Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop’s last book of poetry and most autobiographical, is considered by many critics to be her strongest work. The title is derived from a nineteenth century geography primer. Its epigraph, taken from that same text, consists of a series of catechism-like questions designed to teach children basic lessons in geography. The simple questions and answers frame a collection of ten poems in which Bishop explores the nature of nostalgia in shaping the realities of past, present, and future.
Loss and survival is a major theme in Bishop’s work. The ironic “One Art” establishes Bishop as a survivor of losses, using an archaic formal French poetic form, the villanelle. In the dramatic monologue “Crusoe in England,” Bishop empathizes with Daniel Defoe’s shipwrecked hero and survivor, now in England but displaced, bored, lonely, and nostalgic.
“In the Waiting Room” revisits Bishop’s childhood and a frightening moment of female definition. In a dentist’s waiting room, the nearly seven-year-old Elizabeth reads the National Geographic while her aunt is being treated. A photograph of bare-breasted African women shocks her into a cry of astonishment which coincides with Aunt Conseulo’s cry of pain from inside the office. Unable to distinguish her own voice from her aunt’s, she has a critical moment of perception about the social constructs of race and female identity and the ways in which...
(The entire section is 484 words.)