Bonnie Costello

Bonnie Costello: On "The Filling Station"

["Twelfth Morning" and "Filling Station"] record feelings and emotions in response to direct observation rather than detached reflection or description. They express strong perspectives and attitudes, yet remain open to deviating details and alternative views of reality. These do not lead to a third, integrated perspective, nor to ironic awareness, but rather to questions and uncertainties.

… The begonia is hairy, the crochet is gray, but they are not preposterous. The feminine, marked by differences of diction and image, becomes the extraneous element in this greasy world (whereas the filling station had suggested a brutal affront to the speaker’s propriety). The invisible mother is a kind of poet, who makes a shabby beauty in and from filth. The poet has begun to entertain this point of view. Doily, taboret, extraneous plant indicate a creative impulse, a "note of color" rather than a controlling or disguising impulse. The humble character of the ornaments and the sampler rhetoric they inspire in the speaker ("Somebody loves us all") do not undercut their value. These are not signs of mastery but of small attempts at aesthetic order which express affection.

To those who wish to read Bishop as a poet of terror and darkness, these comforts along the highways form a significant challenge. There is something redeeming about these naïve efforts at decoration. The poem’s final observation, "Somebody loves us all," may be sardonic (‘Only a mother …") but "somebody" might, in a broader sense, imply a divine perspective in which the filth and the ornament are reconciled. But this final assertion does not really answer the questions raised in the penultimate stanza: "Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily?" The observer tries to make sense of what she sees, revising her perspective. "Somebody" still leaves the question "who?"


from Bonnie Costello, "‘Active Displacements in Perspective,’" Chapter 1 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 37, 38-39.

Bonnie Costello: On "Pink Dog"

… What makes this exploration of social and physical anxiety so powerful is that she both abhors the enforcement of "costume" and sees its necessity. We are embarrassed here by nakedness and by its opposite. … In "Pink Dog" she urges a costume on a naked dog (a dehumanized image of the body) for the sake of its survival in a culture that wishes to deny the mortal body. The poet writes from the margin, on the divide between culture and nature, a creature of both. It is her empathy for the pink dog, her own sense of marginality, that provokes her terrible advice. In a culture which abhors the body’s mutability, disguise is the only alternative to expulsion of annihilation. The dog in us must be dressed up and taught to dance if it is to be tolerated at all. Carnival is now the expression not of freedom but of repression.

The poem offers no clear answer to the public fear of the mutable body, yet that fear and repressive behavior it provokes are obviously criticized. We are left suspended between sympathy and judgment toward the speaker. Pink dog and speaker appear as two rival aspects of the self – one that would parade its nakedness, whatever the consequences, and one that would cover and protect, since it cannot or does not wish to expel, the body. The pink dog has none of the alterity of the fish or other iconic figures in Bishop’s poetry. She lives among us, in our element, as the aspect of ourselves we cannot tame. But by making her central figure a dog rather than a human, Bishop reminds us that she does not represent, in her naked, diseased state, a viable human option. The poet is not the dog but the troubled speaker who must somehow reconcile her culture to the dog it despises …


from Bonnie Costello, "Attractive Mortality," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 85-86, 88.

Bonnie Costello: On "The Fish"

[By the midpoint of the poem] [t]he poet does not simply relinquish her desire for imaginative contact with the fish. But her attention shifts from spatial to historical imagining. History is no longer distant and figurative but "still attached" in the form of "five old pieces of fish-line, / or four and a wire leader / … with all five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth." Five wounds on a fish make him a Christ figure, but the epiphany he brings the poet has nothing otherwordly about it. The domestic images at the beginning of the poem, followed by the battered body of the fish, evoke the poet’s unconscious life, the uncanny return of the repressed which can "cut so badly." But Bishop can entertain such self-reflection now within the larger context of the life of nature and the beholder’s tentative grasp of it. She no longer has to define a discrete interior space through dream or symbolic abstraction in order to explore her subjectivity; she has brought the self out of nocturnal seclusion and explored its relation to everything under the sun.

There is also a pervasive but ambiguous sexual quality to the fish. An untamable, corporeal energy violates the domestic world of wallpaper and roses. The fish, a he, hangs like a giant phallus, yet as the beholder imagines his interior, its "pink swim-bladder / like a big peony,? He takes on a female aspect. Indeed, the hooks in his mouth suggest that phallic aggression is the fisherman’s (woman this time) part. This hermaphroditic fish challenges the conventional hierarchical antithesis of female nature and male culture. Here there is no struggle, and the victory is not exclusive.

For Bishop, nature mastered as static knowledge is a fish out of water. Its beauty and venerability belong to time. Yet it can be entertained, with a certain humility and lightness (such as simile registers), for its figurative possibilities. The poet "stared and stared" even though the fish did not return her stare. Her imagination transforms a "pool of bilge / where oil had spread a rainbow" into an ecstatic (and perhaps deliberately excessive) "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" Such an epiphany, set as iut is in the highly ephemeral space of the rented boat with its rusted engine, must be of mortality. The grotesque is the style of mortality not because it makes us turn away in horror but because it challenges the rigid frames of thought and perception through which we attempt to master life. All the conceptual and emotional contradictions that emerge within the description of the fish point to the letting go.


from Bonnie Costello, "Attractive Mortality," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 63-64.

Bonnie Costello: On "Gravelly Run"

Ammons participates in some of the same contemporary pastoralism for which Snyder is known. Both poets intermix religious and scientific (especially ecological) discourse, though Ammons is more Emersonian than Zen-like. Both poets also attempt to combine the prophetic with the lyric voice, offering the soil as the object and model of man's intelligence. Ammons often hovers around an immanentist mode which abandons all rhetoricity in the presence of the particular, but his imagination never truly entertains the primitive. While he enjoys those moments when poetic authority is disarmed by natural presence, the submissive or natural voice is often a foil for a highly rhetorical vision. If he subscribes at all to the notion that the soil is man's intelligence, it is more as plunderer than as apostle of that soil that he displays his debt .

Early Ammons displays on the surface a great deal of anxiety about the relation between landscape and imagination. But often the result of that anxiety is a reassertion of the imagination's independent purposes.


Ammons's "Gravelly Run" could almost be read as a narrative of Snyder's ambition and its failure. The proposed project of the imagination is the sloughing off of the self's enterprise, a yielding to the curves and rounds of external sensation, a surrender "to the victory / of stones and trees." But he does not yield to this nostalgia. At the end of the poem the pilgrim truly "look[s] and reflect[s]," and he finds no reflexivity. The air, as Stevens said, "is not a mirror ." Only later will Ammons discover in the air the "bare board" on which to project an analogous terrain of the mind. For now the air is a "glass / jail." Transparency, continuity, immanence, all such myths are undone by material sensation. "Hoist your burdens, get on down the road," he commands (Collected Poems 55–56). The road will lead ultimately to "For Harold Bloom," a sublime reworking of Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar" and the figurative stance toward the landscape. But it repeatedly turns back toward the particular, and occasionally the poet mistakes the particular for his destination.

From "The Soil and Man's Intelligence: Three Contemporary Landscape Poets," Contemporary Literature 30.3 (Fall 1989): 412–33.