IT IS A SAD PLEASURE to take up this book. Of all the splendid and curious work belonging to my time, these are the poems (the earliest appeared when I was a year old) that I love best and tire of least. And there will be no others.
Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and raised largely by her Nova Scotian grandmother and various scattered aunts. Her friends at Vassar included Mary McCarthy and Eleanor Clark. After graduation she lived in New York, Paris, and Key West; then, in 1952, on her way to an Orient blithely renounced, settled for the better part of 18 years in Brazil. It was there that word of her Pulitzer Prize drew this exuberant response from the local butcher: "All my customers are lucky--just last week Senhora X. won the lottery!" Living at such a remove from the literary world brought compensations only a writer can fully appreciate. Still, she came home--"wherever that may be"--to teach for a while at Harvard. She died suddenly in 1979, on the point of leaving her apartment above Boston's harbor for a dinner with friends.
Her original Complete Poems (1969) is here expanded to include a few hitherto uncollected treasures, all her verse translations, plus some juvenilia and occasional pieces. One could conceivably have lived without certain odds and ends in the latter categories. Yet it is touching to see her at work under influences (like Millay and Hopkins) soon to be outgrown. And after all, in the case of a poet like Bishop, less is never more. The book as it stands deserves only grateful praise.
The watercolor on the jacket, a view of a Mexican town done by the poet in 1942, serves nicely as introduction. It's a cheerful scene, in no way traditionally "picturesque." Beyond a balustrade flanked on one side by an absurd ornamental urn (so much for Art?) and on the other by flourishing palm fronds, we see some little, run-down, brilliantly colored houses. Above these, near and far, quite upstaging the few church-spires lost among them, perhaps 50 windmills crowd the horizon--so that, like the mysterious flooded dreamscape in "Sunday, 4 a.m.," it appears to be "cross- and wheel-studded/ like a tick-tack-toe." The picture illustrates at once Bishop's delight in foreign parts, her gratitude for the givens of a scene, and her typical way with systems. These tend to fade beside her faith in natural powers--here, those jaunty cockades turning in wind to draw water, compared to which the Christian temples, though neatly delineated, look a touch feeble and evanescent.
For systems exhaust themselves; the elements remain numinous. In "Sunday, 4 a.m." the jetsam of a great story--instruments of the Passion, organ music, altarcloth and donor, some unidentifiable "Mary"--litters the waking dreamer's world with useless, cryptic detail. Not until "a bird arranges/ two notes at right angles" does life once more make sense. (That bird, we may safely assume, is not a dove.) Or if the Christmas trees in "At the Fishhouses" are, as David Kalstone has remarked, "behind us" in both senses of the phrase, they leave that poem free to conclude with seawater, fire and stone, together performing a grave alchemical masque: If you should dip your hand in, your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame. If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free . . .
Robert Lowell, among many, praised her "famous," farsighted eye. In her elegy for him, she acknowledges it herself: I can make out the rigging of a schooner a mile off; I can count the new cones on the spruce . . . But the marvels that appear on every page are as much acts of imagining as of seeing. Here is fog in Nova Scotia: Its cold round crystals form and slide and settle in the white hens' feathers, in gray glazed cabbages, on the cabbage roses and lupins like apostles. And here in New York City at daybreak through a window Where it has slowly grown in skies of water-glass from fused beads of iron and copper crystals, the little chemical "garden" in a jar trembles and stands again, pale blue, blue-green, and brick.
More telling even than her image-making is Bishop's way with tone and overtone. "Arrival at Santos" sounds at moments like a sixth-grader's report--rich in pathetic fallacy, trivial detail and complacent generalization ("Ports are necessities, like postages stamps, or soap . . ."). Technically, and this is part of her strategy, the somewhat amateurish rhymes and meters could be the work of a clever 12-year-old: the mental and emotional age, after all, of her fellow tourists with their . . . . immodest demands for a different world and a better life, and complete comprehension of both at last, and immediately, after eighteen days of suspension. The poem ends, "we are driving to the interior." Precisely. Only a few pages further on comes a poem like "The Riverman" in which her eye, still clear as a child's, penetrates a world unimaginable to the innocents lined up at Customs. Here all is primal, animistic--and touchingly matter- of-fact. "It stands to reason," the young witch-doctor insists, "that everything we need/ can be obtained from the river." Yet his world has already been grazed by the cinema and mass-production that will destroy it, and so is linked to the earlier poem's tourists in ways Bishop wouldn't dream of spelling out. She shows us that fragile culture. Whatever conclusions we may draw belong outside the poem.
In "12 O'Clock News" she constructs a mini-thriller whose narrator is both criminal and victim. Thanks to clues in the margin, we know that the eerie, war-torn, enemy landscape is no more than the writer's lamplit desk. But here the tone, that of a media analyst pathetically conjecturing under his pretended omniscience, opens up ironies that reach from the Ivory Tower to the Oval Office. As part of a generation that included Lowell, Berryman, and Roethke, she had glimpsed the megalomania lying in wait for the solitary maker--or indeed for anyone "in power"--and her account of it here is all the more unnerving for her superficially playful sleights of scale.
These sleights figure with a difference in "Visits to St. Elizabeth's"--the Washington hospital where Ezra Pound, so as not to be tried for treason, was detained in the early 1950s. Bishop (then poetry consultant at the Library of Congress) went regularly to see him. As her title hints, however, it was not only the irascible great poet but aspects of herself that she was curious to face. With her own mother in a mental hospital since Bishop's early childhood, she must have known the threat of insanity first-hand. Not that she would ever have been prey to either of those (male?) drives, the one that produced the Cantos' huge unruly text, the other that made its bid to change the map of Europe. More than anything she cared to keep her work and her wits, in the phrase of her beloved George Herbert, "new, tender, quick." To define and disarm, then, this figure of Pound--while sympathizing with his predicament if not with his politics--she modeled her St. Elizabeth's poem upon "The House That Jack Built." In her hands the painful subject with all its vast overtones (anti-Semitism, the war) takes on a bittersweet, singsong shapeliness, as if a young self were gazing back through time at the formidable, by then half- cracked titan he had become: These are the years and the walls and the door that shut on a boy that pats the floor to feel if the world is there and flat. This is rigging a Jew in a newspaper hat that dances joyfully down the ward into the parting seas of board past the staring sailor that shakes his watch that tells the time of the poet, then man that lies in the house of Bedlam.
Subliminally present throughout is the question of sexual role-playing. Familiar enough in our age of the raised consciousness, it can hardly be said to have existed when she faced it head-on in "Exchanging Hats" (1956), which now appears in a book for the first time: Unfunny uncles who insist in trying on a lady's hat, --oh, even if the joke falls flat, we share your slight transvestite twist . . . The airy, mock-didactic quatrains multiply until, just when the jinks are at their height, a single past tense, a shift in meter, and the mysterious adjective "avernal" darken the texture: Unfunny uncle, you who wore a hat too big, or one too many, tell us, can't you, are there any stars inside your black fedora? Aunt exemplary and slim, with avernal eyes, we wonder what slow changes they see under their vast, shady, turned-down brim. We deduce that the aunt and uncle are by now shades in a classic underworld, doomed, for better or worse, to wear throughout eternity the hat appropriate to the gender of each--a lone, identifying attribute, like the headstone on a grave. The mode is light verse, yet it ripples the furthest edges of thought.
Last month a young Bishop fan told me that his favorite was "The Shampoo." I wonder if it isn't mine as well. Two of its three short stanzas play with notions of time. On one hand it is cyclical, as unobservably slow as the "gray, concentric shocks" whereby the lichens grow in order "to meet the rings around the moon." On the other hand, time is linear, moves at "precipitate" human speed, is "nothing if not amenable." The phrase is exact: without us to feel it, time would not exist. In stanza three, "shooting" and "flocking" echo those "shocks" at the beginning, which now in the denouement we hear as shocks of hair. Otherwise the language is supremely plain, and the everyday gesture it clothes, supremely tender: The shooting stars in your black hair in bright formation are flocking where, so straight, so soon? --Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin, battered and shiny like the moon. It is as unexpected and convincing a love poem as I know.
Finally, "The End of March" recounts a walk with friends down the beach on a sunless day of numbing wind. All is "withdrawn as far as possible,/ indrawn . . ." The receding tide worries "a thick white snarl, man-size, awash," of string: "A kite string? --But no kite." As they follow "a track of big dog-prints (so big/ they were more like lion-prints)" a bizarre structure comes into view. In this "crypto-dream-house" Bishop images a solitary existence, more like an afterlife, where she too might withdraw and "do nothing,/ or next to nothing, forever, in two bare rooms." Before turning back, she remarks a chimney, infers a stove and electricity, possibly --at least, at the back another wire limply leashes the whole affair to something off behind the dunes. A light to read by--perfect! But--impossible. In short, another system, its attractions recognized and foregone in favor of the elements. (Besides, "of course the house was boarded up.") Turning back brings its own reward, as the sun briefly, marvelously appears: For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand, the drab, damp, scattered stones were multi-colored, and all those high enough threw out long shadows, individual shadows, then pulled them in again. They could have been teasing the lion sun . . . who perhaps had batted a kite out
of the sky to play with. The stones behave oddly like souls in Dante, and for something not too unlike the same reason: the quickening of their relation to a glowing creative source. "The ancients said poetry is a staircase to God," wrote Montale. Bishop shows how this can still be so in a world relieved of theological apparatus. Her conclusion is bothgging playful and lofty. Best of all, the poet does not feel obliged to tell us what the experience did for her.
This is characteristic. Most of Bishop's poems are in the first person, singular or plural. Sometimes she speaks as the Riverman, or Robinson Crusoe, more often "simply" as herself. The voice can be idiosyncratic ("Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!"). Yet because she is to no least degree concerned with making herself any more remarkable than, as the author of these poems, she already is, hers is a purified, transparent "I," which readers may take as their virtual own. Whether this voice says hard and disabused things or humorous and gentle ones, its emotional pitch remains so true, and its intelligence so unaffected, that we hear in it the "touch of nature" which makes the whole world kin. Is this an obsolete way to judge poetry? I cannot envy anyone who thinks so.