We have met Elizabeth Bishop before: she was one of the Vassar Intellectuals, a year behind Mary McCarthy, ( post on this blog’s archive, December 11, 2016). When McCarthy published The Group, Elizabeth Bishop was considered by some of the Vassar Girls to have been portrayed by McCarthy as ‘Lakey’ and her lover, ‘Lota’ as Lakey’s lover, the Baroness. McCarthy protested that this wasn’t the case in a letter to Bishop, but couldn’t entirely exculpate herself from the charge. This was late in the 1970s and I expect that neither of them were overly engaged in the quarrel at this point. (Unlike Lillian Hellman, who cared very much about how her quarrel with McCarthy would end, even after McCarthy had died.).
But Bishop is better known to many as one of the great poets of the ‘middle generation’ of Modernism – along with Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Randall Jarrell, with Delmore Schwartz serving as a sometime harbinger and sometime participant. Bishop was one who ‘ran with the boys’, as it were, and won recognition as a ‘poet’s poet’ as well as public popularity. She was a Pulitzer Prize winner in the 1950s, and the winner of a National Book Award in 1970, and received lots of other honours and Fellowships.
The poems she contributed to Partisan Review for the August-September, 1938 issue are easy and difficult. And in the context of that summer of the advance of European fascism, they are remarkably cool and removed from the scene, very different from the earlier summer poems we looked at a few months ago, by Julian Symons and Derek Savage (see blog post, 18 August, 2017), attentive as they are to the Englishness of the contemporary crisis. Bishop is a poet without borders, a woman who made her homes in both North and South America, and who was as at home in Paris as she was corresponding with Robert Lowell in his various geographies of madness:
I find her very hard to read because she hides so much of what she means us to know. I sometimes think she is just testing us, trying us out as readers instead of welcoming us in. Bishop asserts in “The Unbeliever” her own belief, that belief must always ground unbelief. The unbeliever is stuck on the top of this mast of the sail, not moving, not daring… he sleeps at the top of his mast, with this eyes closed tight. At the end we see the revenge of belief on the unbeliever:”I must not fall./The spangled sea below wants me to fall./It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”
It makes sense this summer of 1938 — but it remains a cold comfort.
I: The Unbeliever
He sleeps on the top of a mast. – Bunyan
He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper’s head.
Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast’s top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.
“I am founded on marble pillars,”
said a cloud. “I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?”
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.
A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was “like marble.” He said: “Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly.”
But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, “I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”
” The tone at its lowest is usually comfortably at a level where the prosaic and intellectually platitudinous are twisted towards poeticized quiddities by professionally executed changes of direction. These closing lines from ‘Quai d’Orléans’, which cap a series of brilliantly exploited observations on water-lights and leaves, illustrate the point.
We stand as still as stones to watch
the leaves and ripples
while light and nervous water hold
‘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.’
Thus with a gasp and a quick flurry of soul-searching does the poem haul itself onto the metaphysical plateau, making the exterior interior at the price of abandoning the judicious — and genuinely suggestive — language that places ‘nervous’ just so as to concentrate the effects of trembling the poem has already established, and places ‘interview’ to clinch the consistently employed vocabulary of seeing.”
The story behind this poem is told by Susan McCabe:
“Bishop’s second and last trip to France in 1937 became linked with a horrifying car accident involving her friend Margaret Miller. Bishop had been traveling in Burgundy with Louise Crane (the driver) and Miller when they were forced off the road. As a result of the accident, Margaret lost her arm. This dismemberment caused Bishop major psychological grief (she would try to write a poem from the point of the view of the arm for many years): her guilt (unwarranted as it was) perhaps made the lost arm synechdochal for Bishop’s earlier traumas of loss (and connection), in particular her loss of her mother to madness. Rimbaud himself would have a leg amputated because of infection, long after he stopped writing poetry in a silence echoing Bishop’s claim that she wrote her best poetry by not writing it. The threat to bodily integrity because of psychic pain becomes a significant undercurrent in Bishop’s work. She records some of the shock she experienced in the car accident in “Quai d’Orleans”— “we stand as still as stones” – along with the desire to forget and to be forgot:
“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.”