A Poet of Landscape

Questions of Travel

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

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop; drawing by David Levine

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…

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