C. K. Doreski

C. K. Doreski: On "Crusoe in England"

In the course of this dramatic monologue, Bishop disrupts generic expectations and traditions, reveals the child's vision behind the weary recollections of an aged exile, and locates the human bond in the very inadequacy of language. The voice of this poem argues that all knowledge, finally, is incomplete, and consists not of ends but of paths, processes, maps, ways. "Crusoe in England" provides the threshold to "One Art," an elegy for Bishop's attempt to grasp and possess her world through poetic achievement.

Adopting the voice of a male exile and refusing the privileges of autobiography, risking the glaze of distance Lowell noted in Browning's monologues, Bishop paradoxically heightens the immediacy of her "Crusoe" with a weary tonality of such authenticity her character seems not an extension of Defoe's fictional exile but a real Crusoe, endowed with a twentieth-century emotional frankness. The monologue seems the ideal form to tell the story of a prototype of Melville's isolatoes, since it enables Bishop to provide a maplike form of a life without adhering to disruptive chronology. The meanderings of the individual mind, a twentieth-century idea of a literary model, lends a degree of authenticity that owes more to Joyce and Freud than to Defoe or Melville. "Crusoe" assumes the appearance without run- ning the risks of an autobiography by ordering its experience into what Robert Lowell in an interview describes as "a shape that answers better than mere continuous experience."

Though the progenitive tale (Defoe's The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe [1719]) posits a Christian context for the exile (and in some respects retains a Miltonic world-view for its sense of education and redemption), "Crusoe in England" discards all dogma while retaining the skeleton of the saintly and prophetic wilderness-quest. Bishop's poem might be considered an "education of the exile" poem, but it does not equate the return to civilization with salvation. Crusoe, after all, was exiled into, not out of, paradise. Unlike its fictional counterpart, the poem tells us nothing about this Crusoe's prior life—except that it began in England. The emotional intensity, viewed retrospectively, of the relationship with Friday indicates the most important respect in which the Bishop poem extends Defoe’s character.

[. . . .]

The landscape seems familiar; yet this volcanic wasteland is "dead as ash heaps." The colonial appropriators, or namers, are no longer in the characters of Osa and Martin Johnson; they have coalesced into the discovering and naming country itself: England. Decidedly postlapsarian, Crusoe both remembers and re-enacts that ahistorical, asocial moment of genuine love in exile. . . . Crusoe, like Lowell, comes with his attendant significance—his fictive and historical authority. In spite of that burden, however, he shrugs off his social (i.e., linguistic) inheritance as irrelevant and inaccurate. Seemingly revisiting in memory the landscape of the National Geographic of "In the Waiting Room," Crusoe dismisses everything the child struggled to acquire. Orality and literacy fail to capture the essence of his life, which remains "un-rediscovered, un-renamable." The authorial gesture of the poem depends upon the exasperation that "None of the books has ever got it right." Like Ishmael, Crusoe knows that "true" places remain unnamed.

From Crusoe's perspective, to acknowledge the shock of "waiting room" recognition is to acquiesce to the failure of language to identify. The core of the poem, preceded by the weary "Well," charts the encumbrance of language in a solitary world. Relative scale ("I'd think that if they were the size / I thought volcanoes should be, then I had / become a giant"), proper names, aesthetics, categories of all kinds ring false in this underpopulated landscape of "one kind of everything." Here the distinctions between ignorance and understanding, error and truth seem impossible to ascertain. Who would appreciate the act of delimiting that naming reflects? The landscape seems fated to the same oblivion as language as Bishop echoes "The Map" (where "The names of the seashore towns run out to sea") in the volcanic landscape (where "The folds of Java, running out to sea, / would hiss").

Like the speaker in John Clare's "I Am," Crusoe, too, is a "self-consumer of [his] woes." Even in isolation this must be given a name and a circumstance: "'Pity should begin at home.' So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home." Crusoe resorts to this colloquy with himself to externalize and verify the overwhelmingly interior sensation of pity. The physical remove becomes palpable as he conjectures: "What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?" [my emphasis] Crusoe confesses his humanity through by naming his emotion. For as D. H. Lawrence asserts in his own "Self-Pity": "I never saw a wild thing / sorry for itself. " Locating his emotion in language denies Crusoe the spontaneity or wildness of the animal world.

Incapable of "looking up" that which he does not possess, Crusoe abides by the asocial strictures of solitude. An air of unreality pervades the intense reality of this itemized landscape. Like the waiting-room child, Crusoe "reads" the landscape and attempts to place through names its inhabitants. His solitary word games seek to defeat "the questioning shrieks, the equivocal replies / over a ground of hissing rain": "Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair / (I'd time enough to play with names)," but serve only to sound off: Names are rendered meaningless. Knowledge and language as social acts become nightmarish anachronisms:

. . . . I'd have nightmares of other islands stretching away from mine . . . ……………………….. ……………..knowing that I had to live on each and everyone, eventually. for ages, registering their flora, their fauna, their geography.

Such occupational investments in local identity terrify the stranded character. As the waiting-room child discovered, even local geography requires an audience to render the significance fixed.

The eight-stanza terror of the societyless residence is peremptorily displaced by Crusoe's recollection of Friday. While language seems to have outlived its usefulness, Crusoe nonetheless fixes his "other" with a socially significant temporal marker: he names "Friday." Even as Crusoe details the effect of this new society, the impoverishment of language is complete. Declaring parenthetically that "Accounts of [Friday's arrival] have everything all wrong," he fails to meet the demands of language. Friday is "nice" and "pretty"; they were "friends." Stripped of a linguistic interface, Crusoe appears to have met the private, unmediated demands of a relationship shared with but one. Language cannot intervene.

The authorial impulse to give memory a name by converting it into history is a commemorative one. With Friday's deathdate comes the intrusive, factual marker—fixing in time the moment recalled, begging to be named. Crusoe's/Bishop's public and private artifacts seem destined for the Temple of the Muses: "The local museum's asked me to /leave everything to them." The human experiences of love and desperation coalesce about the devitalized remains: "the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes." Like Yeats's "Old iron, old bones, old rags," the island artifacts sit unre-discoverable and unrenameable. In questioning the value of this hopelessly romantic, Emersonian art of naming, Crusoe challenges the public appropriation of named things even as he recollects the private bonding of language to love:

How can anyone want such things? —And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles seventeen years ago come March.

Unable to thwart the named order of things—names, dates, countries, diseases—Crusoe can only recall a time when the world was unnameable but "nice." Readers of Stevens will recognize both place and question: "These external regions, what do we fill them with / Except reflections, the escapades of death."

[....]

Commentators have made much of the strangeness of the landscape of Crusoe's island; it echoes Melville's Encantadas, Darwin's descriptions of the Galapagos Islands, and Bishop's own vacation notes of a trip to Aruba. Developing the rich traditions of travel literature and playing against those garden poems that place a green shade against a contaminated world, Bishop extends a distinct tradition in the terms of the American pastoral.

From Natty and Chingachgook to Huck and Jim, and Ishmael and Queequeg, American couples have found adventure and purpose in the wilderness. Crusoe, like his literary ancestors and descendants, leaves the green shade of England, suffers a period of trial and uncertainty, but finds life in that incomprehensible world of that other island. The American pastoral illustrates the impossibility of lingering in the primitive world; the imperatives of human intelligence forbid it. In Crusoe's narrative, however, exterior forces, not his or Friday's intelligence or will, foster the return to civilized values. They perish, as a couple in mutual exile, when they are saved (Friday in fact literally dies of civilization in the form of measles). If Bishop intended to invoke the garden genre when she placed Crusoe once again on the barren volcanic island, she did so to emphasize the growth of Crusoe himself. Only one kind of creature flourishes when planted there, the human kind. Rather than functioning as a garden of humanity, however, a site of the creation myth, the island bears the impress of only one other individual, Friday, whose sex fails to complement Crusoe's.

From the opening stanza, Bishop is concerned not merely with the boundaries of communication—accounts, registers, books, poems, names, sayings, reading—but with the dependence of all these on social interaction, a human context. What meaning can a name have when there is no one with whom to share its significance? Books previously read show no signs of assisting Crusoe in this island world: "The books / I'd read were full of blanks." All degrees of order seem suspect: Crusoe finds joy and music in his homemade flute in spite of its weird scale, but he relinquishes his hold on language; words belong elsewhere.

The cacophony of baa, shriek, hiss reiterates the unimportance of embellished utterance. On this island, necessity dictates: The gut speaks. Yet Crusoe yearns for reciprocity. His insularity prompts a malignant introversion; dreams playoff his daylight fears. Soon he understands his solitary state in the human enterprise as not merely a term of exile, but forever.

The ultimate erasure of language occurs at the moment of intimate resolution of the state of exile:

Just when I thought I couldn't stand it another minute longer, Friday came. (Accounts of that have everything all wrong. )

After the nightmarish threat of intellectual pedantry throughout eternity, Crusoe surrenders his civilization. His need for contact with his own kind confounds his emotional grasp of the state of exile. Ordinary language, the language of accounts, cannot grasp the utter disruption of Crusoe's established emotional state triggered by the direct physical confrontation with a healthy otherness; in retrospect, unable to conjure a more emotive language, Crusoe can only confess that

Friday was nice. Friday was nice, and we were friends.

Yet the effect of this apparent failure of rhetorical prowess is to reiterate the original emotional value of these simple words. If language preserved itself for occasions of significance (as this encounter suggests), the apparent numbness of the cliché dissipates. With casual, offhand language, Bishop deliberately cloaks the interiority of this relationship. Unlike Defoe, who immediately establishes Crusoe and Friday as a hierarchical master-servant relationship, Bishop fosters the immediate equality of friendship. She has chosen to approximate the "infant sight" of original relationship with these deliberately disposable words, but in doing so she raises the issue of dramatic plausibility. Can it be that the Crusoe who is so able to recount and register his world and experiences alone is unable to articulate beyond these vague utterances the details of his saving relationship with Friday? Or is the subtle linguistic argument intended to be his own?

Judging the appropriateness of Crusoe's superficial recall re- quires examining the coda with some care. In examining his life in terms of the physical artifacts, one of the questions Crusoe must resolve is whether his narrative is the stuff of poetry. The problem seems less one of an inability to express (surely Bishop does not intend these items to serve as objective correlatives) than one pertaining to a sense of decorum. A stern aesthetic forbids the inclusion of tropes of sentimentality or, worse, formless abstraction. An effective narrative must derive its power from Bishop's ability to indicate the absence of sentiment and analysis and allow unspoken and aesthetically unspeakable language to reveal itself under erasure, taking form from the reader's, rather than Crusoe's or Bishop's, experience of mind and soul. Surely this degree of verbal intimacy is the keenest possible between the reader and poet.

Like Stevens's "The Man on the Dump," Crusoe's task is to invent a language, however primal or trite, of self-definition. As he beats on his lard pail on his island dump, he sounds the idioms of exhaustion, a language of despair. The world consists of debris, the island a "cloud-dump" with "left-over clouds." Even the water becomes dusty and vaguely landlike as the waterspouts are "scuffed-up white." The one tree, "a sooty-scrub affair," tropes on the futility of attempting to inhabit this burned-over district; credible living occurs elsewhere. In spite of the episodes of home crafts and simple pleasures,

[lines 76-84]

The island remains a prehistoric site until Friday comes. Except for this brief respite of human contact and concern, the spirit of this life, as Crusoe recalls it, has "petered out" and "dribbled away." Finally the boredom of the other, home island—England, a real, yet uninteresting world—has corrupted the tongue, which has forgotten how to name the self-sufficiency that must have sustained Crusoe for many years by himself. The closure lacks the predictable and decisive trope of failure, resignation, or self- affirmation. Instead, the rhetoric seems exhausted, and trickles away. From this casual idiom of depletion, which dictates the tone and register of diction of the entire poem, derives the quiet authority of Crusoe's voice.

Framed and punctuated by figurations of experience (the knife-icon, the winemaking. the flute), the internal colloquy assumes a privileged stance, rhetorically empowered by the authority of the central trope of the romance, the quest into the wilderness for knowledge. Surrounded by stanzas devoted to the habitat and to seemingly minor occurrences, the dialogic meditations achieve a fresh radiance, despite their negative tone. Apparently at one time crushed by loneliness, Crusoe reflects on the fragility of the ego and its unease with the naked self:

[lines 55-64]

The picture of Crusoe under the "cloud-dump" with his legs dangling "over a crater’s edge" mocks the conventional sublimity of Keats's Titans in Hyperion. Contemplating the familiar abyss— after the implied self-correction of "What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?"—Crusoe rises above self-absorption, rallying with "Pity should begin at home." The aged narrator, however, requires a retrospective amendment: "So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home." If there is more than a hint of the postlapsarian world in this poem (however genuine the direct observations of the landscapes are), it rests in its godless self-mockery. Bishop allows the preposition about to carry the weight of the questioning line, "What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?" Canceling the expected with, she turns to its abrupt cousin in the hope of suggesting a problem of view, one surrounded by the dislocations of self-pity. Though Crusoe returns to pity, his crater-colloquy has broadened his horizons.

Melville generates a similarly humane and humorous self- pitying, self-interrogation in the first chapter of Moby-Dick. For both Ishmael and Crusoe an unnamable lack of ease triggers interior, meditative voyages. Ishmael at home, like Crusoe, would die of boredom, but being at the beginning of his book he still enjoys the opportunity of an actual if also allegorical voyage. Crusoe has no such option, and his epic is too brief even to recover the original journey. The poem offers glimpses but no sustained history; even those glimpses assume a meditative, lyric concentration, inimical to narrative flow, when the simple past tense yields occasionally to the spirited, ever-present participles: "the overlapping rollers / —a glittering hexagon of rollers / closing and closing in"; the waterspouts "advancing and retreating"; the "hissing, ambulating turtles"; the "spawning," the "knowing," the "registering" of this island existence. The initial voyage and the shipwreck are prehistory. The world-weary Crusoe suggests through the indirection of selective recall that finally the sustaining aspects of island life were not the memory of his previous life but the unreal (surreal) and interesting (unexpected) features of everyday life as an exile. The relics, in the end, fail to sustain even that limited need to reflect upon the past:

[lines 161-168]

That need for connections, a gaze returned, also occurs in the final meditative section of "At the Fishhouses." The recognition of shared experience through the fetishized artifacts confirms the historical validity of the reconstructed self. Strange that Bishop would confer upon the animal and inanimate worlds these powers of correspondence; but the auditory associations of "Clang!" and the "scream" of the village, the crazy-quilt and Aunt Mary's doll of Gwendolyn, the almanac of "Sestina" demonstrate how central the single isolated notes are to Bishop's recollections. With these she conjures up entire lifetimes.

"Crusoe in England" retrieves those poems of childhood that seek to situate the child in her own skin and in society, and anticipates (though chronologically succeeding) the landscape poems of the marginal observer of the sea and its shore. Born into the new world naked, a type of the first inhabitant of Bishop's world, Crusoe must first discover his self-identity and then proceed to a relational awareness through his mastery of a sufficient language. With his unsatisfying but undeniable success Crusoe supplies answers to Bishop's seemingly rhetorical questions of travel:

["Questions of Travel," lines 13-20]

What better way to rediscover one's self through self-education and the schooling of survival? In this island wilderness-garden, lacking community and rejecting history, Crusoe determines and defines home as a viable point of view. In retrospect, he could answer that final question of travel: "Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?" The lyric self emerging from the structuring landscape bares a soul linked to this world (this "surrealism of everyday life") while it claims the metaphor of creation and declares itself the finite I AM, only to discover, immediately, that existence is merely one more figure of speech.

As he recalls the new world of his exile, Crusoe lingers lovingly on significant moments of discovery and learning, despair and delight. Like the account of the conquistador tourists of "Brazil, January 1, 1502," this narrative weaves together the languages of metaphysical doubt, discovery, the domestic world, art and artifact, intimacies and geography. It is also an allegory of birth, of entry into the "historical, flowing, and flown." Avoiding the multiple identities of poems like "In the Waiting Room," Crusoe commits himself to no one, not even to his exiled but integrated self. Yet very much like the child's awareness, this moment of relative security purges the tide of self-pity long enough to allow Crusoe to see the world as something other than a self-reflection.

The memento mori framing of the poem contains its undelineated history as firmly as the National Geographic with its "yellow margins, the date" binds the experience of the waiting room. Between the newspaper account of the volcano's birth and the death of Friday occurs the empowering moment of Crusoe's meditation. These two historical events frame a highly conventionalized world of chronological connections ("Everything connected by 'and' and 'and"'), the calendar and habitat of the quotidian. Unlike Defoe's protagonist (whose moves kept time with England), Crusoe seeks to escape his historical frame and enter another dimension to form an ahistorical life. Told entirely in retrospect, his tale leaves enormous narrative gaps. Crusoe has identified the parentheses of his interior life, and leaves them vacant. He recalls his life as a series of poses vying for attention as the formative or empowering one, a series of moments that erupt, like volcanoes, from the surrounding historical matrix. In recall, chronology yields to lyric and meditative conventions of aporia, indirection, and unexpected juxtaposition.

To see the larger dimensions of Crusoe's self-construction requires a sense of its beginnings. Only knowledge of the "old," "bored" Crusoe of pre-Friday exile can account for the force-field of emotion and experience that follows. By the time of recounting, his life's blood—"that archipelago / has petered out"; the edge of survival "has dribbled away." Even as we see the life materialize, it fades. The reminiscence turned elegy serves primarily to measure the time from Crusoe's release from the island to his figurative death, coincident with Friday's actual one.

To account for himself, Crusoe feels obligated to place his narrative on the terra firma of a particular but peculiar nature. Despite its solid foundation, the scale is disturbing. The puniness of the volcanoes proves unsettling. Deprived of relational certainties, the exile wanders alert yet unknowing. He can judge a place or situation only in relation to the human community, but here there is none. Like Gulliver, Crusoe finds the landscape unsound because disproportioned. Like Alice, he wonders whether he has grown large or the world has grown small. Crusoe would have benefited from a glimpse of those "shadowy gray knees, / trousers and skirts and boots" of the waiting room; at least he could have gauged his size.

The panoramic overview gives way to a another dislocating exercise in scale and perspective. Crusoe sees his island in active relation to the sea and sky. Whereas the landscape at first seemed detailed but remote, it now challenges Crusoe's sense of reality. Empiricism fails him. Why the parched craters when it continually rains? Why the constant geologic unease? Why the lack of clear distinction between organic and inorganic forms?

The folds of lava, running out to sea. would hiss. I'd turn. And then they'd prove to be more turtles.

Bishop has often returned to the opaque surface of the sea to meditate upon the otherness of the natural world. Always before the ocean has functioned as a restorative trope of otherness; in its difference, its refusal of form, its marbled, restless surfaces, lay its soothing effects. In Crusoe's perverse island landscape, however, the sea relinquishes its primary role, and the land assumes the trope of otherness. Even the waterspouts are land-based, which may explain their flirtatious peculiarities:

And I had waterspouts. Oh, half a dozen at a time, far out. they'd come and go, advancing and retreating, their heads in cloud, their feet in moving patches of scuffed-up white.

Even these liquid funnels, which should have been beautiful, are disheveled. In spite being lovely "sacerdotal beings of glass" the funnels spout like chimneys. Crusoe's perception refuses the consolations of romantic languages of the sublime and the picturesque. Though risen from the "cloud-dump," his voice drops suddenly into the despair of isolation: "Beautiful, yes, but not much company." This first mention of human companionship forces reconsideration of those recalled human images: the war-torn, anthropomorphized landscape of volcanoes "with their heads blown off ," and craters with "their parched throats."

The landscape shrinks to the metaphorical "crater’s edge." Not that the lip of the abyss fails in significance, but rather it lacks specificity. From the precariously weighted "company" of the previous stanza (curiously intimate in its naked closure), Bishop withdraws to the public interior, the realm of literary metaphysical speculation and psychological brinkmanship. In spite of the surface, this stanza shields the grieving survivor from prying eyes. Yet the final aside—"So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home"—provides the only clue to life before the wreck. Why would pity of all emotional responses evoke memories of "home"? Bishop invents what appears to be one more casual cliché ("to feel at home") in order to fend off while disclosing a wound. "Company" and "home," however, prompt a retreat into the language of displacement and wilderness.

Unlike his eighteenth-century ancestor, Crusoe savors the moment, feeling no need to mark time. At least that is what the returned exile would have us believe from his timeless chronicle. What remains are formal moments sutured by the silence of a life lived and remembered. Each episode confronts a different issue of estrangement and isolation. As if to elude the monotony described—"The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun / rose from the sea"—Crusoe turns to a distillation of his experience with his description of the homely tasks of winemaking and the subsequent drunken flute playing.

The Dionysian ritual mimics the "untidy activity" of "The Bight." Survival requires sustenance and amusement; this moment of giddy inebriation begins the tug of war for recovery. Even intoxication on berry wine ("the awful, fizzy, stinging stuff / that went straight to my head"), however, cannot force the obvious answer to the seemingly rhetorical "Home-made, home-made! But aren't we all?" This rambunctious but momentary stay against despair collapses in another introspective view:

I felt a deep affection for the smallest of my island industries. No, not exactly, since the smallest was a miserable philosophy.

Unlike the figurative hang "over a crater's edge," this all-too-literal slump prompts a return to an early problem. the reason in fact for this narrative: "None of the books has ever got it right." From the start the poem has promised a corrective by one who knows, the traveler.

But he lacks audience-awareness. His poem begins in medias res; not only do the stanza breaks inhibit dramatic, completion, but the speaker neglects to match his key answer—"Because I didn't know enough"—with its unsounded "why?" Knowledge failed Crusoe long before his exile. The apparently random disciplines, Greek drama and astronomy, forge associative links with Crusoe's Bacchanalia and his persistent attempts to distinguish himself from the surrounding particulars. The unswerving particularity of the previous inventory scene crumbles into the drifts of snail shells about to become Wordsworthian iris beds. Inaccessibility, unexpectedly coupled with the inappropriateness of his book knowledge, allows Crusoe to associate the "bliss of solitude" to the other island, the one he cannot reach.

If books fail, perhaps salvation will arise from tropes of the elemental or excremental. The sounds and aromas of the gull and goat population impress upon Crusoe his difference from the native inhabitants; enough so that upon recall, at a lifetime's remove, Crusoe still "can't shake / them from [his] ears." He recalls an encounter with this population as a chance to assert his difference, his humanity and imagination:

[lines 111-114]

Real and somewhere counter the otherness of this experience. How can these creatures be so at home on this burned-over island? Driven by boredom, Crusoe dyes a baby goat to force him into exile:

[lines 125-128]

Displacing his feelings of strangeness upon the natural world by isolating the kid from its mother is Crusoe's ultimate retaliation, but it is a pathetic, cruel, and childish one.

Crippled by the boredom and uncanniness of the island, Crusoe must find another perspective to relieve the two-dimensionality of this scene; he chooses dreams. Within this sleep-tossed state, appetites surface, demanding to be satisfied. Stranded on the surface, Crusoe stands unable to relinquish or nourish his interior needs. How like the child's "immense, sibilant, glistening loneliness" is Crusoe's

[lines 133-140]

The cry sounds the note of the condemned man, sentenced to endless, isolated, and isolating pointless endeavor. The nightmarish term makes the catechistic epigraph to Geography III ring prophetic. The lessons of geography prevail, the surface of the planet asserts its role as dominant trope.

The convulsions of the past nine verse-paragraphs spillover into:

Just when I thought I couldn't stand it another minute longer, Friday came.

Geographically and psychologically confined, Crusoe has withdrawn to the smallest temporal measurement. All knowledge—situational, personal, investigative, remembered, elemental, physical, irrational—has proven incomplete, insufficient to alleviate isolation. As if to underscore this painful insight, Crusoe parenthetically stresses that "(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)" This dismissal of Defoe's account of master-servant meeting for religious training not only sounds a corrective to the eighteenth-century tract, but it also denies this stanza the psychological and emotional embellishments that would satisfy the conventional social and readerly expectations. After toying with the unnourishing words nice and friends Bishop underscores all ambiguities with one of her famous conditionals; "If only he had been a woman!" Just as Crusoe and Friday have become a male-bonded couple, Bishop separates them by pointing to their basic incompatibility in terms of the requirements of the domestic world:

I wanted to propagate my kind, and so did he, I think, poor boy.

Friday does, however, supply the missing link between Crusoe and the uninviting landscape. Indeed, he becomes the bridge to Crusoe's humanity. In his sheer physicality, Friday stands as the ideal foil to the introspective gloom. Unlike the alien voice of "Manuelzinho," voicing sorrowing amusement but incomprehension, Crusoe knows the significance of this encounter. Unlike the earlier spectator, Crusoe means no condescension when he recalls: "—Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body." The role of admiring and loving white man resurfaces one more time. Perhaps Melville offers the shrewdest and funniest episode in such "savage" schooling; Ishmael tells of his waking sensations:

Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg's pagan arm thrown round me.

Ishmael admires the animal (natural) physicality of this pagan cannibal. Like Friday, Queequeg becomes more than a male; he reaches into the natural unknown. He bridges that gap in which "The Moose" remain a visual standoff. Like the earlier "friendships" in American literature—Leatherstocking traveling "far towards the setting sun," Huck planning to "light out for the territory ahead of the rest"—these interior relationships thrive away from civilization, off the page.

Unlike its prose ancestors, "Crusoe in England" lacks the pages of narrative that would supply, conceal, and complete a relationship. It depends rather on the lyric strategies of compression and surprise. Not only does Bishop cloak the relationship with seemingly cast-off diction—"nice," "friends," "pretty"—but details the core of the lengthy tale in eleven lines. The stanza must bear the weight of the attempted and canceled antecedent perspectives, allowing the echoing "pretty" of the final line to multiply the images recalled. Though avoiding scandalous intimacy, the poem suggests a need for resolution of this new dimension, this superficial core. Just as a new passage is found, the poem adroitly avoids closure:

And then one day they came and took us off.

Now I live here, another island, that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?

With a single line, Bishop erases an established life and substitutes the weighted present, allowing both deletion and articulation to stand. An entire history collapses into a sentence, and Crusoe reestablishes the historical, chronological frame, abandoning established formal considerations. The abruptness of the intrusive And telescopes narrative elements into staging devices. Only in retrospect does it become clear that them and us, then and now form the lyric hinges of the poem, the rhetorical elements that defer narrative in favor of lyric or meditative strategies. The isolation on a physical island has been replaced by the random, careless existential interior remove. Caught between the real and uninteresting of this other island, made so because of the postmortem realities, Crusoe can confer but a visual benediction on those treasured relics of a life. Reticent to handle his memorabilia, he whispers, "My eyes rest on it and pass on."

Though this withdrawal effects perspective, the deferred historicism requires closure. To rebuke the historicism, Bishop details the interment of the dry, lifeless artifacts, shorn of utility significance. All that's left is to tag and display them:

[lines 171-180]

The echoing still carries the weight of this reminiscence and linguisically transforms living memories to a nature morte, museum artifacts. The narrative of the larger world continues, sometimes violently (as indicated by the volcanic eruption), but Crusoe, looking at his life as if it were a completed work of art, has in effect abandoned the present-tense and consigned the world of experience to memory. If he forswore life "seventeen years ago come March," then how can the poem retrieve the originating spark of this tale? The closure of the poem conceals or reveals its originating image, shelved and in Crusoe's rhetoric, drained of significance; it is the knife that once "reeked of meaning, like a crucifix. It lived." Like the man's old black knife in "At the Fishhouses" (that had "scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish . . . / the blade of which is almost worn away" [de-aestheticizing the object]), the tool Crusoe begged and implored "not to break" testifies only to his former existence, as if an artifact that proves that he had lived at one time also proves he no longer does. This last "effect" engenders the entire monologue; the knife testifies both to survival and to loss.

Yet the poem still aches for affirmation of interpretive possibilities that would challenge this failure of correspondences. Scanning the particulars of his life, the weary exile challenges the worth of the evidence: "How can anyone want such things?" As if to ward off possible requests for the offal of experience, the final indelicate historian of Crusoe's psyche intrudes, returning to the emotional crux of the poem:

—And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles seventeen years ago come March.

Crusoe survives the failure of his emotional life and lingers only to "enumerate old themes." Resigned and reconciled, he faces the necessary disjunctions between knowledge and understanding, knowledge and experience without the saving wisdom of "One Art": "(Write it!)"

In the 200 or so lines of this poem, Bishop fully realizes the potential of her language-world, illustrating what her poetry can and cannot know. This vision of wholeness exceeds and violates the visual clarity, the conventions established by her previous poems, which explicitly refuse models of inclusion and unity. The tension of "Crusoe" stems from the interplay between the monumental tropes of landscape and the elusive referential nature of the generative emotional core. The hiatus between stanzas command attention by more than the ordinary segmenting and limiting powers of the stanza break; by spatially marking the silences between place and person, the mind and the heart, they constitute one of the rhetoric strategies of understanding. Apparently transparent clarities of language, and conversational syntax expose a lack of autobiographical plenitude. Unlike the seemingly offhand but calculatingly glib counsel of "One Art," the meditation of "Crusoe" strains against the inarticulation of a powerful self-awareness held under erasure by the rhetorical strategies of the poem.

From Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

C. K. Doreski: On "At the Fishhouses"

In "At the Fishhouses," from her second book, A Cold Spring, the language, having gained a good deal of momentum, becomes increasingly sensuous and specific, and claims, at last, through the trope of the sea, a thoroughly sensate and utterly transparent climax that invites entry, immersion, and transference:

[lines 71-83]

As a descendent of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Frost, and an antecedent of Susan Howe's New Englandly, noun-driven Language poetry, Bishop has been an (I)witness. Her account of a repeated phenomenon—"I have seen it over and over"—the indifferent seas slopping over and above the stony shore wholly recreates the implied experience, maintaining the illusion of witness by the seductive staging of the event.

First, the poet tempts her readers into the realm of possibility: "If you should dip your hand in, / your bones would. . . . " She then courts plausibility with the logic of sequence: If one takes the first step-immersion (earlier in the poem Bishop notes that she believes in "total immersion")—then one is primed for the tide of events that will surely follow. Her adherence to physical, sensate realities underscores her knowledge, and engenders belief. Though readers may not understand this experience, they feel it; they experience it. In this process of transference, the poet effaces herself by making the moment of perception the reader's own, demonstrating that "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be." What, then, does it refer to? The sea, the water, the tides? Asked to make this metaphysical leap from the physical and sensory knowledge of the sea to the epistemological sense of it, one straddles the yawning chasm between what humans can know—"dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free"—and that which projects unmoored minds into the "historical, flowing, and flown." This educational disclosure is locked in the language, which reveals itself to be nonrepresentational after all, but a code. Here lies the unnerving power of the reticence that requires interpretation through recognition that language is experience. Like Thoreau's "johnswort spring[ing] from the same perennial root in this pasture," Bishop's slopping sea requires the sight of "infant eyes." Both flower and sea court an original relationship through an infant's expressionless impressions in hopes of rekindling that "visionary gleam."

Natural surfaces, the raw stuff of geography, require a language that mediates between nature and culture and marks their intersections. The surface of Bishop's sea, for instance, like most romantic water views, conforms in verbal purpose to the larger rhetoric of the life cycle. Though not as ominous as the ocean of Marianne Moore's "A Grave," the description of the sea of "At the Fishhouses" conceals through metaphors of precious metal and stone as much as it reveals through its verbs of massive and meditative power:

[lines 13-20]

The opaque but mirroring surface spills from sea to land, obscuring but transforming the shore world. This "mirror" offers no reassurance, no reflection of the meditating narrator. The shattered planes engender no correspondence between land and sea, and cannot function as a trope to link nature and culture. Instead, a counterresponse emerges unilaterally from the cold water. A rather incongruous doppelganger—the "curious," "interested" seal—exchanges "looks" with the poet. Like the exchange between the travelers and the moose, this marks a reflective self-confirmation. Without the penetrating presence of the seal, the sea would roll on without form, purpose, or direction:

[lines 65-70]

The uneasy confirmation of self involves a risk of immersion, an affirmation of faith, an acknowledgment of the efficacy of the metaphor of creation. The seal breaking through the surface of the unknown initiates that which must be completed in experience.

Mirrors, rather than water, offer the most reliable, if most mundane, "silver" surfaces, and keep the poem more safely, if less adventurously, within the bounds of human culture. Bishop's self- reflections, however, even when confined in the mirror, assume a variety of forms and moods.

In spite of her wide use of tropes of knowing, including the journey, Bishop only once defines the "knowledge" of her poems. The final movement of "At the Fishhouses" [CS] risks using the sea, a powerful and ambitious metaphor that postulates knowing as a fluid, expressive, but chaotic, absorptive, and formless process expressed by the modifiers of "knowledge," "dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free." The line that introduces this closing metaphor asserts that the relationship between knowledge and imagination is definitive: "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be." Changed in the third typescript from "This is what I imagine knowledge to be," this line asserts the social, rather than the individual, import of this metaphor. Seasoned by a sensory immersion, the rhetorical flow must now abstract that sensational knowledge into the matrix of a historical yet nondogmatic understanding. Despite the firm antecedent link to the sea, this it shimmers with ambiguity. The poem struggles to remind itself that its ebb and flow of modifiers is securely moored in the sea, the figural, rhetorical function of which is as solid as its literal referent is fluid. The experience generated by the poem is primarily one of metaphor-awareness as a means of warding off or controlling the abstraction toward which all knowledge tends. Beyond metaphor lies metaphysics, in which, as Melville pointed out, it is easy to drown.

The personification of the shore world, immediately following the modifiers of "knowledge"—"the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts"—refuses accessibility to conventionally comforting ideas of motherhood in favor of raw origin. The security of the bedrock shore is the viewpoint it offers on origination and the concomitant peace of death, a physical vantage-point and a figurative irony. The sea, too, occupies both a figurative role (as knowledge, chaos, psychic depth, amniotic fluid) and a physically verifiable biological function as originary medium. To expect wisdom or nourishment from the known but imaginatively dead shore-world is an error, but to step from it into the dark, salt, flowing sea is to be a transcendentalist, and suicidal. Not even the language of transcendence, then, can generate a fiction adequate to both the senses (the physical self) and the psyche (which finds its analogue in the sea). Knowledge, that troubling abstraction, leads beyond metaphor, beyond the apprehensible world. The poet cannot follow, but remains on the rocky, unnourishing shore, and gazes at the abstract, unobtainable freedom beyond, and infers, if she dares, the mysteries beyond the range of the senses. Yet it is precisely the act of discovering this limitation that is "historical," accretive, "flowing," organic, and "flown," perishing.

In "At the Fishhouses" Bishop speculates upon the province and parameters of the available language of knowledge and, by extension, the limitations of the role of metaphor and other kinds of figuration in her writing. Unlike the childlike question-and-answer scenario of "Five Flights Up," this meditation defines knowledge (or rather, defines the nature of knowledge) without restricting the source of inspiration. That is, in its act of linguistic and dramatic self-discovery, "At the Fishhouses" privileges the power of meditation and the assertive gaze of the speaker, rather than a particularly configured scenario limited or empowered by the stance, age, or available vocabulary of the speaker. Though Bishop's measured tone and insistence on the social dimension of knowledge bear little resemblance to Emerson's "perfect exhilaration" (an exhilaration that might have thrust Bishop's persona into the cold sea), the return to "reason and faith" resounds throughout the poem. Like those of Emerson's "lover of nature," Bishop's "inward and outward senses" remain "adjusted to each other"—she refuses to abandon herself to the enticing fluid vagueness that would extinguish those senses. Her orchestrating personality directs and empowers this scene, and retains control despite the undeniable implications of her meditation. As Emerson would explain this process of discovery in Nature:

Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both . . . Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.

The poet of this marginal "Fishhouse" world (and its later companion piece, "The End of March" [G]) engages nature with a full awareness of the problematic relationship between language and the environment. Like Lowell's inchworm, Bishop is always "feeling for something to reach something"; her movement toward knowledge is an associative process. Grounded by her commitment to the figurative language of the senses, she reaches beyond her grasp, but faces the full implications of doing so.

From Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

C. K. Doreski: On "Pink Dog"

While refusing the predictable moral stance, "Pink Dog" exposes the cruelties of an age of extreme conformity. The poem, however, lacks Bishop’s characteristic vaguely resigned but painfully aware voice, and affects a tone of humorous indifference. Though she may attempt to echo the less-than-acute political satire of the Brazilian sambas (see translation in CP 263-264) and simultaneously record the trials of the dog and the brutalized narrator, she relies on a series of tropes of the grotesque that engender neither nor interest. Surely she would recognize that the speaker of this poem is as much a victim of a cruel age as the dog. Lacking the sting of political narrative, Bishop's critique appears naive, not shrewd. The light-verse end rhymes of the tercets of "Pink Dog," rather than intensifying and unifying the poem, render it comical and tasteless. Perhaps a difficulty with this poem stems from its strange voice. Though the voice of "Manuelzinho" was not Bishop's, the attendant spirit's voice was. "Pink Dog" lacks the strong sense of purpose found in even the weaker of the earlier exile pieces. As so often, Randall Jarrell most effectively describes what most have come to expect from Bishop's world, and in so doing reveals the sullied vision of this poem:

She is so morally attractive in poems like "The Fish" or "Roosters" because she understands so well that the wickedness and confusion of the age can explain and extenuate other people's wickedness and confusion, but not for you. your own; that morality, for the individual, is usually a small, personal, statistical, but heartbreaking or heartwarming affair of omissions and commissions the greatest of which will seem infinitesimal, ludicrously beneath notice, to those who govern, rationalize, and deplore.

The lack of that moral attractiveness mars "Pink Dog," but the poem does remind the reader how convincingly that moral purpose occurs in her best work, like "Crusoe." 

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

C. K. Doreski: On "In the Waiting Room"

"In the Waiting Room" may be seen as a prelapsarian poem of anticipation of that social state that precedes the acceptance of received namings; "Crusoe in England" may be read as a postlapsarian meditation on the originating power of naming and renaming. In reinventing the social world that connects the two, she seems willing to reconsider all forms of "name" appropriation: place, family, sex, generation, things. Discovering a world where (as Stevens found) "Mrs. Anderson's Swedish baby / Might well have been German or Spanish," she then rejects all such forms of naming as well as (what Foucault calls) "author construction." Each poem reenacts "birth, procreation, and death" as a debate between naming and unnaming, the loss imposed by a social (i.e., authorial) identity.

In 1961, Bishop wrote "The Country Mouse," a posthumously published memoir dedicated to her childhood return to Worcester, Massachusetts, after a lengthy stay with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia. Were it not for its startlingly revealing conclusion, the memoir, in spite of its abundance of details, would suffer from (by Bishop's own standards) insignificance. In the final paragraphs, however, which constitute the nucleus of "In the Waiting Room," Bishop begins to trouble over the obvious: the social obligation of being human. Having been jolted into awareness of her adoptive family's class status (hers was a family with servants), she recalls with equal sensitivity the strangeness of being a human being. As she waits for her aunt in the dentist's waiting room:

I felt . . . myself. In a few days it would be my seventh birthday. I felt I, I, I, and looked at the three strangers in panic. I was one of them too, inside my scabby body and wheezing lungs. "You're in for it now," something said. How had I got tricked into such a false position? I would be like that woman opposite who smiled at me so falsely every once in a while.

The history of identity is bound to the memory of its occasion. The response is visceral, not intellectual:

"You are you," something said. "How strange you are, inside looking out. You are not Beppo, or the chestnut tree, or Emma, you are you and you are going to be you forever." It was like coasting downhill, this thought, only much worse, and it quickly smashed into a tree. Why was I a human being?

The fact of this prerational recognition scene resides in the primacy of childhood identity. The duplicity the child hears and sees in the adult world can only be named by those understudy pronouns: I and you. While dogs, trees, and even servants have names, this as yet unnamed child wrestles with but a taxonomic classification: human.

"In the Waiting Room" marks Bishop's return to these issues of naming and unnaming, reading and writing, sounding and hearing. Though descriptive, the poem depends less on physical detail and more upon a dialogue between the unnamed (socially unrestricted) self—"I"—and the named (socially restricted)—"an I." The child initially finds security in proper names: "Worcester, Massachusetts" and "Aunt Consuelo." The certainty fades with the appearance of the intrusive, indefinite pronoun: "It was winter. It got dark / early" [my emphasis]. Bishop will rely upon the ambiguity of "it" and its corresponding reluctance or inability to name throughout the poem.

Left alone, the child "I" sees and reads the named National Geographic. Its "studied photographs" reveal an unpredictable, eruptive (prelapsarian) landscape. Literacy fails, except as an escape route, where metaphor is concerned. Investigating scenes from this magazine, she catalogues that which she can name: volcano erupting, Osa and Martin Johnson. Properly attired people bear names: "Osa and Martin Johnson"; dead people lose their names: "—'Long Pig,' the caption said." Orality and literacy compete for the child's attention, each seductive in its way. But she mishears what "the caption sa[ys]": "A dead man slung on a pole / --"Long Pig." Mimicking the instability of spoken language and substituting a euphemism for a proper name, the conversational caption confuses the earnest student, who fails to understand that the dead man is here regarded as a food source.

The verbal unknown occasions further confusion as the child’s eye traces the physical, sexual uncertainties of uncovered women. So foreign are the native unnamed women "with necks / wound round and round with wire" that the child "reads" right through them: "I read it straight right straight through. / I was too shy to stop" [emphasis added]. Unable to name, the child resorts to the tense comfort of the unnamed: "it." She retreats from the shifting planes of unnamed, unnamable uncertainty to the fixity of that which bears a name: "the cover: / the yellow margins, the date." Such is the force of Dickinson's notch in the maelstrom.

Unable to read her way into the larger constellation of human beings, the child nevertheless recognizes the sounded family identity when she hears it. Like the auditor in "The Country Mouse," this child hears from the inside out. History and memory fuse, creating a new identity for her:

What took me completely by surprise was that it was me: my voice, in my mouth. Without thinking at all I was my foolish aunt, I—we—were falling, falling, our eyes glued to the cover of the National Geographic, February, 1918.

The intensity of this "it" draws upon the accumulated chain of reference: "winter," "dark early," "Babies with pointed heads," "horrifying breasts," and Aunt Consuelo's "oh! of pain." Acceding to the social demands, the effect of her aunt's voic,. the child involuntarily discovers her own collective voice: I becomes we. Dates, like names or Aunt Consuelo's voice, momentarily pierce the surface of the "cold, blue-black space"—the sea of habit threatening the child's consciousness. She has lost perceived autonomy even as she has gained a social identity.

Cautiously authorial, the child reads this new self as a mode of being. For the moment the discovery is personal, familial. This is not an attempt to place a "Bishop" in context; rather, it is an opportunity to feel a "self" move forward and backward into genealogy, into time:

But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them.

Unlike the familial significance attributed to Lowell by Bishop, the effectiveness of Bishop's self-reading derives from the strategic use of the second person. As if to demonstrate her presence in the text, she removes her self from it long enough to proclaim a social identity, to name her self. This somewhat grudging sensation, verified spontaneously by the child's reaction to her aunt's cry, suggests the child's plight as it would seem from the outside. It recalls the Stevensian self: "Detect[ing] the sound of a voice that doubles its own." However "unlikely" or "strange" these binding "similarities" seem to the child they are the social facts of her life. Though they seem to her unauthorized, breasts, boots, the National Geographic, and the family voice nonetheless constitute homogenizing social realities. By adhering to the laws of pronominal reference, Bishop intensifies the almost Ibsenlike (recall the Button-molder of Peer Gynt) threat to an artist's emerging identity.

While "In the Waiting Room" has been routinely read as a poem of juvenile terror, isolation, and marginality, none of those readings account for the remarkable counterforce of the solitary "Me-Myself-I," the artist's isolated yet assertive self. Even if the unnamed self (as seen from the inside out) threatens to fail or consume, it remains the volatile poetry voice for Bishop. She may require (what Beckett calls) a "temporal specification"—"fifth / of February, 1918"—to allow her "to measure the days that separate [her] from that menace" (that which threatens identity). The "falling off" enacted in this poem is the fall into social identity, restrictive or inaccurate naming. The alternative seems to be the "big black wave" of annihilation or namelessness. To be "back in it" is to survive with a social surface—name, age, gender, place—at odds with the continually unnamed self. "The War was on" presages a career intensely committed to slipping the yoke of social identity and changing the rules of the name game.

The child of "In the Waiting Room" advances with uncertainty from the passivity of reader to the tentative aggressiveness of writer—to the authority of authorship. The socializing power of language itself lures the unnamed I into the realm of a given and feminine name—and perilously into the beyond of collective, pronominal identity: "one of them." This rush of potential identities refuses to pause at the brink of authorial privilege—Elizabeth + Bishop—and instead accelerates into the swirl of them. Refusing even gender specificity (recalling that in her memoir, Bishop ends with the more general "Why was I a human being?"), retaining no element of uniqueness, this identity is as good as none.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

C. K. Doreski: On "The Armadillo"

. . . the firelit landscape of "The Armadillo" offers no sanctuary for the beleaguered creatures. The poem offers a glimpse of a secularized religious celebration, long since stripped of intent and meaning; the "frail, illegal fire balloons" ascend toward a waiting saint. In ascendancy, the fire floats assume lives of their own:

the paper chambers flush and fill with light  that comes and goes, like hearts.

Unstable and undirected, these heaven-bound balloons, gestures of "love," bear the potential of either love or war:

Once up against the sky it's hard  to tell them from the stars—  planets, that is—the tinted ones: Venus going down, or Mars . . .

Oscillating between the heavenly extremes, the "tributes" represent a kind of chaos, not order; terror, not relief and penance. Bishop suggests that their very uncertainty—"With a wind, / they flare and falter, wobble and toss"—aggravates earthly insecurities. Inappropriate celebrations, which are both blasphemous and ignorant, violate the sacredness of ritual and disrupt the relationship between culture and nature. Such violation is likely to provoke fate and turn "dangerous":

[lines 15-20]

The final line plummets toward the grim consequence of a moment of particularized sensation—an actual event, not merely a condition. Yet Bishop turns this tale of fragile faith and false tribute not on the plight of humanity but of innocent creatures. As messily careless in descent as ascent, the fire balloon "splatter[s] like an egg of fire," immolating airborne and ground-dwelling inhabitants alike. The scene commands full attention as the fire egg ironically brings death to the owl's nest:

[lines 24-28]

The appearance of the visibly immature ("short-eared") baby rabbit captures the instantaneous transition of the setting:

So soft!—a handful of intangible ash  with fixed ignited eyes.

Even as the poem reaches for the airy substance of the hare it disintegrates into the elements, returning the speaker's gaze with the steadfast certainty of death. An epiphany would reach for comfort and assurance, for insight and explanations through a glimpse of a dimension in which suffering doesn't occur. The lyric hero, however, responds only to ignorance and fear. In the italicized exclamation of the closure, the poet challenges even the aesthetic posture of poetry; she cries out as one forever earthbound:

[lines 27-40]

The harsh deformations reject all falsification and softening of reality. Invocation and resignation collapse together in an impotent outcry as rage displaces epiphany. Unable to transcend the horror of this awesome occurrence, yet unwilling to return into the experience of the poem, Bishop gestures angrily but agnostically toward the beyond, challenging the type and substance of the incomprehensible. Bishop, like Wordsworth, sees humanity's dilemma as one of estrangement from natural vision; but unlike her predecessor, she has neither the ability nor the will to penetrate the otherworld and confirm herself in epiphany, further distancing herself from such harsh realities. She can neither accuse nor ignore her own kind; she can only grieve.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

C. K. Doreski: On "One Art"

The simple sentence of the opening stanza seems to subvert the title, declaring that this poem is not about art; rather, it is concerned with an acquired skill, the "art of losing." Critics anxious to commiserate with poets will find this reading psychologically appealing. Not only does it guarantee numerous opportunities to rehearse this art, but (Bishop suggests through the acceleration of enjambment) supplies materials branded "with the intent / to be lost." This perishable quality simultaneously allows for repeated practice and diminishment, if not extinction, of the pain. The poet offers a primer for the mastery of disaster, couched in the Puritan form of the sermon to others for their moral improvement.

Mindful always of the common auditor, Bishop forces the second stanza to visualize with the philosophical ruminations of the first. Readers learn precisely how to master this art, and are urged to practice, to make it into a virtuous habit: "Lose something every day." A further injunction counsels the reception and approval of that resulting disorder—the "fluster"—produced by haste, undue agitation. Loss, art, master, disaster—the lofty conceptual diction of the first stanza crumbles in the mockery of this near rhyme. The "lost door keys, the hour badly spent" become concrete entities and lost time. The refrain vulgarly collides with "fluster"—to master fluster?—in an uneasy rhyme casting the very tone of the poem into doubt.

Bishop enforces a progressively dynamic, almost uncontrollable, schedule of loss in the third stanza.Then simply shifts the focus to the next lesson. No longer does the homilist tally manageable, sympathetic incidents; the poem has moved beyond them to over- whelming concerns: places, names, and destinations. Each reader must supply concrete examples. The "intent" of the first stanza blossoms into the broader intentions of "where it was you meant / to travel" of the third stanza. Bishop continues to induce specific details from the reader as the pace and range grow. Soon drained of places, names, and travel plans, the reader must struggle to fill the lists. The muted refrain rings hollow as these clustered categories of loss and faster/disaster cacophonize.

After the impersonal professorial tone, the abrupt introduction of the lyric I requires immediate reappraisal of all that comes before this stanza. The homilist's experiential knowledge, suppressed in the first half of the poem, surfaces as the teacher has obviously experienced frustration in the auditor's ability to comprehend these lessons of loss. Bishop draws to the heart of the matter and summons the ultimate parting gift, her mother's watch—an artifact that links the living and dead, recalling a time, expressing a generation—making tangible the feeling of irretrievable loss. Bishop literally lost her mother's time, as the stories "In the Village" and "Gwendolyn," and the poems "Sestina" and "Manners" all demonstrate. Looking beyond autobiography to the truth of this loss, however, Bishop exploits what is, after all, only one more "minor family relic."

The exemplum confounds conventional ideas of the subjective and objective, and demonstrates that loss is grave and universal, but too conventional to be deeply personal. She defers the threat of sentiment by the sweeping rhetorical gesture of "And look!" Her life, no longer a chaos of events, seems orderly and safe as Bishop inventories and schedules her losses: "my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went." Her autobiography assumes an oddly reassuring linearity and predictability as the poem hurtles toward its closure. In spite of approximate knowledge—"my last, or next- to-last"—the end is palpable by its very proximity.

This registry of loss proceeds to the missing "three loved houses." Even that great modifier loved cannot convert these houses into homes. In spite of the wisdom of Bishop's crusade—"Home-made, home-made! But aren't we all?" (see "Crusoe in England")—the expatriot narrating this poem remains homeless.

The narrator, further emboldened by self-knowledge, begins again with "I lost." The scale has tipped; forsaking the personal for "two cities, lovely ones" the poet supplies lineaments and character to these scenic vagaries. Like the child-artist of "Sestina," the speaker approaches the unspecified, the unembraceable, yet concrete, type of loss: "two rivers, a continent," the loss of which suggest the impermanence, the unpossessable nature of the earth itself.

Though there remains a tension between the public and private exempla, that tension is ill-defined and ill-conceived. Bishop has adhered to the standards and expectations of her aesthetic; she has captured knowledge within the language and form of the villanelle. Yet with the displaced utterance delivered sotto voce, Bishop conveys a struggle between growing self-knowledge and her poetic of reticence in this dialogue between the self and the lost. "Even" moors this hierarchy of loss to that always poorly articulated world of extremity—without you, I can't go on, I can't live without you—those contracted conditionals meant to express the inexpressible love between two people. What threatens to emerge is that very thing her rhetoric strives to cloak: the self, naked to the vagaries of language. This ultimate series of I-You dependencies is the final protest against human perishability. Herein lies the true lesson of loss: "—Even losing you." Turning from her common audience, Bishop allows the parenthetically ensnared qualities to create a caesura: "(the joking voice, a gesture / I love)." Readers participate in the auditory and visual recall of pleasure (not pain) reduced to this synecdoche for the severed other. The positive qualities of this ultimate sacrifice displace the irritations and categorizations that came before in the poem. The situation challenges not the pupils but the master herself. In the almost processional resignation of "I shan’t have lied. It's evident" rests the captive wisdom of the poem. In the extended refrain—

the art of losing’s not too hard to master  though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

—readers see that parenthetical cure for the only true disaster. This encapsulated lesson is for the master alone; unlike the free, gestural "And look!" designed to deflect attention from the self, the parenthetical injunction maps a course for only one. The poet knows that only knowledge, not wisdom, can be shared. Like the child in "Sestina," the adult must also make something of absence. Her reward is the knowledge with which to write. In this rare command—"(Write it!)"—Bishop distinguishes herself from even Stevens’s "Snow Man," who is "nothing himself," emerging as she does in this dramatic echo of William Carlos Williams’s "Say It!"

The formal constraints of the sestina and villanelle freed Bishop to work with personal material without inducing the maudlin self-despairing tone she despised. The most forbidding and private sorrows, monumentalized in art, oddly affirm human dignity, emotion, and care.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

C.K.Doreski: On "The Fish"

"The Fish" [NS], Bishop's most frequently anthologized poem, relies upon a Wordsworthian spiritual exercise to justify a rowboat transformation from plunderer to benefactor. The collapse of distinctions between land and sea, the air and earth of the speaker, obscures the borders between life and art. Bishop perceives the fish in land-language of "feathers" and "peonies" and "tinfoil" and "isinglass." Even as she works those changes, however, the fish works reciprocal wonders of its own. Passive resistance deprives the fishing poet of her triumph: "He didn't fight. / He hadn't fought at all." She soon understands that her knowledge of the fish is inaccurate.

Evidence of past encounters—"two heavier lines, / and a fine black thread / still crimped from the strain and snap / when it broke and he got away"—tells of a different fish. Earlier seen as "battered and venerable / and homely" (the line-break softening the accuracy of description), the fish now assumes the mock-role of tribal elder and hero:

Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw.

Deprived of the fight, the poet must contemplate her position as the harbinger of death. The "little rented boat" marks a closed world wherein the speaker represents the moral force of her species. Taken by the incongruity and insignificance of the colloquy, the reader is swept from the sensuous into the psychological, then moved beyond earthly particulars to a spiritual whole:

[lines 65-76]

As in the Christian parable, the oil upon the waters brings peace. It also engenders communication with the otherworldly. Through a rare Wordsworthian "spot of time," a genuine epiphany, the poet admits, somewhat reluctantly, a momentary conventional wisdom. This leap from perception to wisdom signals the arbitrariness so characteristic of the epiphany.

Though "The Fish" is certainly central to her canon, Bishop's boredom and dissatisfaction with the poem suggests a fear that the poem settles into sentiment instead of expanding into true wisdom.

From Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP