Tuesday, May 6, 2014

North and South by Elizabeth Bishop

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

I have mentioned before that I read very little from the Twentieth Century during my high school years. In fact, I suspect that the curriculum we used didn’t acknowledge that anything had happened since the 1950s except to universally deplore it all. On the one hand, I can see the point of waiting until time has done its winnowing. It takes decades before the less worthy works become forgotten, and what one era finds great often ages poorly. This is, of course, why there is the illusion that everything - particularly literature - was greater in the past. (You can also see this in the memes going around comparing the lyrics of Bob Dylan to Justin Beiber.) There was plenty of garbage in every era, of course, but we tend to forget that because we don’t have to suffer through it anymore. A bit of a digression, I’m afraid. Back to our regularly scheduled review.

One of the most enjoyable books I read at the outset of my “career” as a book blogger was Robert Pinsky’s anthology of poetry, Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud. That book inspired me to make poetry more than an occasional part of my regular reading. It also introduced me to Elizabeth Bishop.

Bishop was an American poet, but that identification is far too simple. She was born in Massachusetts. Her father died when she was an infant, and her mother was institutionalized for mental illness a few years later. She was raised for a while by her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia. Later, her paternal relatives were able to gain legal custody of her, and, much to her distress, removed her from her home. The discontented Elizabeth was eventually permitted to reside with another maternal aunt. She attended Vassar College (which was then an all-female institution) as a music major. She was so terrified of performance that she gave it up, and and switched to English.

After her graduation, she lived a rather interesting life. She had a good sized inheritance from her father, which freed her from a need to earn a living. She taught some classes here and there, but spent most of the next several decades travelling and writing. This particular collection references Paris, among other cities in which she lived for a period of time. So really, she could be considered as much a citizen of the world as of any particular place within it. Officially, her residence was in Florida, and a number of her poems describe that state. 

Bishop was a very private person, and wrote little that could be considered autobiographical. In fact, from her poems, there is little one could learn about her visible life - her inner thoughts are on display, but they do not point back to her specifics. Likewise, she refused to be published in collections of “women’s” poetry, because she felt that her work should be judge on its merits without reference to her gender. The poems need not, in that sense, have been written by a women, but by a poet. And thus they read. I did not find them to feel strongly feminine, but just poetic.

North and South is Bishop’s first collection of poetry, published in 1946.
There are a few poems in this collection that are modern in form, without a discernable rhyme or meter; but many are fairly traditional. I appreciate good craftsmanship, both traditional and modern. From my very limited attempts at poetry in high school, I can attest that it is hard to write in a rigid form - but even harder to write anything that doesn’t sound strained or pretentious. In both the traditional and modern forms, Bishop writes with a language that feels natural, belying the many hours of work she must have put into them. Here are a few that I particularly liked.

“The Colder the Air”

We must admire her perfect aim,
this huntress of the winter air
whose level weapon needs no sight,
if it were not that everywhere
her game is sure, her shot is right.
The least of us could do the same.

The chalky birds or boats stand still,
reducing her conditions of chance;
air's gallery marks identically
the narrow gallery of her glance.
The target-center in her eye
is equally her aim and will.

Time's in her pocket, ticking loud
on one stalled second. She'll consult
not time nor circumstance. She calls
on atmosphere for her result.
(It is this clock that later falls
in wheels and chimes of leaf and cloud.)                        

The poem is basic iambic tetrameter, but I do like the ABCBCA rhyme scheme. And what of the idea itself? The huntress who cannot miss. I would presume that the cold winter air or wind is she, but what a bitter reflection. It is one that anyone who feels alienated surely knows. Those who “fit in” seem to have everything come to them easily. One could admire their aim, but their skill is an illusion. They are predestined to succeed by their nature. Bishop was an outsider for many reasons. An orphan and ex-patriot, an introvert in a profession and world that favors extroverts. Her gender and sexuality likewise cut against easy success and belonging. There are times I understand her idea. “The least of us could do the same.”

In contrast to the dark edge of that poem is this next one, placed next to it in the collection.

“Wading at Wellfleet”

In one of the Assyrian wars
a chariot first saw the light
that bore sharp blades around its wheels.

That chariot from Assyria
went rolling down mechanically
to take the warriors by the heels.

A thousand warriors in the sea
could not consider such a war
as that the sea itself contrives

but hasn’t put in action yet.
This morning’s glitterings reveal
the sea is “all a case of knives.”

Lying so close, they catch the sun,
the spokes directed at the shin.
The chariot front is blue and great.

The war rests wholly with the waves:
they try revolving, but the wheels
give way; they will not bear the weight.

In this one, while the language speaks of violence, I find a bit of a humorous edge, rather than a bitter one. Anyone who has waded at a steep beach with imperfectly rounded shells and rocks knows exactly what she describes. I was curious about the fact that she put “all a case of knives” in quotes. It turns out that she is quoting an George Herbert poem, “Affliction IV,” in which he describes his thoughts as a case of knives.

Another delightful poem also treats on the subject of water, this time the riverfront of the Seine in Orleans.

“Quai d’Orleans”

Each barge on the river easily tows
    a mighty wake,
a giant oak-leaf of gray lights
    on a duller gray;
and behind it real leaves are floating by,
    down to the sea.
Mercury-veins on the giant leaves,
    the ripples, make
for the sides of the quai, to extinguish themselves
    against the walls
as softly as falling-stars come to their ends
    at a point in the sky.
And throngs of small leaves, real leaves, trailing them,
    go drifting by
to disappear as modestly, down the sea’s
dissolving halls.
We stand as still as stones to watch
    the leaves and ripples
while light and nervous water hold
    their interview.
“If what we see could forget us half as easily,”
    I want to tell you,
“as it does itself - but for life we’ll not be rid
    of the leaves’ fossils.”

I read it both as a beautifully description of a place and a moment and as a reflection of the way our experiences shape us. We carry the “fossils” of those memories that have made us what we are, and we carry them for a lifetime, even though they seem to have disappeared much as the ephemeral ripples or meteor traces.

Thus far, these poems have at least leaned toward a regular meter. Others, though, are true free verse, where the length of the line and the flow of the sounds reinforce and influence the meaning.


This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as angels,
flying high as they want and as far as they want sidewise
in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections;
the whole region, from the highest heron
down to the weightless mangrove island
with bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings
like illumination in silver,
and down to the suggestively Gothic arches of the mangrove roots
and the beautiful pea-green back-pasture
where occasionally a fish jumps, like a wildflower
in an ornamental spray of spray;
this cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope:
it does look like heaven.

But a skeletal lighthouse standing there
in black and white clerical dress,
who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better.
He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet,
that that is why the shallow water is so warm,
and he knows that heaven is not like this.
Heaven is not like flying or swimming,
but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare
and when it gets dark he will remember something
strongly worded to say on the subject.

There is a razor edge of truth in this one, truth that I have come to embrace more and more as I grow older. There is more here than a contrast of nature and what man has made - although that contrast is part of the metaphor. I also do not think that this is ultimately about religion, although it can be read that way on the surface. I believe that Bishop is making a point about all dogmatic assertions of “the way things are.” The lighthouse has a neat and tidy explanation for, as Douglas Adams put it, “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The seascape may not be heaven in the literal sense, but it isn’t made warm by hell either. The experience of a glimpse of heaven is, however, real in a significant sense. It is an experience of the same nature as Handel’s view of the heavens opening as he composed the Hallelujah.

To so neatly tie everything up in perfect theological and philosophical packages is to exterminate the sense of wonder and transcendence. There would be no room for a G. K. Chesterton in the lighthouse’s world. I am reminded a bit of the insistence by those in the cultic organizations that my wife and I spent time in that children not read fiction containing talking animals and the like, because such things were not “real.” The world - and heaven - were not like that. But really, is that true? Perhaps hope really is a thing with feathers perched in my soul. Perhaps the heron - or the condor - in the sky is a glimpse of something angelic. If one is to be as a little child to inherit the Kingdom, surely the imagination and the ability to see the Divine in what surrounds us is a key facet to that becoming.

I’ll mention a few others that I recommend from this collection. “The Man Moth” is probably Bishop’s best known poem, and for good reason. “The Fish” is also worthwhile, a tribute to sympathy for those who have survived much.

Bishop wasn’t a particularly prolific poet, but her poems show careful crafting, and unhurried contemplation. Like another of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, Bishop was an introvert, and thus, I feel a certain camaraderie.

I enjoyed reading this collection, and intend to return to her poems as I continue my poetry project.


  1. We stand as still as stones to watch
    the leaves and ripples
    while light and nervous water hold
    their interview.

    Beautiful. What other poets do you have on your reading list?

    1. It's hard to know where to begin. I have a decent - and growing - collection of poetry, plus the library. I haven't decided what comes next, but I am thinking probably English and older as a contrast. There is so much I haven't read.

      My favorites, and thus the ones that I will probably read the most, are Frost, Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Seamus Heaney.

  2. Older and English…perhaps the English romantic poets. I mention them only because I’m reading Blake at the moment. If you decide to pick up his poetry someday, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on The Little Black Boy.

    I have a good sized poetry collection too. There are so many poets I’d love to add, but I need to do some serious divesting in other areas before I acquire too much more. I don’t think I can cram any more books into 600 sq. ft.

    1. I read Songs of Innocence and Experience not too long ago, and that review is on the blog. I also just read some Shelley, so I am thinking I might go back a little further than that. Stay tuned ;)