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), perhaps nudges the poet into a too eager modesty when he says that for her “to be blessed means finding what is enough, and then learning how to settle for it.” Certainly the mechanical horse and the speaker of the poem “Cirque d’Hiver” say, “Well, we have come this far,” and the tourists of “Santos” are berated for their “immodest demands for a different world, / and a better life, and complete comprehension / of both.” And certainly the tone as well as the contents of many Bishop poems suggest a belief in strictly disciplined expectations. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” she says in her new book:
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
But lively people settle for small comforts only when they have no other options, and what we have when we settle may not be enough at all; it may be simply what we have. When Bishop makes “The Gentleman of Shalott” say that “Half is enough,” we need to remember the context. The poor fellow appears to be only half there. Half of him is in a mirror, and he doesn’t know which half, and it is under these circumstances that he persuades himself that he finds his design “economical” and his uncertainty “exhilarating”:
that sense of constant readjustment.
He wishes to be quoted as saying at present:
“Half is enough”.
We should perhaps connect this wryly accepted division with the intensely allegorical “The Weed,” where a dream-plant springs up to split the poet’s heart; and with the brittle, unhappy love poems of Bishop’s second book (A Cold Spring, 1955; her first book was North and South, 1946). The mechanical horse and the speaker of “Cirque d’Hiver” were “facing each other rather desperately” before they arrived at their timid, consolatory phrase, and obviously one reading of the poem about the art of losing would reverse almost everything it seems to say: the art of losing is horribly hard to master, and that is why it is being discussed in this studiously offhand manner.
This is not a complete reading of the poem, of course, and the whole story would include the thought that some losses can be overcome and others can’t, and that it may be worth trying to slip some members of the second group into the first, even if the strategy doesn’t work. But the ambiguity is the point. Even when Bishop’s poems seem to make statements, they turn out to be contemplating complex possibilities. “Roosters” ends on a characteristic note, with the sun coming up “faithful as enemy, or friend.” Which is he? The poem, like the eyes of Faustina in another piece, says “only either.”
The perfect poise of many of these poems, their ambiguity not in the sense of vagueness or indecision but in the sense of necessary hesitation in the realm of hypothesis, is such that they sometimes can’t be ended without being broken. Even hypotheses seem to call for conclusions, and when Bishop gives in to this call, her poems tend to finish in flatness. Her last lines are often her weakest. This is true even in some of her very best works, like “The Fish,” where the speaker catches a “tremendous” creature, a veteran of anglers’ wars, decorated with five old pieces of fish line (“or four and a wire leader / with the swivel still attached”), “a five-haired beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw.”
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
Of course the fish must be let go, I don’t quarrel with the sentiment. Such a victory would be ruined if it ended in possession. But the abrupt last line—deliberately unprepared for, deliberately prosaic, reinforced by a rhyme which seems to separate rather than to link the elements of the couplet—has the effect of a slap on the wrist. How dare we feel that way about catching a fish? About anything? A fear of feeling possessive has become a fear of enjoying success, and the poem, unlike “Little Exercise” and “The Unbeliever,” offers a clear moral recommendation: distrust the rainbows you think you see. To be sure, nothing could spoil this marvelous poem, and one might argue that the last line releases the fish in gratitude, so that the spilling rainbow can be enjoyed in its purity. But the line is just too bumpy and monosyllabic to perform that particular trick, and I prefer to think Bishop intends the effect she gets. It is the intention which seems rather cramped.
But then this is the limitation of a nearly impeccable poet, the corollary of her sense of wonder that a man could sleep through a tropical storm “uninjured, barely disturbed”—even then the poem only asks us to think of such a case, it doesn’t vouch for its truth. Perched somewhere between the casual sleeper in the boat and the dogged sleeper on the top of the mast, but closer to the second, awake, but worried about the disproportion between geography and people, between the life of the world and our own “small shadowy / life,” the poet practices her lucid and cautious art. Too cautious at times, it seems, locked in a willful, versified prose—
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people….
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time….
A child is speaking here, but mimesis is not much of an alibi for a poet, and the child seems to speak like Hemingway. Bishop is a discreet writer, and gives us only the rarest of hints at the unhappinesses, the bad weather, which provoke her to caution. Perhaps she “dislikes” poetry, as Marianne Moore did, but then her best work is built on the difficult conquest of this dislike, and not on a submission to it. She earns her finest effects, usually, by refusing rhetoric and then relenting, allowing the tactful return of a music which is all the more moving for being so subdued:
But everything must be there
in that magic mud, beneath
the multitudes of fish,
deadly or innocent.
the giant pirarucús,
the turtles and crocodiles,
tree trunks and sunk canoes,
with the crayfish, with the worms
with tiny electric eyes
turning on and off and on.
The river breathes in salt
and breathes it out again,
and all is sweetness there
in the deep, enchanted silt.
Alliterations (magic, mud, multitudes), balanced syntax (or, and, and), modest lists (with, with, with), internal rhymes (trunks, sunk), off-rhymes (salt, silt), a lyrical vocabulary (sweetness, enchanted)—all these things are there, but none of them is obstrusive. The result is inimitable.
Even the poem about Worcester and Aunt Consuelo, which is the first piece in the new book, climbs carefully into eloquence, as the child, an almost-seven-year-old Elizabeth Bishop, is horrified by the hanging breasts of African women seen in a copy of the National Geographic, and hears her own voice when her aunt cries out in pain:
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How—I didn’t know any
word for it—how “unlikely”…
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?
With the cry of pain that could have got worse, but didn’t, we continue in the realm of hypothesis. Bishop’s most persistent suggestion is that life might turn out badly but hasn’t so far. If you’re lucky you can sleep through the storm, and she feels that it may be, as Jarrell said, “barely but perfectly possible” to get along in the world—“has been, that is,” Jarrell added, “for her.” But one can’t afford too much “poetry” in such circumstances—it would seem an insult to the powers who have treated you relatively well. And the art of losing is indeed a far less volitional affair than the brave poem on the subject tries to suggest. It is an art, it seems, of deprecating your blessings as they are taken away by agencies beyond your control:
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
The “Write it” in the last stanza seems awkward and shrill, but obviously the delay it creates is essential, and the sign of a technical mastery which can make a poem work even when the ideal, unexceptionable line won’t come. The word disaster, already mentioned three times in the poem, and rather breezily at that, is still hard to write when taken seriously, and the art of losing, in a world rife in disaster, is perhaps an art we learn whether we want to or not; perhaps not an art at all, but a reflex, like breathing.
Geography III contains nine poems and a translation from Octavio Paz. It returns us mainly to the northern landscapes—Canada and New England—which have consistently alternated in Bishop’s work with scenes from Florida and Brazil. The most ambitious poems here are “Crusoe in England,” in which the old adventurer, safe at home, riffles through his eccentric memories, and “The Moose,” in which a moose steps out of a forest in New Brunswick and confronts a country bus. Both poems are skillful, casual, and witty; but both have a slightly desultory flavor, fail to ignite the feeling they seem to be after—fail, that is, by the exacting standards the poem herself has set. The moose, for example, looks the bus over, and all the passengers experience a “sweet / sensation of joy”:
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,
by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.
The scene is nicely observed, underplayed. But the “moonlit macadam” seems lazy, and the “dim / smell of moose” offers a reticence where the poem needed a perception. What else would a moose smell of?
What these poems are looking for—a narrative context for a proof that the natural world does speak to us, if only by chance or only in the past—is found in this book in “Poem” and “The End of March,” where a tiny old landscape painting, “a minor family relic,” and a walk along a cold and windy beach enable the poet to place people and their dreams and artifacts in a geography which does not diminish them. Geography figures in a number of Bishop’s most successful earlier poems—“The Map,” “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” especially—and it comes to suggest nature itself, representations of nature (like maps, or paintings, or poems), and whatever thoughts we may have about nature or its representations.
The epigraph for Geography III is a series of questions and answers from an old textbook (“What Is Geography? A description of the earth’s surface”), and geography is obviously connected with “questions of travel” (the title of Bishop’s third book, 1965). In fact, it answers the crucial question:
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?…
Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?…
Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?
The answer is no, but not because the traveled earth lives up to our illusions. On the contrary, “Over 2000 Illustrations…” suggests that travel and the record of travel can never coincide, much less travel and the expectation of travel: “Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen / this old Nativity while we were at it?” But unless we go to imagined places we cannot know either real places or our imaginations. It is a question not so much of finding real toads in imaginary gardens, in Marianne Moore’s phrase, as of giving both real and imagined gardens and toads their due. Elizabeth Bishop’s delicate landscapes are not manifestations of states of mind, nor are they neutral descriptions of what she takes to be “there.” They are natural scenes to be visited, and even transformed, but never to be plundered; they are places which people, if they were quiet and careful enough, might manage to inhabit.
June 9, 1977