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’)

Bishop delights in noting a shag’s ‘dripping serpent-neck’, in detailing the ‘oil-golds and copper greens,/anthracite blues, alizarins’ of strutting roosters, in capturing the way hungry buzzards drift down ‘in circles like stirred-up flakes of sediment/sinking through water’. Her faux-naïf style also permits her to offer anthropomorphic perspectives on birds in a manner both witty and unembarrassed: pelicans engage in ‘humorous elbowings’; they love ‘to clown’, and ‘coast for fun on the strong tidal currents’; tanagers are ‘embarrassed by their flashiness’; song-sparrows are ‘wound up for the summer’; an owl proves he can count by always hooting five times; puffins are ‘silly-looking’; sandpipers emit ‘heart-broken cries’; and a heron during a storm in the mangrove keys

may undo his head,
shake up his feathers, make an uncertain comment
when the surrounding water shines.

The birds evoked in her elegy for Robert Lowell, ‘North Haven’, have no trouble performing their elegiac function:

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.

More distracting is the silent, stuffed loon of ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’; he sports a breast that is ‘deep and white,/ cold and caressable;/his eyes were red glass,/much to be desired’. A similar colour scheme emerges in ‘Trouvée’, in which Bishop laments the demise of a hen bizarrely run over in the middle of summer on West 4th Street in Manhattan. ‘She was a white hen,’ Bishop observes, before adding, almost as if mockingly fulfilling her reputation for precision, ‘red-and-white now, of course’.

Bishop was an impulsive acquirer of birds. Towards the end of her 1937 trip to Europe she purchased three owls in a street market in Rome, and carefully recorded their behaviour in her notebook; one was intended as a gift for Moore, but all were impounded by customs on her arrival in New York. She insisted on bringing a caged canary with her when invited by Lowell to Washington in April 1948 to record her poetry for the Library of Congress. Bishop came into possession of her most loved pet of all shortly after she settled down with the aristocratic Lota de Macedo Soares in Brazil in 1952. As well as an apartment in Rio, Lota owned a large country estate or fazenda called Samambaia in Petropolis, and on Bishop’s first birthday there neighbours presented her with what she describes in a letter to Ilse and Kit Barker as her ‘lifelong dream – a toucan’:

He has brilliant, electric-blue eyes, grey-blue legs and feet. Most of him is black, except the base of the enormous bill is green and yellow and he has a bright gold bib and bunches of red feathers on his stomach and under his tail. He eats six bananas a day. I must say they seem to go right through him & come out practically as good as new – meat, grapes – to see him swallowing grapes is rather like playing a pinball machine. And something I’d never known – they sleep with their tails straight up over their heads, and their heads under a wing, so the silhouette is just like an inverted comma. I am calling him Uncle Sam, or Sammy. He steals everything.

Alas, some six years later, she inadvertently poisoned him with an insecticide she applied in the hope of ridding him of fleas. ‘I still can’t bear to think about it,’ she wrote to Lowell. ‘It was all my fault … There he lay, just like life, only with his feet up in the air.’ For the next two decades she wrestled with various drafts of an elegy for Sammy, which she hoped would be ‘sad’ but also funny, ‘since he was so funny’.

Sammy was only one of numerous exotic birds Bishop kept at Samambaia. Many are described in her correspondence. May Swenson was so impressed by Bishop’s evocation of a pair of bicos de lacre – waxbills – that she decided to recast it, somewhat to Bishop’s annoyance, as a poem of her own.

In 1961 Lota was appointed overseer of the conversion into a park of a large area of reclaimed land in Guanabara Bay – a project that became ever more time-consuming, and played a major part in the wreck of the couple’s relationship. Condemned to spending much of her time alone in the apartment in Rio, Bishop brightened it up with a collection of canaries. Perhaps they reminded her of the canaries Dicky and Sister, on which she and her Aunt Maud doted in the house in Revere, just outside Boston, where Bishop lived between the ages of seven and 16. She attempted to commemorate Dicky and Sister in a piece begun in the 1950s and returned to in the 1970s; the domestic harmony that they might be thought to symbolise is lightly undermined in the drafts that survive by their frequent bickering and Sister’s occasional fits:

Sister flirts her tail
& turns her back. ‘Tweet!’
She throws her seeds about.
Once in a while the tweet goes wild,
– the equivalent of ‘Dry up!’
Unsatisfactory wife!
Dicky sings on & on …

‘Bed, birdcage and a chest of drawers’, begins ‘Inventory’, a bitter poetic fragment typed by Bishop in her studio at Samambaia in January of 1967 as she packed up her effects, having been advised by doctors treating Lota for a severe nervous breakdown not to see their troubled patient for at least six months; ‘where can I take them next?’ After Lota’s fatal overdose in New York that September, she attempted, with little success, to settle down in San Francisco; there she purchased a mynah bird called Jacob whom she taught to recite favourite phrases such as ‘Awful but cheerful’ (the last words of ‘The Bight’ and a phrase she said she wanted inscribed on her gravestone), ‘I, too, dislike it’ (the opening of Moore’s ‘Poetry’), and her Grandmother Boomer’s enigmatic mantra, ‘Nobody knows.’

Bishop’s parliament of fowls is vivid and diverse. In certain poems, such as ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, birds are associated with desires that are deemed transgressive or impermissible. She compares the blackened boards she surveys with her mother on the beach at Marblehead after the Great Salem Fire of 1914 to ‘black feathers’. This experience is presented in the unfinished ‘A Drunkard’ almost as a primal scene, as the moment at which both her lesbianism and her alcoholism first manifested themselves:

strange objects seemed to have blown across the water
lifted by that terrible heat, through the red sky?
Blackened boards, shiny black like black feathers –
pieces of furniture, parts of boats, and clothes –

I picked up a woman’s long black cotton
stocking. Curiosity. My mother said sharply
Put that down! I remember clearly, clearly –

But since that night, that day, that reprimand
I have suffered from abnormal thirst –

A number of these details are reprised in another uncompleted poem set on a beach in which burned wood and a dead bird are confused. Like ‘A Drunkard’, the tentatively titled ‘(Florida Revisited)?’ moves from horror at destruction (‘many deaths by cancer,/& suicides –/friendship & love/lost, lost forever’) to a confession of the poet’s ‘unendurable’ loneliness. The fragment opens:

I took it for a bird –
Just at the water’s edge
a dead, black bird, or the breast of one,
coal-black, glistening, each wet feather distinct
that turned out to be a piece of wood,
feather-light, feather marked
but not a bird at all – dead, delicately graven, dead wood
light as the breast of a bird in the hand –
feathers

The ‘curiosity’ excited in the poet by the black cotton stocking and the delicately graven wood ‘light as the breast of a bird in the hand’ proves both dangerous and irrevocable. The drunkard can’t stop drinking, and in ‘(Florida Revisited)?’ the moon can’t stop crying. Both poems peter out in a mood of gloomy, resigned self-hatred that registers like a bitter penance for the poet’s impulsive reaching for ‘feather-light’ wood and the stocking on their respective beaches. The imagery of ‘(Florida Revisited)?’ in particular recalls the nightmare described in the early ‘Some Dreams They Forgot’, written in 1933 and first published in the Vassar Review:

The dead birds fell, but no one had seen them fly,
or could guess from where. They were black, their eyes were shut,
and no one knew what kind of birds they were. But
all held them and looked up through the new far-funnelled sky.

Forty years on, she returns to this image of inexplicable mass bird-slaughter in a draft, composed probably in the mid-1970s, called ‘Belated Dedication’:

outwards, outwards and down,
in pairs like tears

Living birds, on the other hand, frequently represent erotic release or domestic happiness. ‘Love,’ she asserts in the third of her ‘Three Valentines’, which develops a George Herbert-inspired set of conceits between Love and the avian, ‘is feathered like a bird/To keep him warm,/To keep him safe from harm’. In ‘Rain towards Morning’, one of four love poems collected in A Cold Spring (1955), she exults with unusual lack of inhibition:

The great light cage has broken up in the air
freeing, I think, about a million birds
whose wild ascending shadows will not be back,
and all the wires come falling down.

Transformed by an ‘unexpected kiss’ into friendly domestic birds, her lover’s ‘freckled unsuspected hands’ are now free to alight, indeed have already ‘alit’. The shooting stars in Lota’s hair metamorphose in ‘The Shampoo’ into flocks of birds flying in ‘bright formation’; while it is the intervention of a bird that makes possible the poet’s escape from the repetitive, solipsistic, insomniac dream-world of ‘Sunday, 4 a.m.’:

The world seldom changes,
but the wet foot dangles
until a bird arranges
two notes at right angles.

And, intriguingly, the fish she famously frees – ‘I caught a tremendous fish/… everything/was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!’ – is at one moment figured as positively bird-like, his ‘coarse white flesh/packed in like feathers’.

In one of the most intimate of her many aubades, ‘It is marvellous to wake up together’, Bishop pictures herself and her lover as birds secure in the shelter of a most peculiar cage; the couple are roused by an electrical storm, and ‘imagine dreamily’

How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening.

In ‘Questions of Travel’, in a similarly dreamy mode, she speculates on the relationship between the crude ‘two-noted’ wooden clogs worn by the poor in Brazil, and, at the opposite end of the scale, the elaborate ‘whittled fantasies of wooden cages’ in which domestic birds are kept. What a pity it would have been

Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages.

Her use of the word ‘history’ here reminds one of the puzzling final line of the poem that opens her first collection, North & South (1946): ‘More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colours.’ ‘The Map’ also fantasises a cage, a clean one for ‘invisible fish’; the metaphor is one of a series that aestheticise the brute realities of history (‘Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo/has oiled it’), and make of the poem a delicately whittled fantastic cage that momentarily shelters the poet and reader: the whimsical comparisons suppress the ‘agitation’ the poem also speaks of. The unfrightening ‘bird-cage of lightning’ of ‘It is marvellous to wake up together’ might be taken as a kind of mise en abyme for Bishop’s poetic methods; what might perturb (‘Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,/drawing it unperturbed around itself?’, as she asks in ‘The Map’) is transformed into its opposite by poetry’s ability to create a looking-glass world of enchantment, to ‘see the sun the other way around’, as she puts it in ‘Questions of Travel’. The domestic history embodied in the ‘whittled fantasies of wooden cages’ is more bearable, as well as more delicate, than other kinds of historical narrative. But such poems also make us aware of just what it is such an exaggeratedly aesthetic vision holds off, and this is what prevents them from turning into ‘solid cuteness’, to borrow a phrase used in a letter to Lowell of 1960.

In a letter, also to Lowell, written a few months later, she promised the imminent completion of a poem about Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson in which they are figured as ‘self-caged birds’. This was never finished, but it’s easy to imagine that Bishop felt the phrase might apply also to herself; her sense of her entrapment in a particular set of circumstances contrasts as strongly with Romantic visions of freedom and autonomy as her birds do with Romantic birds. Wordsworth, at the beginning of The Prelude, declares himself ‘free, enfranchised and at large’, able to ‘fix my habitation where I will’. But for Bishop ‘the choice is never wide and never free’. As the narrator of ‘Crusoe in England’ ruefully muses, driven to despair by the ‘shriek, shriek, shriek’ of the gulls, ‘Was there/a moment when I actually chose this?’

One of Bishop’s earliest memories was of visiting the Public Gardens in Boston with her mother. She was three. They hired a swan boat for a ride that proved ‘chiefly memorable for the fact that one of the live swans paddling around us bit my mother’s finger when she offered it a peanut. I remember the hole in the black kid glove and a drop of blood.’ Like the black debris and forbidden stocking on the beach at Marblehead, the white swan’s biting of Gertrude Bishop’s finger haunted her daughter’s imagination. ‘Ungracious, terrifying bird!’ she addresses it in the draft of a poem she intended to call ‘Swan-Boat Ride’:

Afloat, afloat suspended
the whole pond swayed
descended
madness & death

I saw the hole, I saw the blood.

‘Blood’ is rhymed in the draft with ‘amniotic flood’, as if the memory of the swan’s violence were capable of unleashing a deluge of birth-related fluids that threaten to sweep away the poet altogether. In ‘A mother made of dress-goods … ’ – another draft poem probably begun, like ‘Swan-Boat Ride’, after Bishop’s return to Boston in 1970 – she starkly conjugates blackness and whiteness in an attempt to render the child’s apprehension of the scene and its bleak implications. Her mother is dressed in ‘black and white “Shepherd’s Plaid’’’, and wears a ‘black hat with a black gauze rose/falling half-open’. The black and white anti-colour scheme is repeated over and over:

A long black glove
the swan bit
in the Public Gardens …

A naked figure standing
in a wash-basin shivering
a little, black and white
in the sloping-ceilinged bedroom
with the striped wall paper

A voice is heard ‘coming out of blackness – the blackness all voices come from’:

The snow had a crust, they said, like bread –
only white – it held me up but it would not hold her
she fell through it

The black of mourning and the white of the swan create a scene that is the antithesis of Bishop’s many celebrations of the multi-hued – the rainbow-oil of ‘The Fish’, the rainbow-bird of ‘Sonnet’, the ‘multi-coloured’ stones catching the sun at the close of ‘The End of March’. In ‘Santarém’, intriguingly, it is a certain Mr Swan who demands ‘What’s that ugly thing?’ when he spies the empty wasps’ nest that Bishop admired so much in the ‘blue pharmacy’ that the pharmacist gave the nest to her. And in the delightful ‘Mr and Mrs Carlyle’, the Swan with Two Necks, a London pub, becomes symbolic of the marital squabbling for which the Carlyles were famous:

One flesh and two heads
engaged in kisses or in pecks.
Oh white seething marriage!
Oh Swan with Two Necks!

Bishop once planned to write a villanelle about an aviary in the rain; given the fact that its rhyme words were to be ‘fiduciary’, ‘subsidiary’, ‘sumptuary’ and ‘beneficiary’, it’s not surprising that the project came to nothing. In the aviary of her work as a whole, swans and roosters emerge as her least favourite birds, the one associated with her mother’s descent into madness, and the other with male aggression and militarism. Pelicans, on the other hand, feature often in her descriptions of uncomplaining constant affection, like that offered Bishop by Hannah Almyda, her housekeeper in Key West:

Her heaviness – clumsy hands, although she never breaks a dish – her heavy pats of affection, are like the clumsy Pelican taking off on one of her wonderful, powerful flights – once off the water she soars – Mrs. A’s love is like that. (for a poem?)

(Notebook entry, January 1941)

In drafts of ‘Hannah A.’, Bishop compares her housekeeper to a vanished race of birds

who tore their breasts
for lining for their nests
or otherwise expressed
that love was difficult;
no trick, like balancing,
but endless worrying
at such discouraging
details with small result …

As part of her research for this poem, Bishop made a study of pelicans’ methods of flight, and jotted down notes on their relationship to pterodactyls. In the drafts, the bird’s ‘heavy flight’ eventually carries her ‘through the frost-clouded air/to the great rock where/the loved one really lives’.

More mystical associations clustered round the owl. As a child, Bishop once dreamed about an owl seated on the back of a rabbit. While at Vassar she related this dream to Margaret Miller, a painter friend; Miller tried to make a picture of the pair for Bishop, to no avail, until she came across an illumination of an early English manuscript that reproduced the dream-image exactly. Bishop was so pleased with the correspondence she had the picture made into a seal, which she used to ornament letters to friends. ‘What is all this about owls?’ she wondered in a letter of 1950 to the painter Loren MacIver, enclosing a copy of ‘The Owl’s Journey’:

Somewhere the owl rode on the rabbit’s back
down a long slope, over the long, dried grasses,
through a half-moonlight igniting everything
with specks of faintest green & blue.
They made no sound, no shriek, no Whoo!

While Ted Hughes, say, might have managed to make a convincing poem out of this visionary glimpse into the collective unconscious, Bishop found herself unable to do much with these mysterious archetypes. ‘This scarcely counts, as poetry,’ she admitted to MacIver. Far more convincing is the naturalistically rendered pair of nesting owls fleeing a crashed fire-balloon in ‘The Armadillo’:

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

Bishop’s final collection, Geography III (1976), ends with ‘Five Flights Up’, a poem set in the Cambridge apartment of Alice Methfessel, the partner of her final years.

Still dark.
The unknown bird sits on his usual branch.
The little dog next door barks in his sleep inquiringly, just once.
Perhaps in his sleep, too, the bird inquires once or twice, quavering.
Questions – if that is what they are –
answered directly, simply,
by day itself.

The unknown bird perhaps owes something to the birds of the fourth stanza of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Sunday Morning’, in which the woman addressed in the poem broods:

‘I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’

Her ‘remembrance of awakened birds’, the poet comments, will outlast all mythical visions of utopia. The awakened bird of ‘Five Flights Up’ embodies a similar paradise of the real, but one the sceptical poet has trouble accepting or entering. Both the bird on the branch and the dog next door are figured as living in time, or even history, in a manner the poet frankly covets. Although his owner sternly scolds him (‘You ought to be ashamed!’), the dog takes no notice, bouncing ‘cheerfully up and down’, and rushing ‘in circles in the fallen leaves’:

Obviously, he has no sense of shame.
He and the bird know everything is answered,
all taken care of,
no need to ask again.
– Yesterday brought to today so lightly!
(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)

Lift, though, is exactly what Bishop’s poetry achieves; it gets ‘heavy objects up into the air’, lifts them ‘lightly’, ‘five flights up’. Bishop once told the poet Frank Bidart that as she wrote the closing lines of ‘At the Fishhouses’ she felt ‘ten feet tall’, raising her hands as high as they would go above her head to perform her sense of elevation. Like Penelope Gwin’s blue balloon, the bird of ‘Five Flights Up’ directs the eyes ‘Above all pettiness and lies’, above the shame of transgression ‘lightly’ implied by the fallen leaves. The bird’s eye view of poetry allows even the unbeliever to imagine her seemingly endless uncertainties being ‘answered directly, simply/by day itself.’

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