Elizabeth Bishop and the Mechanics of Poetic Pretence.
Much can be done by means of pretence. Children pretend to speak a foreign language or inscribe its imitation alphabet in their school books, and inspired by the same motives, grow up to be linguists, grammarians, and travelers. Lord Byron, looking in the mirror, pretended to be the Byronic man, and the Byronic man, with his curls and collars, came into existence by the hundred. The growth of the small nation into the empire contains infinities of such pretence, gradually turning to the infinite realities of empire. By "pretending" the existence of a language appropriate and comparable to the "things" it must deal with, the language is forced into being. It is learned by one person, by a few, by all who can become interested in that poet's poetry. But as this imaginary language is elaborated and is understood by more people, it begins to work two ways at once. "Things" gave rise to the language; now the language arouses an independent life in the "things," first dimly perceived in them only by the poet. To the initiate, the world actually manages to look like so-and-so's poems--the poems that he first carefully fitted to the "ways of the world" himself. The play becomes a play on a stage dissolving to leave the ground underneath. The tendency, described by William Empson, of what a poet writes to become real; the tendency toward "prophecy"; obscurity, and "influence," are all [departments] of this original act of pretence. (2006, 183-84)
Bishop was wary of prophecy, alternately anxious and insouciant about her influence, and her use of scare quotes suggests that she was not sure where the realm of "things" ended. But she puts her emphasis on the word real to stress the power of poetic language to create and alter what it describes. What and how the poet describes, and how closely or willingly we read, ultimately determines our perceptions of "the independent life in the 'things'" and "ways of the world"--the perceptions on which we base our interactions with those things and with each other. This power makes the exchange between a poet and her reader a political one, a fact that Bishop underscores by translating the interpersonal relationship into a vision of transnational relations, where "the growth of the small nation into the empire contains infinities of such pretence, gradually turning to the infinite realities of empire."
In this essay, which Bishop drafted shortly after graduating from college, (3) she begins to articulate a theory of poetry's material force and sociopolitical function that she would develop throughout her career. The claim that language reproduces the world it describes evokes William Wordsworth's "mighty world / Of eye, and ear,--both what they half create, / And what perceive" (1965, 108). (4) Notwithstanding Bishop's sometimes romantic sensibility, however, her identification of artifice as a wellspring of experience is unromantic in its insistence that poetry's power is ultimately mechanical, not magical. Mechanistic terms such as "forced" and "fitted" echo in Bishops claim, made later in another unfinished essay, that "writing poetry is an unnatural act" (2006, 207). (5) In describing the arbitrary, accumulative process through which "the world actually manages to look like so-and-so's poems," Bishop describes "the world"--a social, material actuality--as both the cause and the product of artistic representation. (6) Far from pitting "pretence" against the real or genuine, she relates those terms dialectically. By emphasizing the lag between pretence and "infinite realities," a space in which epistemology gives way to ontology, Bishop stops short of linguistic determinism. Yet in linking individual acts of pretence to the eventual hegemony of empire, she warns that the creative power of imaginative language is not categorically distinct from its power to do violence.
Compared with the nuanced treatment of language's relationship to empire achieved in Bishop's poems, "Mechanics of Pretence" is a relatively basic articulation of poetry's sociopolitical stakes. She developed the essay's insights over the next four decades, returning in her poems to the moments when we are poised between the power of description to deliver us into rich experience, and its power to keep us distant from the world's "things." While Bishop's work rarely advertises its historicity overtly, she frequently invokes Western military and imperial history as a framework for investigating the ostensibly private calls that literary language makes on us. Her poems repeatedly dramatize the dynamic of call and response outlined in "Mechanics of Pretence," where language and experience call each other into being dialectically. She accomplishes this through figures of layered address, in which the seductions of imperialist discourse or the pleas of a colonized subject allegorize and illuminate the appeals of "imaginary language," and our capacity (or incapacity) for response.
Despite Bishop's interest in the inherently social power of language--its ability to "arous[e] an independent life in ... things" (2006, 183)--she was once regularly portrayed as politically disengaged, invested in aesthetic insularity, and a literary "tourist." (7) This tendency was answered by critical attempts to recover the submerged political content in her poems, a turn often marked by Adrienne Rich's 1983 review of The Complete Poems and Lee Edelman's 1985 essay, "The Geography of Gender: Elizabeth Bishop's 'In the Waiting Room.'" In the thirty years since Rich's review, which argued that Bishop's "poems embodied a need to ... come to terms with a personal past, with family and class and race, with her presence as a poet in cities and landscapes where human suffering is not a metaphor" (1983, 16), critics have offered political readings of every facet of Bishop's life and work. Not only has feminist criticism explored the territory opened up by Rich and Edelman, some have responded to the tradition of reading Bishop as a poet of "reticence" by arguing that her work challenges the very bodily or sexual ideals cherished by the early critics of that reticence, including Rich. (8) Bishop's relationship to national politics at home and abroad has also been studied; Susan Schweik's 1991 study of World War II--era poetry was one of the first to highlight Bishop's engagement with militaristic culture, arguing that her work conscientiously resists "poetry's promotional and disciplinary functions in modern Western war systems" (1991, 236)--a project to which Camille Roman returns in her 2001 study of Bishop's Cold War--era politics. (9) More recently, Bethany Hicok has examined Bishop's "increasingly involved dialogue with Brazilian politics" (2012, 133) in poems such as "Suicide of a Moderate Dictator," Bishop's most topically political poem.
Finding, however, that much of the work begun by cultural critics in the early 1980s "reinstate[s] rather than challenge[s] traditional distinctions between poetry and politics, private and public," Betsy Erkkila locates Bishop's politics in the formal characteristics of her "reticence" (1996, 285), which Erkkila reframes as skepticism; "Although Bishop never wrote the topical poetry we associate with the social-consciousness writing of the '30s, her work registers the 'revolutionary' effects of the time as a crisis of the subject, of knowledge, of signification, and of the possibility of meaning itself" (287). (10) Similarly, Gillian White argues that Bishop "engage[s] a poetic politics, as did Language writers," through her poetry's resistance to traditional lyric-reading conventions (2014, 96). Whereas White explores the antiexpressive, metadiscursive dimensions of Bishop's work, Zachariah Pickard (2009) locates Bishop's politics in her distinctive use of "descriptive" language, revaluing a term that, like "reticence," has sometimes been used to depoliticize the poet. (11)
Despite these and other contributions to what Kim Fortuny calls an "afterlife for formalist analysis of Bishop's poetry and prose" (2003, 4), critics remain vexed by the difficulty of accounting for her political commitments. In Pickard's view, "Much recent criticism reads Bishop in terms more politically specific than her poetics and, indeed, her politics allow. Not surprisingly, such discussion can leave her looking rather feeble and half-committed" (2009, 99). By focusing on descriptive language, Pickard aims to "shift the discussion into a realm in which Bishop fits much more comfortably and in which her poetry can be read as a far more significant accomplishment." I share with Pickard and others an interest in the political implications of Bishop's poetics, particularly her deconstruction of expressive "voice" through metadiscursive and descriptive practices. Yet the note of apology in Pickard's remarks suggests that Bishop's readers are still haunted by an opposition between aesthetics and politics that tends to dissolve in her writing.
"Mechanics of Pretence" offers us a new framework for understanding the complex imbrication of aesthetic and political processes in Bishop's work, particularly the poems that address militarism and imperialism. While it may be true that "aesthetics are [Bishop's] avenue to the sociopolitical world" (Pickard 2009, 99), the reverse is equally true: Bishop's poems use politically charged scenes to explore the powers and limits of artistic representation. These poems reveal the conflicted nature of poetic vocation through their frequent layering of natural, descriptive, and historical discourses that summon the reader to divergent forms of participation. They also draw on World War II and colonial history as frameworks for investigating the multiple resonances of the term "vocation," including the sociopolitical dimensions of a poet's "calling" and the construction of a voice from textual fabric. Bishop repeatedly invokes the war and popular front militarism to explore the mechanics of poetic pretence, and the different kinds of responsiveness it nurtures or forestalls.
On the eve of World War II, Bishop bought a house in Key West, Florida, near a major naval base used for training personnel and operating fleet aircraft squadrons. In 1940, the town's population was 12,927; by 1945, some 15,000 military and 3,400 civilian personnel had been stationed in Key West (US 1942, 212). In a letter written June 8, 1940 to Marianne Moore, Bishop describes the view from her writing studio of a landscape animated by tropical weather and military activity:
It is the "rainy season" and we have had the most magnificent thunderstorms almost every day. I have taken a little room in our favorite hotel here to work in the mornings.... On the third floor (very high for Key West) is a little balcony with a flagpole, and two benches where one can sit and watch the palm trees wave all over town and see the ocean on three sides. It is so pretty--but more and more Navy ships keep coming, and they are building a tremendous airplane hangar. I am very much afraid that this is the last season we'll be able to live here for a longtime. (1994, 91)
From her balcony, the thunderstorms and military construction both seem to embody the rainy seasons greater chaos. On December 29, 1941, three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, Bishop wrote to Moore with greater urgency, emphasizing the crowdedness of her surroundings:
I am rather depressed about Key West--and my house--just now. The town is terribly overcrowded and noisy (at least on White Street) and not a bit like itself. It is one of those things one can't resent, of course, because it's all necessary, but I really feel that this is no place to be unless one is of some use. They are talking of evacuating the civilians. I don't believe they will, but still, what I want to do is to rent the house again and go somewhere. I haven't given up the idea of South America. I'm not a bit sure of the ethics of it all--what do you think? (105)
Bishop's clear anxiety about the militarization of Key West and her longing to escape don't overshadow her ambivalence about the war itself. After asserting that "it's all necessary" and that one should join the cause or get out, she appeals to Moore for some discussion of the ethics of (non)participation--by implication, both her own and that of the United States. Camille Roman notes that on June 10, 1940, two days after Bishop's letter to Moore about the arrival of warships in Key West, Franklin Roosevelt had delivered a speech that "effectively ended American neutrality in the war," committing the United States to the fight against fascism and taking pains to distinguish the current imperative from the debased narratives that had promoted US involvement in World War I (2001, 34).Roman records a pointed shift in cultural politics away from noninvolvement, citing the popularity of Edna St. Vincent Millay's patriotic poetry and the publication in 1940 of Archibald MacLeish's "The Irresponsibles," which criticized writers "for having devalued the words and conceptions and slogans needed for high morale in war" (quoted in Roman, 35). (12)
Bishop's equivocation with Moore is probably a matter of epistolary decorum; the letter certainly does not attempt a thorough reflection of her political views. Her deferral of comprehensive analysis and her deference to Moore are characteristic of the "reticence" her friends and critics often saw in her. In the years since her death, this perceived caginess has led scholars to extrapolate a politics from her personal correspondence and journals, but apart from enriching a mythologized image of the poet with provocative biographical detail, such scholarship has often done little to illuminate her work. Bishop's poetry from the thirties and forties is a more intricate record of what the war meant to her than any of her letters. "Little Exercise," published in 1946 in the New Yorker, is a case in point. This poem revisits the landscape Bishop described to Moore in 1940, mixing elements of "magnificent thunderstorm" and war. It juxtaposes the noise of military bombardment and the state's call to arms with the pelting of a storm and the incantatory "exercise" of poetry. As a result, the problem of military participation reveals underlying questions about the construction of a poetic voice and the reader's receptiveness to evocative language:
Think how they must look now, the mangrove keys lying out there unresponsive to the lightning in dark, coarse-fibered families, where occasionally a heron may undo his head, shake up his feathers, make an uncertain comment when the surrounding water shines. [...] Think of someone sleeping in the bottom of a row-boat tied to a mangrove root or the pile of a bridge; think of him as uninjured, barely disturbed. (1983, 41)
This poem is a "little exercise" in various senses. For the poet, it is an exercise in yoking referent and unlike reference; a series of languid, imperturbable life forms are described in language so precisely evocative that the poem works against our initial recognition that every part of the landscape is in some way invulnerable to the storm. The "mangrove keys"--already a richly allusive two-word poem--lie unmoved by lightning. Not so the reader, for whom the phrase "dark, coarse-fibered families" has a telescopic effect, drawing her near with a shock of texture. Though this vista's palm fronds are "limp fish-skeletons" (41), the storm-light delivers them to us in flashes of sudden revelation. Formally and thematically, the poem pulls in opposite directions. Its anaphoric instruction ("Think of ..."), mobile lens, and bright precision have a bracing effect on the reader. By contrast, the landscape of which we are induced to "think" remains half asleep. (13)
A quoted stage direction from Shakespeare's Henry VI instructs us to contemplate the storm as Henry contemplates a battle from neutral ground, in "another part of the field." (14) In the play, from the king's perch on a hillside, the war strikes him as arbitrary and equally weighted on both sides, and before long his reverie shifts to the advantages of a shepherd's life, whose hours are divided (like the heron's) among eating, playing, and resting. The introduction of a martial context in this stanza of "Little Exercise" encourages us to read the poem's title as a veiled reference to the military exercises Bishop witnessed in Key West. But what reader would not, in 1946, have seen the analogy to war even without Shakespeare? Likewise, the poem's description of the storm as a "series / of small, badly lit battle scenes" (41) seems excessive to the goal of allegory, suggesting that we read it less as a hint than a deliberate warning: to convert this vibrant scene into an extended metaphor for war would be to take the simplest available lesson from the exercise. The obtrusiveness of the allusion, made more so by quotation marks, is puzzling: if this is not crucially a poem about war, why has the allegory been set up so neatly? Yet if it is a WWII--era protest poem, an exercise in imagining restraint amid warlike extremity, why are we led through it with a storm rather than a more mimetic version of the military exercises that Bishop witnessed at close range? How, in other words, is this text enriched by military allusion?
As many writers of the previous generation had done with the Great War, Bishop evokes World War II to suggest that the exercise of choice in description--that is, the writer's choice of language and the reader's collaborative concentration--engages our political intelligence as thoroughly as a military exercise. Our response to this language is juxtaposed with the drowsiness of the land and its inhabitants so that however vividly we "see" it, we must feel our own distance from the scene, and thus the power of description. As an exploration of the political nature of human concentration, "Little Exercise" suggests that aesthetic and sociopolitical commitments are inextricable. Harold Schweizer compares the role of concentration in Bishop's work to Theodor Adorno's assertion, made decades later, that "no gaze attains beauty that is not accompanied by indifference, indeed, almost by contempt, for all that lies outside the object contemplated" (quoted in Schweizer 2005, 49). While Bishop was far from indifferent to what lay beyond her poetry's "gaze," she was especially interested in poetry that could elicit that kind of profoundly unbalanced focus, a concentration so intense that it suspends selfhood. "What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it," writes Bishop in her well-known "Darwin letter" to Anne Stevenson, "is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration" (quoted in Schwartz and Estess 1983, 288). Such concentration is useless only in the sense that it resists the "moral terrorism" that Adorno and Bishop each associated with politically motivated art (Schweizer 2005, 49). It is a concentration that renders the self useless, a way of looking with strange eyes at something that cannot confirm us to ourselves. Against the insinuation of military response, this selfless concentration seems less an alternative to politics than an alternative to the preconstituted political subject, to whom the state makes its appeal in a time of war. "Little Exercise" has us contemplate not just a landscape but selfhood called into being by poetry, a subject made and unmade in the act of reading.
What we "make" with our concentration in "Little Exercise" is a paradox: an unconscious human figure who is nevertheless not of a type with his nonhuman setting. The final image of someone asleep in a mangrove harbor and the value-loaded term "uninjured" cast, by contrast, an apolitical, inhuman neutrality over the mangroves, skeletons, and weeds that have successively drawn us to the interior of this mindscape. The sleeper is not uninjured in quite the way that the land is; he is "uninjured" rather than safe, "barely disturbed" rather than intact. Though he joins the world of things that have survived the storm, he is not permitted to shed the human charge of his being, which has been reinforced by the allusion to a history play about the inevitability of war. Still, the beauty of his image depends on our sense that he has drifted halfway across some boundary in his sleep, from one type of neutrality we understand to another we do not quite--from Henry's to the heron's. Anything we come to know about this scene is produced as well as limited by its description. We can see, for example, that the relative safety of coastal life is somehow an inner feature of the storm's process, but this does not resolve what is inscrutable in the sleeper's image. Its odd, exhilarating effect is to make us feel our own partial exclusion even from what we imagine: a strange container (or little boat) whose contents are partially unfathomable. When it was first published in the New Yorker, the poem was titled "Little Exercise at 4 A.M.," a detail that further separates the reader from the man in the boat. In the wee hours of the morning, we are awake to the details of this scene, and the man in the boat is not; such is the mysterious power of language to represent difference without collapsing it. We are not expected to be neutral about that difference; it is precisely what compels us to commit our imaginations to this exercise.
The poem's analogical evocation of wartime neutrality supports its gesture toward a politics of description. If we are told to imagine the fading storm as something like a series of badly lit battle scenes growing farther from us, it is not to suggest that war can be imagined away (as Henry tries to do), nor that the consequences of pacifism can be exhaustively imagined. Nevertheless, the poem demonstrates that language may call forth various kinds of participation, just as language allows us to explore alternatives to participating in cultures of violence. Such an alternative might start with an image, no more than the image of a container whose interior we have yet to inscribe.
I suspect that critics rarely treat "Little Exercise" except in passing because Bishop's oeuvre includes poems that deal in more overt and extended ways with war and militarism on the one hand, and with representation and the natural world on the other. (15) Like many of the poems in North & South (1946), Bishop's first collection, "Little Exercise" seems by its conspicuous yet insubstantial military reference to foster expectations it does not intend to fulfill. In 1945, Bishop wrote to her editor apologizing for her lack of poems dealing explicitly with World War II: "The fact that none of these poems deal directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published, will, I am afraid, leave me open to reproach. The chief reason is simply that I work very slowly" (1994, 125). (16) In fact, the collection contains a number of direct references to war (to name a few: "army" and "war" in two of the "Songs for a Colored Singer" series (1983, 47-51); "armored cars" and "ugly tanks" in "Sleeping Standing Up" (30); "ammunition" and "carrier-warrior-pigeon" in "Paris, 7 A.M." (26-27); and the central battle metaphor of "Wading at Wellfleet" (7). None of these references is obscure, but neither are they extensive or complex-suggesting that Bishop neither wanted the war to be far from her readers' minds, nor did she want them to spend their time looking for it.
Her critics, however, have often treated the war as a tacit subtext in need of discovery. Schweik argues that "Bishop's first book might be read, in fact, as a war book in-directed. In it the matters of war literature--naval engagements, border crossings, skirmishes, search missions, even a monument of sorts--appear, but only as covert operations" (1991, 213). In fact, the "operations" she lists are not particularly covert; most even give the poems their shape. For example, "Sleeping Standing Up" contains both a search mission and a border crossing of sorts, where dreams are the "armored cars" that carry the sleeper through a day's submerged imagery:
The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do so many a dangerous thing, are chugging at its edge all camouflaged, and ready to go through the swiftest streams, or up a ledge of crumbling shale, while plates and trappings ring (1983, 30)
The military contraption of this poem provides a figure for illiteracy; those armored cars are part of a symbolic order we erect in our dreams that ultimately cripples understanding. The dream-terrain's ledges crumble beneath the weight of our enterprise, and we hear the clatter of our own machine instead of whatever lies beyond it, in the "forest of thick-set trees." Dreams, like tanks, are dangerous contrivances that let us behave in a mutable, fleeting world as though it were not so. Here, as in "Little Exercise," military apparatus lends a worldly urgency to the question of what we stand to lose, or gain, by intoxication with images of our own or a poet's making.
According to Steven Axelrod, "It is finally time to acknowledge that Bishop was being disingenuous" in her letter to her editor since, "although her poem 'Roosters' does deal indirectly with the war while other poems critique militarism or war in general, Bishop never actually wrote the promised poems that would 'deal directly' with World War II" (2003, 844). This is true, and beside a poem like "Roosters," "Little Exercise" does not even seem to treat the war indirectly. But as I have suggested, the matter of focus--that is, the range and intensity of concentration that descriptive language provokes--is precisely what Bishop explores in that poem. What the exercise finally puts under investigation are the conditions necessary for language to produce understanding of any kind, direct or indirect. If North & South is not concerned with World War II as such, its portraits of receptivity, that mercurial interplay of alertness and alienation, acquire a special urgency from their evocation of a historical moment when all citizens were being "called" by national patriotic discourse to war.
Indeed, as John Lowney argues, Bishop wrote much of North & South at a time when the summons to war was effected in terms that were inimical to art (2006, 90-91). In 1939, the Partisan Review published Philip Rahv's "Twilight of the Thirties," an indictment of Popular Front politics in which he blames the "withering away of literature" and intellectual freedom on the cultural production of a "new nationalism, this bombast about the 'American way of life,' this so-called 'rediscovery of our democratic past'" (1939, 10). Lowney argues that while the totalitarian state was the ostensible threat to intellectual freedom in the thirties and forties, "the threat to literary expression was practically as dire in the democratic nations that were more intent on preparing for war than in protecting the values for which they would presumably be fighting" (2006, 90). As writers like Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot demonstrated in their Great War-era writing, the well-theorized threat of bourgeois nationalism can productively raise more amorphous questions about our susceptibility to all types of discourse. Through its layering of summons--the state's call to arms, the storm's call to awaken, and the poem's call to imagine--Bishop's "little exercise" elaborates the politically consequential space between the linguistically potent pretense of Lord Byron, who, "looking in the mirror, pretended to be the Byronic man," and the acts of pretense by which nations arrogate resources and produce the "infinite realities of empire" (Bishop 2006, 183).
Like "Little Exercise," Bishop's most emblematic war poem is above all a meditation on responsiveness. First published in the New Republic in April 1941, "Roosters" uses the pugnacious, militant birds of its title to dramatize "the uncontrolled, traditional cries" (1983, 37)--and sinister appeal--of both institutionalized violence and the salvation narratives that underwrite such violence. Bishop's roosters strut like officers "in green-gold medals dressed,/planned to command and terrorize the rest," while their "rustling wives," who "lead hens' lives/of being courted and despised," nevertheless cannot help admiring the roosters' "vulgar beauty of iridescence." Nor, as the poem shifts to include "us" among the hens, are we as imperturbable as the man who sleeps through the storm in "Little Exercise"; when the roosters cry "Get up! Stop dreaming!" we do, protesting. (17) But the rooster is more than a voice of militarist provocation; he is, above all, a symbol of the constructed nature of all voices and all symbols. Taking the long view of history, the poem's speaker observes that
there would always be a bronze cock on a porphyry pillar so the people and the Pope might see that even the Prince of the Apostles long since had been forgiven, and to convince all the assembly that "Deny deny deny" is not all the roosters cry. (38)
Through this displacement in perspective, Bishop establishes a parallel between the military and biblical contexts in which the rooster has become an icon. In the former, his warlike crowing produces "a senseless order [that] floats/all over town" (36). His posturing and pretence, his "raging heroism defying/even the sensation of dying" (37), are seductive because they appeal to our desire for order and identity. An element of fatalism helps ensure that his message "with horrible insistence, // ... flares, and all over town begins to catch" (35). The same fatalism leads "the people and the Pope" to discover in the cock's crowing a sealed fate for Peter, who, "heart-sick,/still cannot guess" (38) that he will be forgiven, and the symbol of his sin rendered a symbol of redemption. Here again, the enervating provocation of warlike discourse problematizes our availability to intoxicating language of all types. "Roosters" parodies not only phallic power, as readers have long understood, but also the ease with which we make the rooster's cry a symbol of apocalyptic order. As Bishop implies in her review of Auden, beneath the threats of European fascism or American militarism there often lurks the danger of a rigid, unregenerate use of symbols.
Thus, even a poem as self-consciously engaged with militarism as "Roosters" suffers from readings that set out to discover a "moral" about World War II or war in general, as when Roman concludes that "most importantly ... Bishop points out that the war enters the mind, the imagination, dreaming, lovemaking, and the other most intimate parts of human living by drawing the scene of the roosters and crucifixion into the bedroom of the speaker" (2001, 69). This reading skirts the poem as a whole, which dramatizes the incursion of martial and Christian activity into the private sphere only to subject it to the homely purification of morning, demonstrating the contingency of all narrative and the difficulty, given the cabbages of the homestead, of remaining committed to the night's fatalistic response. Early in the poem, the roosters' warlike cry originates in our own backyard, "grat[ing] like a wet match/from the broccoli patch" (1983, 35) before flaring and spreading like fire. But that same broccoli--with its sheer, unpretentious givenness--comes finally to symbolize the power of perspective, of seeing things literally in a different light:
In the morning a low light is floating in the backyard, and gilding from underneath the broccoli, leaf by leaf; how could the night have come to grief? (39)
As the poem ends, a low light rather than a senseless order "floats" over the world and conditions our responses to it. By this light, it is possible to say of the rooster that "what he sung/no matter" (37). Not just because he is dead but because even his symbolic value, which once seemed unalterable, has changed. Published during a war whose horrors would rival if not eclipse those of the Great War, "Roosters" depicts a world where shifting perspective reveals even the most violent or adamant stance to be fungible.
If there is a lesson here about war, it is more crucially a lesson about language and the mechanics of pretence that Bishop outlines in her review of Auden. A close examination of those mechanics in her work is ultimately indistinguishable from a more nuanced historicism--one that considers the precise ways in which historical violence frames, illuminates, and sometimes ironizes linguistic processes. Reading Bishop in this way suggests that the histories of war, imperialism, and even gender are less central to the poetry than they might seem. Yet at the same time, the specters of that violence are all the more instrumental for the ways in which they materialize the poetry's concerns with language and interiority--that is, with language's power to summon forth inchoate life. Poems like "Little Exercise" and "Roosters" invert the ordinary structure of elegy, where military violence can be "processed" as poetic form; instead, war becomes a trope through which these poems investigate the dynamics of linguistically inscribed selfhood, the relationship of imagination to public culture, and the role of "pretence" in the circulation of cultural capital. Bishop's reader is led through imaginative exercises that raise the question of whether poetic and militaristic discourses are analogous modes of address. As a whole, her poetry elaborates the consequential differences between these uses of voice, as war becomes a provisional--and ultimately inapposite--metaphor for poetry.
In the decades following World War II, a period of nationalist struggle and the progressive decolonization of the southern regions of the globe, Bishop evokes colonialism and its lingering effects much as she uses the war in her first volume: as a metaphor for the potential powers--both oppressive and liberating--of poetic language. Perhaps more than any other poem, "Brazil, January 1, 1502" (1959) has been used to demonstrate the critical relationship between "questions of travel"--as she titled one of her volumes--and questions of language in her work. (18) To the tradition of reading the poet as an analog for the imperialist explorer, I would add that the latter's problematic energies are not simply shifted onto the poet, but that this poem functions as another descriptive "exercise" whereby our response to poetic language not only conditions political response but might also provide the grounds for its interruption or transformation.
The poem overlays the construction of two voices: the voices of indigenous women who are, like the man asleep in a boat, partially obscured at the poem's interior--and the voice of the poet, which, in its capacity to respond, also stands for the reader's. As in "Little Exercise," our receptivity is at issue: what sort of call will our habits of language permit us to hear and, in turn, to make? In the first stanza, a spectacularly ineloquent narrator describes the Brazilian landscape in terms that thwart imagination and call almost nothing into being:
Januaries, Nature greets our eyes exactly as she must have greeted theirs: every square inch filling in with foliage-- big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves, blue, blue-green, and olive, [...] and flowers too, like giant water lilies up in the air--up, rather, in the leaves-- purple, yellow, two yellows, pink, rust red and greenish white; solid but airy; fresh as if just finished and taken off the frame. (1983, 91)
This tone is a far cry from the "Wordsworthian readiness" that David Kalstone attributes to Bishop's landscape poems of the preceding decade (1989, 67). Aside from the traditional gendering of nature, there seems to be very little about the speaker's vision that is involuntary or illuminating; we are greeted instead by a fussy accumulation of abstract modifiers that refer only to each other and prevent us from seeing much of anything. The leaves are "big," "little," "giant," and even "monster," but without a scale or key we have no way of translating those terms into values. This stanza might be a scrap torn from some map, exact and illegible. Bent on a precision that makes no allowance for metaphor, or what T. S. Eliot called "suggestiveness" (2005, 162-63), the speaker revises compulsively--"up in the air" becomes "up, rather, in the leaves," and "yellow" becomes "two yellows." As she implies, this scene is too "finished," a closed system of reference that is paradoxically too open--precisely the opposite of "Little Exercise." Without a frame, we cannot tell what is excluded from the scene; we have no call to concentrate. With only "yellows" in our descriptive vocabulary, we have to feel the incapacity of our imagination to deck this landscape with the life we know it must have.
Bishop proposes in "Mechanics of Pretence" that when faced with such a disproportion of word and thing, we need a new poetry:
In the earlier stages the poet is the verbal actor. One of the causes of poetry must be, we suppose, the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact; there is something out of proportion between them, and what is being said in words is not at all what is being said in "things." To connect this disproportion a pretence is at first necessary. By "pretending" the existence of a language appropriate and comparable to the "things" it must deal with, the language is forced into being. (2006, 183)
In the second stanza of "Brazil," the speaker drops her pretence to sheer description and starts really pretending, in Bishop's theoretical sense of the word. By introducing elements of narrative and allusion, she opens the scene to contamination by memory, preconception, and desire, limiting our focus in a way that is problematic but exciting. Now she notices "big symbolic birds" who, "perching there in profile, beaks agape, / ... keep quiet" (1983, 91). And "in the foreground," witnessed by the silent, gaping birds, "there is Sin:/five sooty dragons" engaged in a mating ritual. Even the rocks are now under assault,
threatened from underneath by moss in lovely hell-green flames, attacked from above by scaling-ladder vines, oblique and neat, "one leaf yes and one leaf no" (in Portuguese).
As though galvanized by the current of our prejudice, this scene takes on the dimensions of bas-relief, acquiring a foreground. The "symbolic" birds remain flat in profile, yet in their stillness they remind us of something from another time and place--of hieroglyphs maybe--thus gaining referential depth. The foliage has brightened from "blue, blue-green, and olive" to "hell-green," its beauty saved from abstraction by a sense of encroaching damnation, and animated by subterranean pressure. "Sin" and "one leaf yes and one leaf no," which might be a tropical version of "he loves me/loves me not," call our attention to the elements of this scene that suggest erotic play--a feeling that peaks in the image of a female lizard surrounded by the "sooty" males, "her wicked tail straight up and over,/red as a red-hot wire" (92).
Between the first stanza's "two yellows" and the second stanza's "red-hot," we have an impossible choice: the inertia of description uninflected by ideology, or the self-serving (yet self-loathing) moralism of Christian mythology, not to mention European gender convention. We will learn in the final stanza that the latter goads "the Christians, hard as nails" (92) to sexual violence, yet the poem's darkest discovery is that for us, unlike the victims of that violence, there is no possibility of retreat:
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.
If we attempt a retreat to the flat world of the first stanza, the Indian women who keep calling to each other become entirely invisible, unimaginable in a language that so far has been only "fitted," to borrow a term from "Mechanics," to a landscape of inert pastels. Such language is perhaps without prejudice, but it is ill-equipped to represent any form of difference more complex or consequential than the distinction between "blue," "blue-green," and "olive." Nor, on the other hand, does the introduction of mythology bring us closer to the human figures at the center of this poem. The third stanza's parenthetical aside, "or had the birds waked up?," recalls the hieroglyphic birds of the second stanza, warning that ideological frameworks give the world an illusory liveliness, turning a distant yet (maddeningly) human call into a scenery of barely audible birdsong. Ultimately, neither the flat, artless language of "pure" perception nor the artful imposition of a frame succeeds in delivering the world to us. One cannot respond to the frustration of the second stanza by reverting to some preideological, purified language, but neither can one settle for the narrative of "Sin."
On its own, the poem's last scene--a narrative of imperialist violence and the partial resistance of the colonial subject--should be familiar. But its function in the poem as a whole is less familiar: the depiction of a brutally exploited racial and sexual difference reveals an underlying gap between descriptive language and experience, a disproportion of the type Bishop describes in her review of Auden. While they chase the native women, the Christians hum a fifteenth-century folk song (often sung at mass) proclaiming the armed man's menace; with those words they accompany their incursion, relating their violence to a tradition of male privilege that precedes them. In all its newness, Brazil is "not unfamiliar" (92), a sure sign that the language once "forced into being" for such an encounter now has a hand in forcing the encounter. The poem dramatizes the process by which "pretence"--first so necessary as a way of doing justice to the world--eventually produces the more dangerous "infinite realities of empire." Bishop speaks of the process by which a discourse is naturalized as one where "the play becomes a play on a stage dissolving to leave the ground underneath"; here, the invisibility of the stage endangers the actors--who are unaware that they have forced the world to conform to their ideas of gender and property--as well as the (back)ground, to which the women are "always retreating." (19)
In the terms of "Mechanics of Pretence," "Brazil" illustrates two of poetry's first causes: in the first stanza, a world of "things" that have yet to inspire a language sufficient for relating to them; and, in the third stanza, a world in which language is a hanging fabric that perpetually obscures vision. The second stanza seems most nearly like the unfolding moment in which poetic language is first "fitted to" the "ways of the world"; with its foliage of "hell-green flames," it gives us an experience of the land that is both beautiful and, in retrospect, dangerously flawed. The poet who would do justice to this scene cannot do without artifice or "pretence," whose social force makes it impossible to draw a hard line between poetic and social justice, given what Jeffrey Gray calls "the impossibility of finding that 'different world' unconstructed by and uninvolved with ourselves" (2005, 39). (20) When Kalstone reads this poem as a "rededication to what Brazil had confirmed in [Bishop's] preferences for descriptive encounter over historical experience," the work of "a lone individual entering into and acquiring attachments, tentatively" (1989, 194-95), he draws a distinction between poetic description and historicity that Bishop probably would not have recognized, however much she might have felt like a "lone" individual in the wider world. Thus, the poem's most overt figure for political difference--the insurmountable, intolerable distance of the racial and sexual "other"--reveals a difference in language traditions. The poet identifies with "the Christians" to the extent that her deafness to the women's voices is not merely convenient but a matter of linguistic and literary tradition. Unless a new language is "forced into being," any rapprochement between her and these women must occur in the language she has inherited from the Portuguese explorers. As they pass her the terms in which nature greeted their eyes, they also bequeath her their range of vision, its depths, and their expectations for the world they saw. If the poet hopes to hear the women's calls of distress more clearly--a fourth option for a yet-unwritten stanza--she will have to confront her problematic relationship to "poetic" calling. That is, we have to interrogate the language we force into being for incommensurable things, and the things that in turn call us to write. (21)
The trace of the indigenous women's voices prevents us from reading this poem as a complacent acceptance of the "postmodern" condition. Certainly, it will support the various radical notions some readers now take for granted--that the ideological "frame" is the foundation of historical knowledge; that there is no fact anterior to representation. But by representing what might seem like a higher-stakes loss than the first stanza's obscure vista or the second stanza's symbolically overburdened lizards, the women stop us from shelving these lessons about language without acknowledging their dark side. The women's calling makes us wonder whether the poem is not also a partly inaudible call of distress, and whether there is not a thin elegiac melody floating beneath its tough lucidity--an elegy not only for the disappearing women but for a poetic tradition more responsive to their reality. Readers have wanted to see in the women's "retreat" a meaningful form of agency or resistance to violence, but these readings indulge a problematic urge to equate form and content, too readily finding in the poem's attitude toward signification a means of escape for the women. (22) If instead we encounter the story of colonial violence as a context for thinking about descriptive language, the poem becomes profoundly sad. It seems to dare us to imagine the native women as "uninjured," knowing well that in the terms we have, we cannot.
Many of the poems Bishop wrote in the thirties and early forties while living in Florida also draw on the history of colonialism in the Americas to explore the mechanics of pretence. In "Florida" (1939), Bishop foregrounds the discursive impossibility of objective, value-neutral description, implicitly connecting the linguistic persistence of privileged subjectivity to the marginalization of subaltern people. Lowney links Bishop's concern with subalternity to the fact that her residence in Key West coincided with a number of "New Deal documentary projects," publicly funded and highly publicized ethnographic initiatives to recover "buried" American cultures. Noting that many artists suspected these salvage projects of having "nationalist rather than primitivist" motives, Lowney argues that Bishop's "reflexive practice of surrealist observation and ironic representation calls into question the rhetorical act of salvage it practices. Rather than allegories of salvage, her fables of the margins could be more accurately described as allegories of allegories of salvage" (2006, 75), where "salvage" functions as a form of artistic "pretence." Similarly, Pickard argues that many of the poems in North & South "look like allegory but do not do the work that allegory generally does; they present fully realized alternate worlds that seem to have been constructed to allow a particular, significant narrative to play itself out, but they never quite indicate their purpose in doing so" (2009, 23). That is, without subordinating poetics to political ideology, these poems call our attention to moments in which description conditions experience.
We might indeed read "Florida" as an allegory of an allegory--one that plays with ethnographic conventions to suggest that a poet's choices amount to "salvage," conceived not as salvation but as a form of unnatural selection that highlights the powers and dangers of poetic "pretence." Like "Brazil," "Florida" develops its politics of description through the trope of racial difference, conjuring the shadow of colonial violence and the "call" of an indigenous woman. And like "Little Exercise," it brings a landscape to life even as the poet's eye finds death and decay everywhere, from oysters that "strew white swamps with skeletons" and buzzards "drifting down, down,/over something they have spotted in the swamp" to "stumps and dead trees" on which "the charring is like black velvet." Obliquely, this poem invokes evolutionary theory, which in the degraded form of social Darwinism was having its heyday in the 1930s. This landscape is choked with the ostensible evidence of adaptation; there are "long S-shaped birds," mosquitoes whose "ferocious obbligatos" suggest they are hardwired for their hunt, and Darwin's own obsession, the "enormous turtles, helpless and mild," who "die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,/and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets/twice the size of a man's." Nothing in this poem is still; every life form is observed in a process apparently linked to its survival: hunting, singing, glowing at night. The beach is also littered with the recently abandoned shells of aquatic life, "arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,/the buried Indian Princess's skirt" (1983, 32-33)--proof that unlike "the buried Indian Princess" whose skirt is present by analogy only, the turtles and mollusks are still, as a species, with us.
But for the speaker this activity is all ornamental, decoration for a "monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line."Just as "Brazil, January 1, 1502" interrogates the propriety of the correspondence we imagine between the "Indian women" and the lizards (whose correspondence with the Christian ur-lizard is also suspect), "Florida" questions the nature of correspondences between creaturely form and function--between an organism's color, shape, or habits and some feature of its environment. "The palm trees clatter in the stiff breeze/like the bills of pelicans" as though tree and bird have both adapted to a world of stiff breezes by miming stiffness, and "the tropical rain comes down/to freshen the tide-looped strings of fading shells" as though the principle of selection were visible in the favoring of these shells, saved at the last moment from death on dry land.
But then the lusciously allusive names of shells, listed for our pleasure, raise our doubts about the human ability to identify genuine correspondence--names like "Job's Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,/ parti-colored pectins and Ladies' Ears." Are the associations with mythology, human sign systems, and anatomy recorded by these names more or less dubious than the ones implied by evolutionary theory? How natural is our way of seeing, and what forms of life does it make possible? The evidence of the landscape seems to confirm what we know of our evolutionary moment: that the turtle is not yet extinct, while the indigenous princess--not just any native woman but a member of an old tribe--is long gone. Yet she too corresponds to certain features of the landscape; the speaker recognizes the coast by the color of her skirt and the shells that are reminiscent of its decorations. And, in one of Bishop's characteristic and infinitely odd reversals, the alligator--living, present--speaks in her throat:
The alligator, who has five distinct calls: friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning-- whimpers and speaks in the throat of the Indian Princess. (33)
It is not the "buried" Indian Princess who survives in the alligator's "five distinct calls" but the alligator that survives in its resemblance to her, its ability to call forth our memory or fantasy of her. We seem to be able to distinguish the different tones of its voice in terms of what we know or think we know about her. So it is she whose persistence in language--what we can manage to remember, contain, muster, and see in the world--reminds us that description has recognizably political consequences.
Bishop lived in Key West until the war ended, and while for many critics this poem marks a transition toward her more loosely ordered landscape poems, it uses military reference in much the same way as "Little Exercise." For a moment, the decay on the beach looks to the speaker like evidence of a wartime cannonade; the landscape is "dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks/ like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass" (32). But almost before an image of destruction can materialize, the speaker reframes it as an event whose violence has passed both in time and comprehensibility (as it does when dawn breaks in "Roosters"); now the cannonballs serve as fertile ground. Here is a new theory of evolution: things do not survive because they are "fit" or adaptable; we survive because our ability to describe the world evolves. Moreover, the poet's construction of a speaker depends on her reconstruction of the American Indian's voice. This evolution is a function of description: no matter how vivid their image, the grassy cannonballs are not actually present in this landscape; it is the dead skeletons that look like ancient cannonballs. The speaker has introduced an image of war to show us that no image's evidentiary value is fixed, not even the image of a force so destructive that it seems barely available to description. The comparison of a hummock to a cannonball disrupts the simple flow of likeness to ask what differences we elide by analogy--in this case, a possible difference in our attitudes toward theories of racial and national teleology. This might be its own powerful "little exercise," implying continuity in Bishop's thinking about the relation between poetic description and a certain kind of pacifism: "Imagine a cannon-ball. Imagine a cannon-ball covered/ with moss."
If "Florida'"s portrait of a "careless, corrupt state" gestures toward racial politics through the buried woman and what the speaker describes ambiguously as "black specks too far apart, and ugly whites" (33), it is to make a point about language that has far-reaching social consequences: careless corruption may be the default "state" of nature, amid which all intensive selection--that of descriptive language most of all--is unnatural, hence powerful. Unlike the distribution of debris on the shore, the poem's foci cannot be random; even the most casual description of a landscape gives the writer a choice she cannot abrogate: between language that allows us to imagine the Indian's survival and language that finds in the order of things a justification or necessity.
"Florida" is therefore also a poem about the politics of remembrance or monumentality, akin to Bishop's most famous poem on that subject, "The Monument" (1940). The eponymous structure of that poem gives no hint of sufficiency or closure; it is an impromptu, communal thing constantly worked on by human and natural forces:
The monument's an object, yet those decorations, carelessly nailed, looking nothing like nothing at all, give it away as having life, and wishing; wanting to be a monument, to cherish something. (24)
Existing somewhere between impulse and object, the monument is and is not independent of its maker. It embodies the provisionality that "hatch[es] any art," as John Palattella argues (1993, 36). As a figure for language, the monument illustrates an ambiguous moment in Bishop's theory of pretence: the moment after the poet has begun to invent a new discourse but before that discourse has entirely colonized our ways of seeing. In this liminal space, language and "the world" are no longer--and not yet--out of proportion with each other; this is the moment of the artist's greatest aesthetic and political power.
Although the two poems may represent divergent modes in Bishop's oeuvre, "Florida" develops a politics of description not unlike that of "The Monument," which we have learned to read as substantively engaged with thirties politics (see, especially, Palatella 1993). In different ways, both poems illuminate the process by which we make monuments of language, or what Bishop describes, paraphrasing William Empson, as "the tendency ... of what a poet writes to become real" (2006, 184). If we think of "Florida" as another of Bishop's monuments, we can see that she accepts the necessity of artifice in even the most "natural" world. Indeed, the ornamental debris of Florida's landscape seems to "give it away," like that other half-organic structure, "as having life, and wishing;/ wanting to be a monument" (1983, 24).Tempting though it may be to think of "Florida" as a deflationary account of human temporality and significance, it bears the marks of human desire from its first line ("The state with the prettiest name ..."), a desire that, by naming the state for one of its features, begins to designate the sphere of its reference. This power to name--what Jacqueline Brogan calls "that act of naming, the telling of 'the story,' the scripting of our lives" (2001, 518) (23)--is a crucial part of the mechanics of pretence that "Florida" embodies and ultimately interrupts. Referring to "The Monument," Vernon Shetley argues that "whatever is commemorated by this monument is itself unavailable" and that the structure, "while it may be a tomb, is also an origin.... Bishop's monuments are not fixed and final but capable of transformation" (1993, 41). Bishop's Florida is also a tomb and set of origin stories, and the girl buried in it is lost in perhaps the most important senses: we have to call her "princess" because we have no less exotic term, and she is singular, without community.
On the other hand, this land is not a cenotaph. Bishop's speaker acknowledges that "what is within" the tombs and monuments we make of language "cannot have been intended to have been seen" (1983, 25) and then looks inside anyway, as far as she can. This is difficult to see unless we look beyond "The Monument" to the porous figures of encryption that appear in her work--porous, that is, to imagination. Shetley's reading of "The Monument" reverts instead to an old picture of Bishop as withdrawn, seeming to echo Marianne Moore's early wish that Bishop would "risk some unprotected profundity of experience" (Moore 1997, 391). "If in recent years," he writes, "we have come to read Eliot's advocacy of artistic impersonality as a defense against a painful personal history, so we might also see Bishop's attribution of life to an artifact as a means of evading questions of human agency" (Shetley 1993, 41).
Each of the poems discussed here enfolds a figure of partially indecipherable humanity, but this is just the point of a monument: like the structure in "The Monument," edifices made of language bear the traces of the maker's desire and show us an image of ourselves where we begin to be something else, something social. If we think of "Florida" as a kind of monument, a fluid arrangement of organic surfaces that partially conceal a human history, we will see that it is through the descriptive choices we make, and how we train our eyes as we describe, that we endow monuments with traces of ourselves, which in turn suggest lives of their own as we contemplate them. In the world as on the page, Bishop argues, this is the mechanics of pretence. The poet doesn't evade agency in the monument; she exercises her most basic agency in its description. The speaker in "Florida" cannot see the Indian girl buried beneath her, but she perceives the surface of the earth-tomb in terms of her, and makes her own voice out of that girl's calls.
(1.) For a citation and discussion of Bishop's letter to Lowell, see Kalstone 1989. Bishop disapproved of Lowell's use of Elizabeth Hardwick's letters in his poetry, particularly since he changed them. She quotes Thomas Hardy in her reprimand: "What should certainly be protested against, in cases where there is no authorization, is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that. If any statements in the dress of fiction are covertly hinted to be fact, all must be fact, and nothing else but fact" (quoted in Kalstone, 241). A few lines later she asserts that "art just isn't worth that much." Elsewhere, Bishop claims that "I always tell the truth in my poems," and "it was all exactly the way I described it"; frequent qualifications such as "Oh, but I did change one thing" only seem to underscore her investment in the literal (quoted in Edelman 1985, 179).
(2.) For instance, Lorrie Goldensohn introduces her biography of the poet by claiming that "Elizabeth Bishop's pursuit of truth and accurate description always existed in fruitful tension with her defense of the unwilled and unconscious life of the mind" (1992, ix), and Margaret Dickie remarks that while "Bishop's letters and interviews are quite direct in identifying the events that started the poems" (1997, 2), "so specific are her explanations of the poems' sources that they seem contrived to hide any explanation of how or why the event was worked up into a particular poem it produced" (3).
(3.) According to Brett Millier (1995), Bishop drafted the essay in 1937; see Bishop 2006, 183n1.
(4.) Bishop's notebooks from the mid-thirties suggest that she was reading Wordsworth around the time she drafted "Mechanics of Pretence." In one entry, she characterizes the "Romantic" habit of "using the supposedly 'spiritual'--the beautiful, the nostalgic, the ideal and poetic, to produce the material [world]"--as a "great perversity" (quoted in Costello 1993, 4).
(5.) Indeed, Bishop's denaturalization of the poetry's power more closely echoes Nietzsche's claim that "the reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for--[is] originally almost always wrong and arbitrary.... All this grows from generation unto generation, merely because people believe in it, until it gradually grows to be part of the thing and turns into its very body. What at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably the essence and effective as such" ( 1974, 58).
(6.) Gillian White offers a similar interpretation of what Bishop refers to elsewhere as the "tradition of likenesses." White relates this "tradition" to "what Sir Philip Sidney called 'figuring foorth' or artistic formation--formings and feignings of the mess of 'reality' into likenesses and orderly shapes. It is more than mimesis, if by mimesis we simply mean imitation: it is something more like coherence making and hermeneutics" (2014, 53).
(7.) See Robert von Hallberg's discussion of American "poet-tourists" (1985, 62-92). Although Hallberg notes that Bishop was often critical of her status as a tourist, he suggests that her position as one of the "world's consumers" (86) could only be half-ironic. Appraisals of Bishop as an aesthete, and of her poetry as politically disengaged, were common until the mid-nineties; as Jeffrey Gray notes, "The idea of [Bishop's] work as 'descriptive,' as withholding emotion, and of the poet as content to receive impressions" (2005, 26) is well-entrenched. Take, for instance, Millier's claim that "since [Bishop's] uncommitted path through the left-leaning 1930s, Elizabeth had been uncomfortable in the presence of political commitment" (1995, 200), preferring a "wholly esthetic appreciation of the country, the landscape, and the people" (274).
(8.) See, for example, Kirstin Hotelling Zona's Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and May Swenson: The Feminist Poetics of Self-Restraint (2002).
(9.) Other interesting accounts of Bishops relationship to war include Barry 1999, Fountain 1999, Dickie 1997, and Pickard 2009, 98-124.
(10.) This and other theorizations of Bishop's skepticism--a category that at its most productive bridges the political and aesthetic--have built on the work of James Longenbach, who argues that "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" (1995, 468). In the same spirit, John Palattella observes that Bishop's "style is divested of politics only if we acquiesce to the critical standards she questioned ...--that a lack of historical topicality implies no interest in political issues" (1993, 26).
(11.) Pickard notes that while readers often celebrate Bishop's precise descriptions, when "applied with more malign intent, 'descriptive' implies a limiting obsession with brute reality, a lack of imagination that prevents Bishop from seeing beyond the here and now. This second, derogatory sense of the word usually lurks in the background, and even those who label Bishop descriptive with the best intentions are eager to move on" (2009, 3).
(12.) At the time, MacLeish was the librarian of Congress. See MacLeish 1941, 103-21.
(13.) This argument is related to Pickard's claim that what Bishop's poems "do to" the reader is often different from what they express about the poem's subject or object: "The central goal of her poetry is not so much to relate an emotional experience (though it may) as to trigger one in the reader.... Her intensive poetics is organized around controlling the readers imagination directly rather than inspiring it to vibrate sympathetically in the Romantic style" (2009, 35).
(14.) Shakespeare frequently uses this designation for scenes of battle or interludes between fighting; the direction appears in Henry IV, Henry V, and Julius Caesar, among others. However, it is in act 2, scene 5 of Henry VI, part 3--which depicts many of the most significant battles in the Wars of the Roses--that the speaker contemplates a "badly lit" battle scene that
fares like to the morning's war, When dying clouds contend with growing light, What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails, Can neither call it perfect day nor night. (II, v, 1-4)
He further compares the war among men to a war of weather:
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind; Now one the better, then another best--Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast. (9-11)
And, like Bishop's speaker, King Henry envisions his own distance from the war and the potential immunity of noninvolvement, imagining a pastoral life rather than a martial one.
(15.) An exception is Thomas Travisano's interesting discussion of the poem (1988), 94-96.
(16.) Palattella reads this letter as part of Bishop's ongoing exploration of "how poetry could engage social conditions without adopting politics 'as such,' which for her was a politics committed to a cocksure, dogmatic ideology that squelches speculation" (1993, 20).
(17.) In particular, "we" protest the rooster's power to wake us into a violent order that is linguistically inscribed, as in the arbitrary repetition of "here":
what right have you to give commands and tell us how to live,
cry 'Here!' and 'Here!' and wake us here where are unwanted love, conceit, and war?" (Bishop 1983, 36)
(18.) See, especially, Gray, who argues that the Brazilian landscape becomes "a trope of nature-as-text" in which "the worlds of representation and geographic reality ... are indistinguishable," so that "we are never sure whether we are on the 'real' geographic journey or on the textual, 'engravable' one" (2005, 32). Gray cites Jacinta Matos on the poetic text as a recapitulation of a journey in which "a prior text is articulated with a present narrative" and "the old journey serves ... both as pretext and pre-text" (251n9). Of course, "Brazil" invites the comparison of poet and imperialist from its first lines onward: "Januaries, Nature greets our eyes--/exactly as she must have greeted theirs" (Bishop 1983, 91). The multiplicity of "Januaries" alerts us to the cyclicality of vision and the inescapable fact that our experience is primed by old mythologies. Thus, as Longenbach argues, "the poem is more than an unveiling of Portuguese colonialism; it is also a recognition of the possibility of Bishop's--or anyone's--complicity in the continuing imposition of [colonialism's] values" (1997, 30).
(19.) In fact, Bishop suggests that neoimperialist exploration is a theater of pretence that may also endanger its audience, even as it delights them. "Questions of Travel" uses the stage play as an explicit figure for a type of disengaged consumption that makes the poem's speaker uncomfortable. Faced with a foreign landscape that is simultaneously alien and overfamiliar, she asks: "Is it right to be watching strangers in a play/in this strangest of theaters?" (1983, 93).
(20.) Gray is quoting "Arrival at Santos," another of Bishop's "touristic" poems: "Oh, tourist,/is this how this country is going to answer you/and your immodest demands for a different world ...?" (1983, 89). Gillian White puts the question in terms of the cultural commodification accomplished by commercial advertisements and state propaganda: "What constitutes genuine experience if the language with which one experiences or describes it is inherited and often already commodified for us?" (2014, 82).
(21.) Indeed, the notion of forcing a language into being seems to darkly echo the language of "those maddening little women who kept calling,/calling" (Bishop 1983, 92), a language that has also been "forced" into being as a response to the conquistadores' violence. As Robert von Hallberg argues, "The imperialist is out to deceive himself as well as others: protests must be heard as songs of joy. At the basis of imperialism (and of tourism too) is a tempting deception that mocks most human interchange" (1985, 87).
(22.) Gray argues that the conquistadores' "pursuit is not successful. The densely woven textus of Nature provides inexhaustible paths of recession for the native women, paths the Christian predators find hard to follow" (2005, 39).
(23.) In her discussion of "The Burglar of Babylon," Brogan argues that by refusing to tell us the "moral" of his story--subverting one of the good-night ballad's generic conventions--the poem's burglar resists the linguistic violence of a society whose "scripting" (2001, 524) of cautionary tales criminalizes the individual by obscuring society's culpability. "Not the crime of stealing money," she concludes, "but the crime of refusing to steal--to borrow 'the' language and its story of guilt, confession, and warning--constitutes his real crime." We might extend Brogan's argument that language may be "the real criminal" (518) to less manifestly "political" poems like "Little Exercise" and "Florida," which draw our attention to the subtle acts of pretence by which language acquires the power to "con-script."
Axelrod, Steven Gould. 2003. "Bishop and Containment Policy." American Literature 75, no. 4: 843-67.
Barry, Sandra. 1999. "Elizabeth Bishop and World War I." War, Literature, and the Arts 11, no. 1: 93-110.
Bishop, Elizabeth. 1983. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
--. 1994. One Art: Letters. Edited by Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar Straus, and Giroux.
--. 2006. Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. Edited by Alice Quinn. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. 2001. "Naming the Thief in 'Babylon': Elizabeth Bishop and 'The Moral of the Story.'" Contemporary Literature 42, no. 3:514-34.
Costello, Bonnie. 1993. Questions of Mastery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Kathryn Van Wert is assistant professor of English and director of interdisciplinary studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Her research and teaching focus on contemporary Anglophone literature and transatlantic modernism, and her work has appeared recently in Journal of Modern Literature, Modern Language Studies, and various edited collections. Her current project deals with the development of philosophical materialism in modernist literature.
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|Author:||Van Wert, Kathryn|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2018|
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