Elizabeth Bishop (2): A Cold Spring (1955)

early photo of a woman in india

early photo of a woman in india

What struck me as I was reading Bishop’s second collection, A Cold Spring, was her use of adjectives. No worries, I will tell you more about the poems than just how she uses adjectives, but it did stand out to me. Why? Because there are many instances of multiple adjectives, often two, and repeatedly three in a row. And beautiful specimens they are, too! Here are some examples: 

  • narrow, cleated gangplanks (“At the Fishhouses”)
  • Cold dark deep and absolutely clear (ibid)
  • dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world (ibid)
  • dull, dead, deep peacock-colors (“Cape Breton”)
  • occasional small yellow bulldozers (ibid)
  • brown-wet, fine, torn fish-nets (ibid)
  • the rough-adzed pole (ibid)
  • glass-smooth dung (“The Prodigal”)
  • Light-lashed, self-righteous (ibid)
  • Her sinister kind face / presents a cruel black / coincident conundrum. (“Faustina, or Rock Roses”)
  • silent, bored really    blindly veined (“Four Poems: IV / O Breath”)

Here is one of my favorite lines in the whole collection, — also another example of unusual adjectives:

Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing / countless little pellucid jellies / in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains. (“Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”)

If you’re like me, epergne is not part of your active or even passive vocabulary, so to save you from having to look it up, it’s a decorative centerpiece commonly used to hold fruit or flowers, according to my dictionary. Now read that line out loud — the sound is lovely, don’t you think?

So, what about all these adjectives? Why do they interest me? Why should they interest you?

As a grad student and, of course, a writer, I spend a lot of time composing texts. I often find myself digging through my brain for a fitting adjective and coming up empty-handed, or with hands full of the same old clutter. I think in normal conversation we use only a very limited number of adjectives, — great, awful, amazing, lovely, wonderful, terrible, cute, crazy, insane, and a few more — when the English language has so many more to offer. Why is that? Is it because of our reading habits? Because of the way we see and hear others speak? Next time you’re in public, listen out for adjectives. I will bet you a dollar “pellucid” will not be among them.

Another thing is that, when you’re writing creatively, you’ll likely find that adjectives are not as easy to use as expected. Even if you use a wide variety of adjectives, they can still trip up your text: use too many, and they’ll take over. Lately, I’ve been trying to cut down on adjectives when writing poems. And here I am , reading Bishop, and she’s lining up these adjectives like beads on a string, in some cases without even so much as a comma between them. And it works. I think the reason it works is because they are not the common suspects. Only a few of them are somewhat obscure or unusual, and many of them are actually quite plain (cold, hard, dark, fine), but they are clearly very carefully chosen. Another reason why it works is because these instances of “flocks of adjectives” are placed strategically. Bishop’s flocks of adjectives never cover the entire poem, they make brief, effective appearances.

early tourist photo of japanese women

early tourist photo of japanese women

Alright, enough about adjectives. Let’s talk about A Cold Spring. I have to admit that I was not as impressed with the collection overall as I was with North & South — there are a few poems that do not feel as strong as the rest. That said, I am not a big fan of direct rhyme, or overt rhyme. I like it subtle, and the poems I wasn’t as impressed with had much rhyming going on. I am a biased reader. 🙂

“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” the second poem in the collection, had me think of an old book of photographs I bought at a flea market about fifteen years ago. And I mean “old” — it has large, full-page photographs of one hundred “wonders of the world” and one of them is the Salt Lake Temple. You can see that the statue of the angel Moroni is not yet on the top of the spire, and there is still some scaffolding, meaning the picture was taken before 1892. Bear with me, this tangent is going somewhere. Reading Bishop’s poem I saw in my mind two people leaning over a book of such pictures, albeit many, many more of them, and traveling in their minds, much like the first readers of the flea market book. They could not travel easily around the world, in fact, for many of them, a trip from Prussia (or wherever — Germany as we know it was not yet established at that point) to Utah or Yellowstone was as impossible as it is for us to travel into the past and see the beginning of  Christianity.

The pictures in the book are clearly not just travel sketches — mentions of “squatting Arabs” and “our Christian Empire” and “the Tomb, the Pit, the Sepulcher” suggest this is a type of world history book which traces the development of civilization. The “toils of an initial letter” brings to mind the intricate first letters of illuminated manuscripts. The comment that “The Seven Wonders of the World are tired / and a touch familiar, but the other scenes, / innumerable, though equally sad and still, / are foreign” suggests that this book has been read many times, to the point that the “wonders” are no longer wonderful (in the literal sense of the word). The favorite pages have become boring, the other pages are like the familiar strangers you’ve sat by many times on the bus, but have never spoken to, so that now, it is too late to show an interest and try to begin a conversation. They are not really strangers any more, they have become “foreign.” You may have already assigned them stories and homes and jobs. This is what has happened to the picture of St.Peter’s, where “the Collegians marched in lines, / crisscrossing the great square with black, like ants” — the picture represents something, but it represents it falsely.

Because the narrator has only ever seen St.Peter’s as this one picture shows it, it shows a world where this is all that happens: the Collegians move “purposefully” and “rapidly” across the square, and they are frozen in this one activity, reduced to this one movement that has indeed very little to do with what they do, what defines them. For our narrator, the book shows and confines the members of the college to this one instant. This is what makes the scene “sad and still” but also “foreign” — this is not the real world.

From hereon, it seems like the speaker and her fellow ‘traveler’ through the book are trying to bring the images to life. There is music from a jukebox, but it is always the same song, the song never ends. Putting themselves into the English lady’s sitting room, they imagine her to be “informing us / that the Duchess was going to have a baby.” The “little pockmarked prostitutes” of Marrakesh are engaged in all the stereotypical activities, all the Kodak moments of a trip to the Orient: they “balanced tea-trays on their heads / and did their belly-dances; flung themselves / naked and giggling against our knees, / asking for cigarettes” — the tourist currency for photos and ‘authentic’ experience.

The poem ends on a picture they passed without looking when they went through the book: “Why couldn’t we have seen / this old Nativity while we were at it?” In the last line, the “family with pets” (standing in for the nativity scene) “looked and looked our infant sight away.” The persons in the picture are looking out of the book, looking directly at the readers who spent so much time staring unashamedly, and it is this look, this unexpected action coming from within the oh-so-familiar book that finally changes them. Maybe it is this loss of the ability to look at these pictures as wonders, as representative of a wonderful world beyond the house and fence and city limits, that is at the root of the sense of regret already apparent in the first lines of this poem: “Thus should have been our travels: / serious, engravable.”

a single fish scale

a single fish scale

Another poem I really enjoyed is “At the Fishhouses.” Here is one image from the poem that stuck with me in particular:

The big fish tubs are completely lined / with layers of beautiful herring scales / and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered / with creamy iridescent coats of mail / with small iridescent flies crawling on them.

I was also intrigued by the speaker’s encounter with the seal. “He was curious about me. He was interested in music; like me a believer in total immersion, / so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.” The seal listens, leaves, then returns “with a sort of shrug.”

And of course the “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” makes for an interesting read (think of pellucid jellies in cut-glass epergnes). I want to go to one of the biographies I have sitting on my shelf, which I have borrowed, and read up on Bishop up until 1955, to see what contact there was between the two writers by that point. I know Bishop greatly admired Moore, but I’m going to know more by the next time I blog. 🙂


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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