Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2843
“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 “silted red” sun which sets “facing a red sea” or which “veins the flats’ / lavender, rich mud / in burning rivulets,” while moonlight and mist appear to be “caught” in the New Brunswick woods like “lamb’s wool / on bushes in a pasture,” and the thin, shifting fog’s crystals “form,” “slide,” and “settle” on “the cabbage roses / and lupins like apostles.” Similarly, in “Crusoe in England,” the sight of an island appearing on the horizon “like a fly” as it rises in a mate’s binoculars, and the sound made by gulls flying up all at once is like the sound made by the leaves of a “big tree in a strong wind.” And in “The End of March,” a snarled white string is described as a “sodden ghost” that falls back with every wave, “sodden, giving up the ghost.”
It has often been said of certain works of art that they remain faithful to life; it may be said of the world constructed within Bishop’s poems that it remains, in a very basic sense, faithful to the reality which the poet perceives. The world which Bishop re-creates in her poems is like the world re-created in the painting in “Poem.” It is a world that is “dim,” in that it exists within a poem as the poet’s translation of her inner, personal vision of reality into the language of the senses; and yet, it is a world that is “live” and “touching in detail.”
As Bishop inspects the external world in a continual effort to make inner and outer realities correspond, the perspective which she adopts differs from poem to poem. For example, in “In the Waiting Room,” reminiscent of the short story “In the Village” and of the earlier poem “First Death in Nova Scotia,” the material world is explored through the eyes of a woman who retrospectively considers the emotions she had felt while waiting for her Aunt Consuelo in the dentist’s waiting room in Worcester, Massachusetts, three days before her seventh birthday—on February 5, 1918, to be exact. In one sense, the poem is confessional, in that the speaker is primarily concerned with her initial reactions to a series of photographs in an issue of the National Geographic, which had caused her to question her identity and to radically redefine her relationship to others—particularly to women. Nevertheless, the poem is universal in the sense that it does not rely solely on details taken from the poet’s life to communicate its themes; instead, it attempts to re-create an experience shared by many people and reexamine it in a new light.
In “Poem,” which, like many of the poems in the Bishop canon is circular in structure and form, the speaker focuses on a different, yet related, aspect of the material world. The speaker, evoking a sense of immediacy, recognizes in a great-uncle’s small, rejected painting not only a dimly familiar landscape from Nova Scotia, but also the nature and importance of humanity’s “earthly trust”: the “little that [it] gets for free.” “The Moose” is reminiscent of “The Fish” and “The Armadillo,” as well as of Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” (which was, incidentally, dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop) in terms of its structure and the profound respect which it expresses for the aura of mystery and “otherworldliness” that surrounds the inhabitants of the natural world. In this poem, the physical world emerges gradually into being as sounds, shapes, and colors are woven together; seen through the eyes of the passengers on a bus traveling through the New Brunswick woods, events are described as they happen. The reader is given, in effect, a “play-by-play” analysis of the action, and literally becomes a participant in an inherently communal celebration of life, sharing in the inexplicable “sweet / sensation of joy” felt by the passengers. Thus, at the end of the poem, when the world which the poet has so vividly created gradually fades into moonlight and darkness, the reader finds himself “craning backward” like the passengers, in a futile effort to see the moose and thereby prolong a moment of muted ecstasy. It is in this moment of joy that the world inhabited by man becomes one with the world inhabited by the moose. Yet, as the distance between the bus and the moose increases, this moment gradually becomes a part of the past, leaving behind as sole reminders of its ephemeral existence a “dim/smell of moose” and an “acrid/smell of gasoline,” remnants of two distinct and separate worlds.
In noting the differences that exist between the human world and the natural world, the speaker in the final poem of the collection, “Five Flights Up,” returns to the theme announced by the questions cited from “First Lessons in Geography” in Monteith’s Geographical Series, that of the uncertainty of existence. Whereas the questions of the “unknown” bird and of the neighbor’s dog are answered directly and simply “by day itself,” the questions of the speaker remain unanswered or are answered indirectly and incompletely. On the one hand, for the bird and the dog, time seems continuous; its passage is insignificant or, at most, of minimal importance, to be treated, as Oscar Wilde once wrote of the “serious” things in life, with “sincere and studied triviality.” Yesterday is followed by today and today will, without question, be followed by tomorrow. On the other hand, for the speaker, time itself is uncertain, as “ponderous” and “enormous” as the morning to which he wakes; thus, even yesterday—the past—is a burden that the speaker finds “almost impossible to lift.”
This tension which results from man’s oscillation between the lightness and the heaviness of life, between the seriousness and the triviality of existence, emerges as a recurrent theme in Geography III, and more specifically, in the four poems, “One Art,” “The End of March,” “12 O’Clock News,” and “Night City.” The first of these poems, an amusingly self-conscious villanelle, is a treatise on the “art of losing,” an art which is not “hard to master.” Cities, rivers, entire continents, door keys, places, and names, once lost, are all alike; “their loss,” the speaker says, “is no disaster.” Taking a similarly lighthearted approach toward life, the speaker in “The End of March,” a poem which wavers between the world of “reality” and the world of dreams, allows the imagination to overrule the senses, affirming that he will “do nothing, / or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms,” and appearing to agree with the statement, “Dolce far niente!” For it is indeed sweet and yet impossible to do “nothing.” The poet, extending the world of possibility beyond its limits in the ironically surreal prose-poem “12 O’Clock News,” in which the limitations of human perception are deftly revealed and in which objectivity is rendered irrevocably subjective, indulges in a memorable description of the earth’s “surface” which seeks to unite life’s seriousness with its triviality. This description seems based on the meticulous observations made by an unspecified number of mysterious beings whose grim and hopelessly mind-boggling task is to identify and classify objects commonly found on a writer’s desk: a gooseneck lamp, a typewriter, a pile of manuscripts, a typed sheet, envelopes, an inkbottle, a typewriter eraser, and, last but not least, an indispensable ashtray. In the last of the four poems which explore the seriousness and the triviality of life, “Night City,” a sense of distance similar to that achieved in “12 O’Clock News” is communicated. The speaker in this poem, ostensibly traveling in a plane, observes and vividly describes a “burning” city, located in the nebulous region where illusion meets reality, interpreting the significance of the events observed in terms of the city’s inhabitants and their concerns. The poem is surreal and yet disturbingly familiar to those readers who have seen a photograph of a city taken at night from a low-flying plane, when streams of light appear to extend over the city like a network of “green and luminous / silicate rivers.” The scenes depicted in “Night City” are reminiscent of the scenes in Dante’s Inferno, particularly those which describe the plain of burning sand and the blood-red, boiling rill that crosses it. The nocturnal city is, in itself, a place of exile and isolation; its inhabitants, set apart from the rest of the world, are incapable of action, and can merely mourn their fate.
Recalling the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning in its penetrating exploration of the depths of the human consciousness, “Crusoe in England” presents a contemporary Robinson Crusoe: contemporary, in the sense that he speaks, not with the voice of Defoe’s self-pitying protagonist, but with the voice of a man living in the twentieth century. Long since “rescued” from the “miseries” of life on an island that, to this day, remains “un-rediscovered” and “un-renamable,” Crusoe resides, as fortune would have it, somewhere in England, on “another island, / that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?” His situation is analogous to that of the tycoons and “careful creatures” left stranded in “Night City.” For the world in which Crusoe lives is a world in which the sense of loss is, at times, overwhelming—a world in which all objects, now utterly useless, have lost their meaning. In such a world, absences are paradoxically more sensible than presences, and the past seems, perhaps, more desirable than the present. In short, as Crusoe says of the knife whose “each nick and scratch” he had come to know “by heart” from handle to tip: “The living soul has dribbled away.”
It is ultimately this sense of a “living soul,” contained within all objects, within all presences, that informs the body of Elizabeth Bishop’s work. Her poems, remarkably precise and perceptive, testify, in a very real sense, to an imaginative and heightened awareness of experience. Her vision in Geography III is thus an intensely human vision which remains, on the one hand, constantly aware of the threatening emptiness that may lie waiting at the end of the journey through the unexplored regions of the earth and the uncharted depths of the consciousness, and yet, celebrates, on the other hand, the essential power and beauty of life.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 40
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.
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