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Life Studies

The Collected Prose

by Elizabeth Bishop, edited, with an introduction, by Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 278 pp., $17.50

Some poets never write prose; others, like Hardy, are better known for their prose than for their poetry. When poets do write prose, they write the sort appropriate to their nature as people. The born critics (Eliot, Berryman) write criticism; the evangelists (Shelley, Snyder) write exhortations; the narrators (Hardy, Lawrence) write fiction; the priests (Herbert, Hopkins) write sermons. These crude distinctions are made here only to say that in Elizabeth Bishop’s prose we can see, even more clearly than in her poetry, some central truths about her nature as a writer. One such truth is that she was not a critic; when, for a time, she was supposed to be the poetry critic for The New Yorker, she found herself unable to write a single piece. After three years of silence, she gave it up.

Though she thought her paralysis came from knowing so many of the poets whose books The New Yorker sent to her in Brazil, the absence of any criticism in this book suggests that Bishop’s formidable descriptive powers were elicited only by landscapes and attributes, not by books or even by people (including authors). She was of course apt in noticing, in other poets, exactly what a critic might notice (the pastiche of her early poetic imitations of Herbert, Hopkins, and Moore proves that); but a poem—always available, permanently in print, immortal—set up in her no compulsion to record its character. She was stirred only by the pathos of what vanishes. The ephemerality, pitifulness, and obscurity of things have a central part in Bishop’s prose, which strives, almost to excess, to record vanished minutiae.

Nor was Bishop a writer of fiction, properly so-called. That insatiable curiosity about how life is actually lived by other, unrelated, distinct persons is absent in her. She is not inquisitive about customs, manners, and morals in the way the realist novelist must be—searching, possessing, noting, absorbing, mastering them. Nor does she have the imagination of alternative social structures that impels allegorical novelists from Swift to Kafka to create alienated views of their own social order. She lacks, most of all, what we call fictional imagination—the power to bring another social world (realist, allegorical, fantastic, or utopian) into virtual existence. The linguistic imagination proper to the creator of fiction is a heterogeneous one, devoted to the sheer polyglossia of the lexicon, the distinguishing marks of different classes of language, the jargon of trades (from the domestic to the sacred), and the subtleties of linguistic change over historical time. This, too, Bishop did not possess in its active or creative form. (Like all writers, she possessed it in its passive form, a pure relish of all linguistic differentiation.)

Bishop’s prose, as we find it here, is not, then, really fictional. Rather it is (though lightly fictionalized by changes of name) almost entirely autobiographical. Robert Giroux’s two-part division of this collection into “Memory: Persons and Places” and “Stories” belies, consequently, the true unity of the prose, the lyric impulse that generated “memories” and “stories” alike. The first-person “stories” are really indistinguishable from the first-person “memories.” Bishop, as we see her here, is centrally a writer of memoirs. Many of the pieces return to her childhood, and in fact retell some of the moments we already know from poems like “Sestina” (the child, the grandmother, tears as the currency of the house) and “In the Waiting Room” (the child, the cry of pain heard from the dentist’s office, a dizzying sense of personal identity and community).

Bishop’s father died when she was eight months old; her widowed young mother, after several breakdowns, was permanently confined in an insane asylum when Bishop was five; Bishop was raised alternately by her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and by a maternal aunt in Boston. (At one miserable point, the year after her mother’s collapse, Bishop was “kidnapped” for nine months by her paternal grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts; this move caused asthma, eczema, and bronchitis, and the experiment was not repeated.) At sixteen, Bishop went to boarding school, and then at nineteen to Vassar. The college librarian at Vassar introduced her to Marianne Moore, who confirmed Bishop’s early hopes of writing poetry; Bishop commemorates Moore here in a charming essay called “Efforts of Affection.” Other memoirs in this collection recall Bishop’s life after Vassar in New York and Key West and her life after 1951 in Brazil; these are chiefly descriptive rather than personal.

The best of these autobiographical pieces, however, are the three least memoir-like; they are very deliberately shaped, so much so that they could be called prose poems. Two of them set down “horrible ‘fable’ ideas,” as Bishop described them in a letter to Marianne Moore. The second of the two fables, “In Prison,” expresses a longing that could have been conceived only by a painfully nervous person, a wish for the blessed confinement of a prison, where the view from the window would always contain the same elements (even if variously illuminated by weather). The routine would be inexorable, and only “one very dull book, … the duller the better,” would be supplied for reading. The chief activity of the prisoner would be writing on the wall of the cell; her writing would be inspired and informed by the writing of previous inmates:

I shall read very carefully … the inscriptions already there. Then I shall adapt my own compositions, in order that they may not conflict with those written by the prisoner before me. The voice of a new inmate will be noticeable, but there will be no contradictions or criticisms of what has already been laid down, rather a “commentary.” … My “works” … will be brief, suggestive, anguished, but full of the lights of revelation.

Bishop was twenty-seven when she wrote this self-program and much of it remains true: her works are indeed deeply informed by literary tradition, are not overtly rebellious, are certainly “commentaries” on the works written by other inmates of the Wordsworthian prison-house and are “brief, suggestive, anguished, but full of the lights of revelation.” At the same time, this program is incomplete; it lacks the bafflement, the gnawing unhappiness, the loneliness, and the exhaustion present in so much of Bishop’s poetry.

The first horrible fable, written a year earlier than “In Prison” and called “The Sea and Its Shore,” is the truest self-analysis Bishop would ever write. It is so dense that it is hardly susceptible of summary. Its protagonist is called Edwin Boomer. (His initials, we notice, are E.B., and Robert Giroux tells us that Bishop’s maternal family name, Bulmer, was spelled “Boomer” in early family documents.) Edwin Boomer is “appointed to keep the sand free from papers” by picking up the litter of papers on the beach with a nailed stick; he then must burn the papers in a wire basket, but first he often reads them sitting in his gravelike wooden house (four by four by six feet) set on the sand. “Once or twice when drunk … he had attempted a little rough modeling” with sea-soaked paper (just as Bishop had attempted painting), but he burns his modeled figures. “On nights that Boomer was most drunk, the sea was of gasoline, terribly dangerous. … It was brilliant, oily, and explosive.” But on windless nights, when he could read, he divided all he read into three groups: “everything that seemed to be about himself; … the stories about other people that caught his fancy; … the items he could not understand at all, that … he tried, almost frantically, to fit into first one, then the other, of the two categories.” Eventually all the pieces of paper, to Boomer’s relief and distress at once, have to be burned.

This fable exposes, in perfect clarity, Bishop’s selective relation to the signifiers of the social world. Of the pieces about other people, Boomer reads only what catches his personal fancy, pieces exhibiting something analogous to his personal imagination. The way in which the lyric imagination tends to draw things to itself rather than losing itself in the other is as present here as it is in Boomer’s other deranged habit, that of trying to fit the random (his third category) into some airtight lyric relation with the other two classes of signifiers, the personal and the analogous. The nonsignificant, the piece that cannot be fitted into a prior unitary symbolic system, is important in narrative (as Frank Kermode has pointed out with respect to Ulysses‘ unidentified man in the mackintosh). But such a nonsignificant piece has, in Bishop’s sort of writing, no possible role.

In fact, to wring significance out of the random is the chief task of many of Bishop’s lyric narrators (Crusoe among them), and the inability to make a connection among random signifiers (neighbors, an aunt’s cry of pain, pictures of “savages,” the name “Elizabeth”) literally makes the six-year-old Bishop ill, faint with nausea. The bizarre commandment to “make it cohere” under which lyric poets (more than all other writers) serve, makes incoherence an anguish of peculiar magnitude for them. Boomer’s most nervous moments occur during his confrontation with the absolute relativity of all past literature, which presents no cohering or unifying truth or fiction, only the fluttering of innumerable personal points of view, perpetually changing and symbolically oblique:

The papers had no discernible goal, no brain, no feeling of race or group. They soared up, fell down, could not decide, hesitated, subsided. …

If any manner was their favorite, it seemed to be an oblique one, slipping sidewise. …

The more papers he picked up and the more he read, the less he felt he understood. In a sense he depended on “their imagination,” and was even its slave, but at the same time he thought of it as a kind of disease.

For the principle of coherence, Boomer substitutes the principle of combustion. Nothing can be clung to; every point of view is consumed soon after it has been written. This fable (much condensed in my retelling) represents the artist’s mediating work between explosive cosmic chaos (the sea) and the edge of human tenancy (the shore), the artist’s relation to previous writing, and the consumption of all significance once attained. It exposes the pain, panic, unintelligibility, and solitude underlying Bishop’s cool mastery in her finished poems.

In the light of this despairing fable about writing and its products, we can read with a better understanding Bishop’s many poems about art (from “The Man-Moth” to “Poem”). They make restricted claims for what art can extract or reproduce from life (a distilled tear, an “iris, crisp and shivering”—a product, an experience), without forgetting the fictionality of the extract or reproduction. At the same time, they refuse to dismiss these gains as entirely trivial:

dim, but how live, how touching in detail
the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.

The fresh beauty of this rewording and restaging of a painted landscape is a reminder of the way in which Bishop’s poetry most surpasses her prose. In the prose she is robbed of her most powerful weapon, her delicate and wavering rhythms, which tremble on the brink of regularity and then withdraw lightly from it.

The remaining “prose poem” comparable to the fables is “In the Village,” Bishop’s impressionist rendering of the time of her mother’s final breakdown. In it, and in the other pieces recalling childhood moments, Bishop displays her unsentimental gift for rendering a child’s incomplete (and therefore terrifying) apprehension of reality. Things and people come and go without explanation; mysterious remarks are made by adults; questions are stifled; a grandmother rocks back and forth, crying. In the center of the mystery is Bishop’s agitated young mother. One moment she is having a dress fitted, and the next minute she falls apart: “The dress was all wrong. She screamed.” The following paragraph is a single sentence: “The child vanishes.” The annihilation of self—by vanishing, by producing a disfiguring or suffocating illness, by self-imprisonment, or by burning the writings one has collected—lies at the heart of many of these pieces, even of the comic one called “The U.S.A. School of Writing” (in which Bishop, just out of Vassar, has to pretend to be “Mr. Margolies,” her predecessor as adviser to the hopeless “students” in a correspondence school).

Bishop was not capable of either plot or dramatic action in the conventional sense; these prose pieces are what used to be called “sketches,” a form which has been rather forgotten. A “sketch,” as its name implies, sacrifices compositional unity (which may be achieved in, say, an oil following a watercolor) in favor of spontaneity, of free brushwork, of a “rendering” rather than a reinventing. Bishop’s own watercolors (to judge by those reproduced on the jackets of The Complete Poems and The Collected Prose) are sketchy in just this way: the view adorning the poems is even located “from the roof” and dated “May 1942.” (In the poetry, sketch-like elements remain, but the absence of plot or action in the fictional sense is compensated for by either an inner drama or, more commonly, a drama of language.)

Of the sketches in this volume, those that are not actually autobiographical are symbolically so—stories of orphans or unattended children, brought to madness (“The Baptism”) or death (“The Farmer’s Children”) by their parentless or semi-parentless state. Even in the one “happy” version of this theme (“The Housekeeper”), the children’s continued well-being depends on the erratic good will of the housekeeper who threatens to leave.

The precariousness and instability of life was impressed so early on Bishop that nothing in her sketches of Key West or Brazil can match the contained intensity of the childhood terrors. The dispassionate clarity with which she registers her past in the prose is visible as well in the later-composed poems about childhood, which display the same surrealist refusal of any analytic passages. The child did not understand; and the most important thing the memoir or poem must do is not “understand” either (though enough information must be given so that the reader can see what the child cannot).

In this respect, the story “Gwendolyn” (in which the child first confronts her own lesbian impulses) is the most hazardously equilibrated. The object of her sexual excitement—a little playmate dying of diabetes—is at once fragile and earthy (her drawers are dirty), remote and frighteningly near (when she stays the night). The wild joy with which, after Gwendolyn dies, the child reenacts her death, using a doll, is the first hint of the illicit joys of aesthetic mastery through representation.

What Bishop’s poems cannot easily do at any length, and the prose pieces do very well, is to reproduce both the everyday language of the past, and even more, the common furniture of an era long gone—the slate and sponge of the primer school, the galvanized washboard and yellow laundry soap of the kitchen, the “big dull lengths of stove pipe with wrinkled blue joints like elephants’ legs.” It struck me as I came across such passages that though I too had seen all such objects in my grandmother’s house, my generation would be the last to feel grateful to Bishop for writing down these objects consecrated by infant sight. The mortality of the furniture of the world bore for Bishop the burden of the mortality of her father and mother; and the kinship she felt for the “Helena Morley” whose childhood diary she translated from the Portuguese was founded in the pang she felt for every vanished past, extending from her own loss of Nova Scotia.

Bishop would not be a famous writer if her reputation were based on these prose pieces alone. Since so much of the material found in them went into the poems too, we may ask why the poems, aside from their gift of rhythm, are better. Perhaps the expectations provoked by the mere appearance of prose—expectations of a “plot,” of “development,” of “action,” are not satisfied amply enough here; the pieces can seem skimpy, trivial, even precious in the light of generic narrative conventions. Lyric convention, on the other hand, sees the world—everything that is the case—in a grain of sand, like Bishop’s sandpiper (“a student of William Blake”) who also appears here in “The Sea and Its Shore.” Nothing can be too “slight” for lyric, just as nothing (the Napoleonic wars, the annihilation of civilization) can be too heavy for fiction.

As the late Paul de Man so brilliantly made us see, poetry is never more allegorical than when it most insists on its factuality. Bishop herself knew this by instinct. When, in the “prison,” she would be given her one dull book to read, she hoped it would be entirely factual, on a subject of which she knew nothing:

From my detached rock-like book I shall be able to draw vast generalizations, abstractions of the grandest, most illuminating sort, like allegories or poems.

This she could do, she added, even from “a book on the cure of a disease, or an industrial technique.” Building up greatest things from least suggestions, as Wordsworth said, has always been the task of lyric. The world, for Bishop, was the unintelligible rock-like book of which she made allegories: “By posing fragments of it against the surroundings and conversations of my prison, I shall be able to form my own examples of surrealist art.” The naturalistic ambiance and fluid temporality of the true memoir did not quite fit Bishop’s crystalline gaze impaled on, and impaling, the scraps of existence littering her terrain. Collecting, collocating, and consuming language was her work; the prose, where she is working somewhat against the grain, locates better for us the truest angle of her talent, in her poetry.


Bishop’s Prose Gift March 29, 1984

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