Helen M. Dennis

Helen M. Dennis: On "Questions of Travel"

The best one can do as a "tourist" is get into it "like Indians"—but acting "like" is not the same as "being". In this reading of the Kantian sublime, the sympathetic imagination is no longer a sustainable solution, and we are left only with the recognition of inadequacy and difference. And that perhaps leaves one wondering, why bother? And that, I take it, is precisely the question in "Questions of Travel":

Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? Where should we be today? Is it right to be watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theatres? what childishness is it that while there's a breath of life in our bodies, we are determined to rush to see the sun the other way around? The tiniest green hummingbird in the world? To stare at some inexplicable old stonework, inexplicable and impenetrable, at any view, instantly seen and always, always delightful? Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them, too? And have we room for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity not to have seen the trees along this road, really exaggerated in their beauty, not to have seen them gesturing like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.

. . . . . . . . .

—And never to have had to listen to rain so much like politicians’ speeches: two hours of unrelenting oratory and then a sudden golden silence n which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come to imagined places, not just stay at home? Or could Pascal have been not entirely right about just sitting quietly in one's room?" (93-94)

Metaphors and similes operate here, but they tend to emphasize difference not similarity. The rain is not like politician's speeches in any fundamental way; trees are not actually noble pantomimists. Her previous assessment of the landscape and all it contains is more accurate: "inexplicable and impenetrable, at any view," pretty much sums it up. The self is not reflected in nature, one does not find confirmation of one's individual identity by travelling the tourist road. Instead, one finds inconsequential disruptions and discontinuitities. But the effect of this experience of being alien in an alien landscape is to prompt one to ask, as Bishop does at the end of this poem, "Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?" That is to question not only "travel" but its binary opposite "home."

From "Bishop and the Negative Sublime." In Kelly Lionel (ed.) Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 

Helen M. Dennis: On "In the Waiting Room"

I shall assume that what drives the tourist is the quest for a coherent sense of the self. Tourism provides an opportunity to arrive at a stable ego identity using the unfamiliar landscape or the exotic culture as the other against which one measures and defines the self. For the romantic poet the exotic foreign location allows a construction of the self that the familiar and domestic has apparently denied. Consider for a moment "In the Waiting Room" where the young Elizabeth does not want to be identified with Aunt Consuela:

Why should I be my aunt, or me, or anyone? What similarities— boots, hands, the family voice I felt in my throat, or even the National Geographic and those awful hanging breasts— held us all together or made us all just one? (161)

The quest for a sense of self, or a reassurance that one is anyone, involves an investigation of the "similarities", that is, what is common to humanity, what constitutes human identity and in particular, female identity? This poem also articulates a resistance to female and familial identity: she confuses herself with her aunt—whose voice screams?—but she does not want to be confused with her aunt. Nor does she want to be the women in National Geographic. Moreover these lines question the very notion of a unified whole, a common humanity. I also suggest that the movement of this poem enacts a characteristic version of the sublime with a three phase progress from an initial state of equilibrium into a state of terror and confusion brought about by the unsettling eruption of a sublime idea, to end with the mind's reappropriation of equilibrium, though on a higher or transcendent level. "In the Waiting Room" recalls a childhood moment of terror about individual and human identity and shapes it into a characteristic expression of the "sublime".

from "Bishop and the Negative Sublime." In Kelly Lionel (ed.) Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 

Helen M. Dennis: On "The Man-Moth"

One of the problems of romanticism is the divide between the phenomenal and the noumenal which I have just referred to, and one of the tasks of the romantic poet is thus to find ways of linking the two. I am not suggesting that this presents such a crisis for the modernist poet, yet traces remain and are clearly visible in Bishop's work of the question of what is heautonomy (autonomy) and how it can be achieved? Even if Bishop's footnote to the "The Man-Moth" implies it is a whimsical, playful poem, based on a "Newspaper misprint for 'mammoth'," it is a poem which plays on the sense of the self and its double. The man-moth foregrounds the "imaginary" identity and plays down the actual, and yet there are moments of linkage:

                Each night he must be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie his rushing brain. (15)

Here the simile is used in reverse. The fantasy world of the "imaginary" is proffered as the norm, and details from what we normally accept as the "real" world, the world of commuter travel becomes the descriptive figure of speech. The figurative and the real, or the vehicle and tenor have been inverted. The sublime is the locus where phenomenon and noumen should meet, it is an indeterminate space which should act as a bridge between the two; or as a place where the impossible leap can be made to connect the two. "The Man-Moth" articulates the difficulty of this, and does so through allusion to a version of the sublime which emphasizes the trope of th vertical:

He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky, proving the sky quite useless for protection. He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb. (14)

There is a desire for security but a compulsive attraction which draws him to the awful elevation. So that this is a type of attempt at aesthetic transcendence, in a modernist parody of what Brooks calls the verticality of sublime landscapes. Yet even in the romantic project the ascent is doomed to a fall. The vertical landscapes of the romantic sublime with their dizzying heights and peaks lost in the clouds emphasize the impossible but ineluctable ascent and the subsequent fall back into the merely human. The pattern of aspiration and falling back is replayed here by Bishop, "But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although / he fails, of course, and falls back scared, but quite unhurt" (14). "The Man-Moth" represents the absurd quest for the harmony and totality and the concomitant fall back down in a cartoon version of the modern city-scape. It ends with a tear which becomes a "pearl" of wisdom or exchange with the reader; a tear which reminds us that terror and se1f-pity are also linked in the romantic landscape of the self.


from "Bishop and the Negative Sublime." In Kelly Lionel (ed.) Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.