Elizabeth Bishop poses interesting questions delivered through a unique style. This is a very accurate description of Bishop’s poetry. Whilst studying Bishop, I was struck by her evocative and emotive style of writing. Her poems typify Simonides’ ideal that ‘poetry is eloquent painting’ at its best. Indeed it could be argued that many of Bishop’s poems are verbal paintings, such is the level of detail. Very often in these verbal paintings, Bishop challenges the reader by posing interesting and often difficult questions about life’s meaning.
We see this in her poem ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ wherein the young Bishop encounters death for the first time. We witness her struggle to rationalise this experience. She describes the ‘cold, cold parlor’ wherein her mother has laid out her little cousin Arthur. Bishop employs language that is accessible, almost childlike in its simplicity. She delineates the tragedy of the scenario without being schmaltzy by employing a heart-wrenching simile: ‘He was all white, like a doll that hadn’t been painted yet. Jack Frost had started to paint him the way he always painted the Maple leaf’. The young Bishop struggles to make sense of the absurdity of death, especially in a child so young.
The naivety and innocence in the child is evoked through her failure to grasp the gravity of the situation. She is somewhat morbidly fascinated by the loon, whose eyes appear both attractive and yet menacing. The young Bishop explains how ‘they invited Arthur to be the smallest page at court’.
In this cold sterile environment, Bishops employs a rhetorical question that challenges the reader to think about the nonsensicality of death in a child so young: ‘But how could Arthur go, clutching his tiny lily, with his eyes shut up so tight and the road deep in snow’.
The use of the verb ‘clutching’ is interesting in that it has connotations of struggling, of grasping, indicative of the young Bishop’s endeavour to rationalise the situation and acquire understanding. However, the fact that the poem ends with a question is indicative of the fact that Bishop finds no easy palatable answer.
Another poem wherein Bishop’s unique evocative style challenges readers to respond to interesting and sometimes insurmountable problems is ‘Sestina’. Many parallels can be drawn with this poem and ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’. This poem is also concerned with the young Bishop’s attempts to cope with traumatic situation. Bishop’s unique style is clearly manifested in the falling rain on the rooftop, a somewhat foreboding image. The scene is one of domestic simplicity of ease and comfort with reference to the stove, the teapot and the almanac. This impression quickly dissipates. The scene is underpinned by tragedy as we learn of the grandmother ‘reading jokes from the almanac, laughing and talking to hide the tears’.
The grandmother, we learn is trying very hard to dissemble her true feelings of grief and despair in an attempt to protect her granddaughter who is left bereft of both parents.
The grandmother ‘thinks that her equinoctial tears and the rain that beat on the roof of the house were foretold by the almanac’. Bishop personifies the stove and the almanac who then become commentators on the tragedy:
‘It was to be says the Marvel Stove
I know what I know says the almanac’.
This adds a bleak sense of fatality to the scene. The grandmother busies herself in domestic chores whilst the young Bishop is immersed in her drawing. The scene is one of activity. And yet despite the grandmother’s best efforts, we are told that ‘little moons fall down like tears from between the pages of the almanac into the flower bed the child has carefully placed in front of the house’.
The language is childlike and accessible, underscoring the tragedy that is at the heart of this poem. Even though it does not explicitly state that Bishop’s father has just died and her mother has been institutionalised, the overwhelming sense of despair and heartache is clearly evoked and made palpable for readers. This was a seminal experience in Bishop’s life as she stoically says ‘Time to plant tears’. Bishop attempt to cope with this trauma, struggling to make sense of the devastation, the child draws another ‘inscrutable house’. From Bishop’s use of the word ‘inscrutable’ we can infer that she is finding it difficult to understand the situation, to interpret it. The use of the word ‘another’ we can infer that this action has been completed before and will be again. This sadness will become a recurring feature of Bishop’s life. This is quite disconcerting for readers as we ask ourselves why so many young lives are blighted by death and tragedy.
Another poem wherein Bishop’s unique style challenges readers in terms of interesting questions is ‘The Fish’. This is an extremely evocative poem wherein Bishop describes every detail of the fish anatomy. Her admiration is clearly visible from the outset in her use of the adjective ‘tremendous’:
‘I caught a tremendous fish’.
We learn that the fish hadn’t fought: ‘He didn’t fight at all’. Why is that we wonder especially when we consider what comes next. She adroitly evokes the physicality and personality of the fish. We are told that ‘He hung a grunting weight battered and venerable’. She employs an interesting simile ‘Here and there his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper’. She describes how she ‘admired his sullen face’. The level of detail is almost photographic, all of which accentuate the simulacrum of reality. Her use of the first narrative person invites us to vicariously observe this fish along with Bishop ‘Then I saw that from his lower lip, if you could call it a lip, grim, wet and weaponlike hung five old pieces of fish line’.
She describes how these were ‘like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five haired beard of wisdom’. This invites the reader to think about the concept of resilience and how some keep going irrespective of life’s difficulties and challenges. The fish’s strength of character and resilience is what is admired by Bishop. Bishop’s sense of fascination with this is clearly conveyed in her use of repetition in the final line: ‘I stared and stared and victory filled up the rented boat’. Perhaps this is a commentary on humanity’s capacity to surmount what seems like insurmountable.
Interesting questions are posed by Bishop in her poem ‘The Prodigal’. Bishop’s painterly eye is again evident as she adroitly conjures up the miserable squalor of the pigsty. Bishop skilfully evokes how inured the prodigal has become to his situation: ‘The brown enormous odor he lived by was too close, with its breathing and thick hair for him to judge’. The use of the olfactory and tactile imagery delineate the awfulness of the situation. We learn how the prodigal uses alcohol as a means of escapism and a coping mechanism. And yet he is ashamed and guilt-ridden as he feels he must hide his drinking: ‘he hid the pints behind the two-by-four’. The obduracy of his character is cleverly evoked ‘And then he thought he might almost endure his exile yet for another year’.
We the reader are challenged to ask ourselves why some people choose to remain in terrible circumstances; why they refuse to ask for help; why some people inflict so much misery on themselves. This very descriptive piece culminates in a moment of epiphany wherein the prodigal decides to go home but Bishop’s use of the adjective ‘shuddering’ in order to describe the ‘shuddering insights’ is somewhat peculiar in that it connotes a certain ambiguity. Does the prodigal really want to go home? Does he really want help and recover from his alcohol addiction? Does he want help but only on his terms? As a recovering alcoholic herself, this poem underscores some of the difficulties and issues concerning addiction and again like so many of Bishop’s poem we cannot expect a facile neatly wrapped-up answer. We are left guessing and asking more and more questions.
Elizabeth Bishop does indeed pose interesting questions delivered in a unique style.