Elizabeth Bishop's social conscience.
acts of parting trying to let go without giving up yes Elizabeth a city here a village there a sister, comrade, cat and more no art to this but anger.(1)
"The art of losing isn't hard to master," Bishop said, and Rich's response to the line cuts two ways. On the one hand, she admires Bishop's artistry, feeling that she herself has not mastered the art - "only badly-done exercises." On the other hand, Rich is uncomfortable with Bishop's reticence, preferring the anger of the badly-done to the artistry of a villanelle.
Although Bishop has always been championed by male poets - from Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell to John Ashbery and Mark Strand - she has (until recently) presented a difficult example to female poets, especially those of Rich's generation. In an essay on Bishop written around the same time as "Contradictions," Rich explained that for a long time she "felt drawn, but also repelled" by Bishop's poetry. "Miss" Bishop - that is, Bishop as she was championed by Lowell - was part of the problem.
Women poets searching for older contemporaries in that period [of the 1940s and 1950s] were supposed to look to "Miss" Marianne Moore as the paradigm of what a women poet might accomplish, and, after her, to "Miss" Bishop. Both had been selected and certified by the literary establishment, which was, as now, white, male, and at least ostensibly heterosexual. Elizabeth Bishop's name was spoken, her books reviewed with deep respect. But attention was paid to her triumphs, her perfections, not to her struggles for self-definition and her sense of difference. In this way, her reputation made her less, rather than more, available to me.(2)
Here, as in "Contradictions," Rich wants less art and more anger, and I sense that she is talking about her earlier self while addressing Bishop. In the 1950s the precocious Rich was also selected and certified by the literary establishment, and Bishop seemed to Rich the poet she could too easily become - the poet who was considered, in Robert Lowell's phrase, the author of "the best poems . . . written by a woman in this century."(3)
Bishop herself despised that kind of praise, and she suffered under the reputation of "Miss" Bishop. "Most of my writing life I've been lucky about reviews," she admitted to George Starbuck. "But at the very end they often say 'The best poetry by a woman in this decade, or year, or month.' Well, what's that worth?" Bishop's feminism rarely seemed this pronounced or undivided. In the same interview she dismissed the "tract poetry" of feminist writers like Robin Morgan, and she insisted that she "never made any distinction between" male and female poets. But she also made this provocative remark: "I was in college in the days - it was the Depression, the end of the Depression - when a great many people were communist, or would-be communist. . . . I never gave feminism much thought, until . . . ."(4)
Unfortunately, George Starbuck interrupted at this point. But the historical context that Bishop emphasizes for her early career - the 1930s - is pertinent to an understanding of her relationship to feminism. Living in Brazil in 1966, Bishop claimed that she was "much more interested in social problems and politics now" than she had been in the thirties.(5) She even went so far as to attempt a poem about the suicide of Getulio Vargas, the elected president and former dictator of Brazil.(6) But Bishop never completed "Suicide of a Moderate Dictator," her most overtly political poem; its progress was hampered by her long-standing distaste for tract poetry. Responding in 1938 to Marianne Moore's sense of the "tentativeness" of her poems, Bishop wondered if the problem were her unwillingness to delineate a coherent political position - though she hastened to add, "I'm a 'Radical,' of course."(7) The problem for Bishop, early and late, was not her values as such but her discomfort - nurtured in the thirties - with the conventions of political poetry.
Bishop's values, especially her feminism, entered her poems in other ways. Characterizing her more recent reproachment with Bishop, Rich remarks that "poems examining intimate relationships" are replaced in Bishop's work by "poems examining relationships between people who are, for reasons of inequality, distanced: rich and poor, landowner and tenant, white woman and Black woman, invader and native."(8) I would alter this insight to say that poems emphasizing social inequality do not take the place of poems emphasizing sexuality; rather, for Bishop, the consideration of gender and sexuality grew to be inseparable from the consideration of nationality or race. Missing in Bishop's poetry is almost the complete domain of what she thought of as political poetry; but from the beginning of her career, Bishop was "more interested in social problems" than, in retrospect, she would allow.
Until 1934, Bishop was an undergraduate at Vassar College; she lived in New York City for the next few years, traveling widely, and then settled in Key West, Florida just before the Second World War broke out in 1939. Her lifestyle, supported by a small trust fund and by occasional employment, was neither lavish nor uncomfortable, but many years later she would recall her experience of the "Marxist thirties."
I was very aware of the Depression - some of my family were much affected by it. After all, anybody who went to New York and rode the Elevated could see that things were wrong. But I had lived with poor people and knew something of poverty at firsthand. About this time I took a walking-trip in Newfoundland and I saw much worse poverty there. I was all for being a socialist till I heard Norman Thomas [the Socialist Party presidential candidate in 1932] speak; but he was so dull. Then I tried anarchism, briefly.(9)
Bishop was, to be sure, someone who "rode the Elevated" and looked down on the social conditions of the Depression. And she was also someone who distrusted the easy proclamation of ideological associations and shifts - even in herself ("Then I tried anarchism, briefly"). But Bishop was aware of the conditions of the rural poor in Newfoundland and Key West as well as in her native Nova Scotia. Even at Vassar College she experienced the intellectual and political alternatives of the 1930s. Mary McCarthy, with whom Bishop established the alternative magazine Con Spirito in 1933, recalled the political climate of Vassar when she and Bishop were students there:
Most of our radicals were Socialists [rather than Communists], and throughout that election year they campaigned for Norman Thomas, holding parades and rallies. . . . Then our trustee, Franklin Roosevelt, was elected President. . . . With the impetus of the New Deal and memories of the breadlines behind us, even we aesthetes began reading about Sacco and Vanzetti and Mooney. We wrote papers for Contemporary Prose Fiction on Dos Passos.(10)
Like McCarthy, Bishop was more or less an "aesthete," but she was also reading about Sacco and Vanzetti. "Politically I considered myself a socialist," she remembered, "but I disliked 'social conscious' writing. I stood up for T. S. Eliot when everybody else was talking about James T. Farrell. The atmosphere at Vassar was left-wing; it was the popular thing."(11)
Bishop may have stood apart, but she did not stand alone. Her sensibility finds its mirror during the thirties in the Partisan Review, whose editors were - like Bishop - trying to maintain a left-wing concern with social conditions without allowing that concern to dilute the literary values they learned from modernism. While Granville Hicks of the New Masses maintained that the function of art is to "lead the proletarian reader to recognize his role in the class struggle," William Phillips and Philip Rahv said this in the opening editorial of the Partisan Review: "We shall resist every attempt to cripple our literature by narrow-minded, sectarian theories and practices."(12)
Bishop would eventually publish many poems and stories in the Partisan Review, but even her earliest work reveals her complicated relationship to the political and intellectual climate of the thirties. Her story "Then Came the Poor" was first published in Con Spirito in 1933 and then reprinted in The Magazine (beside work by William Carlos Williams and Janet Lewis) the following year. The story describes a wealthy family's flight from communist rebels who have successfully overthrown the government: "My whole family might have been getting ready for a wonderful picnic or party," says the narrator, a disaffected son, who watches his parents and siblings attempt to pack their clothing, port, and even the dining room chandelier in the car.(13) The narrator decides to stay behind, and he wakes to find his house crawling with "reds." They prepare a banquet on the lawn and invite the narrator to join them: he feels "at home" for the first time.
This conclusion suggests that only when the narrator overthrows his class origins may he feel "at home" in his own house. But there remains another aspect to the narrator's transgression. When he is subsumed into the mob, he rejects not only the upper-class privilege of his family but also its heterosexual structure. The crowd draws lots for rooms in the mansion, and the narrator offers to live with a man named Jacob. "I caught Jacob's eye and smiled as hard as I could," he explains, and the story ends with Jacob's acceptance of the proposition: "'We'll have fun, huh?' he said, waving an empty bottle at me, and he gave me a wink I could almost hear." The sexual undertones of this passage become stronger when we recall a scene the narrator witnesses when he re-enters his house after the mob has overtaken it.
From father's bathroom came howls of laughter, splashings, and slappings. I looked in and discovered two naked men jumping in and out of the shower and bath (all the water on full force), throwing powder and bathsalts at each other, and spitting shining spouts of water out the window into the sunshine and onto their amused friends below.(14)
This is the one passage in which the narrator drops his ironic tone and describes what he sees with something like wonder.
Throughout "Then Came the Poor" this transgression of sexual boundaries is encased within the more obvious drama of the transgression of class boundaries. At the same time, the story displays Bishop's divided attitude toward the idea of a "social conscious" writing. "Then Came the Poor" is a wicked parody of the wealthy sensibility Bishop knew well from her Boston grandparents, but it also pokes fun at the idea of a single-mindedly proletarian literature. While the story welcomes the revolution, it nevertheless "stands up for Eliot"; before the narrator's family flees, it receives this telegram: "REDS WIN DAY SULLIVAN AND KROWSKI SHOT THREE THOUSAND HEADED EAST VACATE OR OFFER NO RESISTANCE ELIOT MAY HOLD."(15) This joke - Eliot may hold would have been clear to Mary McCarthy, if not to everyone. And today, the joke shows how Bishop's retrospective statement about her interest in social problems in the thirties is and is not true: while "Then Came the Poor" does poke fun at the typical idea of "social conscious" writing, it is nevertheless deeply socially conscious in other ways.
But it was easier for the young Bishop to walk this thin line in her stories than in her poems. After leaving Vassar, she maintained her interest in socialism by reading new translations of Russian Marxists (Smirnov and Novitsky) on Shakespeare and Cervantes.(16) But when she visited Spain just before its civil war broke out, Bishop was horrified by the actions of the Popular Front: "If you really want to see what the Communists are up to, what beautiful things they have ruined, you should come here. The prettiest Baroque chapel in Seville has just been saved from burning up - the ceiling all scorched."(17) Bishop still thought of herself as a "radical" but she could associate herself neither with the Communist party nor with poets of firm political convictions. She herself wrote a poem called "War in Ethiopia" (now lost), and sent it to Horace Gregory, thinking that the anthology he was editing might be "all 'social consciousness.'" But Bishop was uncomfortable with her poem, adding that she was not sure if her "attempts at this kind of thing are much good" (OA, 55, 56). Bishop didn't much admire other poets' attempts (she criticized Louis MacNeice's "shortsighted and, I think, ignorant views" [OA, 73]), but she did admire Owl's Clover, Wallace Stevens's sequence of poems about the role of poetic and political power in a time of economic depression. Whatever its flaws, Bishop told Marianne Moore, Owl's Clover was a wonderful "display of ideas at work - making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. That, it seems to me, is the way a poet should think, and it should be a lesson to his thicker-witted opponents and critics, who read or write all their ideas in bad prose and give nothing in the way of poetry except exhortation or bits of melancholy description" (OA, 48). Stevens's sternly dialectical poem showed Bishop a way of harnessing her natural "tentativeness" (as Moore called it) in poems that grappled with the social questions of the thirties while avoiding the generic constraints of political poetry.
Bishop was also guided by Marianne Moore's review of Owl's Clover; but while Moore felt Owl's Clover was critical of the artistic attitudes it portrayed, Bishop thought it defended them (a disagreement that repeats a tension central to Stevens's poem):
I am afraid my own idea of Owl's Clover is much more simple and "popular." I took it as a defense of his own position, and the statue - dear me - I felt, and still cannot help feeling, is ART - sometimes the particular creation, sometimes an historical synthesis, sometimes his own work - but always his own conception of such art. In the first section I thought he was confessing the "failure" of such art (I don't like to use these words but they seem to be the only ones) to reach the lives of the unhappiest people, and the possibility of a change - of something new arising from the unhappiness, etc. (OA, 48)
Bishop extended these thoughts in her notebook, following the entry with a pen and ink sketch of the artifact she would describe in "The Monument."(18) This poem offers a work of art that unlike Stevens's statue can reach its audience, though not without some necessary difficulty. Like several of the poems of Owl's Clover, "The Monument" oscillates between two voices, one sympathetic and the other hostile to the abstract and ambiguous monument.
"Why did you bring me here to see it? A temple of crates in cramped and crated scenery, what can it prove? I am tired of breathing this eroded air, this dryness in which the monument is cracking."
It is an artifact of wood. Wood holds together better than sea or cloud or sand could by itself, much better than real sea or sand or cloud. It chose that way to grow and not to move.(19)
This defense of a "useless" artifact is a quintessential document of the 1930s - the decade in which the kind of modernist abstraction exemplified by Bishop's monument first came under attack. Once again, Bishop is, in a sense, standing up for Eliot. Yet Bishop's monument differs from other artistic icons (Keats's urn, Yeats's golden bird, or even Stevens's humble jar in Tennessee) in that it is made of wood, organic and decaying. Though it is more lasting than sea or sand, it does not offer refuge from reality. The monument is flawed, a little ridiculous, and undeniably human-made; its "crudest scroll-work says 'commemorate,'" suggesting that it is a monument to the potential grandeur of human folly and failure. Unlike "A Miracle for Breakfast" (which Bishop would later recall as a "'social conscious' poem" that was "written shortly after the time of souplines and men selling apples"), "The Monument" is not so obviously marked as a poem of the thirties; but it asks more rigorous questions about the relevance of art and imagination to (in the words of Bishop's letter about Owl's Clover) "the lives of the unhappiest people."(20)
In contrast to "Then Came the Poor," "The Monument" doesn't show how the terms of gender may inflect those questions. But those terms became more consistently prominent in the poems Bishop began to write in Key West during the Second World War. In part, the reasons for this shift are cultural: the war emphasized the differences between the social roles occupied by men and women, and, at the same time, helped to obscure the prominent class differences of the Depression by offering an enemy common to all Americans.(21) So while Bishop's "Roosters" is well-known as Bishop's war poem (Bishop said she was thinking "of those aerial views of dismal little towns in Finland and Norway, when the Germans took over" [OA, 96]), it is more precisely the poem's linkage of national and sexual aggression that marks it as a product of the Second World War. "Roosters" breaks into two halves, the first suggesting that the national aggression of war is essentially linked to masculinity:
Cries galore come from the water-closet door, from the dropping-plastered henhouse floor,
where in the blue blur their rustling wives admire, the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare
with stupid eyes while from their beaks there rise the uncontrolled, traditional cries. (B, 35)
After the roosters have fought to the death and the body is flung on the ash-heap "with his dead wives," the poem considers a second way to understand a rooster's emblematic significance. Rather than invoking masculine aggression (and feminine passivity as its complement), their crowing now recalls St. Peter, who was reminded of his denial by a rooster: "'Deny deny deny'/is not all the roosters cry." But by introducing the New Testament significance of roosters in the second movement of the poem, Bishop isn't suggesting that the roosters' cries are not emblematic of masculine aggression; rather, she suggests that this association is far from essential or unchangeable.(22)
This reading of "Roosters" is reinforced by one of the poem's literary antecedents (one that Bishop herself did not recognize): Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale."(23) Chauntecleer, the most famous rooster in English literature, is - like Bishop's - both decidedly masculine and deeply ambiguous. At the center of Chaucer's tale Chauntecleer advises Pertelote that "Mulier est hominis confusio," translating the Latin as "Womman is mannes joye and al his blis." In fact, the line means "woman is man's downfall." Since Chauntecleer is a rooster both deceiving and deceived, it is difficult to tell whether he mistranslates the Latin knowingly or naively. And the narrator's equivocations only contribute to the problem. Bishop's roosters seem equally ambiguous - and functionally so. She asks her roosters, "what are you projecting?" but her poem makes us aware of what we project onto roosters: as emblems, the birds mean what we make them mean, and we are not doomed to war because of masculinity - or roosters - as such. At the end of the poem, when the sun rises "faithful as enemy, or friend," Bishop emphasizes the multiple significance of anything to which we grant emblematic meaning.
The significance of Key West, the subject of other poems, was less equivocal. While Bishop lived there, Key West suffered an economic depression severe even for the times. Because of political turmoil in Cuba, and later because of the world war, there was a large military presence. Racial tensions also ran high. In the 1960s, when she was trying to convince her aunt of the importance of Martin Luther King's leadership, Bishop recalled this incident:
My dear old laundress's (black) son was murdered by the Key West police because one of them wanted his wife. - Everyone knew this and nothing was done about it The laundress was given her son's body in a coffin, straight from jail - She said 'I looked at his arm - Miss Elizabeth, - it wasn't an arm any more.'"(24)
Bishop tried to find room for these oppressed voices in her Key West poems - most straightforwardly in the four "Songs for a Colored Singer," in which the singer laments troubles economic ("None of the things that I can see/belong to me"), sexual ("I'm going to go and take the bus/and find someone monogamous"), and national ("Lullaby./Let nations rage,/Let nations fall . . . war's over now"). In the somewhat more ambitious "Cootchie" Bishop describes a relationship between servant and mistress that is also a relationship between black and white and between two women. These two characters were known to Bishop: "Maybe you will remember Cootchie," she wrote to Moore, "I don't know what Miss Lula is going to do without her. She had lived with her 35 years" (OA, 88). The poem explores the peculiar, stunted affection that grew between two women divided by race and by class. In contrast to "Roosters," in which all significance seems more or less arbitrary, the very landscape seems racially divided in "Cootchie."
Cootchie, Miss Lula's servant, lies in marl, black into white she went below the surface of the coral-reef. Her life was spent in caring for Miss Lula, who is deaf, eating her dinner off the kitchen sink while Lula ate hers off the kitchen table. The skies were egg-white for the funeral and the faces sable. (B, 46)
Miss Lula is deaf in several senses: "who will shout and make her understand?" asks Bishop, and the question addresses not only the woman's loss but the terms of her relationship with Cootchie. Miss Lula's white face does not appear at the funeral.
Bishop soon reconsidered this poem in more complicated terms. In "Faustina, or Rock Roses" an elderly white woman is cared for by a black servant (Faustina, like Cootchie, was someone Bishop knew in Key West). Everything in the old woman's room is "white": her hair, the sheets, the clothes hung on chairs, even the bowl of farina Faustina brings to her - and the old woman's white face is both actually and figuratively "the other."
She bends above the other. Her sinister kind face presents a cruel black coincident conundrum. Oh is it
freedom at last, a lifelong dream of time and silence, dream of protection and rest? Or is it the very worst, the unimaginable nightmare that never before dared last more than a second? (B, 73)
Faustina's face seems to the old woman simultaneously sinister and kind - simultaneously an image of kindness and companionship (a "dream of protection and rest") and an image of sinister distrust ("the unimaginable nightmare"). And the questions Bishop asks are unanswerable: "There is no way of telling./The eyes say only either." Like Bishop's roosters, Faustina may be read in multiple ways: in terms of gender she is a companion, in terms of class a dependant, and in terms of race a potentially vindictive inferior.(25)
After settling in Brazil in 1951, Bishop saw even more clearly that these terms may be understood only in relation to one another. In Brazil, the book she wrote for the Life World Library, Bishop explained that "Brazilians have great pride in their fine record in race relations. Their attitude can best be described by saying that the upper-class Brazilian is usually proud of his racial tolerance, while the lower-class Brazilian is not aware of his - he just practices it."(26) Because of the way her editors mangled her text, Bishop later dismissed this book, but some of her poems do present Brazil as the same kind of paradise of tolerated difference that this passage describes. In "Under the Window: Ouro Preto" (the town in which she bought a colonial house in 1965) Bishop describes the happy congregation of women around an ancient drinking fountain; she also celebrates her own relationship with a woman, for it was from Lilli Correia de Araujo's bedroom window that Bishop observed this scene.
The conversations are simple: about food, or, "When my mother combs my hair it hurts." "Women." "Women!" Women in red dresses
and plastic sandals, carrying their almost invisible babies - muffled to the eyes in all the heat - unwrap them, lower them,
and give them drinks of water lovingly from dirty hands, here where there used to be a fountain, here where all the world stops. (B, 153)
A simple iron pipe has replaced the old, elaborate fountain (it's "in the museum"), but the water still draws these women together, past and present: "all have agreed for several centuries" that the water is "cold as ice." Soon the women are joined by an old man, a boy carrying laundry on his head, six donkeys, and two truck drivers; the gathering becomes sexually and racially mixed. The women's conversation crosses with the talk of men ("She's been in labor now two days." "Transistors/cost too much"), and the poem ends with an image of the truck's oil seeping into the fountain's standing water. But Bishop transforms this contamination into an emblem, beautiful and natural, for the mingling of differences: the water "flashes or looks upward brokenly,/like bits of mirror - no, more blue than that:/like tatters of the Morpho butterfly." The poem's final image invokes both morphology (the study of forms common to different organisms) and Morpheus (the god of dreams), who has presided throughout this vision glimpsed below the bedroom window.
Morpheus may be the more important reference, for in some moods Bishop wanted desperately to see Brazil as a kind of haven; she was even self-conscious about recreating there an image of her lost Nova Scotian childhood. But Bishop often resisted this nostalgia too. While she praised Brazilian race relations in Brazil, she also recognized that prejudice continued to structure Brazilian society: "the 'poor' whites, Negroes and mulattoes" at "the bottom of the scale" are "treated with a combination of warmth and intimacy on the one hand, and an autocratic manner on the other." Women continued to exist somewhere below the bottom: "Brazil is a man's country. The double standard could scarcely be more taken for granted. . . . In this man's world, women are classified as 'the mother of my children' or 'the bearer of my name.'"(27) Other poems about Brazil reflect this awareness: "Going to the Bakery" almost seems like a rewriting of "Under the Window" in more sordid terms (Bishop placed the two poems side by side in her 1969 Complete Poems). Here the people gathered near a bakery (a childish whore who dances feverishly, a black beggar with a phoney wound on his side) emphasize the divisions of Brazilian culture. The baker himself is "sickly," and the "gooey tarts are red and sore"; the "loaves of bread/lie like yellow-fever victims/laid out in a crowded ward." There is no conversation here; the people congregate around the bakery but they do not meet. The poem does end with an effort at communication with the beggar - "I give him seven cents in my/terrific money, say 'Good night'/from force of habit" (B, 152) - but the exchange merely emphasizes cultural and racial difference. Throughout "Going to the Bakery" the speaker has stood apart from the scene's sordidness; in these final lines, Bishop recognizes her complicity (the complicity of the American tourist) in the perpetuation of Brazil's divided culture.
Some of Bishop's poems avoid that recognition. Her note to "Manuelzinho" specifies that "a friend of the writer is speaking" - as if Bishop were afraid that the poem's exasperation with a servant would be mistaken for her own:
Half squatter, half tenant (no rent) - a sort of inheritance; white, in your thirties now, and supposed to supply me with vegetables, but you don't; or you won't; or you can't. (B, 96)
But this voice is partly Bishop's, of course; she sometimes complained about her servants in similar terms (both in letters and in "House Guest").(28) More honest and more complicated than "Manuelzinho" is "Going to the Bakery," in which Bishop doesn't attempt to save herself from her own indictment. And richer still is "Brazil, January 1, 1502," in which Bishop harnesses this confusion between herself and her subject to suggest that no matter how self-conscious she might be about social injustice, she nevertheless remains implicated in the process of its perpetuation.
The poem's title refers to the date when Portuguese explorers first entered the harbor at Rio de Janeiro, mistaking it for the mouth of a great river and naming it "River of January." In the final lines of the poem Bishop explains that these Christians found the Brazilian landscape "not unfamiliar."
no lovers' walks, no bowers no cherries to be picked, no lute music, but corresponding, nevertheless to an old dream of wealth and luxury already out of style when they left home - wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure. Directly after Mass, humming perhaps L'Homme arme or some such tune, they ripped away, into the hanging fabric, each out to catch an Indian for himself - those maddening little women who kept calling, calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?) and retreating, always retreating, behind it. (B, 92)
Many readers of the poem agree that these lines reveal the racist and sexist foundations of colonialism; about the poem's opening, however, there is some debate: "Januaries, Nature greets our eyes/exactly as she must have greeted theirs." This casual attribution of femininity to nature seems highly charged once we've read the final lines of the poem, and, along with Bishop's equation of "our" eyes with those of the Portuguese, it suggests that Bishop is aware that her own act of writing imposes values on the Brazilian landscape and culture. It would be wrong, as Barbara Page has pointed out, to maintain that Bishop aligns herself in this poem with "aggressive masculinity and with intending rapists."(29) But it would not quite be right to suggest that Bishop - always conscious of her status as an outsider - aligns herself clearly with the retreating Indian women: while as an exposer of racism and sexism she sympathizes with these women, she nevertheless recognizes that her own discovery of Brazilian culture may be shaped by the social codes of the conquistadors. As in "Roosters," Bishop suggests that no particular values are essential to any place or people; but in "Brazil, January 1, 1502" that realization seems far less liberating.
It initially seems even less liberating in "In the Waiting Room," a poem that shows how the very idea of selfhood is predicated on racial and sexual codes. Throughout this late poem (published in Bishop's final book, Geography III), there is a strong sense of the world's violence, natural and contrived: outside of the dentist's waiting room is the hard Massachusetts winter and the First World War. Bishop's date for the experience of the poem (5 February 1918) points to an additional, more threatening aspect to the world outside. In Bishop's native Nova Scotia, on 6 December 1917, a munitions ship laden with eight million tons of dynamite collided with another vessel and exploded. This was the world's most powerful man-made explosion prior to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and many thousands of people were killed or injured. Over half of Halifax was flattened. And since Bishop had been taken by her grandparents to live in Massachusetts only weeks before, it must have seemed to her as if her lost Nova Scotia was destroyed.
This event does not appear in the poem (though Bishop's drafts show that she originally gave much more space to the image of the exploding volcano); but our knowledge of it helps us to see why Bishop would have thought of the "outside" world as such an extraordinarily threatening place. And I think it's important to feel the strength of that threat because the poem's greater horror turns on the realization that there is no "inside" world safe from this exterior violence - not the warmth of the waiting room, not the security of the individual consciousness. While Aunt Consuelo sees the dentist, the child reads the National Geographic, and though its images are meant to showcase a western mastery of "primitive" culture, the child finds each image more threatening than the one before it. The final image is of
black, naked women with necks would round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying. (B, 159)
It is at this point that the child hears an exclamation of pain "from inside," and though she recognizes her Aunt's voice (inside the dentist's office), the child herself could be speaking (the sound coming "from inside" of her): in either case, the child recognizes another person's voice as her own, just as she recognizes her own destiny in the racial and sexual otherness of the African women.(30) Any sense of a world "inside," clearly differentiated from other cultures and people, collapses.
But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them. Why should you be one, too? (B, 160)
The child is learning that whatever sense of selfhood she possesses is a precarious social construction - that she has in fact never been "inside," separated from the violence of the war, the trauma of adult sexuality, or what she had been taught to think of as the cultural practices of "primitive" peoples. Bishop's repeated use of the word "inside" emphasizes this point: if, at the beginning of the poem, Aunt Consuelo is "inside" the dentist's office, then the child has been "outside" from the start; if the "inside" of a volcano is full of ash and fire, then it is not different from the violent world "outside." An erupting volcano is itself an image of the breakdown of the barrier between inside and outside, and, as Bonnie Costello has shown, Bishop's early drafts reveal that she equated the unstable interior spaces of the volcano, the waiting room, and the self: "Had a family voice misled me/into a crater of ashes/among Ten Thousand Smokes?"(31)
In the final lines of the poem, the waiting room has understandably become "too hot": it is no longer a safe haven but a place of discomfort. But the child's recognition that there is a world "outside" is finally not a threat but a welcome certainty.
The War was on. Outside, in Worcester, Massachusetts, were night and slush and cold, and it was still the fifth of February, 1918. (B, 160)
The experience "In the Waiting Room" commemorates is initially traumatic, but the poem ends calmly, recognizing that the racially and sexually charged image of "those awful hanging breasts" does not pose a threat to selfhood but offers the very terms in which the self, however fragile, is constituted: this is simply the nature of selfhood. To see, with Bishop, that the self's contingency is also its strength is to suggest that what begins as a poem of dissolution ends, at least potentially, as a poem of empowerment.
"In the Waiting Room" is well-known as perhaps Bishop's most explicitly personal poem; some readers, schooled in Robert Lowell's values and bolstered by Bishop's unpublished poems, have wanted to see it as a kind of "breakthrough." But the poem's representation of sexuality seems less unique once we recognize the complicated ways in which sexuality enters much of Bishop's work, beginning with "Then Came the Poor." While Bishop's career is not static, it is not marked by an abrupt turn in the way that Lowell's and Rich's careers are. Unlike them, Bishop did not begin writing with an attenuated conception of poetry as impersonal, apolitical, or closed, and she never had to make exaggerated gestures toward the personal and the open in order to express her values.
I think that Bishop's formal idiosyncrasy - her desire to bend traditional poetic forms without breaking them - accounts for the fact that some of her admirers lament the lack of greater frankness in the poems. Lowell complained that for many poets of his generation, poetry had "become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life." Until recently, Bishop has appeared less important than Lowell because her poems exhibit no dramatic formal "breakthrough"; they do not overthrow poetic convention as if to revel in unmediated experience. In Lowell's own mind, male poets were better able to accomplish such a breakthrough: "Few women write major poetry."(32) But women poets of Rich's generation sometimes politicized the breakthrough as well: after her own conversion to free verse, Rich considered traditional poetic forms to be "asbestos gloves" - something that might be necessary to a poet early on, but which must ultimately be discarded for the "barehanded" treatment of more immediate experience.(33) Rich elsewhere acknowledges the necessity of struggling within language, even as "the words/get thick with unmeaning."(34) And she and Lowell would not have agreed on what the value of experience was (Rich called the final poem in Lowell's The Dolphin "bullshit eloquence").(35) But both of them implied that poetic form can be an impediment to the proper political values - something that needs to be "broken through." Rebelling against the "tranquillized Fifties" (as Lowell self-servingly dubbed the decade), they made free verse seem as if it had something to do with other kinds of freedom.(36) In contrast, Bishop was comfortable (as "In the Waiting Room" suggests) with the idea that poems cannot break through their linguistic fabric, just as the self cannot be separated from the social codes from which it's made. But the reduction of political valence to poetic form has made Bishop (who understood that all poetry offers some kind of rhetorical screen) seem apolitical. The judgement has more to do with her formal qualities as such than with the values expressed by her poems.
During the fifties, Bishop was of course living in a country that unlike the United States seemed anything but tranquil. In an essay about Rio de Janeiro published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1965, she made these comments about the "compensations" of living in such a politically and economically volatile place:
Recently a large advertisement showed a young Negro cook, overcome by her pleasure in having a new gas stove, leaning across it toward her white mistress, who leaned over from her side of the stove as they kissed each other on the cheek.
Granted that the situation is not utopian, socially speaking, and that the advertisement is silly - but could it have appeared on billboards, or in the newspapers, in Atlanta, Ga., or even in New York? In Rio, it went absolutely unremarked on, one way or the other.(37)
Bishop made herself vulnerable here, for despite her admission that the billboard is not "utopian," she was attacked by a Brazilian journalist for her outsider's view of racial tolerance. But I think that what Bishop admired in this image was much closer to her than the journalist could see. While Bishop does emphasize Rio's relative freedom from prejudices that were especially clear in Atlanta during the civil rights movement, she describes a transgression of the social boundaries of gender and class as well as of race: the three transgressions seem indistinguishable. Perhaps even more than any of the poems I've examined, this passage seems to me closest to Bishop's sensibility: more idealistic than "Going to the Bakery" (but not as utopian as "Under the Window"), it offers an image of the freedoms Bishop yearned for and too rarely found - freedoms that were ultimately, as "One Art" explains with painful reticence, lost to her.
University of Rochester
1 Adrienne Rich, Your Native Land, Your Life (New York: Norton, 1986), 98.
2 Rich, Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985 (New York: Norton, 1986), 125.
3 Robert Lowell, Collected Prose, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), 78.
4 George Starbuck, "'The Work!': A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop," in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, ed. Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1983), 324, 321. Elsewhere Bishop dated her feminism from the age of six; see Brett C. Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1993), 23.
5 Ashley Brown, "An Interview with Elizabeth Bishop," in Schwartz and Estess (note 4), 294.
6 The poem has been published in the Georgia Review 46 (1992): 611; in Lorrie Goldensohn, Elizabeth Bishop: A Biography of a Poetry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1992), 237; and in Victoria Harrison, Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Intimacy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), 166.
7 See Millier (note 4), 137-38; part of this letter (5 May 1938) appears in Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), 72-74; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text and abbreviated OA.
8 Rich, Blood, Bread, and Poetry (note 2), 130-31. This argument is a modification of Rich's earlier view that Bishop simply "kept sexuality at a measured and chiseled distance in her poems" (On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 [New York: Norton, 1979], 36). Margaret Dickie responds to Rich's argument by pointing out that Bishop's poems "about mistress and servant, landowner and tenant, white woman and black woman, are really about the intimacy of such contacts across race and class boundaries" ("Race and Class in Elizabeth Bishop's Poetry," Yearbook of English Studies 24 : 45).
9 Brown (note 4), 293-94. Bishop recalled her uneasy flirtation with anarchism in "The U.S.A. School of Writing," in Collected Prose, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), pp. 35-49. See also Bishop, One Art (note 7), 69, 75.
10 Mary McCarthy, On the Contrary (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961), 199. See also McCarthy's recollections of Bishop at Vassar in Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 48: "I was very, very much to the right. Strangely enough, Bishop wasn't exactly a socialist, but she was closer to their point of view than I. Discussions with her sort of opened my eyes to the socialist argument." Because Bishop's political positions did not take typical forms, she could seem to another Vassar classmate to be "wildly unpolitical in a completely political time" (48). Yet another classmate recalled provocatively that it "was a strength, really, that all the people [Bishop] played with were politically oriented, and she never seemed to be" (48; my emphasis). Bishop's idiosyncratic position was illustrated by a cabaret she helped organize at Vassar: it featured a skit in which socialist pieties were mocked (Karl Marx murdered J.P. Morgan in the aftermath of a love triangle), but the evening raised $450 for the poor (see Fountain and Brazeau, 49).
11 Brown (note 4), 293. On 26 January 1940 Bishop wrote to her friend Frani Blough Muser, "I am utterly disgusted with 'social-conscious' conversation - by people who always seem to be completely unconscious of their surroundings, other people's personalities, etc." (OA, 87). For an account of Bishop's idiosyncratic way of "standing up" for Eliot, see James Longenbach, "Elizabeth Bishop and the Story of Postmodernism," Southern Review 28 (1992): 469-84.
12 Granville Hicks, "The Crisis in American Criticism," New Masses 8 (February 1933): 5; William Phillips and Philip Rahv, "Editorial Statement," Partisan Review 1 (February-March 1934): 2.
13 Bishop, "Then Came the Poor," The Magazine 1 (March 1934): 107.
14 Bishop, "Then Came the Poor" (note 13), 110, 109.
15 Bishop, "Then Came the Poor," 105.
16 Bishop to Marianne Moore, 21 August 1936 (Rosenbach Museum & Library); part of this letter appears in One Art: Letters (note 7), 44-45. The new translations to which Bishop refers in this letter were published in New York by The Critics' Group in 1936; Marxist writings on Pushkin, Balzac, Ibsen, and on art and society in general were also published in this series.
17 Cited in Harriet Tompkins Thomas, "Travels with a Young Poet: Elizabeth Bishop," Vassar Quarterly 82 (Winter 1985): 25. Brett Millier (note 4) points out that Bishop's early experience in Spain led to an occasional dismissal of Communists later in her life (98).
18 See Barbara Page, "Off-Beat Claves, Oblique Realities: The Key West Notebooks of Elizabeth Bishop," in Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender, ed. Marilyn May Lombardi (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1993), 202. In order to highlight Bishop's intelligence, however, Page offers a strategically oversimplified reading of Owl's Clover: while Stevens's poems are "almost crushed by the burden of the past," Bishop "visually and verbally builds a figure of undetermined possibilities by insisting not on the preestablished meaning of the thing but on the activity of making it" (202). It can easily be argued that Stevens is doing precisely that in the poems of Owl's Clover.
19 Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 24; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text and abbreviated B. Excerpts from The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright [C] 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.
20 Brown (note 4), "An Interview with Elizabeth Bishop," 297.
21 See Susan Hartman, The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s (Boston: Hall, 1982); see also Susan Gubar, "'This Is My Rifle, This Is My Gun': World War II and the Blitz on Women," in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, ed. Margaret Randolph Higonet (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987), 227-59; and James Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), 222-36.
22 My reading responds to previous accounts of this crux in "Roosters": see Alicia Ostriker, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 54, and Susan Schweik, A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 213-41.
23 In 1948, seven years after "Roosters" was first published, Bishop told Lowell that she was enjoying the Chaucer's tale, having never read it before (OA, 169).
24 Bishop to Grace Bulmer Bowers, 13 March 1965; in Goldensohn (note 6), 77.
25 An unpublished poem linked to "Faustina," "Vague Poem (Vaguely Love Poem)," offers a clearer glimpse of the ideal same-sex relationship that the terms of class and race dominate in both "Cootchie" and "Faustina"; it has been published in Bonnie Costello, Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), 73; in Goldensohn (note 6), 71-72; in Harrison (note 6), 204; and in Millier (note 4), 437. Like Rich, Goldensohn laments the fact that Bishop's published work (in contrast to "Vague Poem") often "projects the problems of trust and intimacy onto the more remote arena of the world of servants" (75). This is true in the sense that Bishop could publish more comfortably her poems testing the boundaries of race and class than those challenging the terms of gender and sexuality; but when those terms are present in Bishop's published work (even subtly, as in "Faustina") they are not isolated from those of race or class. In "The New Elizabeth Bishop" (Yale Review 82 : 135-49), Langdon Hammer offers a very subtle critique of the way in which many of Bishop's admirers demand autobiographical explicitness from her poems.
26 Bishop and The Editors of Life, Brazil (New York: Time Incorporated, 1962), 114.
27 Bishop, Brazil (note 26), 114, 116.
28 Rich praises "Manuelzinho" but finds that "House Guest" merely evokes "a certain tone in which domestic employers have forever discussed employees" without criticizing it (Blood, Bread, and Poetry [note 2], 133). David Bromwich dismisses "Manuelzinho" along with "Filling Station" as "efforts of self-conscious whimsy . . . or of awkward condescension" ("Elizabeth Bishop's Dream-Houses," Raritan 4 : 87). Bishop herself responded to similar criticism of "Manuelzinho" by saying: "I've been accused of that kind of thing a lot, particularly in the social-conscious days" (OA, 479).
29 Barbara Page, "Nature, History, and Art in Elizabeth Bishop's 'Brazil, January 1, 1502,'" Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 14 (1988): 42. Page is responding to Bromwich's reading of the poem in "Elizabeth Bishop's Dream-Houses" (note 28).
30 Lee Edelman offers the most comprehensive argument for this important ambiguity in "The Geography of Gender: Elizabeth Bishop's 'In the Waiting Room,'" Contemporary Literature 26 (1985): 179-96.
31 Costello (note 25), 119.
32 Lowell, Collected Prose (note 3), 244, 287. Robert Pinsky powerfully undermined the "breakthrough" narrative by stressing the conventionality of all poetic forms in The Situation of Poetry (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976).
33 Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (note 8), 40. Rich has subsequently softened this position, maintaining that poetic form as such is not necessarily the problem; see What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (New York: Norton, 1993): "It's a struggle not to let the form take over, lapse into format" (219).
34 Rich, The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984 (New York: Norton, 1984), 151. This phrase is from "When We Dead Awaken"; see also "Cartographies of Silence" (232-36). In Women Writers and Poetic Identity (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), 222-36, Margaret Homans shows how Rich both endorses and undermines "a poetics of literal truth" (223). For an analysis of the rhetorical self-consciousness of all Rich's poetry, early and late, see Willard Spiegelman, The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), 147-91.
35 Rich, "Caryatid: A Column," American Poetry Review 2 (September/October 1973): 43.
36 Lowell, Life Studies (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1959), 79.
37 Bishop, "On the Railroad Named Delight," New York Times Magazine, 7 March 1965, 86. Millier describes the attack on this article in Elizabeth Bishop (note 4), 362-65.