The lighthouse stares back

Matthew Bevis

  • On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Tóibín
    Princeton, 209 pp, £13.95, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 15411 4

‘Nobody knowsnobody knows.’ Elizabeth Bishop said her grandmother’s remark was the chorus of her childhood. ‘I often wondered what my grandmother knew that none of the rest of us knew and if she alone knew it, or if it was a total mystery that really nobody knew except perhaps God.’ She ventured to ask: ‘What do you know, Gammie, that we don’t know? Why don’t you tell us? Tell me!’ Gammie wouldn’t say whether she was keeping a secret or confessing bewilderment; she just laughed and replied: ‘Go on with you! Scat!’ This image of a person obscurely in the know, at once self-collected and reticent, is also an image of the person Bishop became – or the one many took her to be. But Bishop knew that you could compel attention by declining to demand it, and that restraint could be a kind of plea. She once wrote of a friend: ‘She had one rare trait that kept me interested: she never spoke of herself at all.’ Mary McCarthy’s assessment of Bishop – ‘I envy the mind hiding in her words, like an “I” counting up to a hundred waiting to be found’ – captures this blend of stealth and appeal, of patience and need. Bishop plays strange games; during hide and seek it is generally the seeker, not the hider, who is doing the counting.

‘Doesn’t it annoy you a little,’ Bishop asked Robert Lowell, ‘when people hand you back, like an obligation, flat statements of what you “meant”?’ Colm Tóibín avoids this temptation. On Elizabeth Bishop is an engaging introduction to her life and work, and also an essay on the importance of her work in his life. May Swenson told Bishop that, when reading some of her poems, ‘I have to furnish them with “meanings” from my own experience because you’ve left yours out.’ Tóibín is drawn to similar furnishings: ‘I have a close relationship with silence, with things withheld, things known and not said,’ he writes, and this relationship, he feels, brings him close to Bishop. As well as being a kindred spirit, Bishop is like other writers and artists who mean a lot to him: Vermeer, Cézanne, Hammershøi, Joyce, Thom Gunn. ‘It is annoying to have to keep saying that things are like other things,’ Bishop observed, ‘even though there seems to be no help for it.’ The centrifugal energy of Tóibín’s study is in part resisted, though, by a very specific sense of what Bishop is ‘like’: austere, guarded, systematic.

‘Do you have too many defences?’ an interviewer once asked her. ‘Too many? Can one ever have enough defences?’ Tóibín quotes Bishop’s answer alongside her much cited belief in ‘closets, closets, and more closets’, but these comments themselves highlight a strange blend of drollery and vulnerability, a feeling that things haven’t been entirely covered up or controlled. One of the reasons Bishop is so quotable, so witty, is because she understands the comedy of discretion – and she also understands that a joke, as Theodor Lipps put it, always ‘says what it has to say … in too few words’. She knows that her poem ‘Strayed Crab’ could easily be taken for a portrait of the artist when it explains that ‘I believe in the oblique, the indirect approach, and I keep my feelings to myself,’ yet the fact that the crab should feel the need to spell this out is telling (as Bishop puts it elsewhere, ‘we always tell the truth about ourselves despite ourselves’). Tóibín ends his opening chapter by quoting from ‘The Map’ (the first poem in her first book): ‘Bishop seemed to disapprove of the moment when the map’s printer experienced “the same excitement/as when emotion too far exceeds its cause”. She was careful, or as careful as she could be, not to allow that to happen in her life or, more accurately, in her poems.’ He’s miming the aspects of Bishop’s style that he cherishes (her habits of self-correction or qualification, her patient yet provisional search for accuracy), but the lines themselves seem to me quietly excited rather than disapproving. ‘Too far exceeds’ risks tautology in order to make a fine distinction: on some occasions, emotion could be excessive without going too far.

Bishop’s father died when she was eight months old, and after suffering several breakdowns her mother was institutionalised when Bishop was five. She never saw her again. For the rest of her childhood she stayed with relatives, always feeling like ‘a sort of guest’; when leaving for school, she would ask her grandmother to promise not to die before she got back. Chronic asthma helped to alleviate this particular worry, because it meant that Bishop was off school much of the time. Later she told Anne Stevenson that ‘although I think I have a prize “unhappy childhood”, almost good enough for the textbooks, please don’t think I dote on it.’ Bishop will tell you that ‘I lost my mother’s watch,’ not that she lost her mother. Still, the pun on ‘watch’ has its glint, and this confession isn’t the end of it:

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.

The strain of the rhymes suggests not so much that order contains or resists emotion, but rather just how much emotion goes into the maintenance of order. ‘And look!’ isn’t simply a looking back or a nonchalant shrug; it’s an endlessly renewed and renewable shock, as though the poem is discovering itself – rediscovering and re-experiencing its losses – as it goes along. That the last of her houses was, on second thoughts, the ‘next-to-last’ might imply that things aren’t all that bad (life goes on, other houses will come along), or that there’s no last word on loss (the next house will be no different). And while culpability at least allows one to cling, half-willingly, to a sense of agency, she can’t even say ‘I lost’ the houses; they just ‘went’. It’s hard in Bishop’s poems to distinguish a self-protective impulse from a confession or feeling of exposure.

She was adept at finding different ways of saying ‘And look!’ But looking isn’t necessarily seeing. Introducing her at a reading in 1969, Lowell praised her ‘famous eye’, and she replied: ‘The famous eye will now put on her glasses.’ Bishop is fascinated by a viewer’s dependencies, the trials and errors of looking, the effortfulness of sight. In childhood, she wrote, ‘you are fearfully observant,’ and she’s mindful of how forms of fear can drive a need to observe (her sandpiper’s attentiveness is also ‘a state of controlled panic’). Privation fuels the eye’s predations, and when Joseph Summers described Marianne Moore’s meticulous attention as a ‘method of escaping intolerable pain’, Bishop wrote to him to say that she was just beginning to realise this about herself. Yet while the cultivation of impressions might be an enabling form of repression, to be aware of this could imply that the escape act is precarious at best. Bishop said that Hopkins (along with Moore) was the finest observer she’d ever read, frequently recommending his journals to her students, and one of his entries is especially bracing: ‘What you look hard at seems to look hard at you.’ In Bishop’s writing, the observer becomes the observed: the reader of ‘The Man-Moth’ is encouraged to hold a flashlight to the creature’s eye, yet he gazes at us; in ‘Cirque d’Hiver’ the toy horse ‘canters, then clicks and stops, and looks at me’; the taxi meter in ‘Letter to N.Y.’ glares ‘like a moral owl’; the Burglar of Babylon stares at the lighthouse out at sea, and the lighthouse stares back. These mutual gazes don’t feel exactly like knowing looks – it’s not always clear whether they mark intimacies or distances, or whether they entail or avoid demands – but they certainly don’t feel safe.

In ‘Crusoe in England’, the old man, rescued from his island, can’t get the look of his goat out of his head: ‘I’d grab his beard and look at him./His pupils, horizontal, narrowed up/and expressed nothing, or a little malice.’ The only thing more unnerving than being looked at is not being looked at:

The knife there on the shelf –
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
The bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grain on the handle …
Now it won’t look at me at all.
The living soul has dribbled away.
My eyes rest on it and pass on.

In other writers ‘bluish’ would be an approximation; in Bishop it feels like an unwillingness to settle for a more deceptively precise word. And although Crusoe is himself feeling blue, left on the shelf, dribbling away his years, the knife is both more and less than a symbol of his descent into uselessness. In a weird way, through its refusal to look at its owner, the knife refuses its status as a pathetic fallacy and continues to have a life of its own. You sense the pleasure of the writer from inside the weariness of her speaker, as though she might be secretly delighted as well as worried by the fact that his instruments are now beyond him. Forty years earlier, Bishop had written in her notebook: ‘On an island you live all the time in this Robinson Crusoe atmosphere; making this do for that, and contriving and inventing … A poem should be made about making things in a pinch … The idea of making things do – of using things in unthought-of ways because it’s necessity – has a lot more to it.’ It’s characteristic of Bishop’s unpredictable energies that, when she finally wrote the poem, it became not only an elegy on lost opportunities for such contriving (‘I’m bored’, Crusoe says, ‘drinking my real tea,/surrounded by uninteresting lumber’), but also a eulogy for an otherness that is in excess of, or unperturbed by, figurative or practical designs on it (‘The turtles lumbered by, high-domed,/hissing like teakettles’). An act of everyday poesis, for the writer and for her Crusoe, is a making and a making do.

This mixture is perhaps what gives Bishop’s writing its air of exploration, and the poetry’s coalescence of modes and moods can be felt most acutely in her work when eyes don’t quite meet; in ‘The Fish’ she looks into the creature’s eyes and ‘They shifted a little, but not/to return my stare.’ The poem ends as she confides: ‘I stared and stared … until everything/was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!/And I let the fish go.’ These are perhaps Bishop’s most quoted lines, but they still loom up like uncharted territory every time you encounter them. The couplet is pitched somewhere between the bathetic and the boastful, although neither word feels right because the last line has the quality of an action that is eventful without being decodable (in a prose piece on ‘Mercedes Hospital’, Bishop wrote of ‘the ambiguous nature of all good deeds, the impossibility of knowing why they are being performed’). Part of the couplet’s awkward force comes from Bishop’s decision not to write: ‘And I let him go.’ It’s the first time since the poem’s opening line that she’s referred to the creature as ‘the’ or ‘a’ fish (before this, she’s confident that it’s a ‘he’). In ‘The Moose’ attention shifts from one of the passengers saying, ‘Look! It’s a she!’ to the driver’s rapt, perplexed comment: ‘Look at that, would you.’ The movement from ‘she’ or ‘he’ to ‘that’ or ‘the’ is the movement from recognition to a loss of bearings. In this context, to write ‘And I let the fish go’ is to admit that he had already gone. Fish-ness is whatever slips from your hands, or whatever eludes you in any account you might choose to give about why you go fishing in the first place.

Tóibín writes well on how much Bishop leaves out, on what cannot be said, on what is between the lines of the poems rather than in them. ‘Not saying so’ was one of her ‘most developed skills’. Still, Bishop said that the art she admired most contained three qualities: ‘Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery’. Tóibín focuses on the first and last, but the middle term doesn’t appear in his book. Reviewing some of her early poems, Moore spoke of Bishop’s accuracy and of her evasiveness, but took care to add that ‘Miss Bishop’s ungrudged self-expenditure should also be noticed – automatic, apparently, as part of the nature. Too much cannot be said for this phase of self-respect.’ Tóibín tends to silence the unsilent Bishop, to ignore the puckish, preposterous thrill of her writing, the sense that anything may or may not be said next. I missed the poet who is not afraid to ask ‘Why, oh why, the doily?’, the one who rhymes ‘extraordinary geraniums’ with ‘assorted linoleums’, the one who, in ‘The Bight’, after smelling the water turning to gas, can add: ‘if one were Baudelaire/one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.’ Bishop can be inordinate, lavish, heedless, and the more you read her the more you sense the pride – not the diffidence – of her remark that ‘it never occurred to me to think what a poem might be.’

‘I try to think seriously,’ she wrote to Lowell, ‘for a while every day, like Isherwood, on what poetry is all about etc – but my mind wanders.’ Bishop wanders to detail, and the detail is often apprehended in two ways at once – as a finished article and as a sudden happening. Inspecting a painting, she spots ‘Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,/fresh-squiggled from the tube’. ‘Fresh-squiggled’, not freshly-squiggled, is characteristic of her work – quicker, sharper. And although ‘fresh-squiggled’ gestures towards the work of an artist with his materials, it also conjures up a vision of those materials jumping free of him (as though the flower were fully formed in the tube, and decided to squiggle out). Tóibín’s Bishop is a little safer than this, more pastels than oil paints, and it’s striking how often he feels she is ‘almost’ something: almost silly, almost loose, almost jokey, almost coy, almost amused, almost distracted, almost light, almost surreal, almost playful. These ‘almosts’ register how tricky it can be to gauge her tone, but they also say a lot about the kind of writer he doesn’t want her to become.


Faced by the ‘questionable’ yet ‘almost understandable’ opening of ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’ (‘Januaries, Nature greets our eyes/exactly as she must have greeted theirs’), Tóibín comments: ‘How strange that she would have allowed such a thought to linger, or be written down! Surely she must have meant “almost exactly”? After all, she wrote at the end of “At the Fishhouses” that “our knowledge is historical.”’ But this is strange only if you want to imagine Bishop as a circumspect writer – or as a consistent one. In ‘North Haven’, her elegy for Lowell, she observes:

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.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

Tóibín hears this as ‘a slow, stoical melancholy’, although I think he came closer to the spirit of the lines when he wrote in the LRB (4 August 1994) that they suggest ‘an extraordinary blunt melancholy, the casual nature of death’. The bluntness lightens the load too. In that penultimate line, ‘almost’ isn’t simply plaintive or mournful, but wry, funny, half in love with the way nature keeps changing.

In a well-known letter to Anne Stevenson, Bishop spoke of her appetite for ‘the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life’, and her admiration for Darwin’s heroic observations: ‘one feels the 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.’ That giddiness is a pleasure as well as a predicament. In a postscript she adds:

I went to see ‘O Processo’ – ‘The Trial’ – which is absolutely dreadful … in spite of the morbidity of Kafka etc. I like to remember that when he read his stories out loud to his friends he used to have to stop because he got to laughing so. All the way through the film I kept thinking that any of Buster Keaton’s films give one the sense of the tragedy of the human situation, the weirdness of it all, the pathos of man’s trying to do the right thing, – all in a twinkling, besides being fun … I think one can be cheerful and profound!

This is the Bishop who teases a correspondent about ‘“fun” … You know, that rumoured-of, dangerous article?’, the one who speaks of ‘Love’s eye … Finding fun in dead amusement parks’. ‘Reality,’ she writes in her notebook, ‘is something like a huge circus tent, folding, adjustable, which we carry around with us and set up wherever we are.’ And wherever she sets up home, she dreams up giddy grotesqueries to keep the show on the road (feeding her pet toucan, she remarks that ‘to see him swallowing grapes is rather like playing a pinball machine’). I see her – part Keaton, part Kafka – glancing at the ‘comic books’ in ‘Filling Station’, and sense the fun she’s having at the end of that poem:

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
esso – so – so – so
to highly-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

This is one of Bishop’s many glances towards an absent yet present mother. But to imagine the oiling of the plant and the placation of the automobiles (Bishop noted that ‘so-so-so was – perhaps still is in some places – the phrase people use to calm and soothe horses’) is to relish a mix-up of life and inanimate matter as a way of learning to cope with – perhaps even to enjoy – other sorrows. In her introduction to her translation of The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’, Bishop admired the way that the author ‘winds up her stories with a neat moral that doesn’t apply too exactly’; here it’s hard to know how much irony to read into the neatness of ‘Somebody loves us all.’ Quite a bit, provided we keep in mind the definition of irony Lowell offered Bishop in a letter, one with which she gratefully concurred: ‘Irony is being amusing … about what we can’t understand.’

Not understanding what you know, or how you know it, is Bishop’s most persistent subject, although putting it that way risks making her sound abstract or mystical (which she isn’t). Many of her endings stay visceral even as they stay committed to thinking things through. ‘At the Fishhouses’ is open to all elements as it speculates on the sea:

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.

Tóibín flirts with the idea of Bishop as helpless, and in his discussion of this poem he states that ‘the search for pure accuracy in her poems forced Bishop to watch the world helplessly, as though there was nothing she could do.’ Writing to Lowell, though, of artists and writers she really liked, Bishop spoke of ‘that strange kind of modesty that I think one feels in almost everything contemporary one really likes … Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time.’ These lines have that quality. Their modesty is strange because it’s apprehended as a form of confidence, not least the confidence to say ‘we’. The ending is also a testimony to her sense of what poetry could be: a reaching of one’s limits, and a release into the wild. Frank Bidart once told her how great the poem’s closing lines were, and recalled her response: ‘She said that when she was writing it she hardly knew what she was writing, knew the words were right, and (at this she raised her arms as high straight above her head as she could) felt ten feet tall.’