Geography III

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

“Life without objects,” remarked Thomas Traherne in Second Century, “is sensible emptiness, and that is a greater misery than death or nothing.” In a world without objects, the senses—hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch—are rendered useless and, therefore, meaningless; the human consciousness, dead even before it has died, wanders aimlessly through an eternal emptiness. It is exactly this perpetual threat of a sensible emptiness, this “sensation of falling off/the round, turning world/into cold blue-black space,” that Elizabeth Bishop confronts with a haunting insistence in this, her fifth and latest collection of poems, entitled, aptly enough, Geography III.

The book’s title, reflecting on a primary level an attempt on the part of the poet to discover—or rather, rediscover—not only the earth, but also man, and suggesting on a secondary level that there is a definite relationship to be drawn between the science of geography and the art of poetry, seems particularly appropriate. For, in that the poems included in this collection explore the matereial world, the nature of the hyman condition, and, by extension, the very essence of existence itself, from different perspectives—from different points in time and regions in space—they are, in a figurative sense, “lessons” in geography. And, given the limitations of human perception and language, they are, of necessity, partial and indirect answers to the questions which Bishop quotes from Monteith’s Geographical Series in the beginning of her book. The role of the poet within this context thus becomes that of an explorer or traveler who carefully records the flora, the fauna, the “geography” of the world around him.

Journeying through both time and space, seeking answers to the fundamental questions raised by humanity since the beginning of time, Bishop in Geography III observes and describes objects, people, special sights, and events with a delicately balanced and incisive precision that brings to mind the work of William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. In each of the ten poems included in this collection, one of which is a translation from the Spanish of Octavio Paz, Bishop is at once at the apex of her vision, at the center of the world she has re-created, and yet able to look at it from a distance through the power of the imagination. While constantly defining and redefining the relation of the isolated self to the external world, as a “shaper” and “maker” of reality, Bishop seeks to transform the mortal into the immortal and the temporal into the eternal. Affirming the continuity of experience, informing existence with personal meaning and order, she transcends and thus enables the reader to transcend, if only momentarily, the uncertainty present in an ever-turning, continually changing world.

Bishop, a recent recipient of the Books Abroad/ Neustadt International Prize for Literature and of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for her poems in Geography III, is a poet with an extraordinary gift for communicating the richness and diversity of life, for recording its every nuance. She is capable of translating life into art and art into life so that any distinctions that may have existed between them are skillfully removed. Her work, in this respect, appears to join life itself and the “memory” of life so completely that one is indistinguishable from the other; as the speaker in “Poem” observes while examining a great-uncle’s painting, “art ’copying from life’ and life itself, / life and the memory of it [are] so compressed / they’ve turned into each other.” In the poems included in Geography III, as well as in those published in the earlier collections—North & South, A Cold Spring, Questions of Travel, and The Complete Poems—Bishop takes hold of experience as a weapon against the world’s sensible emptiness, turning it around, slowly and selectively, in the light of her language, as if it were a crystal drop in which the three temporal conditions of past, present, and future and the four primary directions of the compass—North, South, East, and West—are united.

Bishop approaches life from all sides, closing in on the material world from all possible points in the circle of humanity. Her eye is like the eye of a camera: at times, it brings scenes sharply into focus, frames them momentarily in the present, and then allows them to fade gradually into the distance of the past. Most often, her eye seeks to preserve, as in a photograph or sketch “done in an hour, ’in one breath,’” the ecstasy, the uncertainty, or the pain of a particular moment by way of the poem, “The Weed,” which carries all “the scenes that it had once reflected/shut in its waters”; for she captures all the objects, sights, and events, the “things of this world,” that she has come to know and love within her poems.

Her visions—or, as she would prefer, her “looks”—are translated into a remarkably simple and yet precise language, which is deeply rooted in a world that seems readily accessible to the senses, deeply rooted in a world of sounds, colors, shapes, and textures. In such a world, rarely are objects simply rough or soft, round or flat, black or white. In “The End of March,” for example, the water along the beach on a cold, windy day is described as having been the color of “mutton-fat jade” and the “drab, damp, scattered stones” momentarily bathed in the light of the sun are transformed into jewels, “set in their bezels of sand.” Similarly, in “Poem,” a thin church steeple in a painting is a “gray-blue wisp,” a wild iris is “white and yellow/fresh-squiggled from the tube,” a farmer’s barn is “titanium white,” and the cold early spring is “clear as gray glass.” This last image, which compares the spring as it is depicted in a painting to gray glass, seems characteristic of Bishop’s work, which is rich in similes and metaphors. Such an image redefines a familiar concept, spring, in a manner that is distinctly concrete and highly suggestive; it thus fuses the identities of the objects being compared and creates a third identity in which the characteristics of one object enhance and refine the attributes of the other. The concept of spring is, consequently, rendered more precise, for it can be perceived directly through the senses.

The diction of the poem entitled “The Moose,” forcefully expressive of the essential richness and wholeness of experience, is similarly precise and unpretentious. Incisively perceptive, the diction of this poem remains rooted in a world of familiar objects and events; it thus reflects an attempt on the part of the poet to observe, compare, contrast, and thus redefine objects, sights, and events in terms of personal experience. In this close and patient reexamination of the external world, the sun becomes a...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Lombardi, Marilyn May, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.