Benjamin Branham: On "Buffalo Bill and the Confiscation of Culture"

Pawn shops tend to represent sites of unorganized accumulation, places that gather anything and everything with the prospect of profiting from the vulnerability of others. By enticing patrons with quick cash--an instantaneous materialization of value--the pawn shop successfully confiscates living objects only to deprive them of meaning by re-offering them for sale. Sherman Alexie adapts this story poignantly in "Evolution."

Alexie centers the enterprise of objectification in the figure of Buffalo Bill. Also known as William F. Cody (1846-1917), Buffalo Bill, no longer just an historical figure but rather an icon now synonymous with the American West, did at least his share in exploiting Native Americans. An honorary website credits him with helping "his West to make the transition from a wild past to a progressive future." The establishment of a binary between "wild" and "progressive" subjugates Indians by placing them in the role of savages, a representation that American history has repeatedly thrust upon them. Despite supposedly championing the rights of Indians, Buffalo Bill certainly contributed to their cultural confinement in his "Wild West" shows, performances that "contained elements of the circus, the drama of the times, and the rodeo," offering a "unique form of theatrical entertainment. The Wild West Show had as its theoretical aim the presentation of a pageant of the settling and the taming of the West" (Kramer 87). Beyond mere amusement, the shows also served as advertising campaigns to lure settlers to the West to help further tame the "uncivilized" region:

The Wild West show was inaugurated in Omaha in 1883 with real cowboys and real Indians portraying the "real West." The show spent ten of its thirty years in Europe. In 1887 Buffalo Bill was a feature attraction at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. At the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, only Egypt's gyrations rivaled the Wild West as the talk of Chicago. By the turn of the century, Buffalo Bill was probably the most famous and most recognizable man in the world. (American West)

Given the legendary status history has accorded him, Buffalo Bill may be compared to other colonizing heroes in Western culture, especially those who circulated a dominant ideology as their role in enhancing domination. His ability to disseminate representations stems not only from his ubiquitous stage presence but also from the extensive publicity that presented his image. "Certainly no individual, before the days of movies and radio, ever had such effective personal exploitation. For nearly half a century he was continuously held before the public, in the pages of nickel and dime novels, on the boards in blood and thunder melodrama and in that astounding Wild West Show which toured from the tank towns to the very thrones of Europe" (Walsh 18). The title of a 1928 book, The Making of Buffalo Bill: A Study in Heroics, suggests that the phenomenon of Buffalo Bill was as much created by an eager audience as it was by Bill Cody. Its collective gaze, like the gaze performed by museum-goers, constructed an impervious ideal: "When they gazed upon the man himself they saw that he looked the part of hero" (Walsh 17). Empowered with the iconic eminence of a hero, Buffalo Bill possesses the capacity and authority to reproduce and distribute cultural myths. His conception of the "real West" extends from his imaginary relation to American ideals that have themselves been formed by such hegemonic historical representations as Manifest Destiny. The posters advertising Buffalo Bill contribute to the representational subjugation of Indians, portraying them as features of a crude land that the military must rehabilitate and civilize.

The illustration depicts Buffalo Bill and his entourage riding in a "civilized" wagon through a tumultuous landscape. As the central focus, they marginalize the Indians on the borders of the painting, indeed cutting some of them off as they forcibly split the factions on both sides of their procession. The white riders stand taller than the encroaching Indians, a force that the advertisement construes as a threat to American progress. Such a hazard, the painting declares, must be vanquished by the collective gaze of American discourse, a gaze that restricts Native American culture to a territory of enclosure.

In "Evolution," Alexie addresses the compartmentalization and commodification of culture by supplanting Buffalo Bill's stage antics with a business venture:

Buffalo Bill opens up a pawn shop on the reservation Right across the border from the liquor store And he stays open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week And the Indians come running in with jewelry Television sets, a VCR, a full-length beaded buckskin outfit it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish. (1-6)

Alexie re-appropriates history to fit the mold of a "24 hours a day, 7 days a week" contemporaneity. Placing it across the "border," rather than across the street from the liquor store, Alexie reminds us of the laws forbidding the sale of alcohol on many Indian reservations and the physical and cultural boundaries that continue to encircle them. The liquor store further calls attention to the use of alcohol as a device of suppression. Numerous historical accounts tell of white residents getting Indians drunk as a negotiation strategy to convince them to sign treaties that would yield land (Barr 7). The high rate of alcoholism that persists among Native Americans occupies a prominent position throughout all of Alexie's work. In "Evolution," Alexie intimates that the money the Indians obtain from pawning themselves evaporates when they cross the street to purchase liquor. This vicious cycle in which everyone stands to profit from Indians except Indians themselves sustains itself because "Buffalo Bill / takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it / all catalogued and filed in a storage room" (6-8). Buffalo Bill scavenges all he can, classifying it with the commodifying gaze of a museum curator. The cycle culminates in Buffalo Bill's move from collecting to exhibition:

and when the last Indian has pawned everything but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old calls his venture THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter. (11-15)

By seizing the "heart" of the last Indian and subsequently closing the doors of the pawn shop, Buffalo Bill seals out the possibility of repossession. This act deprives the culture of its lifeblood. The new museum freezes "NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES" in place, on display, behind glass cases. The painted over sign recalls the years of government manipulation of Indians in which new treaties invalidated old ones that the U.S. no longer wished to honor. The glossing over of old wounds and forms of cultural exploitation--feeding a people someone else's idea of what they should be--cap this poem with the absurd reality of a perverse history.

Jane Tompkins comments on the manifestation of another absurd reality in her visit to a museum in Cody, Wyoming that enshrines Buffalo Bill himself. The existence of this memorial ironically shifts the position of the celebrated pioneer from curator to spectacle. However, unlike the cultural deprivation enacted by the museum of Alexie's poem, the Buffalo Bill Museum petrifies the superhero status of its namesake. Both instances cast a type of paralysis--The Museum of Native American Cultures frames its objects as an exhibition of a primitive culture, a display of dry bones; The Buffalo Bill Museum, as Tompkins tells us, galvanizes the golden image of an American icon:

The Buffalo Bill Museum envelops you in an array of textures, colors, shapes, sizes, forms. The fuzzy brown bulk of a buffalo's hump, the sparkling diamonds in a stickpin, the brilliant colors of the posters--there's something about the cacophonous mixture that makes you want to walk in and be surrounded by it, as if you were going into a child's adventure story. It all appeals to the desire to be transported, to pretend for a little while that we're cowboys or cowgirls; it's a museum where fantasy can take over. In this respect, it is true to the character of Buffalo Bill's life. (Tompkins 530)

The fantasy of Buffalo Bill's life is the fantasy projected onto it by the gaze of a hungry audience. For years Americans and viewers around the world stood captivated by the Wild West Show, feeding off its depictions of conquest, control, and violence. Tompkins gives us the severe yet appropriate metaphor that "museums are a form of cannibalism made safe for polite society," serving as venues that "cater to the urge to absorb the life of another into one's own life" (533). This remark accords with an attitude Alexie voices throughout his work. The dominant culture devours its subordinates to sustain its stance as an enforcer. "The objects in museums preserve for us a source of life from which we need to nourish ourselves when the resources that would normally supply us have run dry" (Tompkins 533). The act of sapping resources from another culture again points to the narrative of "Evolution," a title that drips with the irony of the concept of civilization. A civilized culture, Alexie implies, must "evolve" enough to perfect the practice of stealing and plundering other cultures for the purpose of presenting them as uncivilized behind the glass case of the museum. We too, Tompkins reminds us, are onlookers. "We stand beside the bones and skins and hooves of beings that were once alive, or stare fixedly at their painted images. Indeed our visit is only a safer form of the same enterprise" (533) rehearsed by Buffalo Bill's Wild West show--cultural objectification and destruction.


Bibliography of Works Cited:

"Buffalo Bill," The American West. 10 December 2000. <http://www.americanwest.com/pages/buffbill.htm>.


Kramer, Mary D., "The American Wild West Show and 'Buffalo Bill' Cody," Costerus: Essays in English and American Literature, 4 (1972): 87-97.


Tompkins, Jane, "At the Buffalo Bill Museum--June 1988," South Atlantic Quarterly 89.3 (Summer 1990): 525-545.


Walsh, Richard J., The Making of Buffalo Bill, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1928.

Copyright © 2001 by Benjamin Branham

Marjorie Perloff on: "Hope Atherton's Wanderings"

Flocks roost before dark Coveys nestle and settle

Meditation of a world's vast Memory

Predominance pitched across history Collision or collusion with history

--Howe, Articulations

The two words are identical except for a single letter: according to the OED, collision means "1. The action of colliding or forcibly striking or dashing together; violent encounter of a moving body with another. 2a. The coming together of sounds with harsh effect. 3.fig. Encounter of opposed ideas, interests, etc. clashing, hostile encounter." Whereas collusion means "Secret agreement or understanding for purposes of trickery or fraud; underhand scheming or working with another; deceit, fraud, trickery."

What a difference a phoneme makes! One's collision with history may be accidental, an encounter of opposed ideas neither planned nor anticipated. One's collusion, on the other hand, is by definition premeditated. Attentiveness to such difference (/i/ versus /uw/) has always distinguished Susan Howe's "history poems" from those of her contemporaries. . . .

Perhaps the best place to show how this process works is in Howe's most recent book, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. On the first and otherwise blank page of this long poem, we read:

from seaweed said nor repossess rest scape esaid

From seaweed said: the story to be told here, if not quite "Spelt from Sybil's Leaves" (Hopkins), evidently consists of fragments shored from the ocean of our American subconscious. Yet one cannot "repossess [the] rest"; or, since what is said from seaweed cannot be repossessed, one must rest one's case. Or just rest. "Scape" may refer either to the seascape or to the landscape or, most plausibly, it may be an abridged version of escape: "there is, no escape, he said," or "let it be said from what the seaweed said" (cf. Eliot's "What the Thunder Said"), no escape, moreover, from the desire to repossess the rest.

Obviously there are many ways of interpreting the eight words in these two lines, which is not to say that they can mean anything we want them to mean. We know from this introduction that an attempt will be made to "repossess" something lost, something primordial. The sound structure of the passage, with its slant rhyme of sea/weed and repossess/rest, its consonance of weed/said/esaid, and its alliteration of s's (nine out of forty-one characters) and assonance of e's ando's, enacts a ritual of repossession we can hear and see. And so small are the individual morphemes--from, said, scape, esaid--that we process them one by one, with difficulty. This "saying" "from seaweed" will evidently not be easy.

Who speaks these opening lines? The voice is impersonal, part bardic, part comic--a voice akin to Beckett's in Ping or Lessness. But the abrupt opening is immediately juxtaposed to a document, a text taken from the "real" world, namely, an "EXTRACT from a LETTER (dated June 8th, 1781,) of Stephen Williams to President Styles":

[Perloff quotes the Williams letter]

I reproduce this document in its entirety so that we can see what Howe does with her donnée. For Articulation of Sound Forms in Time is by no means a retelling of the Hope Atherton story or the invention of an up-to-date analogue that points to the "relevance" of the Indian Wars to our own time. Still, the story, as gleaned from the letter above and from a number of old chronicles of New England towns, is inscribed everywhere in Howe's poem. It draws, for example, upon the basic paradox that the Reverend Hope Atherton, ostensibly a Man of God, would accompany the Colonial militia on an Indian raid. And further, that having somehow gotten separated "from the company," this "little man with a black coat and without a hat," as one chronicle calls him, would surrender himself to the Indians, only to be rejected by them as suspect, indeed perhaps the "Englishman's God." Suspect as well to his own people, who, upon his return to Hatfield, refused to believe his story. Atherton, in the words of the chronicle, "never recovered from the exposure" and died within the year, an isolated figure, indeed something of a pariah.

Such "untraceable wandering" culminating in the "nimbus of extinction" is, so Howe believes, a ubiquitous fact of early New England history, and its burden continues to haunt our language.

. . . .

In a sermon of 28 May 1670, reproduced in one of Howe's sources for Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, the Reverend Hope Atherton recalls that when, in his forest wanderings, he came face to face with the Indians, "I spake such language as I thought they understood." But evidently "they" did not understand, and this failure-to-understand what the other is saying becomes Howe's point of departure inArticulation. Here is the opening poem of part 1, "Hope Atherton's Wanderings":

Prest try to set after grandmother  revived by and laid down left ly  little distant each other and fro  Saw digression hobbling driftwood  forage two rotted beans & etc.  Redy to faint slaughter story so  Gone and signal through deep water  Mr. Atherton's story  Hope Atherton

We note right away that in this poem Hope Atherton is not a "character," with such and such traits and a definable history. The "Wanderings" of Howe's title (there are sixteen sections in part 1, ranging in length from two to fifteen lines) are presented, not as articulations of time--not, that is to say, as accounts of what happened--but in time, in the time it takes to articulate the "sound forms" themselves. Thus poem #1 is a deceptive square (eight lines of predominantly eight- and nine-syllable lines), which tries to contain, both visually and aurally, the linguistic displacements produced by a faulty memory.

The first word, Prest, may refer to Atherton's condition: he was pressed by the Indians to "try to set after" his own people, perhaps after he was revived by a grandmother and left to lie ("ly") in the forest. But the absence of the subject or object of "Prest" brings other meanings into play: "oppressed," impressed," "presto." We cannot be sure whom "he" (if there is a he here) was "revived by," or whose "grandmother" is involved. As for "left ly," the tiny suffix makes it possible to bring to bear a whole host of -ly words: "left mercilessly," "left unkindly," "left ruthlessly," "left carelessly." The reader is given all these options; he or she can construct any number of scenarios in which two people are lying a "little distant [from] each other" and moving to and "fro." It is only dimly, after all, that we can reconstruct the Colonial/Indian conflict, with the colonists' "hobbling driftwood" and "forag[ing] two rotted beans & etc."--"& etc." suggests that it is what comes after speech ceases that matters--as well as the militia's "Redy to faint slaughter story," a story, "Mr. Atherton's story," now "so gone" that it can only come to us as a "signal through deep water."

Not only does Howe frequently decompose, transpose, and refigure the word (as in ly); she consistently breaks down or, as John Cage would put it, "demilitarizes" the syntax of her verbal units. Reading the poem above, one is never sure what subject pronoun goes with what verb, what object follows a given preposition, which of two nouns a participle is modifying, what phrases a conjunction connects, and so on. An extraordinarily taut sound structure--e.g., "revived by and laid down left ly"--holds in check a syntax that all but breaks down into babble. Indeed, by poem #8 all the connectives that make up "normal" syntax have been abandoned:

rest chrondriacal lunacy velc cello viable toil quench conch uncannunc drumm amonoosuck ythian

Is "rest" a noun or a verb and how does it relate to "chondriacal" (hyperchondriacal?) "lunacy"? In line 2, "velc" may be an abridgment of "velocity," which doesn't help us make sense of the intricately sounded catalog "velc cello viable toil"; in line 3, "uncannunc" contains both "uncanny" and "annunciation" (the prophecy, perhaps of the "conch" shell which cannot "quench" our thirst); in line 4, the Anglo-Saxon ("drumm"), Indian ("amonoosuck"), and Greek ("ythian") come together in a "collusion" that makes us wonder if the "rest" isn't some sort of hyperchondriacal lunacy on Atherton's part. Or, some would say, a "lunacy" on the poet's part as well.

What justifies such extreme verbal and syntactic deconstruction, a decomposition that has become something of a Howe signature? Is the obscurity of Articulation merely pretentious? Confronted by lines like "velc cello viable toil," many readers have closed the book, concluding that the poet is talking only to herself. The charges leveled against "language poetry" in general--obscurity, abstraction, lack of emotion, the absence of lyric selfhood--all these can easily be leveled at Susan Howe. Yet even readers unsympathetic to her work, readers who claim a book like Articulation is too private, that it isn't really "about" anything, will, I submit, find themselves repeating lines like "velc cello viable toil," if for no other apparent value than their complex music, the way e, l, and c in the first word reappear as cel in the second, or the way the v, e, l in velc reappear in the very different sounding word viable, the latter also containing the l of cello and toil.

Is this then jabberwocky, nonsense verse? If Howe wants to talk about Hope Atherton's mission to the Indians or apply the 'themes" implicit in the tale--Colonial greed, Puritan zeal, the fruits of imperialism, the loneliness of exile, the inability to communicate with the Other--to the contemporary situation, why doesn't she just get on with it? Even a prose piece like the Mary Rowlandson essay is, after all, by and large comprehensible.

It would be easy to counter that the breakdown of articulation, which is the poem's subject, is embodied in the actual breakdown of the language, that the fragmentation of the universe is somehow mirrored in the fragmentary nature of the text. But the fact is that in Howe's work, as in Charles Bernstein's or Lyn Hejinian's, demilitarization of syntax may well function in precisely the opposite way--namely, as a response to the all-too-ordered, indeed formulaic, syntax that characterizes the typical "workshop" poem.

Poem #5, for example, articulates a "sound form" that refers to Hope Atherton's journey home:

Two blew bird eggs plat Habitants before dark Little way went mistook awake  abt again Clay Gully  espied bounds to leop over  Selah cithera Opynnc be  5 rails high houselot Cow  Kinsmen I pray you hasten  Furious Nipnet Ninep Ninap  Little Pansett fence with ditch  Clear stumps grubbing ploughing  Clearing the land

"Two blew bird eggs plat": "blew" is a pun on "blue" and "plat" means "flat" as well as the truncated "plate." The image of the "Two blew bird eggs plat" gives a fairy-tale aura to this segment of the journey, as does "Little way went mistook" with its Hansel and Gretel echo. Again, the "bounds to leop over" ["Ieop" is OE for "leap"] are more than "houselot" divisions, for the real crossing of the poem is over the borders into another language where the "babble-babel" is formed from words and sounds taken from Hebrew ("Selah"), Indian ("Nipnet Ninep Ninap"), and English ("Clay Gully"), with the mythological reference to Venus's isle "Cythera" thrown in.

The poems now become increasingly fragmented, gnomic, enigmatic, as if the breakdown depicted is not so much Hope's as that of language itself. Regression sets in, poem #9 going back to Anglo-Saxon origins:

scow aback din flicker skaeg ne barge quagg peat sieve catacomb stint chisel sect

and then in #13 to a kind of aphasia, words, now without any modification or relationship, being laid out on the page as follows:

chaotic  architect  repudiate  line  Q  confine  lie   link  realm circle  a  euclidean  curtail  theme  theme  toll   function  coda severity whey  crayon  so  distant  grain  scalp  gnat   carol omen  Cur  cornice  zed  primitive  shad  sac  stone   fur  bray tub  epoch  too  tall  fum  alter  rude  recess   emblem  sixty  key

Epithets young in a box told as you fly

By this time, Hope's search has become the poet's search. It is the poet who must deal with the "chaotic," must "repudiate" the "line" that "confine[s]," the "euclidean" "circle" too neat in its resolution of "theme theme," and the "severity" of its "coda." But one can also read this poem as dealing with any form of making, of "architect[ure]," the placement of "cornice" and "stone" so as to "alter rude" appearances. And the Indian motif never quite disappears, here found in the reference to "scalp," "gnat," "primitive," and "rude."

In #13, words are spread out insistently on the white ground of the page; in #15, by contrast, words run together:

MoheganToForceImmanenceShotStepSeeShowerFiftyTree UpConcatenationLessonLittleAKantianEmpiricalMaoris HumTemporal-spatioLostAreLifeAbstractSoRemotePossess ReddenBorderViewHaloPastApparition0penMostNotion is

The "collusion" that forces words into this particular "collision" is oddly painful: the text is, so to speak, wounded, as if to say that the nightmare war with the Savage Other has come back to haunt Hope/Howe with its "AKantian Empirical" "Force" or "Immanence" of "Mohegan" or "Maori" presence, its reference to "Shot," "Shower," "Fifty Tree," "ReddenBorderView." This particular lyric concludes with a refrain already articulated in #14, a couplet producing a verbal mirror image:

blue glare(essence)cow bed leg extinct draw scribe     sideup even blue(A)ash-tree fleece comfort (B)draw scribe    upside

"Sideup"/"upside" is a breaking point; after this particular collision, the sequence suddenly shifts to the formal and coherent monologue (#17) of Hope Atherton himself:

Loving Friends and Kindred: - When I look back So short in charity and good works  We are a small remnant Of signal escapes wonderful in themselves  We march from our camp a little  and come home Lost the beaten track and so River section dark all this time We must not worry how few we are and fall from each other More than language can express Hope for the artist in America & etc This is my birthday These are the old home trees

On a first reading, this lyric coda seems excessively sentimental as well as unwarranted. Having wandered with great difficulty through the forest of the preceding lyrics, one is, of course, relieved to come into this clearing, to hear the sermonlike address to "Loving Friends and Kindred." But the resolution here provided--"We must not worry / how few we are and fall from each other / More than language can express / Hope for the artist in America & etc"--is a shade too easy, given the intractability of the material that has been put before us. How and why, after all, does Hope become Howe? How and why is there "Hope for the artist in America"? And finally, what do we do once we reach the birthday when we settle down under "the old home trees"?

. . . [T]he voicing of desire in Articulation, as in Howe's other poems, avoids the personal "I" so pervasive in contemporary lyric. Ostensibly absent and calling no attention to the problems and desires of the "real" Susan Howe, the poet's self is nevertheless inscribed in the linguistic interstices of her poetic text. Howe has been called impersonal, but one could argue that the "muffled discourse from distance," the "collusion with history" in her poetry, is everywhere charged with her presence. She is not, after all, a chronicler, telling us some Indian story from the New England past, but a poet trying to come to terms with her New England past, her sense of herself vis-à-vis the Colonial settlers' actions, her re-creation of the Hope Atherton story in relation to Norse myth as well as to contemporary feminist theory.

Most contemporary feminist poetry takes as emblematic its author's own experience of power relations, her personal struggle with patriarchy, her sense of marginalization, her view of social justice. There are Howe's subjects as well, but in substituting "impersonal" narratives--a narrative made of collage fragments realigned and recharged--for the more usual lyric "I," Howe is suggesting that the personal is always already political, specifically, that the contemporary Irish-American New England woman who is Susan Howe cannot be understood apart from her history. But history also teaches the poet that, however marginalized women have been in American culture and however much men have been the purveyors of power, those who have suffered the loss of the Word are by no means only women. Indeed, what Howe calls the "Occult ferocity of origin" is an obstacle that only a persistent "edging and dodging" will displace if we are serious about "Taking the Forest."

From Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Copyright © 1990 by Marjorie Perloff.

Anneliese Harrison on Adrienne Rich

Margaret Atwood

The wreck she is diving into, in the very strong title poem, is the wreck of obsolete myths, particularly myths about men and women. She is journeying to something that is already in the past, in order to discover for herself the reality behind the myth, "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth." What she finds is part treasure and part corpse, and she also finds that she herself is part of it, a "half-destroyed instrument." As explorer she is detached; she carries a knife to cut her way in, cut structures apart; a camera to record; and the book of myths itself, a book which has hitherto had no place for explorers like herself.

This quest--the quest for something beyond myths, for the truths about men and women, about the "I" and the "You," the He and the She, or more generally (in the references to wars and persecutions of various kinds) about the powerless and the powerful--is presented throughout the book through a sharp, clear style and through metaphors which become their own myths. At their most successful the poems move like dreams, simultaneously revealing and alluding, disguising and concealing. The truth, it seems, is not just what you find when you open a door: it is itself a door, which the poet is always on the verge of going through.

From The New York Times Book Review (1973).

Ian B. Gordon: On "For a Coming Extinction"

In the remarkable poem, "For a Coming Extinction," addressed to a gray whale, Merwin speaks of the relationship between poetic utterance and history, notably the absence that they both share’

I write as though you could understand And I could say it One must always pretend something Among the dying When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks Empty of you Tell him that we were made On another day

Although the poem commences with a simple request for the beast to forgive those responsible for its destruction, the narrator quickly finds himself in deeper philosophical waters than those transversed by the animal. He asks forgiveness while simultaneously realizing that very notion of forgiveness is a human projection: "we who follow you invented forgiveness / And forgive nothing." The juxtaposition of "follow" and "forgiveness" is charged with significance. We can forgive only by recognizing a transgression that occurred in the past. To invent forgiveness is also to invent history, to invent the idea of one event following another by a reconstitution of the past. Succession, history, inheritance—in short, the thematic concerns of the poem—exist only as part of our need to invent a field for our collective grief. Man is doomed because he must seek history only in order that he might escape it more easily. Forgiveness has no real object; as part of historical association, it is a form of the engineering of recovery posing as charity. The poem itself moves from the natural world (the whale), to its departure

Leaving behind it the future Dead And ours

and thence finally, to a "black garden" and its court—clearly a reference to some new home in a natural science museum. There it joins other extinct creatures, "the Great Auk the gorillas / The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless." The whale has entered the realm of words and hence of history symbolized by the museum replete with white labels showing forth lineage (and hence history) as the juxtaposition of genus and species: gray whale.

From "The Dwelling of Disappearance in W. S. Merwin’s The Lice." Modern Poetry Studies 3.3 (1972)


Lynn Keller: On "At the Fishhouses"

"At the Fishhouses" begins, as a poem by Moore might, with a description of a scene that seems eternally suspended. The verbs in the opening section are stative -- "the five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs," "all is silver," "the big fish tubs are completely lined," "on the slope . . . is an ancient wooden capstan," etc. Yet what Bishop chooses

to describe differs from what Moore would present. When Moore tells us, for instance, that "eight green bands are painted on the [plumet basilisk's] tail -- as piano keys are barred by five black stripes across the white," we know that both lizards and pianos have always looked like that and will continue to do so in the future. But Bishop's description insists that the scene she observes is the product of continual changes caused by both people and nature: The man's shuttle is "worn and polished," the ironwork on the capstan "has rusted," the buildings have "an emerald moss growing on their shoreward walls." Such details make us aware that a future visitor would find a different scene in which these processes of erosion, decay, and growth were further advanced.

The fixity of the scene at the fishhouses is further undercut as the speaker becomes an active participant, offering the old man a Lucky Strike and engaging him in conversation. Reminders of historical process now become more overt; "he was a friend of my grandfather" implies her grandfather's death, and "the decline of the population" tells of broader changes. Moreover, Bishop's enchantment with this place emerges as a fascination not so much with the visible world people inhabit as with the unknowable sea it borders. She is attracted to this silvered village because it bears so much evidence of the sea's touch, while her real desire -- like that of her "Riverman" or of Lucy in "The Baptism" is for "total immersion," though she admits that would be "bearable to no mortal." Drawing a message from the scene very different from any Moore would offer, Bishop presents the sea as a symbol of "what we imagine knowledge to be: . . . drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts / forever, flowing and drawn, and since / our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown." In suggesting that our knowing anything is itself imaginary, in adhering to a vision of unending process, in believing revelations in this harsh world fleeting and costly, Bishop stands firmly in the mainstream of contemporary art.


From Re-making it new: Contemporary American poetry and the modernist tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press.