Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484
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 they both separate and connect her to a world outside her provincial life.
Similarly, “The Moose,” with its numerous female images, elucidates how an unexpected discovery of something larger than one’s self contributes to identity. A passenger on a bus leaving Nova Scotia, her early childhood home, Bishop is in a reverie of nostalgia and memory as she listens to the idle conversation of the other passengers. When the bus stops suddenly at the sight of a large female moose in the middle of the road, the passengers and the moose contemplate each other. A collective sense of joy and awe coalesces the group as they regard the moose, an archetype of otherworldliness, a creature that exists outside of human experience.
Bishop speaks to the collaboration between artist and observer as a process of self-discovery. In “Poem” she relives moments of childhood joy when she recognizes scenes from childhood in a small landscape painting. The restless search for self is not easy, however. In “The End of March” she imagines a “dream house” that is typical and mysterious, a place where she can retire from her quest. The house is boarded up and too cold to reach; she has no home.
By asking more questions than she answers, Bishop suggests in Geography III that identity is fluid and often contradictory. Exterior and interior landscapes which shape the sense of self, change with time and memory. Bishop shows us that the “home” of self-discovery is elusive, but survival depends on the constant search.