Elizabeth Bishop (3): Questions of Travel (1965)


postcard of santos, brazil

The first section of Questions of Travel is titled Brazil, and the first poem is “Arrival at Santos,” so I thought it would be nice to get a glimpse of the place (see above).

Bishop’s speaker arrives by boat; she sees the coast first, then the harbor, a detail of the coast as they approach, and then more details of the landscape: “Here is a coast; here is a harbor; / here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery: / impractically shaped and — who knows? — self-pitying mountains / sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery” — again, the adjectives are interesting. 🙂 See my previous post for more about those.

As the boat arrives in the harbor, a boy’s boat hook gets caught on the skirt of an older lady described as “about seventy, / a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall, / with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression,” and we learn that she is actually from New York. At the end of stanza 7 and the beginning of stanza 8, Bishop plays with an “s,” such a small move it’s easy to miss.  — “Her home, when she is at home, is in Glenn Fall / / s, New York.” I read this as playing with the multiple meanings of “fall”: waterfall, actual fall, metaphysical fall.

The first stanza of the next poem, “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” is interspersed with small rhymes and assonances on [ i ]:

  • Januaries, greet
  • inch, filling, foliage
  • big leaves, little leaves
  • olive
  • underleaf
  • relief
  • lilies
  • greenish
  • solid
  • finished

Other than the obvious repetition of “leaves” (4 occurrences), which underlines the sheer mass of vegetation the speaker faces, the rhymes draw little attention to themselves, but they are very effective in tying the lines together and giving the stanza a consistent tone. I especially like the pairing of “foliage” and “olive.”

Stanza 2 teems with adjectives, often in pairs:

  • blue-white
  • pale-green
  • “a few palms, swarthy, squat, but delicate”
  • “big symbolic birds”
  • puffed and padded, pure-colored or spotted
  • “vines, oblique and neat”

A landscape this wild and this “impractical” (for humans) changes little over the course of centuries: “Nature greets our eyes / exactly as she must have greeted theirs” explains the traveler and goes on to describe “monster ferns,” flowers, palm trees, an ecosystem that has neither seen nor wants human intervention. Here, she steps back in time to the age of myths and creation: “Still in the foreground there is Sin: / five sooty dragons near some massy rocks.” The dragons are sooty and still — they are not scurrying away at the intrusion, they are not attacking, maybe they are not even interested in the foreign beings that have just arrived. Like the birds, they are symbolic of the primal forces in this piece of the world. The capitalization of “sin” is a nod to the Garden of Eden, as is the presence of the reptiles, and the use of “massy.” Yes, she is describing large, heavy pieces of stone, massy rocks, but the word “mass” is too visible here to be chosen without much thought, and since the last stanza mentions “Mass” the allusion / repetition is likely intentional.


varieties of lichen

The religious imagery continues when the traveler moves in closer to describe more details. She looks at the rocks which are covered in lichen, “threatened from underneath by moss / in lovley hell-green flames, / attacked above / by scaling-ladder vines, oblique and neat.” The lichen is stuck between two forces, the green hell and the vines that move upward, much like Christianity sees man between heaven and hell, lower than angels, but not yet a demon.

The dragons — lizards, actually — are not paying much attention to the traveler because they are watching their mate: “The lizards scarcely breathe; all eyes / are on the smaller, female one, back-to, / her wicked tail straight up and over, / red as a red-hot wire.” I think I found the lizard described here: It could well be a red-tailed vanzosaur. Very difficult to catch but certainly eye-catching:


red-tailed vanzosaur (photo: planetparaguay.com)

Now it is the lizards’ turn to stand for something else: Like these male lizards, the Portuguese Christians who arrived in Brazil five hundred years earlier chose to act on their primal urges: “Directly after Mass, humming perhaps / L’Homme arme or some such tune, / they ripped away into the hanging fabric, / each out to catch an Indian for himself — / those maddening little women who kept calling, / calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?) / and retreating, always retreating, behind it.”

The traveler explains that arriving in Brazil causes the men to break out of their civilized behavior, out of the metal armor of moral rules and religious doctrine — yes, they still hold mass, but, knowing themselves unsupervised by society and government, they hunt down the women of the native population and commit the “Sin” we’ve already been warned is in the foreground here. These are the first “civilized” men to set foot on Brazilian soil, the actual colonization by Portugal not starting until 1534 (wiki), and they see themselves as the natural rulers of the natives. (Yes, same old story.)

Another poem that stood out to me was “Electrical Storm” because, again, it teems with adjectives like “dry and light,” tinny, silent, bleached white, “personal and spiteful,” “dead-white, wax-white, cold,” melting, fused, “wet, stuck, purple.”

Finally, let me mention “First Death in Nova Scotia.” It’s an intriguing poem, spoken from the perspective of a child. The scene is a wake: the child’s cousin Arthur has died, and in the child’s narration, Arthur seems to become the loon Uncle Arthur shot and stuffed. “Since Uncle Arthur fired / a bullet into him, / he hadn’t said a word.” Both the loon and the dead boy have a chest that is white, cold, and caressable. The loon has red glass eyes which, for our speaker, are “much to be desired.”

Little Arthur’s eyes are closed, shut tight, so unlike the loon he cannot see. He is also described as an unfinished doll — complete, but not painted: “Jack Frost had started to paint him / […] / He had just begun on his hair, / a few red strokes, and then / Jack Frost had dropped the brush / and left him white, forever.”

The coffin of the little boy is surrounded by images of royalty, “chromographs” of “Edward, Prince of Wales, / with Princess Alexandra, / and King George with Queen Mary.” The child believes that Cousin Arthur is meant to go with them, “to be / the smallest page at court,” but it is obvious this is impossible: “how could Arthur go, / clutching his tiny lily, / with his eyes shut up so tight / and the roads deep in snow?”

Now, this may seem like a somewhat cruel scene, to have a child put a flower into their dead cousin’s hand, but this is not today, this is probably the Victorian age, and the Victorians had a different attitude towards death than we do now. Of course this is in part because, well, there was much more death around in those days. Many illnesses we can easily cure were fatal for the Victorians. For most of us, we do not see death in our every-day lives. We do not have to figure out how to face it, say, every winter, or every flu season.

If you are interested (and not faint of heart) you may want to look up “Victorian post-mortem photography” — there are countless surviving photographs (no pun intended) of parents posing with their dead child, men or women posing with their dead spouse, or children posing with their dead siblings. Photography was a new way to keep a memory of a lost family member, and even if it was not really affordable for just any occasion, it appears that many Victorians wanted at least one last image of their loved ones. I have chosen one example to post here, just because these images fascinate me.

victorian post-mortem photograph

In this one, it is fairly obvious, but it is not always so easy to identify these images. Much effort was put into making everything look life-like, either by having the deceased appear to be sleeping, or by altering the photograph (painting the eyes etc). Considering how many photos are taken today, every day, every hour, and how much we take images for granted, this puts things into perspective.

These are not snap-shots or Kodak-moments. These are family documents, and maybe the only proof that this person lived and was loved. And while I would never make a child pose with a dead family member, I do understand the motivation behind these images.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


  1. Oh thank you…the juxtapositions of another time in history, one cultural reality set along side another. Very engrossing. It felt like the first time I stumbled upon the book Griffin and Sabine without knowing anything about it. Hard to explain the magic I felt. Then and now.

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