Elizabeth Bishop’s Aviary

Mark Ford

The earliest poem collected in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, Alice Quinn’s edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s miscellaneous drafts and fragments, opens:

I introduce Penelope Gwin,
A friend of mine through thick and thin,
Who’s travelled much in foreign parts
Pursuing culture and the arts.
‘And also,’ says Penelope
‘This family life is not for me.
I find it leads to deep depression
And I was born for self expression.’[*]

Gouine, as Quinn points out in her note on the poem, is a French slang term for lesbian that gained currency in the 1920s and 1930s. It may have derived from the fashion for dressing up in male evening dress in beau monde lesbian circles during this period – tuxedo-wearers were often compared to pingouins. Bishop’s Penelope Gwin (or Pen Gwin) travels light, carrying with her only two things:

A blue balloon to lift my eyes
Above all pettiness and lies,
A neat and compact potted plant
To hide from a pursuing Aunt.

The poem survives in a single manuscript copy that includes pictures of its various characters: the penguin heroine is shown carrying her balloon and potted plant, while the German tutor she sees on her travels is a duck:

Of course, while in Romantic France
I met with Cupid and Romance.
One glimpse at my rejected suitor –
He was a handsome German tutor.
But no! I would be no man’s wife …

More appealing is a ‘dear friend’ she meets in the Tuileries:

With flowers and little birds galore
She quenched her thirst for nature lore.
She fed grilled almonds to the birds
And spoke to them with honeyed words.

This friend turns out to be a certain Miss Ellis (possibly a coded reference to one of Bishop’s teachers at Walnut Hill school, where the poem was written) in disguise. She is figured in the drawings as a bunny rabbit flanked by two birds, one perched and one hovering.

Penguins, of course, can’t fly, and there is a characteristic irony in Bishop’s identifying herself with a bird that can gain access to the skies only by gazing at her blue balloon. Bishop often likened poetic composition to an attempt to get airborne. ‘It is hard,’ she wrote in her notebook around 1937, ‘to get heavy objects up into the air; a strong desire to do so is necessary, and a strong driving force to keep them aloft. Some poets sit in airplanes on the ground, raising their arms, sure that they’re flying. Some poems ascend for a period of time, then come down again; we have a great many stranded planes.’ It is interesting that she chooses airplanes rather than birds in this entry as an analogy for poetic flight. Bishop may have thrilled at the romantic idea of spontaneously and effortlessly soaring into the poetic empyrean, but for her composition involved what she called the ‘mechanics of pretence’; only after intensive labour, a protracted sifting of possibilities like that undertaken by her sandpiper combing the beach for rare quartz, rose and amethyst grains amid the millions that are black, white, tan and grey, can a poem be released into the dizzy freedom of the ‘rainbow-bird’ of one of her final poems, ‘Sonnet’, ‘flying wherever/it feels like, gay!’ ‘Writing poetry,’ she declares sternly in a lecture drafted in the 1960s but never delivered, ‘is an unnatural act.’

During her junior year at Vassar, in 1933-34, Bishop cofounded a short-lived magazine in which she published a short story called ‘Seven-Days Monologue’ set in a boarding house presided over by an outsized landlady who emits what is tactfully called ‘lavendarishness’. In relating the exploits and habits of the all-female lodgers, the narrator aligns herself with the bird-friendly Miss Ellis in disguise: ‘Damn it all – I’m the Bird-Catcher, that’s it. I must start going around balancing innumerable small silver-gilt birdcages on my head and arms, to catch them in, and keep them all singing in the closet.’ She lures each bird – ‘bird’ is another slang term for lesbian – into her orbit with carefully chosen gifts: fans and tweezers and hatpins for the character designated M., beautiful knives and forks for F., while E. is presented forthrightly with ‘a couple of genuine phallic symbols, nothing else’.

The complex layers of implication bound up for Bishop in birds and bird imagery help account for the particular charge with which those lured into the spacious cage of her poetry are invested. Although a poet brought up on the Romantics, and one who worked more obviously in the Romantic tradition than most of her contemporaries, Bishop could never believe in the dream of spontaneous poetic power, of full-throated ease, figured by Keats’s nightingale or Shelley’s skylark or Baudelaire’s albatross. She makes this plain in the early poem ‘The Unbeliever’, in which the protagonist’s anxious trance is presented as the antithesis of the joyous sense of freedom inspired by Romantic contemplation of the endless mysteries of nature. The poem’s speaker is conscious only of the ‘mechanics of pretence’, of the artifice that elevated him above a nature he refuses to trust; to reach his perilous post on ‘top of a mast’, he ‘climbed inside/a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride’, as if mounting a prop in a pantomime. While gull and cloud urge him to remember that nature is on his side, he holds hard to his modern paranoia:

I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.

Bishop’s sandpiper exists in a similar state of ‘controlled panic’, scuttling through the foam of a threatening sea that roars and shakes and ‘hisses like fat’. The poor bird is ‘preoccupied’, ‘obsessed’, searching for ‘something, something, something’ he can never name. Like his creator, the sandpiper is not the sort to pour out his ‘full heart/In profuse strains of unpremeditated art’. Nor, tied to his narrow strip of coast, can he emulate the glorious flight of Shelley’s songbird – ‘The blue deep thou wingest,/And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.’ Rather, he is ‘finical, awkward’, concerned only with minutiae, with the ‘dragging grains’ of sand he is condemned to spend his life investigating.

Bishop, one suspects, knew rather more about real birds than Shelley did; like Marianne Moore, she prided herself on her ability to capture the feel of different species through accurate observation:

Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.

(‘The Bight’)

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[*] Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box was reviewed by Gillian White in the LRB of 25 May 2006.