Bonnie Costello

Bonnie Costello: On "Straight- Creek-- Great Burn"

Gary Snyder's bold project is to restore the imagination to the stance of the primitive. He has come closer than any other American poet to imagining the world as one of Stevens's future primitives in "Sunday Morning," "chanting orgy to the sun," might. Communal, ritualistic, boisterously physical, utopian, this is a consciousness fully occupied by the present, ecstatically embracing necessity. It is a form of vision which Stevens prophesies but never adopts, his Platonism and his need for poetic authority always balking at such reductions. But Snyder is not altogether different from Stevens in this, for his "primitive" imagination and the body in which it is invested remain figurative in his best work. The need for poetic authority struggles with his poetic thesis so that the poems often equivocate as to whether the body is material or tropological. When it is material, poetic authority is reduced but replaced by prophetic, ideological authority.

What Snyder's theory does not account for, but what his poetry at its best demonstrates, is that his primitive is inescapably rhetorical. His cultural and poetic project is one of reinhabitation (to become natives rather than invaders of the earth).


"Straight Creek—Great Burn" (Turtle Island 52-53) is a clear example of the spatial imagination and its treatment of history. It also indicates Snyder's gradual movement away from objectivist configurations and his turn to a passive, scenic mode. The first part of the poem characteristically describes a landscape without inhabitants or witness, a vision free of human agency:


Lightly, in the April mountains—

                    Straight Creek,

dry grass freed again of snow

& the chickadees are pecking

last fall's seeds

            fluffing tail in chilly wind,

Avalanche piled up cross the creek

                and chunked-froze solid—

water sluicing under; spills out

             rock lip pool, bends over,

             braided, white, foaming,

returns to trembling

             deep-dark hole.


The description, like others by Snyder, emphasizes movement: solid elements are included in order to be enfolded with the general flow. We see a tableau of frozen chunks the result of avalanches, boulders indicating flow near lines, and later "tumbled talus rock / of geosyncline warm sea bottom."

This poem also illustrates again the tension in Snyder's work between materialist and mythic vision and between the cure of the ground and the urge to transcendence. The eye moves naturally, but also rhetorically, from the sense of the past arising out of spatial awareness to the "eternal / azure," and it is in this mythic realm that the beholder is mentioned:


us resting on dry fern and



Shining Heaven

change his feather garments



A whoosh of birds

swoops up and round

tilts back

almost always flying all apart

and yet hangs on!



never a leader ,

all of one swift



dancing     mind.


They arc and loop & then

their flight is done.

they settle down.

end of poem.


Shining Heaven becomes momentarily figurative, a Keatsian bird born out of the particular birds that launch the poem with the processes of nature: "pecking / last fall's seeds." But Snyder quickly returns from this mythic moment to another naturalistic one, grounding the poetic imagination in the material rather than identifying it with some eternal principle, as the young Keats might have done. The poetic mind attempts to identify itself with the "empty / dancing mind" of the birds, to yield to instinct and resist its will to dominate ("never a leader"). The poem ends with the arc of the birds' flight, though it had not been controlled by it earlier. The symbolist eternal azure cannot become the focal point; earthly birds, not celestial ones, provide the model for poetic invention. But a lively tension develops in the poem among three points of view -that of the heaven gazers, that of the birds, and that of the poet, which is reduced to that of the birds at the end, but only then.

Snyder's relaxation of figurative invention, and his forsaking of it at extreme moments, leads him in his most recent work to a laconic and even prosaic style, and increasingly to the substitution of ideological for poetic authority. What used to be organizing tropes are now reduced to images or subjects in an anecdotal frame. The structure of the poem "River in the Valley," for instance, in some ways resembles that of "Straight Creek," but the poem rests passively in the scenic mode. Stanzas begin "[1] We cross the Sacramento River at Colusa . . . [2] Gen runs in little circles looking up . . . [3] Kai leans silent against a concrete pier . . . [4] I pick grass seeds from my socks" (Axe Handles 58).

It is hard to muster enthusiasm for the symbolic action of someone picking grass seed from his socks. Snyder seems compelled to make a bald statement of his theme at the end, uncertain of its presence in particulars, unassisted by poetic authority: "the river is all of it everywhere, / all flowing at once, / all one place"

For Snyder the poetic mind is fundamentally passive, "Like Compost," he says (Axe Handles 75). Williams, too, saw poetry in agrarian terms and called for an attachment to soil, but the poet was for Williams a composing antagonist. Snyder's entire project hopes to end such antagonism, to harvest the very different fruits of an unalienated intelligence.

Bonnie Costello: On "Study of Two Pears"

The problem of Modernism's negations (especially Cubist negations) is again the subject of "Study of Two Pairs," whose title clearly invokes visual arts. The concerns of the body of the poem - shape, color, outline, resemblance - also derive from painting. As does Cubist painting, the poem suggests both a struggle to see reality as it is and to create and imaginative reality. The poem ends ironically, for while the pears are not seen as the observer wills (not as viols, nudes, or bottles), it is only these willed images that are seen. The poem seems to move in this direction toward the last two stanzas where the reality of the pears is entirely elusive - a glistening at bests. Even their shadows are only defined as "blobs on the green cloth." The dull, flat language of "Study of Two Pears" may reflect the dullness of bandage to visual fact. Such objectivism is only an "opusculum paedagogum." But the poem also perhaps testifies to the failure of language to represent adequately the allure of visual fact (it "glistens"). Without metaphor (without viols, nudes, or bottles) language is nothing, and yet metaphor implies an evasion, a removal from positive direct experience. Stevens' ambivalence about the eye centers, then, on his allusions to painting. Here his own stance as observer/describer seems inadequate to capture observation. The poem does not offer an equivalence in language to Cubist concerns and techniques, but rather a description of those concerns and techniques, a substitution rather than an apposition.

From "Effects of an Analogy: Wallace Stevens and Painting. In Albert Gelpi (ed.) Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism. Cambridge University Press.

Bonnie Costello: On "Peter"

In "Peter," the subject matter, a cat, is easily recognizable, the logical movement of the passages relatively accessible. But different fashions of description--scientific, metaphoric--compete in the presentation:

the detached first claw on the foreleg corresponding  to the thumb, retracted to its tip; the small tuft of fronds  or katydid-legs above each eye numbering all units  in each group; the shadbones regularly set about the mouth to droop or rise in unison like porcupine-quills.

Each new mode of description redirects our attention, redefining what precedes it. It is hard to retain through these lines a natural image of a cat. The metaphors themselves represent different proportions and contexts, thus further complicating the visualization. Each part of the body is a piece of another realm. The poem goes on to play the shifting figure of the cat off against the shifting metaphors for it. That is, Moore presents a moving, multi-faceted creature, not by tracing that movement along the lines of visual conventions, but by presenting multiple images for it and thus conceptualizing motion.

In "Peter" our attention never fully breaks from a central image. But the elements of the picture are cut out of disparate depictions of life and the whole thing hangs together like nothing we have seen before. The play of the poem lies in the dialectic between the "natural" image of the cat and the internal, pictorial coherence of juxtaposed words. A tension is created between the sense of an external variety and an internal consistency, rewarding a desire for order while suggesting the inclusive density of life. It is this bidirectional pull that is the pleasure of many of Moore's "descriptive" poems. Of course poetry, with its temporal organization, has advantages over painting in presenting a thing from all sides. But Moore adopts from painters the double sense of looking at something. The impulse to find a conceptual unity within the visual multiplicity is one she shares with modernist painters. Her note from M. Krohgon on futurists could stand for her own work: "the Futurist ... has got to see feel understand and interpret the front side and the back side of things, the inside as well as the outside and the bottom as well as or better than the top."

From Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Copyright © 1981 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Bonnie Costello: On "Poetry"

In the poem entitled "Poetry" Moore's relative contrast between "half poets" and genuine poets runs parallel to a more fundamental opposition between the raw materials of poetry and the genuine. Moore pursues an explosive resolution ("imaginary gardens with real toads in them") which she knows to be ideal, offering "in the meantime" a list of ordinary objects in a formal setting which are also images of pursuit. The genuine thus takes on a double meaning, as stimulus and as response. "In the Days of Prismatic Color," Moore's modern paradise lost, and a poem rich with allusion, contrasts a haughty, advancing obscurity to a golden age of simplicity and clarity. But underlying this complaint against excesses of form is a more inclusive picture of our fall from original immanence into absence and illusion. At the end of the poem truth speaks defiantly against ephemeral form, but the voice of truth can only be presented, in the poem, as an echo of the poet. "The Monkeys" creates a similar ambiguity of voice which complicates a simple contrast between object and audience, and between genuine and fraudulent art. The play of perceiver and perceived, buyer and seller, occurs on many levels of "When I Buy Pictures"--its lists, its epigrammatic phrases, and its status in relation to its theme. The poem associates the genuine with humility, so that, paradoxically, to be genuine is to disclose one's sources. Once again Moore's sense of the immediacy and primacy of the genuine is complicated by her sense of the separate and secondary nature of art.

"Poetry," the most famous and the most direct poem addressing the question of the genuine in art, provides the best starting point for defining Moore's usage. Though critics have long taken this poem as a statement of Moore's poetic, few have really confronted its peculiar procedures and examples. Moore's brilliant solution, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," is often quoted, but the prestidigitation that produced it is rarely traced. In fact Moore never really does define poetry or the genuine, but through the labyrinths of ambivalence and ambiguity, skeptical restraints and imaginative leaps, she presents her conception of their relationship. She posits an ideal in which the genuine is absorbed into form, reference into poem, the real into the imaginary. In the meantime poetry turns out to be a magic trick that does not quite succeed, but which absorbs us in its dazzling sleight-of-hand, in which we think we glimpse the genuine before it turns into the poet once again.

Our initial question in reading "Poetry" is one of reference: what is the "it" of "I, too, dislike it. There are things that are important beyond all this fiddle"? Clearly "it" is poetry--but why does Moore avoid the noun? Is the poem a prescription for or a definition of poetry, or do these converge in Moore's mind? While she "dislikes" it at the beginning of the poem, by the end she has made it a distant ideal. Syntactically "this fiddle" could stand either in apposition to "poetry" (in the generic sense) or as a reference to the immediate poetic activity. Naturally both the general and the particular are complicated in this poem in which the speaker refuses to stand in one place, moving from "I, too" to the impersonal "one" in a defensive defense of poetry. We discover that there are three poetries referred to here: one that won't do at all, the pretentious and narcissistic products of "half poets"; one that is transcendent, ideal, and purely imaginary, that fuses the genuine with artifice; and finally, the poem at hand. The problem is to separate them.

Before we have even begun to consider this ambiguity others have arisen. The ambiguity of reference is related to the ambivalence of the poem, which declares, at the outset, a dislike of "it" but immediately begins to retract. "Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine." Is the contempt part and parcel of the discovery? Or is it erased by the discovery? One finds in "it" a "place for the genuine"--does one find the genuine itself or is it extraneous to the poem, imported in or substituted? "Place" could imply either an occasion or a space. Which does Moore intend? If the "it" so far is "fiddle," is the genuine part of the fiddle or a transcendence of it? Is Moore discovering the magnitude of uselessness or overcoming it? The early problem of defining poetry has slipped into the problem of defining the genuine, as imaginative intensity or the achieved presence of reality in form.

What immediately follows "the genuine" could stand in apposition to it, though this is not entirely clear: "Hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must, . . ." Typically Moore speaks through concrete particulars. But what, precisely, do they say? That we should stick to sensory detail when writing, to "finite objects"? It is worth noticing that these images all belong to a specific realm of particulars: they are all physical manifestations (body language) of internal reactions. Is the genuine, then, the stimulus or the response? Is it "objectification" or "a portrait of the author's character intent upon the object, which is sincerity"? Moore shifts persepective. Given the details of grasping hands, dilating eyes, rising hair, we would tend to say "the genuine" was a matter of response, except for what follows: "these things are important not because a / high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are / useful." They are here seen as objects eliciting our response, "useful things," not responses. What is useful about them? A defense of poetry, even a definition, ought to answer the question. Instead Moore gives us more information about what is not appropriate:

                            When they become so derivative as to become


the same thing may be said for all of us, that 

    we do not admire what 

    we cannot understand:

The word "derivative" linked with "unintelligible" implies a definition of the ideal poetry as original and lucid. Originally, in Others 5 (July 1919) and Poems (1921), this section ended in a period. Moore returns to the thread of the previous assertion, but the colon suspends our expectation, suggesting that the examples could illustrate the antecedent negative or the following positive observation.

                                    the bat

        holding on upside down or in quest of something to


eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a toll, a tireless wolf 


a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that 

                                                              feels a flea, the base-

    ball fan, the statistician--

        nor is it valid

            to discriminate against "business documents and


school-books"; all these phenomena are important.

Moore has evaded all questions. Reduced, the argument runs: these things are useful because they are important; these things are important because they are useful--a mere tautology, but in poetry, if not in logic, something is accomplished. We do have the peculiar illusion of an answer, by virtue of the very struggle of getting to this point. An engagement is recorded. Here, it seemed, we have the genuine: real physical objects--elephants, horses, wolves, fleas, full of smell and feeling, not "discriminated" for their symbolic value but "objectively" interesting. And yet the list is far from a random sampling of the world's objects. Once again these "important" phenomena are all of one type: animate beings investigating other objects, "in quest" or pursuing things, though admittedly also objects of our own inquiry. They play both sides of an equation between subject and object, derivative and original. What is interesting about them is how they reflect our own acts of investigation--our curiosity depends on theirs. Is this the genuine, then: the act of finding? Moore's method of argument through the first two-thirds of the poem, as we have seen, is not to answer a question, or to resolve a duality, but to get at the question from ever-new vantages. We have on the one hand exploration, on the other hand discovery, joined by ambiguity.

Moore's next strategy in the poem is to condense distinctions into paradoxes, or abstract oxymorons. We shall "have it" she says, when we become "literalists of the imagination." Moore tells us in the notes that she condensed this phrase from an essay Yeats wrote on Blake:

The limitation of his view was from the very intensity of his vision; he was a too literal realist of imagination, as others are of nature; and because he believed that the figures seen by the mind's eye, when exalted by inspiration, were "external existences," symbols of divine essences, he hated every grace of style that might obscure their lineaments. Ideas of Good and Evil (A.H. Bullen, 1903), p. 182 [CP, 267-268]

From what Yeats poses as undesirable opposites, realists of the literal (or natural) and literal realists of the imaginative, Moore derives a new ideal posture. The extremes of nature and imagination come together. Grace and the literal are one. But is the distinction "resolved" in her phrase? She holds out its fulfillment as a prospect, but the phrase is still, to us, paradoxical. "Precision is a thing of the imagination" (not, one infers, of reality), she writes in "Feeling and Precision"(Predilections, 8).

                                                      One must make a distinction

however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result

                                                                             is not poetry, 

nor till the poets among us can be

    "literalists of

    the imagination"--above

        insolence and triviality and can present


for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall 

                                                                                   we have 


The "literalist of the imagination," we infer, not only is "sincere" in his vision ("untempted by any grace of style that might obscure its lineaments"), but also is successful in rendering that vision supremely graceful. In him, the formal and the natural are copresent, even cooperative; he produces "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." What follows is a contradictory demand for "the raw material of poetry," language and its various ordering devices (surprisingly aligned with the garden), and the genuine, things as they are (aligned with real toads). We lack the means to bring them into the same ontological status.

    In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, 

the raw material of poetry in 

    all its rawness and 

    that which is on the other hand

        genuine, you are interested in poetry.


Clear enough. But why toads? Why not "real roses" or "real princes"? Why must the oxymoron be double? A practical answer is that Moore feels an affinity for odd creatures. Indeed, her poems are full of them: her octopus, pangolin, jerboa, lizard, all "supreme in their abnormality," work against the curve of the general, the average. They are original and individual. The peculiar is linked in her mind with the particular. By their peculiarity they demonstrate the inclusiveness of the genuine, which will not discriminate against toads any more than against "business documents and school-books." The "poetic" ideally is a totally inclusive class. Moore "dislikes" poetry that statically congratulates itself on remaining within a class of what is "properly poetic." The wakeful mind is challenged to extend the class it can embrace. The genuine pressures decorum. Still, though the ideal objective viewer has no predilection for beauty but responds genuinely, we in fact do find toads "and the like" disconcerting, or if we do not, we know we are unusual in this. The norm of response to toads is, in life, not garden ease but hands that grasp, eyes that dilate, hair that rises, responses that also accompany the sublime.

Toads belong to a lexicon of symbols and have their own literary history, as rich as the history of the imaginary garden, even part of the same tradition. Together with other amphibians and reptiles (snakes, basilisks, chameleons) they often represent the power of the irrational in the midst of controlled elements. Their shocking, irregular appearance, their way of leaping out of camouflage, produces an effect of the uncanny, or gothic horror, in some versions of the sublime. Though "natural symbols," they are often cousins to the demonic or supernatural--the incubus, the satyr--as creatures outside the realm of human understanding. They are present in literature not as "things in themselves" but as challenges to the boundaries of beauty, decorum, human order.

We have not learned the method of Moore's "literalists of the imagination" who are at ease with toads. We have only their raw materials and their intentions. Indeed, their accomplishment seems to us miraculous, a matter of enchantment or alchemy--such as would turn princes into toads, and vice versa. It is hard to resist the conjecture that such suggestions of magical transformation were present in Moore's mind in a poem about poetry, about image-making. To the "literalists of the imagination" the toad is a prince again, welcome back into the decorum of the garden. Similarly, things and words, nature and spirit are for them all of the same order of being. But such an ideal belongs to an imaginary, Edenic garden. We, on earth, can create "conjuries that endure" (Predilections, 32), but they remain fictions. Our toads are conspicuous and vulgar, challenging the perimeters of formal beauty. It is the incongruity that stimulates us, not the perspective it ideally provides. In this realm of pseudomagic, of conjuring, what has happened to the genuine, which had been implying the mundane world, "things in themselves," "dry, hard, finite objects"? Freud suggests that the effect of the uncanny (heimlich) involved the strangeness of the familiar, as its etymology (both homely and strange) implies. Perhaps this same doubleness obtains in Moore's use of the genuine. As ordinary as toads are, we cannot find forms that can domesticate them. Indeed it is the very effort to frame them that makes them seem extraordinary.

Until the toad is a prince, the ideal "garden" is only imaginary. The toad is, in a sense, the emblem of failure, the rough edge of our attempt to bring the real world and the world of formal beauty together. It is also, because it confounds, an object of admiration (making our eyes "dilate"). That which is beyond language produces the effect of gusto, cousin to the sublime. But the toad is not an emblem of defeat. The point is not that we want to capture the toad in all his naturalness, the physical object itself as toad. Why should we? We have it aplentv in the world as it is. But "lit with piercing glances" (whether of reflected or radiated light Moore doesn't specify) the poeticized toad has the occasional look of a prince. It is "hair-raising" when you think about it, how we catch these transformations in transit but cannot complete the charm. We make mutations, gargoyles. We do read poetry, do become for moments "literalists of the imagination," but we cannot sustain our transformation. Sincerity, which started out as honest vision, becomes an expression of desire (not attainment), and the energy that accompanies that desire is "gusto." Moore's poems are "conjuries" that can make "real toads" appear in fictive gardens. But she always reveals what's up her sleeve, brings her images round to reveal the conjurer. She quotes, with approval, a saying of Kenneth Burke's: "The hypnotist has a way out and a way in" (Predilections, 8). Working against the beliefs of the literalist of the imagination, for whom poetry is presence, is the skeptic, for whom it is mere illusory "fiddle."

It is not surprising, given her view of poetry as a process of competing dualities, that Moore should have gone through many revisions, never fully settling on one. We have been looking at the form of the poem published in Collected Poems--the one most often anthologized. But it went through several forms.

An intermediate phase in the second edition of Observations displays a frustration with ambiguities and an attempt to silence them. Not only is the poem shortened, but the famous "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" is removed and in its place is the phrase "enigmas are not poetry" prefacing a reminder that poems should not be "fashioned into that which is unknowable." Moore's vacillation about whether the "mysteries" she celebrates are natural or rhetorical, important or self-indulgent, will be the subject of another chapter, but it is clear enough here that she is subjecting her art to some hard criticism. Still, as if to say that these abrupt moral dispensations were too easy a resolution of complexity, she returned with minor changes and deletions to the original version when she published Selected Poems. And as though to acknowledge that art and the genuine are not yet resolved into one, she returned to syllabic patterns after an excursion into free verse, attempts to simulate natural speech. But in 1967 she lashed out against herself again, printing only part of the first three lines of the poem in Complete Poems.

Moore seems to have struggled with the Horatian precept dulce et utile in revising "Poetry." What had at first been "important" was now only "pleasing." But a draft of this version in the Rosenbach archive suggests that her ambivalence carried over into the act of composition. After "enigmas are not poetry," which abruptly concludes the version printed in the 1925 edition of Observations, she wrote:

and not until the misled literalists of the imagination 

present for inspection 

imaginary gardens with real toads in them 

shall we encounter its misrule.

Here Moore changed the positive meaning that her phrase "literalists of the imagination" had borne in Others, but she was clearly turning against the pragmatic line this new poem was taking. She delightfully inverted values by neatly opposing "misled" and "misrule," celebrating poetry's recalcitrance, its rebellion against those whom she had called in the Others version "autocrats." Perhaps she was resisting the autocrat in herself.

The final, 1967 version of "Poetry" reduces it from its original thirty-eight-line movement of rhetorically persuasive point, example, counterpoint, to a bare expression of ambivalence:

I, too, dislike it.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers 


it, after all, a place for the genuine.

The two versions stand not as original and revision but as two alternative statements. In an interview after the publication of the Complete Poems Moore said her change arose from dislike of unnecessary verbal display in the early poem. And yet she did publish the original in the notes to Complete Poems, and in her work "notes" are an integral part of the whole. It was not her usual practice to include her variorum. If, as she says, "omissions are not accidents," the corollary may be "inclusions are intentional." The ambivalence in the two versions of "Poetry" is basic to Moore's aesthetic: poetry embodies a continual tension between the desire to concentrate all thought into a unity, into epigram, into implied vision (and silence), and the desire to make distinctions, to be explicit, to find the right words (and perhaps simply to assert one's existence by saying more). A line in the original published version of "Poetry" in Others reveals this temptation: "Case after case / could be cited did one wish it." Later Moore sees this wish as self-indulgent, claiming that the 1967 version contains all that the earlier version spells out. But could we divine the earlier version from its vestige? Language is not an instrument of precision, as Moore is the first to admit. Reducing the poem to three lines may be Moore's attempt to uncover the genuine, but a short poem is no more genuine than an expansive one.

Revision, whether within the text or between texts, is an essential part of Moore's aesthetic. It is motivated by an essential ambivalence about poetry's capacity to assert and form an elusive, multifaceted world. The imagination must continually catch itself in its complacencies and wipe away the smudge of accumulated thought. And the poem must have the same effect on the reader; it must elude his settled understanding. A passage in her reading diary (among many Moore copied from H. Festing Jones's Diversions in Sicily) expresses this need for constant renewal: "During the voyage through time the words of one's own language become barnacled over with associations so that we cannot see them in their naked purity as we see the words of a foreign tongue." Too rigid an ideal of sincerity will reduce the poet to silence, because literature is by its very nature insincere. "If one is afraid of it [literature], / the situation is irremediable." On the other hand, "if one approaches it familiarly, / what one says of it is worthless" (CP, 45). The effect of Moore's poems is always to make her subject (and her poem) unfamiliar, without allowing it to become alien.

It should be said that Moore is not an austere moralist in upholding the value of sincerity. The "difficulties" she encounters (and produces) are in fact the proper pleasure of art. While resolution may be held out as the ideal, paradox clearly has a delight of its own. Her alert discovery of nuance, her fastidious resistance to blunt closure, suggest not only a sincerity of attitude but a dislike of ending. Moore's sincerity, then, is the agent of gusto. Failure in terms of precision becomes success in terms of energy generated, by the genuine discovery of a world bigger than our words for it.

From Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Copyright © 1981 by Harvard University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Bonnie Costello: On "The Pangolin"

Moore admires the pangolin's armor for its usefulness and its beauty. Indeed, the language of "The Pangolin" moves between these two aspects, sometimes attending to the efficiency and sometimes to the elegance of this protective covering. The task of the poem is to discover their connection. She finds it in any interplay between synchronic and diachronic structures.

[Costello quotes lines 1-8]

The method and focus of this poem recall many of the earlier descriptive poems discussed in Chapter 3 [of Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions]. The poem sets out to describe the combative qualities of an "armored animal," and these invite comparison with man's combativeness. The poem also confronts the problems of accurate perception, introducing rival categories of description and contending impulses in the observer of what to watch, of whether to describe or compare. In making an analogy between pangolin and man, the poem confronts several other conflicts: between sign and meaning, between the two terms of the analogy, between the limited perspective of comparison and the multiplicity of the objects compared--all of which finally suggest a more fundamental conflict between subject and object, between the observer-writer and the object of her attention. What Moore shows us in the struggle of the pangolin is repeated in her own poetic behavior. The problem the poem poses, in part, is how to stabilize the struggle, how to make it graceful, and the pangolin becomes the model for her solution.

The speaker of the poem rushes to identify the object before her, and immediately her attention is divided between the visual qualities of the surface and the meaning of that surface. The very act of calling the pangolin's scales "armor" interprets their qualities, but whereas armor ordinarily evokes ideas of aggression, the speaker immediately becomes interested in design, in the "spruce-cone regularity," the "artichoke"-like organization of the scales. Design suggests a designer, the "artist-engineer" Leonardo Da Vinci, so that the pangolin is seen as a replica both of the artist-struggler and of his symmetrical art. The poem opens with this deluge of descriptive images not yet unified.

We expect an analogy to develop between the pangolin and some aspect of man's life, but at this stage the poem seems more to oppose than to associate the two sides of the analogy. Man moves from dawn to dusk, the pangolin from dusk to dawn.

[lines 9-14]

Already Moore has placed not only metaphors but kinds of language, metaphoric and scientific, in uneasy conjunction. The poem is constructed of dichotomies and oxymorons. The pangolin is "a true anteater, not cock-roach eater." Though "serpentined about a tree" he is "unpugnacious," his "hiss" is "harmless." These are examples of power restrained. And as if to imitate this concept the speaker's aggressive acts of interpretation cease and she becomes careful to make distinctions before leaping forward too eagerly. As the pangolin "rolls into a ball" we sense that the creature is both literally and figuratively drawing into himself and that the speaker's "efforts to unroll it" are in vain. The language becomes curt and matter of fact; all analogy drops out, or seems, to. Apparently in the battle between subject and object (the speaker of the poem imposing the definitions and the object resisting them), the object has won the first round. Here the pangolin seems to be his unique self, not like anything else.

[lines 30-33]

Trying to find out what the pangolin "entails" the speaker finds it all the more "intailed."

As analogy ceases to function on one level it is restored on another: the interiority of the pangolin is both literal and figurative. Similarly the elaborate twistings and counterbalances earlier in the language of the poem made a design not unlike the wrought-iron vine the pangolin resembles. Now, as we look at the speaker looking at the pangolin, the animal's withdrawal becomes an emblem or analogy for the very breakdown of analogy (the retreat of the object into its individuality). In these terms the process of making analogies itself is the mode of attack the pangolin defends himself against. The creature will not be "set aside."

In the first section of the poem the speaker moved from testing out human comparisons and definitions of the pangolin to delighting in the sheer process of circumspection, the curves and counter curves of that study. But now that the pangolin has "darkened" himself and left the speaker literally speechless over his ingenuity, the speaker transfers her energy from description and definition to pure admiration. The poem and its objects are disengaged for a moment. It is a declaration of impotence, of the inviolability of things, but the tone is excited, not disheartened:

[lines 34-37]

The "vileness" to which this stanza refers is not only man's martial instinct but also his intellectual one. The pangolin escapes both our physical and our interpretive grasp. But this is admiration not only of the pangolin, the apparent subject of the poem, but of all the images that have been brought in; "sun and moon and day and night and man and beast" were all part of the scenes described above. And curiously, man is on both sides of the concern, as intruder and object of intrusion. What has this ejaculation to do with the poem, a description of the pangolin? Perhaps it has some relation to acts of association and observation. To make analogy genuine, the speaker must go through a phase of self-examination, finding the example of man in his own behavior.

After the contraction, of the pangolin and of the language, comes another expansion. In the next stanza the speaker again sallies forth with description but with more images that suggest his own activity. From a temporary cheerful defeat, a temporary retreat into self-reflection, the speaker, like the pangolin, prepares for the next onset. The pangolin that was primarily an object of a is now an advancer:

[lines 38-44]

Here we have not only a return to the description of the pangolin (and to the double armor-artichoke image used to describe him) but more images for the action of man and specifically for the writing of the poem, the tail reminiscent of the quivering pen, though nonetheless a tail. Like the pangolin, the writer "engulfs what he can," the form of his poem "quivering" as the recalcitrant details on the pangolin's reality "swarm on him."

[lines 50-61]

Simpletons (and reductivists) impose their theories on the subject and err. Now the language of description, in an act of relative modesty like the pangolin's, approximates the observation; it is a "not unchain-like machinelike form." But like the pangolin, the poem is made graceful by adversities. The series of efforts and errors promises to leave a graceful pattern.

It is difficult to establish a hierarchy of interests in this poem. No single principle of comparison seems to dominate. Rather, associative links are local and various, some sound-determined, some visual, some conceptual, and these do not immediately reinforce one another. The pleasure of the poem is in its overlappings, like the scales of the pangolin it sets out to describe. The notion of "grace," for instance, suggested by the pangolin's movement and appearance, diverts the speaker's attention to other modes of grace, specifically with regard to artistic creation:

[lines 61-73]

The transition from the grace of the pangolin to the grace of the church seems an unwarranted digression. On the slim axis of "grace" the poem inverts the terms of the analogy. The speaker has completely abandoned her original task of description and turned to another topic. And yet as she proceeds to quite another subject the same method of description recurs. The image of the pangolin is gone but its figurative and formal traces remain. Early the pangolin was compared to the Abbey gate. Now the poem focuses fully on the Abbey itself, recalling in its description the contours of the pangolin. The grace of the pangolin's scales and its graceful attitude are now the formal and moral grace of a human construction, the church. Is this the fulfillment of the implied promise of an unpugnacious human armor, offered earlier? Man's art is like the pangolin's form (a comparison already hinted at, playfully, not only in the Da Vinci analogy but in the repetitions of the term "artichoke"). The pattern of the pangolin's scales is like the repetitions in the stone mullions and relief sculptures on the cathedral. And just as the pangolin's scales are the shield he uses in his struggle to survive "from dusk to dawn," these architectural forms provide a kind of "shield" for man against the vicissitudes of time.

The "grace" of the cathedral is not purely formal and static. It is a "sign" of man's struggle and of intervening grace. The pattern of the scales becomes the factor of resemblance throughout the rest of the poem. It unites the grace of the architecture (patterned as "a monk and monk and monk") and the grace of the poem (with its pattern of repetitions). But what is initially a spatial metaphor becomes a temporal one as well. That is, the repetitions of the pangolin's scales and the church mullions stand for temporal repetitions, for a process. Now it is clearer why Moore continually played off temporal and spatial qualities. At the end of the poem we are introduced to the architecture of human history ("and new and new and new") played against the spatial arrangement of "monk and monk and monk." This encompassing "process" of adversity (human struggle) includes the struggle of creation, specifically that of writing. The sense of temporal struggle and the sense of spatial design are finally united in the poem when the speaker suggests that "that which is at all" "is forever." What is trial and error from a temporal point of view is symmetry from a spatial point of view, as each monk lives and dies and lines up along stone mullions. As we view these monks "branching out across the perpendicular" we are reminded that Moore's notion of grace is bound to the Christian paradox embodied in the cross as the intersection of time and eternity. But she writes entirely from the human perspective, in which the struggles of life are only symbolically resolved into harmonies.

Art provides a kind of double shield, for when we consider the imperfections of any human form we can imagine a process that may correct those imperfections, "time in which to pay a debt." Conversely, when we become exhausted with the sense of endless trial and error, of endless process, we can consider the pattern our lives have established, can imagine a spatial stability in repetition. Both perspectives imply a notion of grace, however, and grace is an ambiguous word here. Is it grace from without or grace generated by the patterns? In any case these are "ingratiating" forms.

As we read it becomes clear that the phrase "to explain grace requires a curious hand" is more than a suspended comment or superficial link; rather it is a governing principle of what has come before and what will come after. Both "grace" and "curious" are reciprocal words, providing a kind of connective link between the various orders of concern in the poem. The pangolin is curious to us and curious himself, just as the hand that defines the pangolin is itself observing and observed. Similarly "grace" itself has two meanings in friction with each other which are reconciled (two points of view, divine and human, which describe an alternating subject-object relation). The adversity between a writer and his object, a pangolin and his object, is reconciled in the pattern of repetitions that action itself produces when viewed as a whole. Grace occurs when that process can be conceived of as a totality. So the grace of the author becomes the grace of his product, given the grace of the reader in allowing that transmission. Subjectivity and objectivity become as two sides of the same coin, or two pangolin scales side by side defining a symmetry. So too the Abbey is both a symbol of man's limit (his need for intervening grace) and his power (as a graceful "artist-engineer"). He makes the best of conflict, he creates dialectical compositions. The mortal monks take their place among immortal stones. If we now recall the initial conflict of associations of armor and design in description of the pangolin scales, we can see that though these seemed to move in opposite directions, they are now reconciled.

We have seen the analogy of the pangolin with man pivoting in a description of a cathedral. Now the poem moves directly into the second term of the analogy, man and his struggles. As the pangolin embodied both synchronic and diachronic structures, the church architecture embodies the human version of synchronic ones, and Moore now turns to man in series, in history. But in shifting her weight to the second term of the analogy, she still totters.

[lines 73-87]

The rest of the poem will directly concern man, but the pangolin is transfused in the description of man just as man was earlier transfused in the description of the pangolin. Indeed, man is described in terms of the animal world: "there he sits in his own habitat." The poem itself has "capsized" its subject matter, but not in disheartenment. The expression of failure here provides the materials for success. This is a poem about trial and error:

                    Bedizened or stark         naked, man, the self, the being we call human, writing- master to this world, griffons a dark      "Like does not like like that is obnoxious"; and writes error                                                                                 with four r s.

The "struggle" draws directly into questions of writing, of this writing, which is based on "likeness." But the sense of man's fallibility does not discourage the speaker because "among animals, one has a sense of humor." The central embarrassments of writing are met with this consolation: that we can stand aside and look at our errors even if we cannot avoid them in action. The poem does not conclude in precise definition or in resignation, only in the celebration of process. Similarly Moore celebrates the pangolin's adventures, for which his scales are a sign and protection, and the struggle of "monk and monk and monk" now "laid out across stone mullions" in a monument to their efforts and to intervening grace. Throughout the poem she assumes the possibility of some intervening force that can steady her in the flux of life and thought.

                                            The prey of fear, he, always 

curtailed, extinguished, thwarted by the dusk, work partly


says to the alternating blaze,

    "Again the sun!

        anew each day; and new and new and new, 

    that comes into and steadies my soul."

The poem opens and closes in exclamatory language, creating a kind of arc between. Though the speaker's work of interpretation remains "partly done," she can rejoice at the process of vision and revision she has pursued. (It is worth noting that this is a willful perspective whose opposite is "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.") Finally life can be seen as a grand composition, and this becomes a "steadying" influence.

"The Pangolin" is a long circuitous poem with an elaborately disguised structure. My argument about it, in following its curves, has also been long and circuitous. It will be useful to summarize the relationships among some features of the poem, keeping in mind that they are not experienced reductively. Explicitly and implicitly the poem is about armor and about grace--its task is to find the union of these. In the image of the pangolin we find the union in seeing the scales at once as a sign of the animal's maneuvers and as aesthetically pleasing in themselves. We move to finding the maneuvers aesthetically pleasing, the adversities of combat repeating temporally the permanent pattern of the scales. Adversities are seen as conversities, and moral and aesthetic perspectives are brought together in a notion of grace. The double perspective on the pangolin is followed by an analogy with man, who must incorporate armor and art. Man's struggle through life (or with any specific effort) establishes a pattern which art encompasses as a monument to life. Temporal and spatial patterns converge in our experience.

But for Moore to make such an assertion complacently would be to deny the very process of assertion and contradiction she explicitly identifies as human at the end of the poem. She avoids complacency in several ways. She balances the equation of pangolin and man so that neither side of the analogy seems dominant. Man must determine her ultimate perspective, of course, but by inverting the analogy she leaves ambiguous our attitude toward man's efforts. He is simultaneously a graceful and an ironic creature. By variously making the pangolin analogy bear on her writing (on its action and shape) she includes herself in the group "made graceful by adversity, conversity." She does not settle for a dialectic of aesthetic and martial interests resolved in a figure that fuses them. We do not take the analogy of pangolin with man for granted. Rather, the dialectic forces its way into the very terms of the analogy so that even the bond between pangolin and man is revealed as a tentative, highly artificial one, making the assertions of the poem similarly tentative and contingent. But while the resemblance between man and pangolin is placed in doubt, the pattern of differences that formed it is maintained even by seeing them as rival orders. That is, the perspectives that prove the pangolin unlike man work in relation to those that prove him like man, to make a poem of counterbalances, just as the conflicts in the pangolin's adventures are told as a story in the scales, and the conflicts in man's adventures are told as a story in the design of his cathedrals.

In "The Pangolin" both the extremes of heroism and the extremes of tragedy are absent. The dichotomies in man's nature are not violent. Man has, after all, been described through the analogy of the pangolin, so that the paradoxes of his existence are lightened. The poem is not fully given over to the flux it celebrates, for beneath the rapid movement from one image or subject to the next there is a highly organized conceptual base, which is reinforced by unaccented rhyme, rhythmic repetitions, and syllabic form. Again, the formal harmonies promise to resolve the flux and contradiction within the referential function of the poem. Indeed, part of the excitement of poetry is this play between synchronic and diachronic structures. It is the only place where time and eternity are one and loss is gain.

All the poems I have discussed in this chapter deal with modes of combat, and all suggest ways of converting combat to a positive end, thus converting anxiety to gusto. As Burke suggested of his own work, "it is a book such as authors in those days sometimes put together, to keep themselves from falling apart." As Moore once commented in a reading, "art can't resolve human tragedy--it's a defense against it."

While Moore insists continually that the imposition of forms is in need of resistance, we see that they can also be the means of mitigating the experience of flux, can be the means of self-possession and self-location. Objects are thrown against our advance; it is through collision that we learn of them. Moore's ambivalence about conquest is revealed most clearly in her style, which presents a superficial appearance of flux and free association and disguises an elaborate thematic and formal structure. All the poems I have discussed here are inconspicuously rhymed, their stanzas ordered by syllable count. Antithesis, pun, parallelism, further unite formal and thematic structures. Certainly the principle of recalcitrance is everywhere alive in these poems, in guarding against too rigid a formal or thematic frame (through unaccented rhymes, inverted syntax, inverted analogies, and omitted connectives, for instance). But the recalcitrance is granted authority by the very demonstration of control in the poems' unities. Finding herself unable to order experience, Moore makes failures of order a life-supporting good and produces orders that both define this position and provide respites from it.

Moore made this relationship between struggle and harmony explicit in her comment on universal harmony in aesthetics, which I quoted in the first chapter. While artists struggle with each other they are confirming a unified, enduring tradition, and while the artist struggles with his medium he is creating harmonious forms. Determination with resistance," for Moore, always "results in poise," at least in art, for "wherever there is art there is equilibrium."

From Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Copyright © 1981 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Bonnie Costello: On "An Octopus"

Repeatedly identified in self-reflexive language, the trope of the octopus of ice is complete as the curtain of snow, the avalanche, coincides with the white page. The failure of discrete statements to accommodate this majesty ("of which the visitor dare never fully speak at home for fear of being stoned as an imposter") is a topos of sublimity, as Elizabeth McRinsey has shown.


Both Burke and Rant emphasize natural spectacles (though for Rant they become tropes) producing the effects of terrified rapture and of mental expansion, what Moore refers to as "eyes that can dilate . . . hair that can rise if it must." The opening of "An Octopus" is designed precisely to produce these effects:


An Octopus


of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,

it lies "in grandeur and in mass"

beneath a sea of shifting snow dunes;

dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined


made of glass that will bend—a much needed invention—

comprising twenty-eight ice fields from fifty to five hundred

                                                                                            feet thick,

of unimagined delicacy.

"Picking periwinkles from the cracks"

or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,

it hovers forward "spider fashion

on its arms" misleadingly like lace;

its "ghostly pallor changing

to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool." (71)


As Emily Mitchell Wallace has shown, the octopus itself has been associated with sublimity since pre-Homeric times, considered god or monster depending on the attitude toward the sea. Pound and H.D. join Moore in using the octopus as an image of the mind. But Moore makes the most extensive and the most affirmative use of the image.


The sublime is a drama of consciousness thrown off balance by an object which exceeds its mastery. Moore's strategies of paradox (glass that will bend, 28 icefields from 50 to 500 feet thick of unimagined delicacy) force the boundaries of sense and sensation. Moore stresses physical force in the "crushing rigor of the python" (71). The association of monarchic power (first like American royal families) reinforces this impression. Added to these images of force and power are gothic images of instability, ephemerality, transience. All objects are fugitive. There is a "ghostly pallor" in the pool; she notes the eerie movement ("spider fashion") of the glacier's arms. Obscurity (the larches filter the light, the gusts of a storm obliterate the shadows of the fir trees) which to Burke was a major feature of the sublime, persists on this mountain despite the poem's passionate display of its plenitude. Indeed, detail often contributes to obscurity: the horses are "hard to discern" among the birch trees, ferns, lily pads and other flora. The details themselves set up a momentum of infinity. In this, Moore joins the transcendentalists for whom, as Lawrence Buell argues in Literary Transcendentalism, such catalogue rhetoric provides "the closest verbal approximation they were able to achieve to the boundless vitality of nature; it creates a literary analogue for the speaker's initial bafflement when faced with the rich mysteriousness of nature" (Buell 221). Moore, like Thoreau rather than Emerson, hones to the particular, resisting the logic of totality, of the universal. Moments of mastery are repeatedly undermined, rhetorically and imagistically. The goat who "stands its ground" is confronted with erupting Fujiyama. Moore offers no simple transcendence to restore the sense of power to the perceiver. This is not the egotistical sublime of Wordsworth, in which nature disappoints until the infinite expectations of the beholder are matched by a transcendent signifier. The beholder in Moore's sublime remains overwhelmed by the disorienting prospect of the mountain and the sacrosanct remoteness of its details. Scope eludes her, except as it is established in the poem itself.


From "Marianne Moore and the Sublime." SAGETRIEB 6.3

Bonnie Costello: On "Gravelly Run"

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

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


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

From "The Soil & Man's Intelligence: Three Contemporary Landscape Poets." Contemporary Literature 30:3 (Fall 1989): 412-433.

Bonnie Costello: On "Corsons Inlet"

In his best poems Ammons demonstrates the creative value of the alienated intelligence. He turns his burden to a levity with a truly happy tolerance between precept and particular.

One of Ammons's most famous poems, "Corsons Inlet" (Collected Poems 149-51), is constructed on just such a rhetorical model of appositional rather than organic or hierarchical relations between nature and mind. This "mirroring mind" is not mimetic so much as congruent, finding coordinates to match, not copy, the particulars of the landscape. Though haunted by the mind's ambition to totalize, by the quest for scope, it does not submit "reality to precept," nor precept to reality. The particular does not so much illustrate precept as help to shape it. Like Snyder, Ammons celebrates process in mind and nature, but Ammons does not identify mental and organic process. The walk is a refreshment of form and, paradoxically, a heightening of the temporality of thought through the spatial openness of landscape. Figurativeness is less reduced than given free play in the poem. If the poem thematically "accepts the becoming," it does so at no cost to poetic invention. On the contrary, the witness to natural process coincides with the expansion of figurative range.

From "The Soil & Man's Intelligence: Three Contemporary Landscape Poets." Contemporary Literature 30:3 (Fall 1989): 412-433.

Bonnie Costello: On "TheArmadillo"

… Bishop describes the St. John’s Day carnival in Rio, in which fire balloons are a tradition. She watches them rise exaltedly, but her attention shifts to the effects, once they burst and their flames are released, on the forest and animals below. These effects are first treated with aesthetic detachment, but a strong moral voice breaks in to oppose the stance of transcendence and aesthetic mastery

Since "The Armadillo" is dedicated to Robert Lowell, it has been read as a critique of his way of making art out of suffering. But the poem is more reflexive than that. In earlier poetry Bishop had chosen to see bodily metamorphosis as aesthetically beautiful, to distance herself from the pain associated with mortality. In "the Armadillo" she dramatizes this aesthetic distance and the inevitable return to the rage of the suffering body.


In "The Armadillo" Bishop addresses our ambivalent will to transcend or aestheticize the body. The ending of the poem is conservative in that it emphasizes protection. If we read the poem as a whole, however, we see the conservative impulse challenged. This ambivalence remains throughout Bishop’s work. But more often the conservative, defensive posture will be challenged, rather than the deviant impulse. In such poems deviance is defined not as an escape from the body but rather as an alternative relationship to the body which reminds us of its uncontrollability. In particular, Bishop turns to carnivalesque images of the misfit who resists the social and cultural norms through which nature is disciplined and controlled. "A Summer’s Dream" and "House Guest" treat this idea allegorically, but in poems such as "Manuelzinho" and "Pink Dog" the realism of the figures makes their deviance more unsettling. In such poems Bishop takes on the stance of someone living within the fragile norms of the dominant culture, but susceptible to the challenge of the misfit, who embodies the expelled elements of the speaker’s life. 

From Bonnie Costello "Attractive Mortality," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 75, 80-81.

Bonnie Costello: On "The Fish" (2)

… "The Fish" invokes folk narrative, specifically the great American "fish tale" sublimely parodied in Moby-Dick. Bishop’s anecdote, like Melville’s tale, challenges the official narrative drawn from the Bible: that man will have dominion over the fish of the sea. Bishop catches an old, heroic-looking fish without a struggle, but lets it go. Bishop’s rainbow at the end of "The Fish" explicitly reminds us of the ancient rainbow that marked this covenant between God and Noah. Bishop’s ending refutes narrative’s inherent structure of mastery. Yet we still go back through the poem to interpret even this anti-epiphany in causal, narrative terms. Why did she let the fish go, we ask. To the extent that the elements of the poem serve to justify this final action, they serve plot. Yet as we pursue this seuqnetial logic, we founder on the "victory" that fills up the little rented boat. Whose victory? The fish’s? The poet’s? As we ask such questions the author’s impulse of secrecy rather than sequence becomes apparent. We can move farther back into the poem for answers to our questions, but the enigmas remain. Again, the words get in the way of the story’s clear and clean effect. Indeed, we find that the beginning of the poem is driven by description not altogether in the service of plot. Why is the fish’s skin like old wallpaper? How is this scene related to Bishop’s personal past? Even if we recognize what [Tzvetan] Todorov [in Genres in Discourse] calls an epistemological rather than a mythological plot, we cannot reduce the elements of the poem to simple linear logic.

In Bishop narrative is typically forestalled by description; this is part of what turns her stories into poems, what makes them more spatial than linear. But it is also true that each description carries within it the fragment of another story, so that diachronic sequence is converted into synchronic layerings of narrative. The description, in other words, introduces a number of free motifs that invite interpretive application to the primary, associated motifs, but that are not obviously connected. In a sense the bladder of the fish, "speckled with barnacles, / fine rosettes of lime, / and infested / with a tiny white sea-lice," is a figure for this suspension out of linear logic, as are the strips of ancient wallpaper that embody another unpursued narrative, one of the poet’s memory "stained and lost through age." Bishop’s descriptions are full of lost or erased narratives …


From Bonnie Costello, "Narrative Secrets, Lyric Openings: Stevens and Bishop," The Wallace Stevens Journal 19:2 (Fall 1995), 184-185.