, but are certainly good friends. I like to think of them playing Pictionary: Wit always interpreting the prompt in a way that’s unexpected but right in its surprise; Humor drawing a penis on everything, from schoolhouse to bower-bird.
And if Humor and Wit are buddies, Humor and Sorrow are lovers. The funniest people are often the most heartbroken and there is something heartbreaking in this poem, this loving poem: “we can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying.” Here Bishop perfectly casts loneliness; it doesn’t care what we do or how we fill it, with shopping or grief, with mockery or wit, but please (please!) a warm body with whom to share all of it.
It is probably not a coincidence that I am writing this entry on the first New Year’s Eve I will spend alone (well, with two cats). It feels, oddly, shameful to admit this, though perhaps not, in our culture that reinforces isolation while refusing us solitude—always a voice, clinking with money, trying to sell something. You won’t be lonely if you buy this. You won’t be alone if you swipe this way. But alone and together are all we have and they are not exclusive and they cannot be bought nor sold and they can carry you. As my yoga teacher said as we sat in pigeon pose last night, “the greater half of discomfort isn’t the situation but resisting the situation.” Tonight I won’t resist whatever strange gifts 2017 lays at the door, whether they be “a soft, uninvented music, fit for the musk deer” or “a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots.”
The Shampoo: February 26, 2017
In addition to blogging about Bishop and re-reading so slowly her collected work, I am slowly reading (by which I mean I’m in year three of slowly wading through it) a biography of her life (Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It by Brett C. Miller).
Biographies are strange. I only recently became a fan, starting with Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford, a few years ago, on the recommendation of a friend, and have since found that I rather love the collagist art of biography—a pinch of letters, a dash of interviews, an excavation of journal entries and out of this potion, an interpretation of a self—or more true, a set of selves sharing a single name—manifests.
Oddly, or perhaps not at all, Millay and Bishop shared similar demons—depression, addictions, heartbreak, financial concerns, an at times desperate need to rely on their lovers. And, yet in both, fierce light, unequivocal talent, wit, various graces.
So there is something heart-wrenchingly tender about Bishop’s “The Shampoo.” So private a poet and person (unless drink unspooled her tongue), to depict such an act—washing a lover’s hair in a “big tin basin, / battered and shiny like the moon”—feels downright confessional. Feels like the moon slipping from its curtain of clouds—from a curtain of dark hair that I feel we can safely imagine is Lota’s.
I’m near the end of the biography, and thus near the end of Bishop’s life and a strange grief mounts in me—I don’t want to watch her die. And yet she’s been dead my entire life—dying six days and a year before I was born. This is the grim side of biography—reading a story that is already finished; and yet, a surfeit of biographies; in this excessive, perhaps obsessive, rearranging of a life’s collage pieces, a desire to let a little more light in—what is it we want to see? The beating heart, the untethered voice.
In “The Shampoo,” time is still a friend, is “nothing if not amenable.” I love, of course, the lichen on the rocks lifting into the rings around the moon, the description of the beloved as “precipitate and pragmatical”—what odd and sweetly specific adjectives, the kind one can only bestow on one whom one knows well.
Then the soap sud-stars, “flocking where, / so straight, so soon?” Of course and always, as the rhyme suggests, to the moon, to the moon, to the moon.
Of the many fascinating moments in this poem, I suppose I will focus on the pronouns, though in a parallel universe this post is about the rhyme scheme about that abandoned “s” at the start of the penultimate stanza.
But we are in this world and pronouns it is. In the first three stanzas, we encounter the Bishop Eye–no “I” in sight, just sight: we’re shown the (potentially) “self-pitying mountains” with their “frivolous greenery” as if we stood with this unsaid “I” at the prow of the ship, awaiting the fuss of planks and anchors to finish so we can disembark. But what we’re also shown is judgement–this “I” that has yet to assert itself is ridiculing the tourist–who is, perhaps companion, interlocutor, likely all these as well as the self reprimanding the self: “is this how this country is going to answer you / and your immodest demands for a different world / and a better life…?” “Arrival at Santos” opens Bishop’s third collection, Questions of Travel, and certainly this question is as the heart of all our travel: does geography change us? Can we ever escape the self?
No, of course not; the speaker knows this and instructs us to “finish your breakfast.” But who? Here the first personal pronoun of the poem arrives and it is a distancing one. If the speaker is the tourist–dragging us along as stand-in, as someone to take the disappointment out on–then the speaker is telling herself to get on with it.
Comfort comes in stanzas 5-7 where we are thrown in scene with Miss Breen, “about seventy, / a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall, / with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression.” Miss Breen is beautifully not us–strong, single, kind, independent. Watching out for her and the pesky boat hook relieves the speaker of the interior tension–but not for long.
Port and disembarkment await. The port is positioned as part illusion, like postage stamps and soap–whose promises of connection and cleansing–are dismissed as diminishing returns. Stamps slip their envelopes; soap dissolves. The port is merely a watery gate: we leave immediately, “driving to the interior.”
Here, the never announced “I” has buoyed itself by making itself a “we.” We as readers are brought in, Miss Breen is snatched up too, into the ephemeral and unnamed collective buttressing the “I” as it admits, at a slant, that all travel goes both ways–outward and inward. Whatever is to be encountered is encountered first with the eyes but always also with the mind and heart. All travel is thus dangerous–every move we make into the foreign landscape a gesture of vulnerability and–“who knows?”–connection, though it be slippery as a postage stamp.
Outside this morning, gray blooms in the air, a massive flower, damp and heavy, tent-like, over this town I am not quite ready to say is home. The strangle-heat of summer persists, resists refusal: you feel it, even in the air-conditioning, feel it pulsing at the window like cicadas, locusts, crickets. You cannot not pay attention.
Instead of focusing on the folds of this gray bloom, and how it makes me feel inept and restless, worthless and thrumming at once, I turn to Bishop’s “January 1, 1502.” A strange poem, in how it moves through time and landscape. Perhaps this is just the gray laziness today has cast over me, but I have nothing spectacular to add to Gray Jacobik’s lovely explication over at Michigan Quarterly Review. Like any good explication, Jacobik’s insights helped me appreciate the poem more fully in how it weaves in allusion and research coherently–Bishop’s intense control and precision pulling together 15th century popular French music, Sir Kenneth Clark’s essay referred to in the poem’s epigraph, and the history of Portuguese colonization of Brazil.
My favorite stanza is the last one. After its critique of Christians (“hard as nails / tiny as nails”), it talks about how the invaders found Brazil “not unfamiliar:”
“but corresponding nonetheless,
To an old dream of wealth and luxury
already out of style when they left home–
Wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.”
So much packed into these four lines. An old, out of style dream–“wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.” The sinister delights of power, of colonization, of capitalism rest in these lines, made all the more wrenching when the poem turns to its final image of the women evading their rapists, “calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?) / and retreating, always retreating.” An old story, patriarchy and power and racism and the intersection of social and environmental oppression.
It can be tempting to get caught up in the rapid cycling of news, the constant onslaught of information, wave after wave of outrage, of new atrocities and forget that the new atrocities are rooted in history, as we all are, and that the soil is deep, fecund, problematic, and pervasive. This poem from its first word “Januaries” reveals the plurality of experience, the layering of systemic oppressions so overpowering so as to be paralyzing–claustrophobic as a gray day. I think of a phrase my friend told me the other day, of taking a “leap of action” instead of a “leap of faith.”
These are days of leaps of action. Admittedly, I often feel a writer’s-blockish feeling about “action.” Do what, where, when, how and how not to feel like it is all pointless and we’re all doomed? When I have writer’s block, I write here, I do something, even if it is small. I think this is the way of acting toward justice as well–do something, even if it is small as not eating meat today or tomorrow. Small as noticing two skunks crossing the road, starlings clattering in the trees, sunset over this town I’ve lived in for a year, and thinking up better ways to share, root down, involve myself, shake off all that humid caked on dust of melancholy and not-quite and restless what-ifs; shake it all off and treat this home like home.
Though the poem is called questions, and though it is full of questions, at its heart is really just one: “should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” The other questions elaborate on this primary concern, doll it up in the “weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages” but the poem yearns for impossible clarification on this matter, that has troubled many artists, many humans: as The Clash sang, should I stay or should I go now?
Of course The Clash song and the poem are also about what isn’t said: the question(s) of travel, of departure or remaining, are all the question of desire: pursue it or refute it? Who are we, as Bishop asks, to “dream our dreams / and have them, too”? Prufrock also wondered this “do I dare disturb the universe?” and “how should I presume?” What are we but matter, and so how much does any of this matter? Oh, existential dread. Oh, body and planet: our home and not home.
If we take the poem at its word, that it is merely concerned with the issue of travel, and not that of desire, the question is rendered even more complicated in contemporary times: flight is one of the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint. To travel the world, particularly in this fashion, is to destroy it. And so, another underbelly of the central question exposes itself: must witness always be reduced to tourism, to another form of consumption, “to stare at some inexplicable old stonework, / inexplicable and impenetrable, / at any view, / instantly seen and always always delightful?”
Always, always delightful: the “tiniest green hummingbird” as well as the “bamboo church of Jesuit baroque” that Bishop notes. But also instantaneously: what the poem focuses on is the appetite of the eye, of all there is to see. And isn’t that what we say, “I want to see the world.” Yes, we want the feasts, the smells, the strange stonework beneath our feet and hands, but foremost, to see, to make “room / for one more folded sunset.” Certainly, I am glad she traveled, paid witness, wrought these poems from what she saw–wrought such a poem that questions the very worth of what she saw, that questions its own value.
I’ve sure I’ve written it before in a different post about a Bishop poem, but it is the central tenet of her work, this tension between confidence and curiosity, doubt and sincerity: never just the one, never a singular experience, though each poem feels singular, cast as each is, by her singular vision.
As with many of Bishop’s poems, “Squatter’s Children” has a deceptive simplicity: two children, playing outside, with their pup, with their father’s “broken haft,” attempting to dig a hole, while their mother calls them in, while the storm “piles up.”
And yet, from this small, common scene, Bishop points to so much else. The final stanza is like the ruby amulet on the gold chain of the other stanzas–bright and surprising, with its imagery and depths:
Children, the threshold of the storm has slid beneath your muddy shoes; wet and beguiled, you stand among the mansions you may choose out of a bigger house than yours, whose lawfulness endures. Its soggy documents retain your rights in rooms of falling rain.
Where to even begin? That beautiful and startling portrait of the storm as having “slid beneath” the children’s muddy shoes perfectly captures the swiftness of a summer storm. And, the final commentary on the children’s state (which is of course, microcosm of the human state): we are all squatters of some sort, using up what isn’t ours, often in, if not unlawful, imprudent ways. And despite this, we all have “rights in rooms of falling rain.” We are part of the earth, even as we bulldoze it. A hard spot to be, surely. Bishop doesn’t diminish that, states it as plain fact: you belong as much to the mother’s voice, “ugly as sin” as to the “wet and beguiled” world.
What is even more astounding in this poem is the formal structure of each stanza: Bishop relies on slant rhymes in lines 1-4 of each stanza; sometimes so slant they escape notice. But then, the final four lines of each stanza use full rhymes; the structure then mimicking the shape of storm: the first soft footsteps of rain–that light drizzle that we are uncertain of how to interpret–a passing fizz, or a preamble? Then the storm’s arrival, its fullness a certainty captured in the resonance of rhyme: “spreads/thunderheads, “retain/rain.”
The rhymes also suggest the inherent lacing of the children’s lives to their landscape, to their home: they are woven in, even if they seem separate and “specklike” as the poem begins–hardly worth noticing. But it is their “laughter [that] spreads / effulgence in the thunderheads.” They may feel, in their humanness, in their “unwarrantable ark” apart from, but they are also a part of. As, of course, we all are, whether we like, or admit it, or not.
I don’t know exactly how to feel about “Manuelzinho.” It is, as with so many of Bishop’s poems, deceptive, seemingly straightforward but certainly not. In this one, she does warn us with an epigraph: “Brazil. A friend of the writer is speaking.” So, we know we are in persona. We know we are observing a performance of an identity, clearly identified as not the writer. As other.
So what do we think of this ‘friend of the writer’? What do we think the writer thinks of her? There is a sense of honesty, or an attempt at honesty in the friend’s description of Manuelzinho and her exasperated, bedazzled attitude toward him. She is frustrated with him, asking for potatoes and then “you jumped out of your clogs, / leaving three objects arranged / in a triangle at my feet, / as if you’d been a gardener / in a fairy tale all this time.” Here, even the frustration at his disappearance slips into wonder–her gardener is magical to her, a fairy gardener, even as she finds his slipperiness annoying.
The speaker also seems unable to get over her sense of superiority, her paternal instincts toward Manuelzinho, who comes to her, “with that wistful / face, like a child’s fistful / of bluets or white violets” (I do so love the rhyme of wistful with fistful. I have to believe Bishop was utterly delighted by herself when she landed on that one). The speaker also strains against this bent in herself: “I love you all I can, / I think. Or do I?” and then, ending with “Again I promise to try.”
What kind of love is possible between people, so clearly unequal? The speaker has telephone wires, has the money to pay for Manuelzinho’s father’s funeral, is his employer, it would seem. Or is this imbalance inherently part of love: the love of parents to children and children to parents certainly due in part because of their different roles with each other. In romantic couples, power is (ideally) a shifting fluid thing, oscillating between the two, given and taken in turns. And certainly Manuelzinho has some power in this dynamic, though it is the power of a trickster….
Here, I think is where the fact of persona becomes most pertinent. Bishop, as the writer, is aware of and trying to step inside of her friend’s perception of Manuelzinho, and to do so sympathetically. But it is in Bishop’s depiction of Manuelzinho that affection comes through most clearly, with his painted straw hat and delivery of “a mystic, three-legged carrot.” There seems to be a way in which more of her sympathy lies with Manuelzinho, in his poverty and need, which is inherently and perpetually more than her friend’s. In a way the poem tries to show this to the friend, perhaps, to reach toward the friend’s better self, that is less judgmental and exasperated, more delighted and intrigued.
This poem is rich in colors, from that opening “unsympathetic yellow” to the “bleached white cat,” the “one pink flash; / then hail….dead-white, wax-white” laying on the “red ground.” Finally, we meet the “Lent trees,” their purple petals tossed down by the storm “among the dead-eye pearls” of hail. All these colors, flashing before us, in an electric slide (pun intended) of a poem–just 21 lines.
The way the colors enter and exit the poem (or sit, at the center of it, like the color white) mimic the movement of a storm–it comes in fast, flashing, but at the heart of lightning is that white nothingness–the whiteness of the dead, as Bishop points out, the word “dead” showing up three times, and echoed in a storm of rhyming words: bed, red, shed. And then in slant rhymes like end and Lent, all of these echoes reifying the “unsympathetic” center at the heart of loss, death: the storm doesn’t care what it upsets.
Indeed, lack of sympathy is central in this poem, which we see also when Bishop turns the melting hail into the “diplomats’ wives’ favors / from an old moon party.” First, she draws our attention to their favors, which are melting, vanishing–are dead and dissolving (and of course the double-meaning of ‘favor’ there is key). Second, she shows us this is not the diplomat’s party, diplomats whose job is essentially one of cultivating mutual sympathy, but their wives–they are one step removed from this dance of sympathy, they are all performance without result (their favors all surface, untrustworthy).
And is there hope for resurrection? No, of course not. The Lent trees have shed their bright petals. They are among the dead; it is impossible to repin a blossom back to its branch. Futility everywhere, particularly in the “dropped tumbler” sound the thunder makes as it cackles and cracks the air. Here we see a small, reluctant glimpse into the personal–Bishop’s alcoholism mentioned at a slant; alcoholism another storm, of a sort, with its own blinding center.
Such a dark poem, for all its beauty, its colors–just like life, I can hear Bishop saying sardonically over another glass, the power out, the petals muddying at her feet.
I love how this poem pours out and dries up by the end; it is itself a season. We begin with that wonderful, hushed and drippy “hidden, oh hidden” and with “waterfalls shrivel / in the steady sun,” the s-sounds languishing, spreading out, stealing all the wateriness from the poem.
Of course Bishop mourns what many would celebrate–the return of the sunny season. Even in the “dim age / of water,” she notes “the brook sings loud / from a rib cage / of a giant fern,” the owl counts and hunts, the frogs, “shrilling for love, / clamber and mount.” It’s a fecund world, the rainy season–made all the more lush for its ephemerality (like all seasons, like life).
If the first three stanzas offer the rainy revelry, the last three stanzas demonstrate a growing awareness of the brevity of that reveling–the sun rises, though it’s milky and we see on the wall “mildew’s / ignorant map” (which links us back up to the collection’s title, Questions of Travel, and how much of our travel is as ignorant as that of the mildew, pushed along by forces beyond ourselves…). Then that parenthetical sorrow in the fifth stanza:
(O difference that kills,
or intimidates, much
of all our small shadowy
life!) Without water
Bishop as always packs much into so small a package: she lifts us out of the natural world that dominates the poem and comments on the human condition: how often, as we see so brutally in our world these days, does difference kill and intimidate. And oh, how divine that parenthetical separating life from water, working alongside ‘without,’ indicating the paucity of a life stripped of the rain’s audacity.
At the poem’s end, the air is no longer forgiving, the owl’s moved on; a new season takes its place. Bishop of course knows this one will, eventually, be also displaced–but she doesn’t complete the circle, she lets us dry out in the sun, pondering what we’ve lost, all that’s gone.
It is hard to imagine–though I’m sure if I consulted the internet, or even my collection of Bishop’s letters, I could easily ascertain–how Robert Lowell felt the first time he read this poem dedicated to him. My guess is the bounteous, complex love he felt for Bishop swelled in the imbroglio of his heart. He dedicated his own poem “Skunk Hour,” in return for her Armadillo. Both poems are taut acts of description, of lyricism and vision.
I have been reading Mark Doty’s The Art of Description, and just finished up his section advising writers to cut their adverbs and adjectives–as no amount of spice, as he put it, makes up for a poor selection of basic ingredients. Bishop’s poem suggests you can have it all; from the start she’s not afraid to pony up some descriptors: “the frail, illegal fire balloons appear, / climbing the mountain height.” The balloons of fire, illegal and frail: all of these adjectives seem essential to setting the tone of the poem, to its inspection of that which is both beautiful and disastrous.
I am also charmed, as usual, by her metaphors: “the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,” is so obvious and perfect I am dumbstruck; then, later, “last night another big one fell. / It splattered like an egg on fire / against the cliff behind the house. / The flame ran down.” An “egg on fire!” Brilliant. And the simplicity and precision of “the flame ran down.” Swoon.
Then the poem turns to those lives most affected by the these fiery husks: the owls, who must flee their nest, and then “hastily, all alone, / a glistening armadillo left the scene.” “Hastily” seems more than essential here, for it evokes the armadillo’s squat scurry, its inability to actual move faster than that clunky adverb: ‘hastily’ connotes an attempt at speed, and an awkward one at that. Still, he “glistens,” and in his fear is made beautiful.
All of this is “too pretty, dreamlike mimicry,” the poem’s speaker rails at the end, each ballon “a weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky!” Here Bishop offers an indictment of such a ritual, of humanity’s willful refusal to take ownership of consequence. Read in the 21st century the whole poem could be an allegory for climate-change: all our lovely inventions and their flames running down our mountains, the owls and rabbits and armadillos fleeing, faltering, sweltering in their losses, looking at us in judgement with their “fixed, ignited eyes.”
It is always difficult for me to respond to Bishop’s persona poems, particularly those that take on the voice of South American subjects, as they are, inevitably fraught: is she, a white woman, colonizing these voices? Or is she, as I think she intends, coming from the position of anthropologist, a place of curiosity and investigation? Are these impulses exclusive or overlapping in complex ways?
I recently read Camille Rankine’s smart blog on persona, “The Known Unknown: Persona, Empathy and the Limits of Imagination.” In it, she writes, “I think it’s crucial to consider the ethical implications that lie within the choice to infiltrate another’s voice. If you’re a poet writing in persona, what is your relationship to the voice you’ve chosen? How near or far are you from its experience? If you get it wrong, whom will you have to answer to, and how much do they mean to you? Do you have more power than the speaker of the poem, or do they have power over you? Do they have the opportunity to speak for themselves—and what does it mean for you, specifically, to speak for them?”
I wonder if Bishop asked herself these questions and how she would have answered them. She might argue that, as an emissary from North America, she is transmitting a story, a way of life, unknown to her readers: she is helping create an entry point for her readers to life in the Amazon basin. Of course, the counter-argument to that is how might she have lifted up those voices rather than donned them in persona? Arguably, she does this in her translation of a young Brazilian woman’s diary, The Diary of Helena Morley.
I do not know the answer to whether or not Bishop should have written persona poems such as “The Riverman,” but she did, with her usual precision and narrative dexterity. The poem is particularly rich to read, for me, as I am almost finished reading Richard Powers’ The Overstory, as the poem, in several places speaks of the personhood and power of nonhuman life: the Riverman, for instance, observes a river dolphin “hid by the river mist, / but I glimpsed him—a man like myself.” Later, the speaker notes:
Look, it stands to reason
that everything we need
can be obtained from the river.
It drains the jungles; it draws
from trees and plants and rocks
from half around the world,
it draws form the very heart
of the earth the remedy
for each of the diseases—
one just has to know how to find it.
What is true of the river is true of the forest: so much wisdom and healing there, that we brutally destroy. We live on this planet like thieves in a mansion: reveling in goods we don’t deserve, trashing whatever we see no use for.
But, instead of ending on that gloomy metaphor, I’ll leave you with this link from Yes! magazine, which advocates for the power of small changes, which you, dear reader, can make, are making today.
Twelfth Night is one of my favorite, if not my favorite, plays by Shakespeare; all the gender-bending, the costumes, the homoeroticism. It is named for the Twelfth NIght (Eve) of Christmas, a revelry where peasants and kings switched places, as did men and women.
Bishop, aware of these allusions, has crafted a poem where the speaker is uncertain of reality–how to name it, what it contains; this uncertainy first manifests itself when the speaker fashions a new name for the “foundered house” she witnesses: “housewreck.” Second by wondering “is perspective dozing” as the “big white horse” seems bigger than said house. Then the horse changes color from white to “pewter-colored, an ancient mixture / tin, lead, and silver // he gleams a bit.” This gleaming tacks on to Balthazar’s (the name of one of the three Kings to visit Christ), “four-gallon can” which flashes like a pearl’s brightest highlight.
This poem seems invested in seeing the beauty in wreckage, the large in the small, the song in the silence. It has a gentle humor, it takes pleasure in this topsy-turvy world it witnesses. It seems, that is, that there’s relief in reality not being quite so real, some pleasure in not being able to trust our tools of measurement, our initial impressions.
So this seems a good poem for the start of a new year, a new decade, with its invitation to see afresh, to distrust a bit our old way of seeing, to see a four-gallon can of paint as a pearl, to listen for a child’s song.