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A Poet of Landscape

Questions of Travel

by Elizabeth Bishop
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 95 pp., (paperback, $1.95) (paper)

More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors,” says Elizabeth Bishop in the first poem of her first collection, North and South, published in 1946. The line seems emblematic of everything about her, then or now. Miss Bishop is the poet of land-scapes and seascapes and maps: most of her poems are panoramas set in “relief,” swarming particulars full of distortion, enlargement, and “true view.” In “Florida,” she surveys “the state with the prettiest name,” surfacing above it from one angle, swooping down from another. Reading it you might think she was an aerial topographer with a nine-lens aerial camera, catching the look of the “green hummocks/like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass,” eventually catching even the sound of the mosquitoes “hunting to the tune of their ferocious obbligatos.” In her third collection, Questions of Travel, published last year, “the beach hisses like fat.” Sound, sight, touch: Miss Bishop’s poems are full of visual and tactile relationships, modifications and recombinations. Often her scenes become arenas, and she herself something like a circus master taking a bouncy interest in many things going on at once. She has a penchant for the puffed-up word: stupefaction, illumination, reflection—balloons she can let the air out of, or set adrift, “artlessly rhetorical,” before they’re pulled homeward to earth. “White herons got up as angels,” flying “in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections.” but they’re really part of a “cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope”—part of a half comic, half lyric conceit.

Yet the true tenor of her work, I think, is rather toward measured distances, scales, steps; side-stepping the “vulgar beauty of irridescence,” and side-stepping, too, the intimate. “The tendency is to overdo the morbidity,” she remarked recently of “confessional” poets. “You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves.” So in her work no assaults are made—neither on the reader nor on herself. Of private life, a hint must be sufficient: the fragment called “While Someone Telephones,” or the weed in the “severed heart”; “’I grow,’ it said,/ ‘but to divide your heart again.’ ” It’s a matter of reticence, more than of evasion. And a matter of style. The style is extremely pure, at times too persistently so, creating a chill in the landscape. It is a style in which everything is marvelously apparent, yet with a kind of askance look, detached and a little amused. Usually the elements keep getting richer while the point of the poem keeps thinning out. Or you get a series of painterly statements narrowing down to a personal cry which somehow remains mysteriously impersonal, as in “The Armadillo,” one of the beautiful new poems in Questions of Travel. Still, the style is as it should be: for Miss Bishop art is the secretion of telltale surfaces, and poetry the movement of categories, species, curiosities. Ports and farmyards, a “View of the Capital from the Library of Congress”—views and more views. Elizabeth Bishop is the cat curiosity did not kill. Also the cat who walks alone. “Absorbing, rather than being absorbed.” Involved, yet independent.

AS A POET, of course, Miss Bishop is most famous for taking us on tours, or for showing the tourist what he’s missed. Nowadays tourists come from the ends of the earth to look at the wonders of the world, and spend most of the day in beauty parlors, restaurants, and swimming pools. No doubt, in heaven you can hear them: “Well, you don’t expect me to look at God all the time, do you?” Never distracted by distraction. Miss Bishop is never boring or bored. She sees how “the frowsy sponge boats keep coming in/ with the obliging air of retrievers,” how “the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,/ slime-hung and barnacled.” Selectivity of image and singularity of idea: the creed of a realist who seems to have come from a long line of idealists, or a realist with a surrealist’s off-key, off-center response to shapes and objects. Her objects turn into subjects: the lighthouse in “black and white clerical dress,” a sort of Reverend Dimmesdale who “thinks that Hell rages below his iron feet,” and that heaven “has something to do with blackness and a strong glare/and when it gets dark he will remember something/strongly worded to say on the subject.”

The transformations are less sinister than serene, and you can count the poems in which the interior or metaphysical mood holds sway, and you don’t get beyond one hand. There’s “The Unbeliever,” the believer in himself or the devil, the uptight fellow sleeping “on the top of a mast,” dreaming he must not fall, because the “spangled sea below wants me to fall/It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.” Like the lighthouse, the unbeliever lives on his nerves: a Hobbesian recluse determined to dodge gravity or the grave. Almost all of Miss Bishop’s earlier poems are full of queer perky pauses before catastrophe. Fantasies of annihilation, but annihilation miraculously averted. Scenes full of a storybook stillness or storybook terror: “small black ships,/square-rigged sails furled, motionless,/their spars like burnt match-sticks.” These poems, so strikingly untopical, are in a way really quite topical: add a headline or two as an epigraph, reread them from the proper perspective, and they would be current events, almost. Man, like the “Man-Moth,” fearing most what he must do, although/he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.” Brinkmanship in miniature.

Typically, however, when Elizabeth Bishop considers ultimate concerns, the setting is a fishhouse. “Like me a believer in total immersion,” she says referring to herself referring to a seal, to whom she would sing Baptist hymns. “I also sang ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ “—letting us know she’s a good Baptist in the sense of a good European: tolerant even of Lutherans. Is she being ironic? Of course: perfectly ironic, yet perfectly serious. Confucius demanded madcaps for disciples, wanting them to have a sense of proportion mixed with a sense of play. Miss Bishop is like that. Scribbled between the lines of so many of her poems is one message: Do something, preferably something difficult but don’t let it rule you. Catch a tremendous fish, note how the skin hangs “in strips/like ancient wallpaper…like full-blown roses/stained and lost through age.” Admire everything about the fish, from his “sullen face” to his aching jaw.” Taste victory, and then taste freedom. Be rewarded with a rainbow spreading over the rusty boat and rusty engine: surrender to your surroundings, and in surrendering “let the fish go.” Just as the poem focuses on a specific image and then expands, so emotionally it works through confinement to liberation, with the liberation itself tempered by the double movement. In Miss Bishop’s world, to be human means to be tempered, “moderated in intensity,” and to be blessed means finding what is enough, and then learning how to settle for it. “Half is enough,” she says in another poem, loving that “sense of constant re-adjustment,” the constant testing of one’s character or fate.

For Virginia Woolf, “it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses” that wears us down. For Miss Bishop, it’s the way the “peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger/like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods” that buoys us up. As much as he dies from anything. Virginia Woolf seems to be saying, man dies from an overdose of the insignificant. With Elizabeth Bishop the insignificant becomes a restorative. Baudelaire once wrote that “a man must have fallen very low to believe himself happy.” Miss Bishop may or may not believe herself “happy,” but she knows how to look at the world, and stand straight all the while, observing “the untidy activity” of “the bight…littered with old correspondences,” and crashing pelicans coming down “like pickaxes,” and “going off with humorous elbowings”—observing all that, and more, and saying:”awful but cheerful.” Perhaps she’s twitting Baudelaire, his correspondances? In the same poem, the water in the bight has “the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible./One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire/ one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.”

Humor saves a few steps; it saves years,” declared Marianne Moore. But Marianne Moore is not exactly noted for hurrying us along with a few laughs. Miss Bishop is. You’d have to go back to Frost for another poem as slyly unaccommodating as Miss Bishop’s “Manners,” maybe back to an imaginary Nathalia Crane for the sad strange sparkle of “First Death in Nova Scotia”:

Come,” said my mother,
“Come and say goodbye
to your little cousin Arthur.”
I was lifted up and given
one lily of the valley
to put in Arthur’s hand.
Arthur’s coffin was
a little frosted cake,
and the red-eyed loon eyed it
from his white, frozen lake….

Not a few of Miss Bishop’s poems are deceptively slit-eyed, then woe eyed with a painted smile, almost the poetry of a little girl with something of a little girl’s sing-song shrewdness and wit, half out of Grimm, half tartly New England. In other, more representative work she suggests the headmistress of a four-square and upright boarding school, equally imaginary, teaching her students the unfashionable subjects: the meaning of pride and grace, the importance of craft and caring.

Miss Bishop is a master craftsman. Take any one of the poems in the three collections (A Cold Spring is the title of the second) apart, try fitting it together, and all the particular pieces slip into proper order or place, like a good ten year analysis; and unlike a good ten year analysis, in retrospect it even seems “true,” and certainly beautiful. In “Little Exercise,” for example, the storm roams the sky “uneasily/like a dog looking for a place to sleep in.” Beneath the sky the world grows as the poem grows, screening and channeling its common or uncommon properties: a heron, the mangrove keys, a boulevard. The lines are irregular in length, three-membered groups drifting in and out of the seven stanzas; there are consonance and alliteration (“small, badly lit battle-scenes”), delayed or internal rhyme. Then a rhythmic sloping-off, a different note sounds in a different key, and the poem ends with a human presence, unexpected but inevitable: “someone sleeping,” “barely disturbed,” “tied to a mangrove root,” at the bottom of a boat. “Little Exercise” is a little masterpiece of dreamlike matter-of-factness, a poem about everything and nothing, and it closes the way the best of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems always do, not with the sound of a box snapping shut, Yeats’s touch-stone, but rather as if the resolutions were purposely unresolved, like leaving the last notes of a song unsung, yet somehow letting the reader hear them in his head—a teasingly serious, oddly right ending. The thing about Elizabeth Bishop is that everything about her is idiosyncratic but perfectly reasonable.

She has learned from Harmonium, from John Crowe Ransom and Marianne Moore. (In Questions of Travel there are touches of Drummond de Andrade, elsewhere of Robert Desnos.) Some say Marianne Moore invented her, the by-product of Miss Moore’s “hybrid method of composition.” If so, it was a happy occurrence, and with dividends besides. True, Elizabeth Bishop doesn’t have Marianne Moore’s genius, but she doesn’t have her bone-dry dottiness either. Supple, amenable, sane, Miss Bishop’s probably the one poet left in the world who can make sense out of sheer sensibility, who can make the exotic “battered and venerable/and homely,” who knows that the sea can be like “a transmutation of fire/that feeds on stones,” bitter and briny, and then something else:

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.

For me, one of the unremarked delights of Elizabeth Bishop’s work is her portraits, especially evident in Questions of Travel. Strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely, these portraits are not of her peers: the only humans inhabiting her landscapes are servants, peasants, or specklike squatter’s children “near a specklike house.” At first, when one reads of these people, appearances are truly deceiving: they seem much too obligingly submissive, unspoiled savages, but now and again more than a little spoiled, heightening the “human interest.” Sentiment is there, and caricature: Faustina scraping her feet in a “crazy house,” tending her mistress in “a crazy bed,” bearing “the white bowl of farina,/requesting for herself/a little conac;” Cootchie, Miss Lula’s servant, “eating her dinner off the kitchen sink/while Lula ate hers off the kitchen table;” Jeronimo listening to the radio “singing flamencos/in between/the lottery numbers.” Or the salted, sorrowing idiom of “Songs for a Colored Singer”’ in North and South:

I say, “Le Roy, just how much are we owing?
Something I can’t comprehend,
the more we got the more we spend….”
He only answers, “Let’s get going.”
Le Roy, you’re earning too much money now.

Of course, its “local color,” but when one reads on the surfaces become pathetically apt, bruised and pitted. There is a stubborn practicality in whatever Miss Bishop chooses to say or half say. Also a superlative lilt and grace. The feeling is always toward what is most fitting, the humor redeeming the petty: the rain “so much like politicians’ speeches:/two hours of unrelenting oratory/and then a sudden golden silence.” Patched-up Manuelzinho, “half squatter, half tenant (no rent),” whose bright blue pants, stitched and restitched with white thread, look like blueprints, who keeps “accounts” and leaves out the decimal points:

Account books? They are Dream Books.
In the kitchen we dream together
how the meek shall inherit the earth—
or several acres of mine.

In “The Burglar of Babylon,” the poet takes the flimsy theme of fatality, and makes of it something stately and dismayingly alive. It is a ballad as good as any in Auden, as good as any we have. The fatality of “the fearful stain” on the hills of Rio: “The poor who come to Rio/And can’t go home again“; and the fatality of Micucu, “a burglar and killer/an enemy of society,” who would rather “settle for ninety hours” hunted on Babylon hill than the “ninety years they gave me,” and who gets it “behind the ear.” The details are wonderfully muted, yet transfiguring: the rich watching through binoculars “as long as the daylight lasted”; the commandant accidentally shot by one of his men and before dying committing “his soul to God/And his sons to the Governor“; Micucu’s “auntie” with her drink shop: ” ‘I raised him to be honest,/Even here, in Babylon slum.’/The customers had another,/Looking serious and glum.” The next day, the terrified little soldiers scramble about the hill, “after another two/But they say they aren’t as dangerous/As the poor Micucu.”

As everyone must know, Miss Bishop is a classicist, in the sense meant by Gide when he said that the secret of classicism is modesty, meaning exactness, knowing how far to go, when to stop. If we are lucky, the older we get the more “classical” we get; though we have less time we take more time. We want to set the right accent on the right speech, see things from the right angle. If one were interested in placing Elizabeth Bishop in the past, surely the century of Newton and Locke would be the ideal setting. The century where “good-nature & good-sense must ever join,” of Burke on the beautiful: how it struck him that beauty was really that sort of experience most people had while being “drawn in an easy coach on a smooth turf, with gradual ascents and declivities.” When you read that, what you are reading, I think, is a good description of many of Miss Bishop’s poems. Unlike her contemporaries, Miss Bishop’s landscapes are neither dramatic nor symbolic, nor can you really call them spiritual. They take on a suggestion of each here and there, but they do not present a pervasive sense of duplicity, no sense of decay, either in man or nature. “A holy grave, not looking particularly holy,” she says, puzzling us, not meeting our need for the misty profound, the theological or philosophic mood. History as nightmare, man as a cipher—aren’t these the de rigueur subjects Miss Bishop subverts? Modern man in search of his soul would surely starve in Elizabeth Bishop’s country. Eliot on Baudelaire: “Indeed, in his way of suffering is already a kind of presence of the supernatural and the superhuman. He rejects always the purely natural and the purely human; in other words, he is neither ‘naturalist’ nor ‘humanist’.”

Miss Bishop is both, so she doesn’t pass the modernist test. The miraculous for her is to lick up a crumb of bread and swallow the coffee: “A window across the river caught the sun/as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.” And when all else goes, there’s “inescapable hope, the pivot.” Hers is the middle range, the middle style. Psychologically, too, the best of Miss Bishop’s poems, from the earliest written in her twenties to the latest written in her fifties, exist in a sort of enchanted middle age. Enchanted because middle age is an unenviable state which she makes thoroughly enviable. In middle age, you are still too young to be a moralist, yet no longer young enough to be immoral. Kick over the traces, and you hurt; and you can’t pontificate, that’s presumptuous. You must be downright, self-restrictive, and self-mastering. These qualities are, and have always been, Miss Bishop’s special strength and charm.

Paradoxically, they also now account for her current neglect. A Cold Spring and North and South are no longer in print. The usual dull professor writes the usual dull survey of contemporary American poetry—and leaves out Elizabeth Bishop. No doubt, she is no longer considered “representative.” The grubby facts of life, of life in the Sixties, seem to have touched her hardly at all. Or perhaps she’s merely considered too lucky—therefore, too singular. Living in Brazil, and not America, is perhaps being lucky. Steering a steady course between transgression and abnegation is luck, too. By her fellow poets, she continues to be read. She has influenced May Swenson and Anne Sexton, Richard Wilbur and Randall Jarrell. And when the author of “The Drunken Fisherman” depressurized his style, in part it was the author of “The Fish” who taught him how to do it, as Robert Lowell himself acknowledged. Her best poems are “Roosters,” “The Fish,” “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” “The Armadillo,” the delicate and appalling “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” and the short story, “In the Village,” included in Questions of Travel. In the end, I suppose, you cannot call Elizabeth Bishop a major poet: all too often her themes have been narrow, even slight. Yet set amid so much that is strenuously inept or corrupt, how remarkable she seems. Hers is one of the shining, central talents of our day.

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