Elizabeth Bishop: Poems

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is a confessional poet (coined by the critic Mendenhal for Lowell’s Life Studies) interested in “the utter strangeness and engulfing power of the world,” often expressed by the subjunctive and imperative verbal forms. The confessionals often spoke personally but undermined the self as whole (vs. the impersonal guilt of the high modernists?) and explored mental illness as a means of coping with the emergent split self of the postmodern era. She explores how we phenomenalize knowledge, how we imagine it to be. Like Husserl, who held that the infinite atoms of data into which the object can be divided make it essentially unknowable, Bishop pursues that transcendence here – not by Kantian distance, but through the constant suggestion of embarking out. Through this fractal logic, the details in Bishop flourish, smaller and smaller in her poems, no matter how deep you go. Bishop was influenced by Marianne Moore, a peer of Robert Lowell, and an influence on Sylvia Plath.

NORTH & SOUTH, 1946

“THE FISH”

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly–
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
–It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels–until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

In a letter to Marianne Moore in the early 1940s, Bishop describes this episode of catching a brightly colored parrot fish and releasing it. Again, I wonder how the fish is a resonant occasion for female contemplation of epistemology and death, as it is in Moore and Murdoch, and even Woolf as well (vs the bird for men, though Ted Hughes has a fish poem…). The mixed tone of victory/violence and pity/beauty here makes it particularly beautiful. The simile “coarse white flesh packed in like feathers” is an interesting parallel to the way Bishop conceives of knowledge via simile in “At the Fishhouses.”

“AT THE FISHHOUSES”

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.

Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

This poem is particularly notable for its demonstration of how the mind pieces together metaphors by experiential movement. The metaphorical leaps of “scales” to “coats of mail” to “sequins” all connect us to the beautiful shiny scales the old man peels from fish. Bishop moves to the seal, in the water no human could bear, which makes us ache even to touch it, and which burns and shocks us to taste. Instead of the metaphors of the early part of the poem, Bishop turns to describe knowledge by simile – it is like this water (recall that simile is used in Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” to denote the poet “like a horse,” while poetry itself occurs in layered metaphors). The tense of its “flowing and drawn… flowing, and flown” reminds me of Stevens’ “it was snowing and it was going to snow.”

QUESTIONS OF TRAVEL, 1965

“THE ARMADILLO”

For Robert Lowell

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!

The first stanza’s lines are reminiscent of Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” The fragile, open, vivid, and explosive fire balloons that start the poem scale down to the owls whose nest has burned (but they can fly away), and finally down to the hard, coiled form of the armadillo, which can resist everything but fire in this position.

“SESTINA”

1 September rain falls on the house.
2 In the failing light, the old grandmother
3 sits in the kitchen with the child
4 beside the Little Marvel Stove,
5 reading the jokes from the almanac,
6 laughing and talking to hide her tears.

6 She thinks that her equinoctial tears
1 and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
5 were both foretold by the almanac,
2 but only known to a grandmother.
4 The iron kettle sings on the stove.
3 She cuts some bread and says to the child,

3 It’s time for tea now; but the child
6 is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
4 dance like mad on the hot black stove,
1 the way the rain must dance on the house.
2 Tidying up, the old grandmother
5 hangs up the clever almanac

5 on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
3 hovers half open above the child,
2 hovers above the old grandmother
6 and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
1 She shivers and says she thinks the house
4 feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

4 It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
5 I know what I know, says the almanac.
1 With crayons the child draws a rigid house
3 and a winding pathway. Then the child
6 puts in a man with buttons like tears
2 and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

2 But secretly, while the grandmother
4 busies herself about the stove,
6 the little moons fall down like tears
5 from between the pages of the almanac
3 into the flower bed the child
1 has carefully placed in the front of the house.

5 Time to plant tears (6), says the almanac.
4 The grandmother (2) sings to the marvelous stove
1 and the child (3) draws another inscrutable house.

I have marked the repetitions characteristic of the sestina form at the beginnings of the lines. This poem reminds me of Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Almanac of the Dead” in a way. The beautiful intertwining of house, grandmother, child and stove, almanac, tears explores kinship, the prophecies of literature, and the value and legibility of artistic expression.

GEOGRAPHY III, 1976

“IN THE WAITING ROOM”

Perhaps her most typically ‘confessional’ poem, this piece takes the form of a dramatic monologue about a memory. The speaker waits (“It was winter. It got dark… I read the National Geographic (I could read.”) The magazine transports her from barren to live volcanoes, into a land of “black, naked women with necks wound round and round with wire.” They signify total otherness to her: “Their breasts were horrifying.” The speaker is then disturbed to find herself echoed in her aunt’s cry of pain – “it was me:  m voice, in my mouth.” Suddenly she feels unhinged from the world and must remind herself of her own name. She tries to latch onto the material objects in the room. “I knew that nothing stranger had ever happened, that nothing stranger could ever happen.” She wonders what “held us all together” – from family (micro) to humanity (macro). The poem sees the material world as both bounded and limitless, the problem and the solution, the point of departure and of return. The speaker seems anxious that her imagined spaces are solipsistic through the logic of the declarative (bringing-into-being). Finally, she is “back in it. The War was on” – implicitly the TV? We are returned to a specific town, as at the start, and to a specific date, whatever that means after this poem.

“ONE ART”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster.

In “One Art,” Bishop confronts loss by telling the reader imperatively to practice losing something each day. The most interesting part of the poem is probably when she shows herself willing herself to write disaster at the end of the poem. Despite her insistence of ease, the speaker feels each loss profoundly, as the effect of cataloguing or enumerating them all ironically highlights.

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