The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 Essay - Critical Essays

Elizabeth Bishop


Elizabeth Bishop’s themes of loss and exile are expressed through the discovery of the strange, even the otherworldly, in the domestic arena. “Sestina” has as its subjects a house, a child, a grandmother, a stove, and an almanac. These ordinary items are made strange by the repetition of the word “tears” in the sestina. The teakettle’s steam forms tears, the teacup is full of tears, and the almanac says to plant tears. The child both evades and accepts the “tearful” condition of her life by drawing another “inscrutable house.”

To Bishop, the domestic scene is always inscrutable and contains enigmatic, metaphysical elements. “First Death in Nova Scotia” describes a child in a parlor which holds the coffin of another child, cousin Arthur. Adults conspire in fantasy to tell the little girl that she can say goodbye to her cousin. To the child, the familiar becomes strange—a stuffed bird appears alive, Jack Frost paints the corpse’s red hair. Reality and fantasy blur before the mystery of death.

“In the Waiting Room” illustrates the strange arising in a dental waiting room. A child, hearing her aunt’s screams in the dentist’s office, tries to escape through reading National Geographic. The child is shocked by pictures of African women’s wire-ringed necks. The pain endured by these women and her aunt’s screams blend to sound like her own voice, which she now experiences as “the family voice” of pain. This transcendent overview overwhelms the child and causes her to faint.

Bishop once referred to herself as “a minor, female Wordsworth.” In this phrase, Bishop reveals both her affinity for the nature-loving poet William Wordsworth and her rebellion against him. Bishop was a nature lover, but she challenged Wordsworth’s...

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