His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied, looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray, mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
North & South, published in 1946, was Elizabeth Bishop's first collection of poems. It took its thirty-five-year-old author more than a decade to complete and is the product of half a lifetime's travelling, both literally between places and figuratively in her writing. A close friend of Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, Bishop nonetheless finds a unique poetic voice. Her poems remain difficult to place within the poetic tradition. Truant from any one school or movement, her poetry continually changes as she experiments with different registers, tones and voices. In a sense she runs along one of the faultlines of twentieth-century poetry, between the Modernists (Eliot, Stevens, Moore) on the one hand and the Confessionals (Berryman, Lowell, Sexton) on the other. Her observations are less abstract than the formers', just as her life studies are less direct than the latters'.
The first reviewers of North & South were nearly all poets. Each came to Bishop's work with a mixture of envy and excitement. Marianne Moore was Bishop's first and most important critic. The two poets met in 1934, on a bench outside the reading room of the New York Public Library. They went to the circus together and corresponded for over thirty years. Moore, as the older poet, is often seen as Bishop's mentor. In David Kalstone's Becoming A Poet she is a 'wise, eccentric aunt' to Bishop's 'wayward niece' (Kalstone, 1989, p. 109). In Victoria Harrison's Poetics of Intimacy she is an artistic 'mother' to Bishop's 'terrified child' (Harrison, 1993, p. 50). The problem with these interpretations lies in their emphasis on Moore's seniority and Bishop's immaturity. Moore may have wished to become Bishop's mentor, but she was never allowed to. Bishop was willing to accept occasional editorial assistance from her. She did not need lessons on how to write. Moore admired these assertions of artistic independence, though her reviews of Bishop's poetry betray a degree of censure too. Her praise tends to be qualified by her use of oxymoronic phrases. Bishop is 'archaically new' (Schwartz and Estess, 1983, p. 175). She is a 'modest expert' (ibid., p. 177). Her poetry is 'spectacular in being unspectacular' (ibid.). North & South is a 'small-large book of beautifully formulated aesthetic-moral mathematics' (ibid., p. 179). Moore celebrates her friend's work in terms that consistently appear begrudging. She was both jealous and proud of Bishop's achievements.
Randall Jarrell was a more disinterested critic than Moore. He drew attention to Bishop's avoidance of despair, recognizing the importance of observation in her work:
Instead of crying, with justice, 'This is a world in which no one can get along', Miss Bishop's poems show that it is barely but perfectly possible - has been, that is, for her ... all her poems have written underneath, I have seen it. (Ibid., p. 181)
Robert Lowell took Jarrell's comments a stage further when he noticed the movement within North & South between different poetic traditions. His description of the book's 'shifting speech-tones' (ibid., p. 187) was the only review with which Bishop agreed, presumably because he was also the only critic to judge her poetry on its own terms. Lowell compared her scrutiny of the world to Kafka's, praising her 'humorous, commanding genius for picking up the unnoticed' (ibid., p. 206). He underlines the jittery nature of Bishop's voice, showing how she switches perspective between 'sorrowing amusement' and 'grave tenderness' (ibid.). In doing so, he often invokes the language of travel central to an understanding of all Bishop's work. For Lowell:
There are two opposing factors. The first is something in motion, weary but always persisting, almost always failing and on the point of disintegrating, and yet, for the most part, stoically maintained. This is morality, memory. . . . The second factor is a terminus: rest, sleep, fulfilment or death. (Ibid., pp. 186-7)
In Bishop's opinion, there were only 'two kinds of poetry, that ... at rest, and that which is in action, within itself' (Bishop, 1996a, p. 11). She associated a poetry of action with writers like Donne, Herbert and Hopkins, celebrating their ability 'to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking' (ibid., p. 12). Bishop clearly wanted to follow in this tradition. Her poetry is more in motion than at rest, as Lowell perceived. It rarely arrives at an emotional conclusion or intellectual 'terminus'.
Bishop had few theories about poetry and discouraged others from adopting them. The closest she came to defining her aesthetic was in a notebook entry from the mid-1930s. In it, she carefully explores the relationship between imagination and reality:
If I stretch my thought to Egypt, to Africa, downtown, it is in my thought that I see them and they are not, at the time, reality for me. If I go to these places, it is a different matter. Reality, then is something like a huge circus tent, folding, adjustable, which we carry around with us and set up wherever we are. It possesses the magical property of being able to take on characteristics of whatever place we are in, in fact it can become identical with it. (Costello, 1991, p. 129)
For Bishop, reality is always something 'adjustable'. Her poetry shifts in line with the place she is in. She alters perspective, style and tone according to her changing perception of reality. The choice of a 'huge circus tent' to explain her understanding of reality underlines Bishop's sense of humour. She makes fun of the idea that poetry 'can become identical' with the place it describes. As she says in the poem 'Santarem', there is always a gap between the literal 'place' and the poet's 'idea of the place' later (Bishop, 1991, p. 185). Inside the circus tent of her poetry, she has room in which to play.
Bishop's actual movements prior to the publication of North & South were similarly changeable. In the spring of 1946 she travelled north along the Atlantic coast from Key West to Nova Scotia. She was literally on the move on the day North & South was published, returning south by bus to Boston, the journey which would later become the setting for one of her greatest poems, 'The Moose'. The image of the poet moving between places is an appropriate one. Her journeys north and south show her actually living out the shifting geography of the book's title. Travelling, in all its senses, clearly lies at the heart of Bishop's art and life. The runaway poet, cannily evading neat categorization or capture by the reader, is obviously related to the traveller, running away from her editors and public.
Bishop's life prior to 1946 is full of similar journeys north and south. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911, she learnt 'the art of losing' (Bishop, 1991, p. 178) and, related to it, the art of travelling, early in life. She lost her father to Bright's disease when she was eight months old and her mother to schizophrenia shortly after. In 1913 she was taken in by her maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where her mother also stayed between breakdowns. Her mother was permanently hospitalized when she was only five years old. Bishop lived for a further two years in Great Village before being suddenly taken to live in New England again with her paternal grandparents. She later remembered feeling as if 'she was being kidnapped' (Bishop, 1994, p. 14). Bishop attributed her alcoholism, her asthma and her constant search for home to the displacements and traumas of these first seven years of life. Her mother died in 1934, sixteen years after the poet left Nova Scotia for the States. Even though Bishop visited her maternal grandparents every summer, she never saw her mother again, whether by choice or not is uncertain.
North & South does not reflect any of these events directly, though it is often a witness to their consequences. Its very title speaks of the two directions in which the poet moved as a child, propelled like a pinball between opposing sets of grandparents, north and south of the American—Canadian border. From her paternal relatives in New England Bishop received an education at Vassar College (where she studied music and English), as well as financial independence well into her sixties. But from her maternal relatives in Great Village she received the experiences, tragic and restorative, which are central to an understanding of her poetry. Bishop called Nova Scotia 'the richest, saddest, simplest landscape in the world' (Bishop, 1996a, p. 139). Her childhood there, and later on her poetry, copied its various colours, contours and folds, being rich, sad and simple too.
The importance of biography in North & South has been at issue ever since Bishop's reputation began to grow in the mid-1980s. Although she always maintained that autobiography was not something she practised, at least not consciously, the publication of her biography and letters suggested more links between art and life than she herself had acknowledged. Critics had known most of the biographical facts before, but they had taken on trust the poet's insistence that a 'good dictionary' (Gioia, 1986, p. 101) was a more useful guide to her poetry than her life. An awareness of Bishop's life does not discredit her advice, though it does weaken the assumption that she is a totally impersonal poet. Biography is a kind of guest inhabiting many of the poems in the collection. As Sandra Barry argues, 'this time and place and these people were not merely subjects in her poetry and prose, but conditioners of her poetic development and aesthetic sensibilities' (Barry, 1996, p. 193). Thus we can see how her love of poetry came from her grandfather's reading of Burns each night, just as her fascination with travel first grew out of stories of an uncle's shipwreck. 'Casabianca' alludes both to this memory of reciting poetry (in this case, a popular poem by Felicia Hemans), as well as to the story of a relative's loss at sea. 'Seascape' and 'Little Exercise' also bear the imprint of Bishop's use of oral history. Her interest in primitive painting similarly takes the reader back to Nova Scotia, to her Great Uncle Hutchinson. A portrait painter in London and the first illustrator of Treasure Island, his is the landscape she remembers fondly in 'Large Bad Picture'. In 'Poem' Bishop called this maternal inheritance her 'earthly trust' (Bishop, 1991, p. 177). She used art to close and reopen it.
The place of this 'earthly trust' within North & South is always discreet. Autobiography pressures rather than punctuates the surface of her poetry, which is why she seems intimate without ever being confessional. As David Bromwich states, 'her work is a conversation which never quite takes place but whose possibility always beckons' (Bloom, 1985, p. 160). Bishop's poetic evasiveness is a symptom of, and perhaps a way of dealing with, her life. Certainly, few poets have had quite as many poet fans as Bishop. Anne Sexton read her work for its sanity of tone and beauty of forms. Sylvia Plath admired her 'fine originality' (Plath, 1982, p. 319). She was Robert Lowell's favourite poet. Mark Strand was fascinated by her 'ghoulish humour' (Schwartz and Estess, 1983, p. 210). Octavio Paz drew attention to her 'enormous power of reticence' (ibid., p. 213). Adrienne Rich learnt to 'connect the themes of outsiderhood and mar-ginality in her work . . . with a lesbian identity' (Rich, 1987, p. 125). Tom Paulin recently praised her 'puritan temperament' (Paulin, 1996, p. 222). Seamus Heaney keeps returning to her poetry, celebrating her ability to write in a way that helps us to 'enjoy' and 'endure' life (Heaney, 1995, p. 185). It is not surprising that Bishop is seen by James Fenton as the 'poet's poet' (Fenton, 1997, p. 12). At the same time, in spite of its evasive nature, hers is a poetry accessible to many readers.
Many of the poems in North & South experiment with the poetic tradition. Bishop's playful regendering of Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott' into her 'The Gentleman of Shalott' is perhaps the most obvious case. 'The Weed', 'Florida' and 'The Fish' draw on Herbert's 'Love Unknown', Stevens's 'The Idea of Order at Key West' and Moore's 'The Fish', respectively. Bishop is not a particularly respectful student of these poets. She tends to mimic rather than imitate their styles and voices. Tennyson's lady, 'halfsick of shadows' (Tennyson, 1994, p. 45), becomes a kind of Chaplinesque tramp, fooling about in front of the looking-glass. Herbert's anguished parable about Christian salvation twists into a far more disturbing nightmare about the desperate dreams which divide the heart. Stevens uses art to order nature, whereas Bishop seems to take pleasure in its chaos. Moore's fish is always secondary to the poet's delight in describing it, while in Bishop's poem, the fish remains resistant to its author's full comprehension. Bishop sees the tradition not as a dead monument, but as a living house to be reinhabited and reinvented. Moore called this her 'flicker of impudence' (Schwartz and Estess, 1983, p. 175). Bishop, in a more telling phrase, speaks of a 'slight trans-vestite twist' (Bishop, 1991, p. 200). The image of an artist audaciously dressing up in another poet's clothes is an appropriate one. Bishop's fondness for mimicry stems from her desire to write like other poets and to make fun of their work. Such 'impudence' had a serious side too. Bishop may have been trying to enter the poetic tradition, but she ended up by subverting it.
Mary McCarthy once compared reading Bishop's poetry to a game of hide-and-seek: 'I envy the mind hiding in her words, like an "I" counting up to a hundred and waiting to be found' (Schwartz and Estess, 1983, p. 267). Bishop's aesthetic remains 'waiting to be found'. We can never be sure where (or even whether) the poet's 'I' lies within the poem. Does art mirror life, or run away from it? As the speaker in 'The Gentleman of Shalott' warns us:
Which eye's his eye? Which limb lies next the mirror? For neither is clearer nor a different color than the other, nor meets a stranger in this arrangement of leg and leg and arm and so on.
Bishop confuses art and life by stressing the similarity of the two 'eyes' in the poem, for 'neither is clearer / nor a different color / than the other'. Which 'eye' is the poet's, if either? How do we separate Tennyson's perspective from Bishop's? How does a male character in a poem relate to the female poet writing it? Bishop sets up similar riddles throughout North & South. She shows how poems move between art and life, neither concealing nor revealing the poet's secrets. The game of hide-and-seek never really comes to an end, for the poet or for her gentleman:
The uncertainty he says he finds exhilarating. He loves that sense of constant re-adjustment. He wishes to be quoted as saying at present: 'Half is enough.'
The 'uncertainty' principle in her poems requires of the reader a 'sense of constant readjustment' which can become 'exhilarating.' Half is always 'enough' for Bishop because half-truths about the self are perhaps the only truths she can face.
Yet these half-truths usually exist inside perfectly finished poems. Creating a balance between emotion and form was never an easy task for Bishop. She may have been a prolific letter writer, but she was never a prolific poet. Plath completed half of her Ariel poems in a month. Bishop rarely finished more than a couple of poems a year. She took eleven years to complete North & South, though even this was a comparatively short time compared with the twenty-six years that passed between the first and last draft of 'The Moose'. Bishop compared composing poetry to the experience of having an aneurism or stroke:
I have that uncomfortable feeling of 'things' in the head, like icebergs or rocks or awkwardly placed pieces of furniture. It's as if the nouns were there but the verbs were lacking ... I can't help having the theory that if they are joggled around hard enough and long enough some kind of electricity will arrange everything. (Bishop, 1996a, p. 94)
The 'things' in the head, like 'icebergs or rocks or awkwardly placed pieces of furniture', hint at Bishop's 'earthly trust' of accumulated childhood feelings. The metaphors she uses to describe these feelings recur throughout North & South, particularly the sense of coldness and frigidity associated with the iceberg. Bishop's problem in her poetry is how to dissolve certain emotions into language whilst at the same time freezing others. It is of course impossible to melt one half of an iceberg without threatening the rest at the same time. The 'electricity' that transforms feeling into language runs the risk of charging the wrong emotions. Whilst it may be risky to keep these emotions inside the head, it seems just as hazardous to release them in a poem.
Bishop's desire to control awkward emotion can certainly be heard in a letter to Moore from 1937:
'Mother-love' — isn't it awful. I long for an Arctic climate where no emotions of any sort can possibly grow, — always excepting disinterested 'friendship' of course. (Millier, 1995, p. 125)
Bishop is actually referring to the cloying love of a friend's mother, but it is difficult not to imagine the phrase also alluding to the poet's own mother. Whereas here she seems overwhelmed by too much 'mother-love', Bishop had in fact complained of receiving too little during her childhood. By placing 'mother-love' within an 'Arctic climate' of cool containment, the poet attempts to prevent its being exposed.
Bishop has several poems which use ice or snow as a metaphor. These include 'The Imaginary Iceberg', 'The Colder the Air', 'The Weed', 'Paris, 7 A.M.' and 'Cirque d'Hiver'. In each of these poems, distress shows through a frigid geographical landscape. In 'The Weed' the leaves which grow out of the dreamer's chest suggest the poet's 'nervous roots'. In 'Paris, 7 A.M.' the wintry suburbs mutate into a series of 'star-splintered hearts'. In 'Cirque d'Hiver' the mechanical toy has a 'melancholy soul'. Bishop cannot keep the expression of awkward emotion on ice forever, nor does she wish to do so. Her poetry's 'Arctic climate' controls the growth of difficult feeling, it does not deny its existence.
In 'The Imaginary Iceberg' for instance, icebergs seem to stand in for aspects of Bishop's life. Nature's 'shifting stage' corresponds to the poet's 'shifting' travels. The iceberg is always fracturing and changing shape, but the ship has to get used to moving on:
Good-bye, we say, good-bye, the ship steers off where waves give in to one another's waves and clouds run in a warmer sky. Icebergs behoove the soul
(both being self-made from elements least visible) to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.
Bishop was similarly practised in the art of waving good-bye. The iceberg 'behoove[s] the soul' because of its reticent nature. It is 'self-made from elements least visible' as Bishop's poetry is constructed out of a life largely hidden from the reader.
Bishop's notorious emotional reticence marks in particular her attitudes to gender and sexuality. She conceals her own losses behind a genderless narrator or an ambiguous 'we'. She hated being classed as a woman poet and was extremely secretive about her lesbianism. What Bishop wanted from art was 'the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration' (Goldensohn, 1992, p. 130). The poet's gender and sexuality were some of the first things to be forgotten when she began writing. Bishop is a mid-century aesthete. Her definition of art as 'perfectly useless' is a restatement of Wilde's 'All art is quite useless' (Wilde, 1994, p. 17). Bishop thought it better to be considered '"the 16th poet" with no reference to my sex, than one of 4 women — even if the other 3 are pretty good' (Harrison, 1993, p. 33). She objected to being in all-female anthologies on 'feminist' grounds, considering it 'nonsense' to separate the sexes (Bishop, 1996b, p. 90). A close friend to several women writers (including Flannery O'Connor and May Swenson), she still associated woman's writing negatively with domesticity and class snobbery:
Male poets often seem to be taking walks when they write poems. . . . Women, unfortunately, seem to stay at home a lot to write theirs. There is no reason why the home, houses, apartment, or furnished room, can't produce good poems, but almost all women poets seem to fall occasionally into the 'Order is a lovely thing' . . . category, and one wishes they wouldn't. (Harrison, 1993, p. 31)
Bishop does not object to writing about home, houses and rooms. In fact they are some of her most recurrent themes. What she objects to is the 'order[ed]'containment and domestication of these spaces by some women poets. She writes from rather than about these spaces, doing so in a way that makes it very difficult to locate her writing within a specific female or lesbian tradition.
Bishop mentions 'home' on only three occasions in North & South, in 'The Man-Moth', 'The Monument' and 'Jeronimo's House'. In these it is respectively a subway, a series of piled-up boxes and a house made of chewed-up paper and spit. Each of these homes is subject to adjustment, collapse or disruption, mirroring the poet's own sense of dislocation. Cities, houses and the relationships that often go with them, are always considered potentially insecure: 'filled with the intent / to be lost' as Bishop remarks in the late poem, 'One Art'. Bishop felt more at home when she was on the move, travelling away from disaster. In 1929 she hitchhiked back to boarding school a month before term began to avoid staying with cousins. At Vassar College her solution for despair was again found in running away. She was arrested at three in the morning by police who believed she was a prostitute, except for the Greek notes they found in her pocket. In 1935 she ended an affair by leaving New York for Europe, a move which possibly prompted her rejected lover's subsequent suicide. She evaded another crisis in 1937 and left a seriously injured friend in a Paris hospital. In 1940 she ran away from a different lover, accusing her of infidelity. Finally, in the 1960s, she left her home in Brazil twice, prompting another companion's suicide.
Her poetic homes are constructed on similar lines to her biographical experiences. They provide shelter for their inhabitants on a guest basis only, though each might be abandoned or threatened at any point. In 'The Man-Moth', for example, home becomes not only part of the 'pale subways of cement', but also a potential trap:
Each night he must be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams. Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window, for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison, runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
The 'unbroken draught of poison', whether madness or suicide, is a disease the Man-Moth has 'inherited the susceptibility to'. It is the 'third rail' that threatens and underpins his meaning of 'home'. The poem was written shortly after the death of Bishop's mother in 1934, an event that must have emphasized her already intense sense of isolation. Bishop's worries about inheriting her mother's madness run through the poem, much as 'the third rail' underlies the Man-Moth's 'rushing brain'. Her only resort is to run away from any thought of 'Mother-love', just as the Man-Moth 'dare not look out of the window'. Avoiding the past inevitably leads to being haunted by it, as the poem's 'recurrent dreams' imply. The Man-Moth 'keep[s] / his hands in his pockets'. Though he avoids touching the 'third rail', he is always conscious of its threatening presence.
In 'The Monument' Bishop is more successful in travelling away from biographical 'ties'. The monument is made 'homelier' by 'all the conditions of its existence'. It is a house literally built on sand, subject to 'the strong sunlight, the wind from the sea', the ebb and flow of the tide. The monument on the shore, which may or may not conceal the 'artist-prince', is Bishop's preferred poetic home. It is safer than any other place of refuge because:
. . . roughly but adequately it can shelter what is within (which after all cannot have been intended to be seen). It is the beginning of a painting, a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument, and all of wood. Watch it closely.
The monument is a shut-up house that might hide the artist. It 'roughly but adequately shelter[s] / what is within'. That 'within' is not 'intended to be seen', yet the poet leaves enough clues for us to presume that some part of the monument's secrets relate to her own life. The poem's main subject is its own construction, particularly the way it both exposes and conceals the poet inside. Its last line seems to offer the reader an important piece of advice on how to understand all Bishop's poetry. 'Watch it closely', she teases. To follow the poet we have first to pay close attention to the poem. Bishop replaces the domesticated home of the female poet with the frightening subway of the Man-Moth and the ambiguous refuge of the artist-prince. The monument is, in a sense, the poetic home she escapes to. It shelters Bishop more securely from 'what is within', while also allowing her to fly 'far away'.
Other poems set on the shoreline include 'The Map', 'Large Bad Picture', 'The Unbeliever', 'Florida', 'Seascape', 'Little Exercise' and 'The Fish'. The shoreline is nearly always seen positively by Bishop. Its pink light is 'consoling' for the observer of 'Large Bad Picture'. Its 'sagging coast line / is delicately ornamented' in 'Florida'. It looks a little 'like heaven' in 'Seascape'. This playhouse by the sea is one of the few places in North & South where the 'third rail' is deactivated. Free from the negative associations of childhood removal, houses built on sand paradoxically stand for recovery and refuge in Bishop's poetry, however unstable their foundations.
Less safe are the relationships which take place within these imaginary houses. Almost a third of the poems begin or end with the speaker or speakers in bed, their gender and sexuality hidden. These include 'A Miracle for Breakfast', 'Love Lies Sleeping', 'The Weed', 'Paris, 7 A.M.', 'Sleeping On the Ceiling', 'Sleeping Standing Up', 'Roosters' and 'Anaphora'. All share a distrust of human relationships, balanced by a desire to wake up to the world within them. Bishop's belief in 'closets, closets and more closets' (Fountain and Brazeau, 1994, p. 327) keeps her lesbianism concealed, though this does not prevent her from writing about love and sexuality.
In 'Love Lies Sleeping' she focuses on 'the queer cupids of all persons getting up'. Queerness may stand in for homosexuality, but it seems more likely that Bishop is commenting on the strangeness of love in itself. This is particularly apparent in 'Roosters', where the birds' 'traditional cries' suggest military bravado and sexual violence. The roosters' behaviour seems to offer an ironic commentary on the nature of human relationships, defined in the poem by 'unwanted love, conceit, and war'. Bishop's scepticism about the character and permanence of human love can be felt throughout the collection. In 'Casabianca', 'love's the burning boy' who dies reciting poetry. In 'Chemin de Fer', 'love should be put into action' but never is. In 'Florida', 'love' is one of the alligator's 'five distinct calls'. It follows 'friendliness' but leads only to 'mating, war, and a warning'. Bishop's love poems are written from the perspective of affairs and relationships breaking down. Her lesbianism remains hidden, but not her anxious fascination with love.
This negative outlook may also have its source in historical events. Bishop composed North & South on the move between cities, countries and war zones. She spent the mid-1930s in a New York still recovering from the Depression. She was in Spain when the civil war began in 1936 and in Italy watching a Fascist rally the year after. In the early 1940s she lived in Key West while the navy base was being extended, witnessing the military build-up nearby. Bishop's distrust of political propaganda (left or right, pro- or anti-war) keeps these events off-stage, though they still trouble the language she uses. There is 'Danger' and 'Death' in 'Love Lies Sleeping', 'armored cars' and 'ugly tanks' in 'Sleeping Standing Up', 'sallies' and 'commands' in 'Roosters', the 'rage' and 'fall' of nations in 'Songs for a Colored Singer'. Yet none of these images ever names its source outside the poem. Bishop's refusal to take sides in her poetry means that she never specifies a clear enemy or target. The aggressors in North & South are more likely to be found inside the speaker's room than outside in the world.
Bishop's poetry frequently blurs the edge of categories that seem clear-cut. She is fascinated by meeting-places, literal and figurative, where boundaries melt or overlap. She begins crossing lines in 'The Map', the very first poem in North & South. In doing so, she sets in motion many of the aesthetic questions that preoccupy her in this and in subsequent collections. 'The Map' is primarily a poem about art. The problems faced by the map-maker are the same as those faced by the poet. The map-maker can choose to draw several types of map: small-scale, large-scale, out-of-scale, political, geographical, historical. The poet has the same bewildering choice of perspective and palette. Bishop shows how impossible it is for the map-maker and the poet not to transgress the boundaries of his or her project.
The speaker switches voice in the opening stanza between flat description and surreal interrogation, much as the map represents and distorts the world it stands for:
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under, drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf is the land tugging at the sea from under?
Bishop is drawn to the sea again and its relationship to the land. This geographical question — does the sea or the land define the contours and movements of the earth? — is in its own turn undermined by the language the poet uses. The metaphors of touch by which she evokes the push-and-shove of sea and land suggest a lovers' gentle playfight. Their bodies lie in shadow. Their interaction is ambiguous. Who 'lean[s] down to lift' the other from under? Who is 'drawing' who, 'unperturbed around itself'? Who is 'tugging' at the other? The poem's odd fusion of maps and bodies is reminiscent of Donne's Songs and Sonnets, which Bishop admired. If anything, 'The Map' is a little more coy than some of its Metaphysical predecessors, though it manages to say more about the literal map and the places it describes than a conceit might ordinarily allow. Bishop shows how the map's meaning shifts according to the perspective of the viewer. For her, 'reality goes with one' (Costello, 1991, p. 130). It is as fluctuating and unstable as the sea's relationship to the land. This is again reminiscent of her description of reality as a 'huge circus tent . . . which we carry around with us and set up wherever we are'. In her poetry, Bishop very often takes reality for a circus ride, consistently drawing attention to what she termed 'the surrealism of everyday life' (Goldensohn, 1992, p. 129).
As a poet, Bishop is clearly preoccupied by thresholds, as the map, the melting iceberg and the shifting seascape show. Within these tropes lie many of the tensions that characterize North & South: the continual shift between reticence and intimacy, the awkward game of biographical hide-and-seek, the conflict between home and that which underpins it, love and its loss. Bishop is an awkward poet to pin down because she never really takes sides. She makes an entire aesthetic out of a refusal to settle down in any one place or with any one set of views. Although she writes frequently about geography, she is not a geographical poet in the sense that Frost or Wordsworth are. She is fascinated not by place itself, but by the movement between places.
Questions of home, of place and of travel, are still preoccupying subjects in subsequent collections of prose and verse, particularly in her last and most intimate volume, Geography III. Bishop is a poet in transit from artistic schools, sects and political positions. She is in search not only of an aesthetic, but also of a way of writing safely about life's losses. When Bishop won the Neustadt International Prize for
Literature in 1976, she compared her habit of travelling to the frantic movements of her sandpiper: 'Yes, all my life I have lived and behaved very much like that sandpiper — just running along the edges of different countries and continents, "looking for something"' (Millier, 1995, p. 17). In art, as in life, she was always running on, skirting the edges of movements and groups, endlessly on the lookout for that elusive something else.
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Ezra Pound: The Pisan Cantos
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