Elizabeth Bishop (6): New and Collected Poems (1978-1979)

Getting near the end of the big volume of Bishop’s complete poems. The opening poem here is “Santarem” — another poem set in Brazil — and it’s just lovely. Bishop’s speaker remembers an episode from visiting Santarem, admitting that there is a real chance that she might be mis-remembering, “after, after — how many years?”

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

Colours — The first three stanzas contain five references to gold — the evening is golden, everything is gilded, the river sand is dark-gold (once) and golden (twice in a row). There is also mention of buttercup yellow azulejos (tile-work on the front of houses) and burnishing, and one stray mention of blue. The remaining three stanzas do not mention gold even once, instead they give us  “occasional blue eyes,” “white-habited” young nuns, “violet-colored sails,” a brass bed that is “galvanized black,” a “blue pharmacy” and, finally, an empty wasps’ nest that is “clean matte white.”

The warm colour of gold is followed by white and shades of blue, which are ‘cold’ colours. Even violet, at least in my view, is a cold colour — it contains much more blue than red, unlike purple. It is the white wasps’ nest that catches the speaker’s eye: “I admired it / so much [the pharmacist] gave it to me.” This is one of only two direct interactions between her and another person described in this poem.

A wasps' nest (early stages)

A wasps’ nest (early stages), image by natureforthecommunity.co.uk

The other interaction occurs right after this, when she is back on board the ship: “the retiring head of Philips Electric, / really a very nice old man, / who wanted to see the Amazon before he died, / asked, ‘What’s that ugly thing?'” The ugly thing is the wasps’ nest she had earlier compared to stucco and described as “small” and “exquisite.” Clearly, the older man does not see it this way.

The aside (“really a nice old man”) made me smile. She is almost defending him — yes, he has no eyes for the natural beauty of the wasps’ nest, but he is, nonetheless, a nice old man. It seems somehow fatalistic that he is there with her at this time because he “wanted to see the Amazon before he died”, and this explanation (which was probably his response to her making polite small talk) suggests that his motivation for the journey is nothing like hers. He is here to be able to check one more item off his to-do list.

carnival dog (vancouversun.com)

carnival dog (vancouversun.com)

If you are interested in line-breaks, “Pink Dog” is a poem you might want to look at. While there is only one particularly interesting use of line-breaks, it is worth looking at. “Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a- / n eyesore. But no one will ever see a / / dog in mascara this time of year.”

Breaking the line in the middle of “an” seems like a peculiar, counter-intuitive thing to do. Especially if it serves the single purpose of making the rhyme fit. It’s a little silly, really, — just like the poem, which is advice to a dog with scabies, to dress up for Carnival so that people will not be offended by her looks. Each stanza has three lines that end on the same rhyme (blue, hue, avenue; rabies, scabies, babies; fantasia, a-n, a), so it is fairly simple and straightforward, and finding a rhyme for stanza 10 rather than breaking up “an” should not have been hard for Bishop. We must assume that this oddity is intentional, and, as I said, it fits with the nature and tone of this peculiar poem.

mercury beads on wood surface

mercury beads on wood

“Sonnet,” the last poem in this section, has the line-count of a sonnet, but not the typical rhyme scheme. There are line-endings with rhymes (level – bevel, divided – undecided, away – gay) but just as many lines are not connected in this way. The bubble in the spirit level (what a cool word btw!) becomes a compass needle, the mercury of a thermometer, a rainbow-bird (possibly the rainbow the edges of a mirror creates when sunlight hits at just the right angle). All of these seem free to move, but their freedom is limited.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

  1. Mary, it’s my first time to check your blog. A book is a girl’s best friend – it’s true! Of course, dogs are for men and diamonds are for women. Anyway, Elizabeth Bishop is a cute little girl, who would have thought she could be a brilliant poet. However, I see how technical you can get as a poet and I am interested to read your poems too. There aren’t so many poets these days so finding one is always inspiring!

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