Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry is full of invitations. Look, it says; watch; think; listen. Yet it is never bullying. These are invitations, not instructions, and when they begin to sound bossy, a note of parody usually creeps in. The poet impersonates a schoolmistress embarrassed by her hectoring authority:
Now can you see the monument? It is of wood
built somewhat like a box. No. Built
like several boxes in descending sizes
one above the other…
It is the beginning of a painting,
a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument,
and all of wood. Watch it closely.
One of the most brilliant, as well as the most representative, of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems is called “Little Exercise,” and it invites us to “Think of the storm roaming the sky uneasily / like a dog looking for a place to sleep in, / listen to it growling.” It is worth noting, incidentally, how soon the thought grows sounds we can listen to. We are then asked to think of the storm’s progress, mangrove keys under lightning, bedraggled palm trees along a wet boulevard, and then as the storm goes away, we should
Think of someone sleeping in the bottom of a row-boat
tied to a mangrove root or the pile of a bridge;
think of him as uninjured, barely disturbed.
We are invited to enjoy this picture of a magical immunity, but not to act on it. How could we? The moment such repose was planned, it would become something else, and we should find ourselves in another Bishop poem, called “The Unbeliever,” where a man “sleeps on the top of a mast / with his eyes fast closed.” He keeps company up there with clouds and gulls, but they are assured of being where they are supposed to be, and he, grimly hanging on to his nightmare, is not:
But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull enquired into his dream,
which was, “I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”
The first man is careless, the second is desperate. Both poems offer images of human possibility and they elegantly and honorably refuse to moralize about them. Possibilities are to be entertained, not ordered about.
It is true, as Randall Jarrell said in Poetry and the Age, that Elizabeth Bishop understands that “it is sometimes difficult and unnatural, but sometimes easy and natural,” to “do well,” and the two poems I have just mentioned illustrate precisely those possibilities. But doing well here seems to be a matter of how we fare, not of what we choose, and Robert Mazzocco, writing in The New York Review some years ago (October 12, 1967),…
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