A couple of weeks ago I twice read aloud Elizabeth Bishop’s complete poems, reveling in their wit, their unusual imagery, their melancholic navigation between detachment and intimacy, their suspicion of a “priceless set of vocabularies.” And then there’s the delight in the noise of birds; take, for instance, the birds in her elegiac poem “North Haven,” where the sparrow’s pentatonic tune, “pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes”; or the “white herons” in “Seascape,” “got up as angels.” You’ll find “specks of birds / suspended on invisible threads” in “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” a poem which no-show John Ashbery was supposed to read at the recent centennial celebration of Bishop I attended in New York City. (I hope Ashbery wasn’t sick.) There are the birds in “Florida,” the titutlar subject of which she calls the “state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white, / and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale / every time in a tantrum.” Tanagers, pelicans, and buzzards also appear, as do other flying things, which also get marked by Bishop’s attentive eye:
go hunting to the tune of their ferocious obligatos.
After dark, the fireflies map the heavens in the marsh
until the moon rises.
Bishop narrates a harrowing barnyard cockfight in “Roosters”:
The crown of red
set on your head
is charged with all your fighting blood.
Yes, that excrescence
makes a most vile presence
plus all that vulgar beauty of iridescence.
Bishop, in “Roosters,” also entwines notions about war and classical antiquity, and some ideas about St. Peter and Mary Magdalen, all of which deserve further investigation.
There’s simply too much to admire in Bishop’s poems, like these lines from “At the Fishhouses”:
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
While the sibilance in these lines prompt the reader along, as if on waves, it’s the repetitions, of “over” and “same” and “stones,” which underscore the whirling world-weary worldliness of the passage. The poem’s justifiably famous final lines, lines full of f’s, display Bishop’s command of the acoustic properties of language, while simultaneously betraying a philosophic mind at work. Reflecting on what the sea might taste like, the narrator reflects:
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
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.
It’s a stunning sentence, not only because of its music, but because it oscillates between specificity and ambiguity. With her use of “like” and “imagine,” in that first line, Bishop suggests that we can’t with any kind of certainty say what knowledge is; we can only approximate. She then complicates this idea by offering a list, which adds to our understanding of what the sea tastes like but also what knowledge might be, offering first an adjective, then a noun, another adjective, and then a verb, and then an adverbially modified state of being, offering, after this, a series of convolutions that mirror the forever flowing quality of knowledge and the sea.
I hadn’t intended to talk so much about these poems. I really wanted to point out “Deal with the Devil,” a review of the recently released Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, edited by Joelle Biele; Prose, edited by Lloyd Schwartz; and Poems. I found the piece incredibly surprising, first because of its wordplay. William Logan, the reviewer, is a poet himself, and his piece, where p’s predominate, delights in alliteration, those p’s appropriate, I suppose, in a review highlighting the publication of a poet’s poetry and prose. Logan writes: “Bishop suffered from a streak of perfectionism in a personality pricked with self-doubt and almost paralyzed by shyness.” Here’s another passage pumping with p’s:
Too much of this overlong book is devoted to the editors’ ritual cajolery; apologetic promises by Bishop; promises piled upon promises, like Pelion on Ossa, with excuses added to order; belated submissions; rapid acceptances (or, more rarely, rejections); and the inevitable wrestle over editing.
As is clear from the first sentence in the paragraph above, Logan is unafraid to offer incisively rendered negative criticism, and he’s also unafraid to go after major publications. He offers one of the most concise and precise takedowns of the New Yorker I’ve ever read:
The New Yorker has suffocated at times beneath a mask of wry gentility. For all its glossy reputation, the magazine still turns up its nose at stories and poems that make too many demands on the reader. It’s a middlebrow journal for people who would like to be highbrows — and perhaps for highbrows who love a little slumming. The cartoons, as Biele notes, provide an antiphonal chorus to the reckless consumerism of the ads. Just as the literature is for those who want to think themselves literary, the ads are for those who want to think themselves rich. (If you were old money, you’d already own Tiffany by the trunkload.) Bishop’s close association with the magazine, almost all her best poems appearing there after 1945, probably contributed to her struggle to be taken seriously. To be a New Yorker poet was sometimes a deal with the devil.
Sure the New Yorker is an easy target, but you don’t often see an attack on it done with such aplomb and intelligence. Logan criticizes how Prose is “crowded into a miserly format with narrow margins and unpleasantly cheap paper,” and offers a fair assessment of Bishop’s prose, which, outside of the letters, tends to be middling, at best. For Logan, Prose is
a seedy warehouse of goods mostly unwanted and unloved. Bishop’s short stories were derivative fantasies out of Kafka and Hawthorne, when not painfully static versions of her unhappy childhood. She had, however, a natural gift for memoir — her moving recollections of the Nova Scotia village, the dislocated months in Worcester and post-college life in New York possess all the rueful charm of her poems.
I don’t share Logan’s fear that what we love about Bishop’s poems is the “peculiar infantilism” he finds there. It is, instead, a peculiar maturity that I find in her poems, a peculiar intelligence, a peculiar perspicacity, a peculiar imagination. That said, this phrase by Logan perfectly encapsulates a primary aspect of her poetics: “Bishop’s lightness of bearing cannot disguise a darkness of being.” Since his piece was an overview of these three books, it’s understandable that Logan wouldn’t give much direct attention to the poems. But I couldn’t help wishing for more, particularly because of Logan’s obvious facility. The essay ends with Logan stating:
In “The Man-Moth,” “A Miracle for Breakfast,” “Cirque d’Hiver,” “The Bight,” “The Armadillo,” “The Burglar of Babylon,” “Sestina,” “Visits to St. Elizabeths” and a dozen others, she invented countries on a map she had drawn herself.
I look forward to Logan one day surveying Bishop’s riddling, abstract cartography, its projections, scales, sizes, and colors, and the features and boundaries they depict.