Elizabeth Bishop (1): North & South (1946)

Poet Elizabeth Bishop

Poet Elizabeth Bishop

Let me explain what you’re about to read — My plan is to read all of Bishop’s poetry, her prose, and some biographies, over the course of this spring semester. I will be posting about those texts here on a regular basis, both as a memory-aid for myself and as an offering to you, kind reader. 🙂 I am using the 2011 FSG two-volume boxed set for the poems and prose, but will refer to the original collections where it makes sense. 


One thing that somehow made me stumble in this first collection was Bishop’s use of parentheses — take the second poem for instance, “The Imaginary Iceberg”:  After two straightforward stanzas, the third stanza ends on these lines:

Icebergs behoove the soul / (both being self-made from elements least visible) / to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.

What threw me off, in part, was the hard, three-syllable rhyme after the body of the poem had a much more subtle structure to it. Then, why parentheses? I might not have wondered about it if there had not been a number of other instances. In “The Colder the Air,” the parentheses at the end are an explanatory aside, in the middle of “The Man-Moth”* they contain an aside, in “Love Lies Sleeping,” the parentheses grow to longer than a stanza, and again, they add and explain something the speaker sees as important, as if these are keys to understanding what is happening, keys needed by an outsider to this world in order to be able to decode it. “The Weed” is full of parentheses, some only two words long, some spanning four lines, all of them clarifications except for the very last:

The weed stood in the severed heart. / “What are you doing here?” I asked. / It lifted its head all dripping wet / (with  my own thoughts?) / and answered then: “I grow,” it said, / “but to divide your heart again.”

In the whole of North & South, this is the only parenthesis that contains a question. The speaker is thinking, wondering, she is not sure she has an answer. It is as if she, with the reader, sees the wet plant for the very first time.

There are four poems in this collection that I’d like to mention here because they stood out to me. Let’s start with “The Gentleman of Shalott” — of course, the cursed lady comes to mind, the loom, the mirror, captivity — and Bishop picks up all of these themes.

The Gentleman of Shalott is not caught in a tower, in fact he is quite free to move about. His captivity is in his mind, in his knowledge (or conviction, if you prefer) that only half of him really exists and that he is utterly dependent on the mirror that provides the other half. Like the Lady of Shalott, the Gentleman knows that he is not in control of his life or death: he knows that at this point he is able-bodied, but that if the mirror moved or broke, life would be virtually impossible. The Lady of Shalott does not know what exactly her curse is, only that she will die, and that she must not be part of the outside world. The Gentleman of Shalott is at first glance much better off, after all he can move about, there is no mention of any restrictions for him. At closer inspection, however, he too is a prisoner. He is a prisoner of his own doubt, his rumination. Where does the idea come from that he physically is really only half of what he perceives? The poem suggests that it is his innate bilateral symmetry that surprises him: Why two arms that are exactly the same? Why two eyes, two legs, two ears?

He felt in his modesty / his person was / half looking-glass, / for why should he / be doubled? / The glass must stretch / down his middle, / or rather down the edge.

His problem is not whether or not he is half reflection, it is further down the road:

But he’s in doubt / as to which side’s in or out / of the mirror. / […] / And if half his head’s reflected, / thought, he thinks, might be affected.

Now don’t pretend you didn’t smile, at least mentally, at those couple of lines. I know I did. So, the Gentleman has this question to live with, as well as the potential loss of half of his body — whichever half is reflected — if anything happens to the mirror. He tries to appear calm and pragmatic about it:

The uncertainty / he says he / finds exhilarating. He loves / that sense of constant re-adjustment. / He wishes to be quoted as saying at present: /  “Half is enough.”

Second, another man: “The Man-Moth,” an intriguing creature and the result of a typo in a newspaper. Bishop creates this man-moth as one who visits the surface rarely, a nervous, worried character who mistakes the moon for a hole in the sky, “proving the sky quite useless for protection. / He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb.” Afraid but determined, determined but mistaken, the man-moth does what he believes he must, like a Sisyphus of the dark city. He is a sad creature, but holds something lovely and unpolluted:

If you catch him, / hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil, / […] as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids / one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips. / Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention / he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over, / cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.

My favorite poem in this collection may well be “The Monument.” It is a strange poem about a strange construction, and while it was hard to visualize at first, it all comes together after the first half page. We’re supposed to see it, the first line makes that very clear, as do the detailed descriptions. Boxes, cubes, wooden fleur-de-lys, holes, warped poles, dangling jig-saw work. Later on, the details become more tangible: the wood is cracked, the paint flaked off, the boards nailed together carelessly, the handiwork crude.

I picture elementary school kids in shop, trying to saw out a little heart or flower shape for the first time, smelling the dry, light, cheap wood and noticing how it’s darker in the middle. The edges are rough and unevenly cut, there are, no doubt, little splinters coming off on the backside of it, there are still some pencil marks where the saw would not go where the hand wanted it to. Like these things that vaguely resemble something and are a matter of great import to the little woodworkers, the shoddily built monument is an artifact. But it is more — exposed to wind and rain, it constantly changes, it is not finished.

The monument’s an object, yet those decorations, / carelessly nailed, looking like nothing at all, / give it away as having lie, and wishing; / wanting to be a monument, to cherish something. / The crudest scroll-work says “commemorate,” / while once each day the light goes around it / like a prowling animal, / or the rain falls on it, or the wind blows into it.

Our idea of monuments usually includes, yes, commemoration, but also timelessness — lest we forget — the monument is not supposed to change. We want it to be permanent. This monument, however, is anything but permanent. Even the backdrop, the sea and sky behind it, is a construction of plywood, a stage set, and not even a good one. The visitor, tired of the speaker and the monument, complains: “that queer sea looks made of wood, / half-shining, like a driftwood sea. / And the sky looks wooden, grained with cloud.” Still, our speaker insists that it is “much better than real sea or sand or cloud.” In a way it is — it captures the impermanence, the ephemeral nature of not just man-made things but also the slow-aging forces like the sky and the sea, in a way that we can relate to. The monument, with its splintered clouds, its grainy sky, its unskilled and unsafe construction is in many ways a more accurate representation of what matters, what is essential to — dare I use this phrase — the human experience. It represents life, the desire to be, to cherish, to contain and mean something, because it captures the idea of process, of a constant change.

It is the beginning of a painting, / a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument / and all of wood. Watch it closely.

Finally, “The Fish.” The descriptions in this poem are wonderfully vivid. Gills “fresh and crisp with blood,” flesh “packed in like feathers” and “the dramatic reds and blacks / of his shiny entrails, / and the pink swim-bladder / like a big peony.” These are not actually exposed, they are in the mind of the speaker. This is my favorite passage, where she is eye to eye with the enormous fish:

the irises backed and packed / with tarnished tinfoil / seen through the lenses / of old scratched isinglass. / They shifted a little, but not / to return my stare. / — It was more like the tipping / of an object toward the light.

You can listen to Bishop reading “The Fish” here: http://youtu.be/QnR1x64WOjQ


*) You can read “The Man-Moth” here: http://themirrorobscura.com/2013/06/28/poet-for-the-week-june-28th-elizabeth-bishop/


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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