Skip to main content

… What makes this exploration of social and physical anxiety so powerful is that she both abhors the enforcement of "costume" and sees its necessity. We are embarrassed here by nakedness and by its opposite. … In "Pink Dog" she urges a costume on a naked dog (a dehumanized image of the body) for the sake of its survival in a culture that wishes to deny the mortal body. The poet writes from the margin, on the divide between culture and nature, a creature of both. It is her empathy for the pink dog, her own sense of marginality, that provokes her terrible advice. In a culture which abhors the body’s mutability, disguise is the only alternative to expulsion of annihilation. The dog in us must be dressed up and taught to dance if it is to be tolerated at all. Carnival is now the expression not of freedom but of repression.

The poem offers no clear answer to the public fear of the mutable body, yet that fear and repressive behavior it provokes are obviously criticized. We are left suspended between sympathy and judgment toward the speaker. Pink dog and speaker appear as two rival aspects of the self – one that would parade its nakedness, whatever the consequences, and one that would cover and protect, since it cannot or does not wish to expel, the body. The pink dog has none of the alterity of the fish or other iconic figures in Bishop’s poetry. She lives among us, in our element, as the aspect of ourselves we cannot tame. But by making her central figure a dog rather than a human, Bishop reminds us that she does not represent, in her naked, diseased state, a viable human option. The poet is not the dog but the troubled speaker who must somehow reconcile her culture to the dog it despises …



from Bonnie Costello, "Attractive Mortality," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 85-86, 88.