She is said to be reticent; it is the title and subject of a monograph on her work, and recently I read a poet remarking on having learned from her the lesson of reticence in a poem. But calling Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry or poetic voice “reticent” gets things the wrong way around. She is eager and seeking–and the world itself is too reserved for her; her poems would overcome the world’s alienating, exclusionary reticence.
Here, as a touchstone, is a poem from Geography III, “The End of March”:
It was cold and windy, scarcely the day
to take a walk on that long beach
Everything was withdrawn as far as possible,
indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken,
seabirds in ones or twos.
The rackety, icy, offshore wind
numbed our faces on one side;
disrupted the formation
of a lone flight of Canada geese;
and blew back the low, inaudible rollers
in upright, steely mist.
The sky was darker than the water
–it was the color of mutton-fat jade.
Along the wet sand, in rubber boots, we followed
a track of big dog-prints (so big
they were more like lion-prints). Then we came on
lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string,
looping up to the tide-line, down to the water,
over and over. Finally, they did end:
a thick white snarl, man-size, awash,
rising on every wave, a sodden ghost,
falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost…
A kite string?–But no kite.
I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream-house,
my crypto-dream-house, that crooked box
set up on pilings, shingled green,
a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener
(boiled with bicarbonate of soda?),
protected from spring tides by a palisade
of–are they railroad ties?
(Many things about this place are dubious.)
I’d like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.
At night, a grog a l’américaine.
I’d blaze it with a kitchen match
and lovely diaphanous blue flame
would waver, doubled in the window.
There must be a stove; there is a chimney,
askew, but braced with wires,
and electricity, possibly
–at least, at the back another wire
limply leashes the whole affair
to something off behind the dunes.
A light to read by–perfect! But–impossible.
And that day the wind was much too cold
even to get that far,
and of course the house was boarded up.
On the way back our faces froze on the other side.
The sun came out for just a minute.
For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
and all those high enough threw out long shadows,
individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them
–a sun who’d walked the beach the last low tide,
making those big, majestic paw-prints,
who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.
The third stanza, beginning “I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream house,” certainly takes as its subject something that might be associated with reticence or reserve. Through the entire poem, she is walking along the beach and in this third stanza, she decides she will walk as far as the beach-house she wishes were her own. She falls into a reverie of her life there, alone, with tea, notes, and a wasteful intensity of reading and note-taking without public outlet. But this is a dream, as she tells us, of retirement (“I’d like to retire there and do nothing“), of the life of otium far from the public fray.
It is hard to find here any trace of reserve or reticence since they appear only in the company of others–and the others she walked with along the beach have left the poem by now (the “we” of the second stanza; but maybe they are still with her, and leaving her to her own thoughts, knowing her well enough to do so; they reappear in the last stanza when “our faces froze”). The only person with Bishop’s voice is the reader, and there is hardly any reticence as she communicates her vision to us. In fact, the lines jangle with an excitable intensity, like a child describing and revising and describing again the perfect house and perfect life.
It may be that she was reserved and reticent, and so sought retirement to shun social obligations; but it may also be that social obligations were to be avoided because they prevented her from devoting her energies to a more essential activity: to bringing the reticent world, from which she felt herself estranged, into proximity with her existence.
That seems at any rate to be the struggle yielding this and any other number of Bishop’s most beautiful poems (especially “Crusoe in England,” which might be her greatest). It is easy, in the last lines, to feel the presence of Stevens: “a sun who’d walked the beach the last low tide,/ making those big, majestic paw-prints,/who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.” But the similarity ought to be a ground against which the difference is measured. For Stevens, the thought is often that the world is there, to be summoned and shaped by (depending on whether we believe it to exist prior to) the imagination; the prerogative and scope of the imagination are celebrated and, at times, taken for granted. His most startling moments–like Whitman’s–come when the sense of malleability, possibility, and familiarity are met by, or birth, shocks of estrangement (as in “Esthetique du Mal”); for Bishop, the sense of estrangement from the world is the starting place, and the poems only sometimes achieve a nearness that could not be called, owing to its brevity and precariousness, familiarity.
I’ve written elsewhere on Bishop’s epiphanies, and I am referring probably to the same thing, in different terms. But the different terms are better, I think, because the familiarity is not a moment of insight, but something like (“something like” is a dodge of the obligation of precision at times, but here is intended as a provisional approximation, indicating a placeholder) being accommodated, being accepted into what is. That is what happens in the final stanza of “End of March” and the accommodation and acceptance are here, as elsewhere, registered by the freedom to joke and play with the world, as if she as found a way to adopt a comedic perspective, whereby the world is rich in possibility.
She is nearer to Stevens than Whitman in that she is more often accepted into the being-ness of things, in their particularity, rather than accepted into the lives of other people; but other people are in the poetry too (“In the Waiting Room” comes to mind), and the animals often offer the means by which she is reconciled with the world. Robert Frost is another ‘point de repere’ for her work. “The Moose” is her re-writing a Frost poem. The voices of the elderly passengers on the bus, and their conversation as she paraphrases it, is a Frost conversation poem overheard by Bishop:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;
deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.
He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.
But these voices do not open themselves to Bishop as they do to Frost; the distance between them and her is not by her choice or by theirs–it is in the structure of things. For Frost, the distance from the world is usually a result of skepticism towards it, and his poems are either surprised when the skepticism is overcome against its will (as in “Two Look at Two”), so that they find sudden familiarity, or else are either surprised when the distance is no longer a function of willpower, but is instead forced onto the poem by time and circumstance (“To Earthward” perhaps).
Bishop might very well have had “Two Look at Two” in mind when she wrote “The Moose.” The reaches its climax with the Moose crossing over the road, and the passengers on the bus staring bewildered, moved, and strangely enraptured by the joy of the encounter:
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”
Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,
by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.
The bus-ride has been going on for some time, and the world around the bus, described for us, is there, taking place, its events happening in their own time, their own pace, and she tries to catch onto each, tries to take hold, but they shake her off; it is as if she is not in time with any of them:
Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.
The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
And then the Moose, and the world’s alienness is immediate and common, and perhaps she was not alone in feeling out of step from the world, as the other passengers seem to share in her joy. Their voices are most comic of all–especially the presumably loud (it would be a man’s voice), “Perfectly harmless…”–but rather than distract, interfere or disrupt her task, the task of taking hold as the world’s parts spin by, here they represent efforts at doing the same. Those common, normal, foolish voices are doing in that moment what she does in her poems. Maybe those others do not recognize or dwell on the need to overcome the distance from the world, to break through the world’s reserve; or maybe they do and find their voices suffice; or maybe they would write poems if they could; in which case, Bishop’s are probably the poems the would like to write. At least they have them to read.