Elizabeth Bishop’s great gift was to perfect a way of writing about human procedures and concerns without talking chiefly about human behaviour. Her poems are intelligent, supple, grave and witty; often perplexed, but never presenting perplexity as their main source of interest. Her verse is among the least neurotic written in the 20th century.
A first Complete Poems, supervised with resignation or irony by Bishop herself, appeared in 1969, ten years before her death. This new book adds some fifty unpublished or uncollected poems, including the whole of Geography III (1976) and a scatter of later verse. Among the previously unpublished poems there is little that changes the nature of her claim to importance as a maker of luminous landscapes: the ‘Occasional Poems’ are mostly squibbish; the ‘Poems Written in Youth’ show her writing about an elf when she was 16, and producing a sonnet full of Keatsian flushes a year later. Bishop was an explorer and a retirer, who lived for 15 years in Brazil, where, as she pointed out in an interview, there was no literary group ‘handy’ – and no word for understatement. She won prizes but less international recognition than her warm friend Robert Lowell, who consistently celebrated her:
Half New-Englander, half fugitive
Nova Scotian, wholly Atlantic sea-board –
Unable to settle anywhere, or live
Our usual roaring sublime.
Elizabeth Bishop certainly never roared. In this unfinished poem, Lowell attends to some of the differences between them: Lowell the lover and leaver of roots and families; Bishop the traveller and homosexual, who by the time she was five had lost her father through death and her mother through nervous collapse. The strenuousness of some of Lowell’s verse is seen in this issue to have an affinity with Donne: Bishop’s contemplative clarity has the cunning of George Herbert.
Bishop’s poems start most often in calm, with unchallengeable announcements of time, position or attitude, then slide into qualifications and inquiries. The difference between statement and reservation may be no more than a syllable, so that error or change is presented as being built into what she sees, as it is in the first poem here, ‘The Map’:
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
In the long loop of these lines, uncertainty is smuggled in (‘shadows’/‘shallows’), then underlined (‘edges’/‘ledges’), before the fourth line turns back on the first with the beautiful irony of ‘simple’. The next quatrain expresses and contains a giddy reversal of the first:
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?
The parallelism of the questions almost disguises the change from the kindness of ‘lean’ to the violence of ‘tugging’. Almost but not quite, for the stanza ends here, with the last question the last to be left unanswered. ‘The Map’ does not present itself as a cartographical treatise, but its ‘moony Eskimo’ and ‘lovely bays’ are actual enough to make the idea that it should be considered the delineation of an inner landscape disastrous. It is a poem about the difficulty and delight of seeing and describing accurately, and, in its cool progress from certainty to certainty through a shoal of hesitations, it is a model of how to conduct an argument.
Like most of Bishop’s poems, ‘The Map’ advances and changes through details of diction and observation, with no reference to a flailing or forging ego. Bishop often uses a collusive ‘we’ – ‘We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship’ – and casually lists the lovely features of her shores as if they were self-evident: ‘On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.’ She can sneak in as much strangeness as any Martian, making the unearthliness of her creatures more apparent by approaching them with domestic similes: man-of-war birds ‘open their tails like scissors’ or ‘tense them like wishbones’. Yet her poems are never simply pincushions of details: she didn’t hold with beaming on every winkle. ‘Florida’ first beguiles with a sunny simplicity, ‘the state with the prettiest name’, then goes on to point out that the prettiest effects are delivered by rot and debris, that the swamp is winning. The clutter of activities sketched in ‘The Bight’ is threaded through with puns on Baudelairean correspondences and clamped together at the end of the poem by assonances which slyly present the narrator’s point of view:
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.
Elizabeth Bishop was well aware that too much embellishment could lead to a sense of indiscriminate eagerness, to poems which were collections of tiny cherishings: in praising Marianne Moore, she once objected to her dutiful honouring of the ordinary. Moore was an important influence on Bishop: it seems to have been she who, after a first arranged meeting on a bench outside the New York Public Library, persuaded Bishop to take up poetry rather than medicine after Vassar; William Carlos Williams reported after a reading: ‘Marianne Moore had a little girl named Elizabeth Bishop in tow. It seems she writes poetry.’ Moore is hymned here in one of Bishop’s less successful poems. ‘Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore’ celebrates the poet as a delightful witch who will broomstick her way across the Brooklyn Bridge – but the witch is too soporifically amiable to cast much of a spell. Manhattan is messily seen both as a cosy cluster of museums and libraries and as a despicable repository of noise and ‘malignant movies’, above which the poetess (a word which the poem invites) will rise, flourishing her ‘beautiful ears’. The conviviality offered to the spellbinder is twittery; the witch’s own contribution is a great bag of contentless vocabularies whose burnished vapidity proves contagious – she is praised, paradoxically, for ‘a long unnebulous train of words’.
The poem to Moore is uncharacteristic in its flutterings and strainings: Bishop was least at home when talking directly about individual human personalities. She wrote enthusiastically to Lowell about Life Studies: ‘I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. I feel I could write in as much detail about my uncle Artie, say, – but what would be the significance?’ And: ‘all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American etc gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously.’ Not everyone would feel that the putting down of names was Lowell’s greatest talent. It was certainly not one of Bishop’s: people, including her narrators, are approached obliquely in her poems – they provide perspective rather than personality. This is not to say that she wished to roll the few characters who do appear into rocks and stones and trees. The old man repairing nets in ‘At the Fishhouses’ is not destined to make an oracular utterance of unbearable simplicity: he is not interrogated by the narrator, but sits chatting to her – and accepting her Lucky Strikes. He is, however, from the beginning subordinate to the evening scene: a scene which prosily insists on the use of sturdy working objects – gangplanks, capstans, lobster pots and wheelbarrows – but which is at the same time presented as a fiction of light. The ‘evening’ of the first line becomes the ‘gloaming’ of the fourth, the benches are silver, the flies and the scales of the fish ‘iridescent’, the fisherman is decorated with ‘sequins’ of fish. In the methodical slowness of the opening section, the feature least touched by shimmer is the sea, held back from rolling and romance by the movement of the lines:
the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
It is characteristic of Bishop’s verse that a poem which contains the dispiritingly credible ‘We talk of the decline in the population/and of codfish and herring’ should bell out effortlessly into a consideration of memory and of knowledge. A completely natural change of tense – ‘He has scraped the scales ... from unnumbered fish’ – first widens the range of the poem; a small change of location, an edging towards the sea, brings a shift of rhythm and an authoritative largeness of language: ‘Cold dark deep and absolutely clear’. This phrase, repeated in the poem’s last sequence, leads to the final confidence of
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.
It leads to it with checks: the sort of checks any person not readily disposed to talk in terms of elemental forces would consider necessary. The narrator, who in the first section is present only as part of a ‘one’ or a ‘we’, glances at her own sea-history: she used to sing Baptist hymns here to a seal, ‘like me a believer in total immersion’. The approach to the sea is tentative – ‘if you should dip your hand in’ – and the rhythmically bumpy line, ‘It is like what we imagine knowledge to be,’ catches the uncertainty, the reluctance to go beyond personal experience. Nevertheless, the step is taken and clinched with a final pun: ‘our knowledge is historical, flowing and flown.’
This movement from myopic observation to imaginative reflection occurs in many of Bishop’s poems: it proposes, not a world of objects instinct with transcendental messages, but a world in which the act of close attention, of accurate documentation, defines and expands the imagination of the observer. This is what Bishop admired in Darwin: the ‘endless heroic observations ... and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels that strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown.’ This is the slide which Bishop effected in ‘The Fish’, in which density of description, a meticulous anatomising which builds as it strips, becomes an acknowledgment of strangeness and of fellowship. There is, Bishop wrote, no division between the conscious and the subconscious in art: ‘Dreams, works of art (some) glimpses of the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy (is it?) catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important.’
The graphic clarity of Bishop’s work both disguises and substantiates its mysteries. A poem such as ‘The Man-Moth’, in which force of feeling and visual drama are immediately striking, does not yield the whole of its subject at once. Explaining the title, a newspaper misprint for ‘mammoth’, Bishop said: ‘An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at least for a moment.’ The poem is a description of despair which paints its lunar spectre with affectionate intimacy. The Man-Moth is all shadow and all eye, subject to romantic longings and surreal inversions:
The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
and the train starts at once at its full terrible speed.
Yet he is also realised with great sweetness and inwardness as an investigator of dread:
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
The brilliantly bizarre visual effect is deepened to include the Man-Moth’s own sense of tender physicality: the pressure on that small head is an enclosing, tactile sensation; just as, later, the terrible tear which ‘slips’ from his eye is felt as much as seen: ‘Slyly he palms it.’ Here is Bishop’s accustomed strength: to give human disquiet a dazzling new diagram, to speak in a deeply personal way without speaking of herself.
‘What one seems to want in art,’ Bishop wrote, ‘in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.’ This is a condition her poems enforce on their readers. She is a writer who gives us our own civilisation new: the city as a harlequin made out of lights; the city fuelled by guilt. She is also a poet who brings us news from abroad. Bishop’s voyages and her residence in Brazil provided her with subject-matter and with themes. She translated freshly from Portuguese. She wrote a ballad, ‘The Burglar of Babylon’, which shows unsentimental pity for Rio’s poor as well as her usual quick delight in the details of topography:
There’s the hill of Kerosene,
And the hill of the Skeleton,
The hill of Astonishment,
And the hill of Babylon.
She spoke wryly about the discomfiture of the expatriate wealthy white. The most persistent theme in her poems about travel is the question of whether travel is worth it. ‘Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’ Are the sights never to be ‘serious, engravable’, but always ‘Everything only connected by “and” and “and” ’? Need exploration impose a ready-made exoticism, a ‘hanging fabric’ behind which the natives retreat giggling? The precision and vigour of the questions overturn the doubts as they are raised. So does the magnificence of what she finds: ‘gray moonbursts’ of lichens, and ‘history in/the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages’. These perceptions required not only clear sight but the exercise of what Lowell called her ‘giant memory’.
The Bishop who explored was the same poet who simply stopped to look: unprejudiced, plain-speaking, far-reaching and funny. In ‘Filling Station’ she wrote a greasy version of ‘Adelstrop’, a lively account of a halt at a petrol-station where everything is drenched in oil, even the personalities of the lads busy about their greasy task – they are ‘quick and saucy’. Waiting, she quizzes the odd gestures of domesticity on the porch, ‘a big dim doily’, an ‘extraneous plant’, and guesses at a series of greasy somebodys: one who crocheted, one who arranged the oil-cans in rows
so that they softly say:
ESSO – SO – SO – SO.
The poem ends with ironic pathos: ‘somebody loves us all.’ One interviewer put to Bishop the view that the poem could be read as a feminist tract, as a study of the ‘woman’s touch’. Bishop’s response was crisp: ‘I certainly didn’t feel sorry for whoever crocheted that thing.’ Most people wouldn’t: her poems do not brandish creeds and do not encourage tears. Like her Crusoe – translated in her poem to England and imagined ‘without all that Christianity’ – she made her own world, her own home, with pain and with exhilaration. Like Crusoe, she talked frankly and with fancy about the way things were:
The turtles lumbered by, high-domed,
hissing like teakettles.
(And I’d have given years, or taken a few,
for any sort of kettle, of course.)
Elizabeth Bishop was slow to embrace speculation about her poetry: ‘After a session with a few of the highbrow magazines one doesn’t want to look at a poem for weeks.’ But she was quick to praise the writing of others, and in doing so frequently characterised her own wonderful poems. Of Lowell’s Life Studies: ‘They all also have that sure feeling, as if ... everything, and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry – or not material, seemed to be poetry, and all the past was illuminated in long shafts here and there, like a long-waited-for sunrise ... It seems to me it’s the whole point of art, to the artist (not the audience) – life is all right, for the time being.’