Elizabeth Bishop (9): Stories and Memoirs


These past ten days or so I’ve been meaning to read (and then write about) Bishop’s prose. After reading much of the first section (Stories and Memoirs) of the prose volume of the collected works, I have some thoughts to share about Bishop’s non-poetry.

I particularly enjoyed her autobiographical short stories — her attention to detail and her selectiveness when it comes to which details would work most naturally are just as evident here as in any of her poems. Here’s how her young narrator describes Mr. Johnson in “In the Village”:

He is very old, and nice. He has two fingers missing on his right hand where they were caught in a threshing machine. He wears a navy-blue cap with a black leather visor, like a ship’s officer, and a shirt with feathery brown stripes, and a big gold collar button. (77)

This is very much the way a child sees and describes, in my experience anyway. Children prioritize and describe differently, they feel less pressed to be politically correct (at least up to a certain age) and are often fearlessly honest in their descriptions. All that is fascinating about Mr. Johnson is there: his kindness, the story of his missing fingers, his important-looking hat and button.

It’s the details that make most of the descriptions work, for example the wall-eyed grandfather on one side of the family and then the grandmother on the other side —

My grandmother had a glass eye, blue, almost like her other one, and this made her especially vulnerable and precious to me. My father was dead and my mother was away in a sanatorium. […] I had privately asked other relatives if they thought my grandmother could go to heaven with a glass eye. (81)

The topics of illness and death come up repeatedly — they, too, are things children tend to be fascinated with. Whether it is the experience of her own childhood illness or the observation of that of a friend, Bishop’s narrator is very frank about what she makes of the possibility of weakness and death. In “Gwendolyn,” after weeks of bronchitis (“the realistic cat-and-kitten family in my chest”) the narrator is introduced to a diabetic girl who is sickly pale and beautiful in an aristocratic way.


This new acquaintance captures the narrator’s imagination: the illness itself “made Gwendolyn even more attractive, as if she would prove to be solid candy if you bit her, and her pure-tinted complexion would taste exactly like the icing sugar Easter eggs” (54). Since little is known, at the time, about how to treat diabetes, and since Gwendolyn’s parents indulge her frequently, the girl gets worse all the time.

Gwendolyn gets to sleep over one night. When the narrator points out that her friend did not say her prayers kneeling by the bed, Gwendolyn explains that that’s ok and she’s allowed to pray lying down “because I’m going to die” (57). And surely enough, the girl dies soon afterwards. Our narrator is not allowed to go to the funeral, so she watches from a distance. It is a very strange scene:

The two men in black appeared again, carrying Gwendolyn’s small white coffin between them. Then — this was the impossibility — they put it down just outside the church door, one end on the grass and the other lifted up a little, to lean at a slight angle against the wall. Then they disappeared inside again. For a minute, I stared straight through my lace curtain at Gwendolyn’s coffin, with Gwendolyn shut invisibly inside it forever, there, completely alone on the grass by the church door. (59)

Gwendolyn does get a proper funeral later, by proxy: the narrator takes a precious doll (whose name has been forgotten) from her aunt’s belongings and, together with a friend, picks flowers for her.

We laid her out in the garden path and outlined her body with Johnny-jump-ups and babies’ breath and put a pink cosmos in one limp hand. She looked perfectly beautiful. […] I don’t know which one of us said it first, but one of us said it, with wild joy — that is was Gwendolyn’s funeral, and that the doll’s name, all this time, had been Gwendolyn. (61)

Not all the stories in this volume are memoirs, however. “The Baptism” — the opening story in this edition — introduces the subject of religion, which comes up in virtually all of the stories. The tension between different Christian groups — in this case Presbyterians and Baptists — plays out in the relationship between three sisters, Lucy, Flora and Emma, who share a home. When Lucy, the youngest sister, sees Christ in her dreams and has feelings of happiness that keep her even from eating, she knows she must join the Baptists, although she fears her sisters’ reaction.

I guess the story had personal appeal to me, on top of simply being a well-written tale, because of two things: first, the painful feeling of having to choose between faith and loved ones, and second, because the story is not really “simply” about conversion. Lucy’s spiritual experiences are both elating and terrifying. “The lamp began to smoke. The smoke went right up to the ceiling and smelt very strong and sweet, like rose-geranium. I began to laugh and cry at the same time. Flora and Emma were talking together, but other people seemed to be talking, too, and the voice at the head of the bed” (8). Clearly, something is happening to Lucy, whether it is a spiritual transformation, a hallucination, or a bout of mental illness.

Lucy suddenly stood up. “Emma, Emma, Flora. I see God.” She motioned towards the stove. God, God sat on the kitchen stove and glowed, burned, filling all the kitchen with a delicious heat and a scent of grease and sweetness. Lucy was more conscious of his body than his face. His beautiful glowing bulk was rayed like a sunflower. It lit up Flora’s and Emma’s faces on either side of the stove. The stove could not burn him. (8-9)


The next story, “The Sea and Its Shore,” tells a very different story. We are introduced to Edwin Boomer, whose job it is to keep the public beach free from papers. This is much more to him than a job, it is a sacred trust almost, and the beach becomes a sort of library, oracle, and school to him. He examines all types of paper in detail, saves what can be read, and studies his finds to put them into three groups:

First, and most numerous: everything that seemed to be about himself […] Second: the stories about other people that caught his fancy […] Third: the items he could not understand at all, that bewildered him completely but at the same time interested him so much that he saved them to read. These he tried, almost frantically, to fit into first one, then the other, of the two categories. (14)

While this story is not directly biographical, it does tie in with a later memoir story: Boomer also finds (and puts into group 3) an ad for “The U.S.A. School of Writing,” where Bishop’s young alter ego works, forced to impersonate Fred G. Margolies, who is actually referred to in the advertisement. Boomer has drunk visions while he works: “the letters appeared to fly from the pages. He raised his lantern and staff and ran waving his arms, headlines and sentences streaming around him, like a man shooing a flock of pigeons” (13). With the collection of all these printed pieces of paper comes the no less fascinating necessity of burning them, as the influx of paper will never stop.


By the time we reach the third story of Bishop’s collection, she introduces us to yet another type of story. “In Prison” is more of a parable than any of the other tales. The narrator here has planned out in great detail her longed-for (ideally life-long) prison stay because she feels that it is her purpose in life, the only environment in which she can be who she is meant to be.

[…] my desire is to be given one very dull book to read, the duller the better. A book, moreover, on a subject completely foreign to me; perhaps the second volume, if the first would familiarize me too well with the terms and purpose of the work. Then I shall be able to experience with a free conscience the pleasure, perverse, I suppose, of interpreting it not at all according to its intent. (22)

The prison walls, too, are planned for: if there is any writing on then already, they will be carefully read. “Then I shall adapt my own compositions, in order that they may  not conflict with those written by the prisoner before me. The voice of a new inmate will be noticeable, but there will be no contradictions” (23). Her own inscriptions will be her legacy. Her life plan revolves around agency, choice and necessity, acting and being acted upon (25).

It’s hard to say anything general, all-encompassing about Stories and Memoirs, other than that each of the stories is very finely tuned and emotionally effective. The memoir stories (and that’s what they are, both memoir and story) read like one cohesive text that is, maybe even more than the other stories, characterized by its frankness, its own peculiar pair of eyes through which the world is seen.

Some of the stories were very much reminiscent of some of Janet Frame’s short stories (which I also highly recommend), and I may have to look into some of the parallels because at least in one case they are very striking — The opening paragraph of “In the Village,” at least in my memory, sounds almost exactly like that of one of the stories in You are Now Entering the Human Heart. (I’ll post more on this once I find a copy of the book and look it up. I miss my books… I hope they are safe and well and okay in their boxes.)

It also struck me how much Bishop’s memoir story narrator’s experience is like my own memory of childhood, and, I’m seeing patterns of adjectives popping up in her prose kind of like in her poetry — that’ll be worth a second look later on.

In any case, I am very much enjoying Bishop’s short fiction and will post more soon, about the next section: Brazil.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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