Geographies of the word: the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop's poetry is elegantly, meticulously defiant: it defies prevailing expectations of what contemporary literature is. It always slips out from under the convenient labels of, say, Imagism or Surrealism, although it sometimes shows the influence of these movements. It is not confessional - not inclined to unburden itself of dark secrets; nor is it alienated from a society accustomed to the alienation of its authors. Anne Stevenson, a fine critic, has perhaps said it most succinctly:

. . . those poems for which she is famous . . . are not poems of a kind that are, for extra-literary reasons, especially popular today. They do not reveal the bruised spirit of an artist made callous (or mad) by a brutal society. They do not plead for sympathy. They are not pathetic, violent, sentimental, theoretical, or cynical. They are not self-flattering and show no trace of egomania. They are not mystical; they are not even, very often, social criticisms.

Though evincing few of these well-known traits, Bishop's poems command both respect and love. Frequently full of careful, captivating description, they reveal the eye and mind of an author who finds the meaning of the world in its details. Her poems often have a painterly quality, and suggest that, if we look carefully and sympathetically at what we are seeing, we begin to discover powerful, previously unseen connections between seemingly disparate objects or creatures. These connections can bring delight or a deep sense of peace, the reassurance of kinship or the perplexities of sorrow. But they always add to our store of wisdom. As Stevenson concludes, ''We listen to (her poetry) as one might listen to a friend whose exceptional wisdom and honesty we gratefully revere.''

Bishop's mastery of language shows, not only in her fine metrical poems, but also in her free-verse writing where - released from the constraints of form - that the language must develop a discipline and precision of its own. Bishop's discipline, in fact, lies exactly in the precision of her observations. Her language intrigues and delights the reader with its vividness. In one of her best-known poems, ''The Fish,'' she describes at length ''a tremendous fish'' she has just caught and will ultimately release: I looked into his eyes which were far larger than mine but shallower, and yellowed, the irises backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil seen through the lenses of old scratched isinglass. They shifted a little, but not to return my stare. - It was more like the tipping of an object toward the light.

Although this is only a short excerpt from the seventy-six-line poem, it is easy to see the original, precise perceptions working in the poem - ''tarnished tinfoil,'' ''scratched isinglass,'' ''the tipping of an object toward the light.''

Bishop's way of giving measure and meaning to the world through the power of her observations is particularly clear in two poems from her last book, Geography III: ''Poem'' and ''Five Flights Up.'' ''Poem'' seems at first glance to be almost a journal or diary entry. It abounds in parenthetical remarks, unanswered questions, and flashes of humor - ''Those particular geese and cows/are naturally before my time.'' This casual quality is achieved with great care: the parenthetical remarks, for example, give the poem a sense of ease but never distract the reader from the main concerns of the author. The ease, the musing quality, is important because the central philosophical concerns - the relations of art, life, and memory - are potentially weighty enough to overwhelm the poem with abstractions. Bishop sticks to intriguing details and a casual tone to keep the poem warmly earthbound.

Both the painting and Nova Scotia landscape are distinctly real in Bishop's poem. The painting includes a ''gray-blue wisp,'' and color ''fresh-squiggled from the tube''; these may be, in three dimensions, a ''thin church steeple'' or a ''wild iris.'' The painting shows the author not only its own existence, but also a landscape that must exist somewhere, although, until the third stanza, the author has some doubt about what the painter saw exactly (''. . . a thin church steeple . . . or is it?''). In the third stanza the author suddenly recognizes the place - the brushstrokes become particular houses and barns - and this recognition triggers a series of reflections on kinship and memory. The author is essentially reunited with the great-uncle she never knew. This reunion comes through the power of the painting to recall a particular geography and quality of life that both the painter and the author cherished: Life, and the memory of it cramped, dim, on a piece of Bristol board, dim, but how live, how touching in detail . . .

The details - the particular facts, the buildings, animals and flowers, and the people who shared them, all represented or suggested in the painting - make this a world regained. Though the ''earthly trust'' the painting represents is perhaps, as Bishop says, ''not much,'' it insists because it isn't much that we look to the details of life for the latent value - the value that can trigger love and wisdom as moving as this ''Poem.''

It's appropriate to conclude with Bishop's last poem of Geography III - ''Five Flights Up.'' The start-and-stop quality of the writing in the first stanza brilliantly captures the character of animals' overtures to dawn. The sheer inevitability, the grand necessity of this morning, is quickly contrasted with the mundane frustration of the dog's owner, for whom the dog evidently has not been a noble cur. Yet the dog brings back the grandness of the morning, even in his small actions: ''He bounces cheerfully up and down;/he rushes in circles in the fallen leaves.'' Bishop gives us a strong sense that, somehow, for the dog and for the bird, everything is answered, ''all taken care of.'' There is no wrestling with memory or sorrow for the animals. Yet the very fact of Bishop's perception, the beauty she finds in the dawn, in the animals both cheerful and inscrutable, provides its own comfort. It suggests that the life of the world offers humanity more vigor, and perhaps more of what we call beauty, than humanity generally realizes. And it acknowledges that the only way to arrive at the vigor and beauty is through the fresh perception itself, the inclination, sometimes difficult to summon, to view the world with wonder. This courage to look at the world - to look, not with fear or shame, but with curiosity and expectation - is the guiding spirit of all of Bishop's work.

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