Elizabeth Bishop’s poem titled “Sandpaper” suggests the ways identity is shaped by environment and by the mere need to survive. The poem describes a bird, a sandpiper, running along the edge of beach on the Atlantic Ocean, looking for food. The sandpiper “takes for granted” (1) the sounds of waves crashing beside him as he runs along the sand, searching for something – anything – to eat. He exists in a state of “controlled panic” (4), in which the word “controlled” suggests his discipline and determination, while the word “panic” perhaps implies his fear of not finding enough to eat.
The phrase “controlled panic,” in fact, suggests the common condition of most living things, especially animals and insects: they must be controlled if they hope to succeed in their efforts to survive, but always lurking beneath the control is the fear that survival may not be possible. It is the fear of not surviving, in fact, that leads to the need for control. It is easy to see how one might say that human beings also exhibit a kind of “controlled panic” as part of their identities. Indeed, by comically asserting that the bird is a “student” of the poet William Blake, Bishop may be suggesting the relevance of the bird’s existence to human experiences. Birds, obviously, cannot be students of any poet, but humans can be. The bird’s behavior, therefore, seems relevant to human identity.
In any case, the bird’s existence is shaped by his natural surroundings and environment. The water comes and goes, rises and falls, but the bird’s attention is focused entirely on the search for food. Almost every moment of his waking life is affected by his need to sustain himself – again a situation that might seem to apply to human identity as well. The bird looks constantly at the sand because he hopes he may find something edible there. As the speaker puts it, the bird’s
. . . beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed! (16-18)
He moves quickly, exhibits a kind of tunnel vision, and is the object of the speaker’s pity (“Poor bird”) because of his obsession with simply sustaining himself. Perhaps the speaker is implying something about the nature of most human lives – and most human identities – as well. The bird pays no attention to the beauty that is literally beneath his feet (beauty suggested in detail in the poem’s final two lines). Instead, he merely hurries along, searching, focused, hoping to find the next tiny scrap of food that will sustain his existence. In this way, perhaps, his life and identity resemble those of most humans, as well.