Lynn Keller: On "An Octopus"
[Comparing Moore’s "An Octopus" and Elizabeth Bishop’s "Florida"]
Like journalists, the speakers of "Florida" and "An Octopus" do not reflect upon themselves or their relation to the landscape, but focus on providing information--not the comprehensive or "useful" knowledge one might acquire from an encyclopedia, but those remarkable facts likely to awaken in readers a sense of wonder. In both poems the narrator is present as a lively but impersonal reporting voice.
Nonetheless, the poems' opening lines also hint of significant differences between the two artists' sensibilities. In "Florida" Bishop immediately draws attention to the aesthetic character of her subject and suggests a personal attachment; it is "the state with the prettiest name." Moore's fascination with the glacier that is her subject in "An Octopus" derives from a more intellectual interest in its physical characteristics; in her opening lines she notes the remarkable thickness of the ice fields and the anomalous flexibility of that ice. As is her common practice, Moore emphasizes the prosaic character of her subject by employing scientific jargon and quoting from unlyrical "business documents and / / schoolbooks"--in this case, the "Department of Interior Rules and Regulations" and "The National Parks Portfolio." In "Florida" Bishop follows Moore's example of including facts or statistics, informing us that enormous turtles leave "large white skulls with round eye-sockets / twice the size of a man's" and that the alligator "has five distinct calls: / friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning." She thereby achieves a Moore-like impression of reportorial accuracy and specificity, but both the facts and the manner in which she presents them are more conventionally poetic and more emotionally suggestive than Moore's. Humans are ominously dwarfed in Bishop's fierce and death-littered landscape.
In order to impress upon us that they are reliable witnesses and guides, Bishop and Moore in their descriptive passages insist on careful discriminations. For example, the opening lines of "Florida" record the distinction between the appearance of mangrove roots when living and their appearance when dead:
The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrove roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The technical result of such fastidiousness, in this passage as in much of Moore's work, is that descriptive phrases tend to accumulate at length until the thread of the syntax almost breaks under the stress of great extension. Like Moore's images, Bishop's surprising simile comparing hummocks and cannon-balls jars the reader while delighting with its visual exactitude. Moore, however, would be unlikely to use as vehicle a fantastic metaphor-within-a-metaphor such as cannonballs sprouting grass, and she probably would not describe a state as floating in brackish water unless it were literally afloat. Bishop is less committed to the "relentless accuracy" of "fact," more interested in the dreamier truths of the imagination.
As is typical of Moore's poems (and of the feature article), the point of view in "Florida" could not realistically represent the experience of any single observer. Instead, it shifts freely between sweeping overviews and minute close-ups, noting intriguing pieces of information or describing picturesque sights. The time evoked is a generalized, seemingly eternal present (whether day or night), since the poem, like so many of Moore's, presents features and events that are characteristic and recurrent. Like "An Octopus," Bishop's poem follows an apparently random course, moving from descriptions of birds, to turtles, to trees and rain, to coastal shells, to swamp life. The poem shares the easy inclusiveness of Moore's work; there is room for information about weather, geology, plants, animals, and traditional lore. As in "An Octopus," no obvious transitions are provided; the poem's unity derives from the large subject within which all these phenomena exist.
In both poems general facts are scattered among particular poised moments or vignettes, and detailed descriptions of single objects are interspersed with more comprehensive lists. In these catalogues both Moore and Bishop demonstrate simultaneously the naturalist's delight in factual accuracy and the poet's pleasure in remarkable names. For example, Bishop lists "fading shells";
Job's Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies' Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess's skirt;
and Moore describes little spotted horses as
hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns, and lily-pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,
bear's ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the moss-beds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American menagerie of styles.
Both catalogues emphasize the poetic and metaphorical character of America's botanical names, but again, Bishop's more aestheticizing sensibility is evident in her avoidance of markedly technical terminology and her selection of more precious names.
While their shared methods of acute observation and painstaking reporting impress upon the reader their reliability as neutral witnesses, both Bishop and Moore in fact slide easily from detached observations into more subjective and fanciful interpretations. For example, Moore first presents an antelope by noting objectively its "black feet, eyes, nose, and horns" but then moves into more figurative description--"engraved on dazzling ice-fields, / the ermine body on the crystal peak; / the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene, dyeing them white -- / upon this antique pedestal." Similarly, Bishop notes first the "S-shaped birds, blue and white" but then more imaginatively describes "unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale / every time in a tantrum." Sometimes Bishop's imposition of her subjectivity is less subtle than Moore's, as when she attributes embarrassment and a desire for "fun" to her tanager and pelican. (I shall return to this distinction later.)
In the works of both poets, subjective interpretations and imaginative additions, whether obvious or not, are essential to poetic meaning; both women present nonhuman nature in ways inviting comparison with human situations and behavior. Thus, Bishop's cannon-ball simile assumes new significance when one reaches the conclusion of "Florida." There, after having presented the most ornamental characteristics of Florida seen by daylight, Bishop uncovers the corruption, the primeval energy of Florida "after dark." The simile provides a preparatory suggestion of violence in nature that is absent from Bishop's descriptions of clowning pelicans, mild turtles, and decorative shells. Moreover, as a reminder of human ferocity, the cannon-balls link the violence in the landscape to that in human nature. Similarly, the terms by which Moore conveys her approbation of the energy and intricate variety of all that the "deceptively reserved and flat" glacier encompasses prepare for the concluding section of "An Octopus." There the glacier becomes an implicit model for the kind of poetry Moore admires--"unegoistic" work characterized by "restraint," "a love of doing hard things," and an apparently limitless "capacity for fact." While the older poet's moral is more explicit, both poets employ the descriptive mode to move toward ethical evaluations that carry implications beyond their immediate subjects.
From Re-making it New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press.