Elizabeth Bishop (5): Geography III (1976)

Robinson Crusoe Sees a Turtle

Geography III is the first book of Bishop’s I ever read from cover to cover, for an undergrad poetry class almost ten years ago. I remember discussing “Crusoe in England” in class and finding it more interesting than Robinson’s story himself. Reading it again now, a different image came into my head: Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince (1943).

the little prince

the Little Prince (Saint-Exupery)

I believe this is the passage where I could hear Crusoe speak in the Little Prince‘s voice: “Well, I had fifty-two / miserable, small volcanoes I could climb / with a few slithery strides — / volcanoes dead as ash heaps. / I used to sit on the edge of the highest one / and count the others standing up.” Crusoe’s world is like the Prince’s, it is so small it is easy to survey. It is all his, but possession loses meaning when there is nobody else. This precise inventory (not “about fifty” but fifty-two volcanoes) is much like the Little Prince’s precise descriptions of his home world; he too counts his volcanoes; he minds and cleans them, even the dormant ones, just in case. Crusoe’s volcanoes are active, at least in his imagination: the hissing sound he hears all over the island makes him check for lava running into the water. In the end, large turtles are the source of the hissing. The stranded man is not blind to the beauty of his surroundings. He describes the volcanic rock and the glass-chimneys in great detail.

He finds a way to deal with self-pity during his long, speechless days alone: “With my legs dangling down familiarly / over a crater’s edge, I told myself / ‘Pity should begin at home.’ So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home.” Hang on. Isn’t it kindness? Charity? I suppose having pity for oneself can qualify as either. The reason this line caught me, though, is probably because in the usual construction of the phrase, the noun is something inherently good (kindness, charity, equality, etc) where pity is not always desirable or appropriate. Over all, his response to being stranded and alone is highly adaptive: he makes the place his home, he makes himself at home, by using exactly those thoughts that threaten to isolate him.

Other poems that stuck with me after reading Geography III were “The Moose” (which includes numerous flocks of adjectives), the playful “12 O’Clock News” (where the desk and its accessories become a newscast), and of course “One Art” — Bishop’s villanelle about losing keys, continents, lovers.

Finally, let me comment a little on “Objects & Apparitions,” which is Bishop’s translation of an Octavio Paz poem. It does not actually say it’s a translation until you’ve finished reading, there, at the bottom of the page, is a little footnote. The poem is dedicated to Joseph Cornell, an independent film director and artist whose work involved wooden boxes, somewhat like shadow-boxes containing photographs, found items, etc. — think bricolage / assemblage.

cockatoo-watchface

Cornell’s Untitled Cockatoo with Clockfaces

Cornell is not the only artist mentioned here, there’s also Degas and two other names: Jenny Colonne and Jenny Lind. I was able to find Jenny Lind, actually Johanna Maria Lind, a celebrated Swedish singer of the 19th century, but Colonne remains a mystery to me. I am guessing that she, also, is a singer or musician.

Jenny Lind Sheet Music Cover

Jenny Lind Sheet Music (courtesy of Boston Public Library)

The lines of “Objects and Apparitions” are tightly constructed around in-line rhymes and assonance. Take this example:

Memory weaves, unweaves the echoes: / in the four corners of the box / shadowless ladies play at hide-and-seek.

clearly, the [o] sound permeates the second line, while the repetition of ‘weaves’ ties  both parts of the previous line together despite the cesura. The [ey] of ‘ladies’ and ‘play’ together with the repeated [l] sounds of ‘less,’ ‘ladies’ and ‘play’ unify the third line of this example.

On a less technical note, I love some of the images here — ” you constructed / boxes where things hurry away from their names” and the “slot machine of visions,” and the image of the comb:

A comb is a harp strummed by the glance / of a little girl / born dumb.

The image is simple, memorable, and at the same time, through careful line-breaks, avoids being overly sentimental. Had it instead been “A comb is a harp strummed by the glance / of a little girl born dumb,” the same image would not have worked nearly as well, in my mind.

cornell-pipes

I can see the attraction this poem would have for Bishop — Cornell’s work is intriguing, and Paz’s explanation “inside your boxes / my words became visible for a moment” rings no less true for her as it does for him. Like poets, who take bits of the every-day, words we have heard and encountered countless times, and place them in a new setting and a new order, Cornell takes what we don’t even take notice of any longer and places it into its own little shrine, focusing our attention on what we’ve unlearned to see. In that sense, his boxes are poetry transposed into physical shape.

cornell-swings

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Birds in the Trees, Toast in the Toaster: Billy Collins’ “Aimless Love” | Outside of a Cat

  2. Pingback: A beautiful (adj.) knife, the mind: Barbara Hamby | Outside of a Cat

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